Starting up in Augmented Reality: Our journey from Day zero to Alpha

Starting up in Augmented Reality: Our journey from Day zero to Alpha

We were recently invited to speak at NGDC (Nasscom Game Developers Conference) in Hyderabad on the potential and the challenges of AR/VR for gaming. We were in the presence of innovators in the gaming space from across the world and were pleasantly surprised by how welcoming and close knit the community is. We exhibited the Alpha version of our game ‘Delta T’ to much acclaim and also participated actively in all the sessions around AR/VR gaming. Here is a quick recap of our experiences.

Krishna Milan Rao (CEO, Empower Labs) spoke extensively about the challenges we faced when starting up in AR in the pre-Pokemon era. It was a fantastical concept that gamers would venture out into the real world to play a game and before Pokemon Go it had very few takers. Here is an abridged transcript of his talk on the challenges we faced when starting up.

Augmented Reality: The Gaming Ecosystem of the future

The alternate reality gameverse of Delta T started off as a piece of dystopian fiction, one that has driven the development of the game that we see today. Imagine a future where there are no more democracies, republics, dictatorships or any other type of governments at all. Imagine a future run by just a handful of the most powerful Mega corporations. Imagine us united not by race, religion or color but by the sense of belongingness to something much deeper, something that is the foundation of our belief system ‘our ideologies’.

Welcome to the universe of Delta T, where four Mega corporations aka Megacorps, have taken over all the governments around the world to establish their dominance. These four Megacorps are run by different ideologies, which their CEOs believe in and are fuelled by four technologies, Genetic Mutation, Human and Machine Augmentation, Nanotechnology and Interstellar technology. The four CEOs bear an uncanny resemblance to some of the well-known people today such as Elon Musk, Stephen Hawking, Kiran Mazumdar Shaw and Masayoshi Son.

These four Megacorps are waging a war aka the Titan Wars, for ultimate dominance. But this will be the end of the world, as we know it. The collective future of the human race is at stake. The only way to survive is to end the war before it even begins! The Megacorps have found a way to send information back into the past to the present day. This information can be mined to set off a ripple effect that eliminates their future rivals, forever shifting the timeline in favor of the victor.

Using your smartphone, you will receive this information from the future and align yourself to one of the four Megacorps. The one you believe will save and run the future of this planet. You are tasked to alter or even better, completely eliminate the timelines of the other three Megacorps by establishing the dominance of your own.

This is the alternate and immersive world that we are building at Empower Labs since the past year and a half, using Augmented Reality. Hi, I’m Krishna Milan, the founder, and CEO of Empower Labs. I’m a graduate in Industrial Engineering with a minor in Entrepreneurship from Purdue University, US.  I truly believe that Augmented Reality is the ecosystem of the future and is primed for mass adoption globally. Primarily because of two reasons. 1. It does not require an external device, which I believe is a big barrier to entry. All it requires is a smartphone and you’re good to go and 2. It keeps you in this same world and overlays it with digital information to add a layer of depth and make it more understanding, interesting or even magical, rather than completely isolate you in a different virtual world.

What sounds exciting now and where we are today in terms of the development of the game didn’t come without facing some major challenges. Some of which I am going to spend some time talking about.

Hiring the right talent

We started the whole process in June of 2015 but couldn’t start the actual coding until November of last year, which was about six months later. We went through hell to find the right people, we pored through close to 300 resumes from multiple HR agencies, referrals, LinkedIn and did over 100 one to one interviews to finally choose only two people.

We didn’t want to make the mistake of settling just for the sake of it since we knew we had something big in store and were looking at the long term with the right team. Finally, we had to shift the development team to Kerala where our Co-founder CTO Nelvin is based out of. Finally using his contacts, we got the team together and started off on the process. One thing we learned is to never blindly trust a resume. We decided that unless someone truly shared our vision of building a great game, no matter how great the on paper credentials, we weren’t going to risk it.

Never underestimate the importance of UI/UX  

We know we weren’t building something graphically intensive so we started looking into only backend developers and relying on the unity developers for the UI. We soon realized that this wasn’t going to work, we got someone who was really experienced but not really in mobile games. He was purely into triple AAA games for console and PC and this restricted his thought process. What worked for the bigger screens really did not translate well to the 5-6 inch mobile screens. We finally did find what we were looking for although it took quite a bit of time and months of searching. We took a hands-on approach to the UI/UX to get the in-house team up to speed and tried to iterate as many times as possible. We also ran variable testing with these iterations with focus groups to understand what the audience was really looking for.

The curious case of Pokémon Go

We did not expect in our wildest dreams that Pokemon Go would get the kind of response it got and open up the market in such a big way. The Pokémon IP was a powerful reason for it to go viral as it appealed to the millennials in a big way.  However, it did familiarize people familiar with what AR gaming was. Pokemon Go made us think much bigger as we knew many more gamers would be open to the idea of AR gaming now. We also realized that players will tire of ‘gimmicky’ concepts such as Camera AR if there is no sufficient gameplay behind it. The longevity of such games hinges on listening to the community and creating mechanics that are challenging and stimulating to the player. The success and the criticism faced by Pokemon Go made us pull up our socks and take a long hard look at what we were building.

We now have an amazing team of 26 ‘Empowerers’ and I can vouch for each and every one because that is the kind of quality of the team we have built. We are working on something that we believe will not only revolutionize AR gaming but also gaming in general.

Augmented Reality as a game changer

We realized that gaming as a concept has not evolved ever since the Atari. Don’t get me wrong, there have been amazing developments in graphics and content but it wasn’t revolutionary in its mechanics. It was all about being glued to screen be it PC, Console or Mobile. The Wii and Kinect did attempt to reinvent gaming with their motion controls, however, the steep price of their consoles acted as a barrier to entry.

The real shift in gaming we feel could be because of AR because it blurs the lines between gaming and the real world and is accessible to everyone with a smartphone. Through AR we can get gamers out in the real-world meeting new people, traveling, strategizing and having fun as a community. We believe this technology is something that can change gaming for good and can change people’s lives for the better.

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