Climax Studios: AR goes mainstream

Climax Studios: AR goes mainstream
Sean Cleaver

By Sean Cleaver

November 2nd 2017 at 9:00AM

It’s currently too early to tell what makes a successful AR game, but with the release of iOS 11 (and Google’s upcoming ARCore) the stage is set for mainstream adoption of augmented reality games and apps. Jem Alexander speaks to Climax Studios CEO Simon Gardner about the rise of AR and the studio's new game ARise

Alongside the recent release of iOS 11 comes the ARKit framework, which looks to be a great step forward in making augment reality games and applications truly mainstream. With the upcoming release of Google’s ARCore for Android devices, this just increases the potential market for AR games even further.

Many developers still have faith in virtual reality and aren’t giving up on the technology despite slow adoption, high hardware costs and a low speed of device iteration. Others have taken their experience with VR and adapted it for augmented reality which, some say, has a higher chance of hitting the mainstream and being truly successful.

My biggest single thought about ARKit was that when they launch it, there will be a potential install base of just under 400 million devices and rising

Simon Gardner, Climax Studios

Portsmouth based Climax Studios is still very much of the belief that VR is here to stay. The company’s extensive research into virtual reality (the studio created Daydream exclusive title Lola and the Giant) is put to good use in its new AR game ARise, the first three levels of which launched alongside the release of iOS 11, with more content coming in the future.

ARise is a puzzle game that sees the player help a tiny hero navigate a hazardous environment which they summon into theirreal world space and can then view through the ‘lens’ of their iOS 11device. Having the levels inhabit a familiar environment allows players to use the one tool at their disposal - perspective. By literally moving around the level and viewing it from different angles, the player can solve puzzles and pave the way for ARise’s hero’s tale to progress.

“The project was the outcome of a studio game jam we had a little while ago,” says Climax Studios CEO, Simon Gardner. “ARise is an experience about perspective. Using the AR capabilities of your device, you aim to align magical connections and create paths. No touch or swipe is needed, simply move around the floating islands, and look for the visual cues. Help the game’s hero get to the top of the level and remove a magical artefact. This will reanimate the island into its original form.”

This is a relatively simple use of augmented reality, but an effective one, and it is the first step on a journey towards something, Gardner suspects, that could be truly ubiquitous.

“We’ve barely started,” says Gardner. “AR will lead to new playstyles, more multiplayer involvement and, as the hardware is able to learn more about its specific location, it will use real world items to build on the experience. The devices will continue to play around with time of day and possibly the number of other players in an area to build more interesting interactions.”

The idea of truly gamifying the real world could be seen as a Black Mirror-esque nightmare, but many developers see this as being the next logical step in games. With traditional games plateauing in terms of graphical or technical leaps, new paradigms could add some novelty that games have lost over the years. Overlaying gameplay elements onto the real world would be one such area prime for exploration. 

“Ultimately,” says Gardner, “if the hardware does become even easier to use and ‘always on’ (perhaps glasses?), then games could become integrated into daily activities but at a fairly low interactive level unless the player chooses to fully engage. 

“I hope and expect AR on mobile devices to be a stepping stone to an even more ‘frictionless’ device such as glasses. Using a mobile phone allows developers and users to get used to the idea of AR with an existing device at low additional cost. It also allows for new play experiences that will hopefully keep the public engaged in gaming, but obviously it is also extremely useful for other applications.

“Hololens is very important in its role to show quite how far we were from a light, compact glasses future. Microsoft has done an amazing job in packing all of the technology into a small space, with battery life and heat dissipation issues mostly solved. But the limitations of viewing field really hit its gaming use. I didn’t really see any compelling games on it and its user interface, while functional, was again severely limiting for games. This was clear as it was only really marketed as a business tool. I assume Hololens v2 or v3 will continue the evolution to a lighter and more function rich device.

“We are already seeing other devices. Disney’s AR smartphone headset, Mira’s Prism and of course Magic Leap are diverse approaches with wildly different price points. “And, of course, Google has announced ARCore, which will bring AR to Android in a similar way that ARKit brings it to iOS.”

THE LAUNCH OF ARKIT
With ARkit releasing with iOS 11, suddenly the barriers for making and marketing augmented reality games are crumbling around developers’ ears. It gives devs the confidence to experiment in this new area of game production, knowing that their games will be supported by a large number of devices that people already own.

“My biggest single thought about ARKit was that when they launch it, there will be a potential install base of just under 400 million devices and rising,” says Gardner. “That’s a game changer. ARKit came almost from nowhere and we had to work quickly to support it. Given our previous experience on several AR games, we were able to move fast and make a compelling experience that will only grow over time as we add more content. 

“We saw the advantage of making our game a launch title, a one-time only chance to get coverage. We thought our extensive experience in real time 3D from many years of console development would also give us an edge over the existing mobile app companies who have been operating in the 2D space.” 

AR will lead to new playstyles, more multiplayer involvement and it will use real world items to build on the experience

Simon Gardner, Climax Studios

The large install base of Apple’s devices mitigate the risks that are still inherent in VR development. High costs and low sales mean that VR won’t be viable for a certain level of games studio until hardware improve and drag up the quality of the overall VR experience. Having to wear bulky headsets and regularly calibrate settings make it a much less compelling activity when decompressing at the end of the day than simply playing a traditional game on a 2D screen.

“The biggest issue with VR is cost and install base,” says Gardner. “This limits its potential profitability and also the high-end nature of the hardware sets an expectation of the experience. This drives up development budgets, but low install bases hit profitability. The other lesson we can learn from VR will be utilising the strengths of AR and building experiences around those.

“My advice to other developers would be to make sure your game is augmented reality, and not just a traditional game played out on a plane in AR. Make use of the player’s ability to lean into and move around the scene. Make full use of the capabilities of the device so that you can minimise additional controls.

“Some traditional mechanics will fit into AR games, some won’t. The overall ideas of games such as collecting, storytelling, fighting and puzzle solving will broadly fit, but how you do those activities and for how long will be the issues.

“There will also be the question of where you do those things. By bringing location and real world items into the mix it should feel different. As we have done with ARise, you can also use new methods of interaction into play and maybe open up games to a new audience.”