AR, VR, and TTRPGs: acronyms for the future of fantasy?

If you’ve ever dreamed of communicating by holograms, you might be in for a pleasant surprise. AR is taking on a whole new life in the form of virtual tabletop games. Gaming mergers are happening at an astonishing rate and for unreal sums. Are AR and VR finally manifesting as the awesome virtual fantasy worlds we dreamed of?

Aussie wine brand 19 Crimes has recently made fairly cool use of Augmented Reality with their living wine labels. The most recent iteration features the talking head of Snoop Dog regaling you of the origins of his Snoop Cali Red.

But is AR something you’re really going to bother with when you’re late out of work on a Friday night, hunting for a good bottle of red in a busy supermarket?

Consumers are now so cynical they’ve started dismissing new trends and technology as fads before the tech has even launched, let alone reached its nadir. 

Take the Metaverse. With Zuckerberg at the helm, it was always going to be met with scorn and scepticism. Oculus is doing kind of okay, but Meta stock is down 50% this year. Nobody in the Western world really embraced gimmicky AR on product labels. Apple made a pretty good tape measure feature with AR… that was kinda useful?

But Virtual Reality and its potential in the gaming space? We’ve dreamed of immersing ourselves in new and fictional worlds for decades; of being able to walk, talk, run, and fight within the fantastical 360-degree virtual habitats of our favourite video games. 

Now, AR/VR gaming is one of the fastest tech developments there is. So what does this mean for the market?

AR: Are we ready?

For a time, it seemed like the far reaches of augmented reality’s potential was packaging designers prompting you to scan labels for animations on chip packets. Slightly more useful wayfinding elements were pop-up maps or signage at tourist destinations. 

In conversations about AR and VR, many have a sparse working knowledge, but most are familiar with Google Glass. It was arguably a failure. Google screwed a basic business pooch: they did not define the reason or value behind the product. No one knew how to use them, or why they should. Not to mention the creepiness factor of being able to take photos without detection by tapping the side of your glasses.

VR technology is still niche, esoteric, and largely unaffordable. As with the nascency of practically every computer product ever made, the hardware is big and unwieldy. The full experience calls for a VR treadmill, full-body sensors, head gear and goggles.

Running around in a VR world might look like the coolest thing ever if you’re in it. To people watching (and probably videoing) you flail around from the outside, the whole thing is kind of ripe for mickey-taking.

But, as the chair of Glass’s design firm Tim Brown rightly said: “There has never in the history of new technology been an example where the first version out of the gate has been the right version.”

Basically, AR and VR have yet to find their street cred. 

AR: A bridge between the old world and the new?

Where VR presents a completely immersive experience, AR presents a mix of fantasy and reality. You don’t need expensive bodysuits – just the smartphone you already have in your pocket.

Nowhere could this be a more perfect pairing than in the world of TTRPGs (tabletop role playing games). 

In response to the question, “how do we make something cooler?”, it’s likely no one in the history of the world has suggested getting Dungeons & Dragons involved.

But that’s exactly what AR tabletop platform Ardent Roleplay have done.

Wizards of the Coast game Dungeons & Dragons (and the broader world of TTRPGs – tabletop role playing games) is kind of anti-cool. It’s never tried to be cool, and neither have its users. And as everyone knows, the elusive concept of being cool is easiest to pin down when you’re not trying.

Often, anti-cool (read: anti-mass market) entities have huge appeal. D&D appeals to young and old, lockdown survivors, and minority communities alike. It’s one of the world’s very few safe and inclusive spaces. It bridges the huge socialisation gap dealt with by young people and those isolated by the pandemic (in accordance, D&D’s sales jumped 33% in 2020).

It’s long been attractive to introverts, and with the way the world is going, ranks of reclusive personality types are only growing. Its feature in Stranger Things didn’t hurt D&D’s exploding popularity. 

What’s interesting is that Hasbro – whose majority profits come from Wizards of the Coast games Dungeons & Dragons and Magic the Gathering – have largely ignored AR (the 2018 Iron Man costume being an exception). 

That is until they appointed Wizards of the Coast president Chris Cocks as CEO.

This presents a massive opportunity to incorporate AR and VR into D&D with real understanding, empathy, and consumer base awareness. 

The future of D&D is bright. There’s a feature film in the Works to be released in 2023. A huge ecosystem of ‘live play’ series occupy YouTube, and unique hours of live-streamed D&D content on Twitch have doubled every year since 2015. There are thought to be 50 million players worldwide.

VR remains a natural next step for both video and tabletop gamers. Despite the barriers to entry, the tech won’t be inaccessible forever, and there are currently around 2.7 billion gamers in the world.

Basically, the market is huge.

AR: Ardent Roleplay

Ardent Roleplay (who also trades under Ardacious) is transforming tabletop Dungeons & Dragons games into living, breathing dungeons replete with animated characters, creatures, and fortresses. 

In this demo, D&D aficionados rig adjustable smartphone stands onto their playing tables, giving them a view of both the IRL game with a digitally enhanced version on their screens. Streamers at home can load holographic fortresses onto their own tables to watch the game unfold in real time.

Ardent have recently signed a partnership with Tilt5, who in 2020 raised $7.5 million to develop AR glasses, game boards, and wand controllers for TTRPGs. Already Tilt5 has addressed issues of clunkiness in the tech by lightweighting the glasses to 95 grams. 

Whatever your views on tabletop game playing, this tech is actually incredibly cool. It’s the ultimate geek-out, adding graphics that feel real, emotive, and expressive. But it maintains that all-important, round-the-table element of togetherness – no playing behind oppressive headgear or annoying avatars.

Is gaming the next big consolidation of industry?

Mergers and acquisitions galore are going on in gaming, and the numbers make Hollywood blockbuster budgets look like chump change. 

Sony is acquiring Destiny makers Bungie for USD $3.6 billion. Take Two Interactive just spent $12.7 billion on Zynga. And Microsoft is planning to spend $68.7 billion on cross-platform gaming company Activision Blizzard. 

We all know tech mergers can create monopolies. The key to not ruining everything is keeping the community at the heart of the deal. 

Gamers are passionate, emotional, and fiercely loyal beings. Games are medicine, companionship, escape. As Bungie CEO Pete Parsons promises, “Our games will continue to be where our community is, wherever they choose to play.​”

It’s kind of a no-brainer why AR hasn’t found its footing elsewhere. People don’t bond with marketing gimmicks. But when a technology can bring people together (remember those halcyon days of Pokemon Go?), and when it doesn’t present huge expense as a barrier to entry, that’s when it can enter the mainstream, and maybe do something really special.

The problem with dazzling new tech is that it’s cool, but it’s never as magical as the OG stuff. Those clunky controls of retro games, the pixelated perfection of our first excursions into virtual worlds. 

This holds especially true for TTRPGs, where the whole point is using your imagination. 

If upstarts like Ardent and Tilt5 can find a way to maintain that magic, the potential of AR in gaming is truly the stuff of fantasy.

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