E3 2015 was pretty damn awesome, but in spite of the amazing new features and games that were announced, I think the thing that I'm most excited for is Microsoft Hololens. For gaming to grow as an entertainment platform and as an art form, audiences will need to embrace the new and exciting technologies being implemented. Unfortunately, "new" and "different" can be slow to catch on.
While motion controls have apparently overstayed their welcome, and Oculus Rift-style VR has yet to fully arrive, I believe that Microsoft's Hololens might have the appeal necessary to push gaming forward towards new and exciting changes, revolutionizing the way that we play video games. Sure, playing Minecraft with the Hololens is a novel idea, but just think of all the other video games that would benefit from a similar concept, played on a coffee table like a 3D board game, or even projected out onto the floor of your living room.
The following slideshow is a list of games and game genres that would be absolutely killer on Microsoft Hololens. Keep in mind that while some of these games are unlikely to appear on a Microsoft platform, that doesn't stop Microsoft from developing similar games, nor does it stop their competitors from developing similar technologies.
The earliest 4X games were inspired by traditional board games, like Risk. The transition from board game to video game allows for a greater degree of complexity and visual appeal, but sacrifices that board game feel. With Hololens, you could project that board onto a table, turning your dining room into a medieval war room.
From your war room, you could survey your empire from every angle, interacting with it via gesture, voice command, or a controller. And when it comes time to convene with diplomats from other nations, what if Hololens could project those characters onto the floor instead--a life-size representation of Napoleon Bonaparte standing across from you, preparing to negotiate terms.
Way back in 2006, I watched a video of a person playing Warcraft III on a table via a projector and a touch-sensitive surface. Today, gamers can accomplish a similar feat... if they have $7000 to shell out on a coffee-table-sized tablet. Tomorrow we might be able to manage something even better, and hopefully for a fraction of the cost.
Like in our 4X fantasy, players could manipulate units via gestures, voice commands, or a controller, but this time with the added freedom of zooming in and out when necessary. This is more of a novelty for top-down RTS games like StarCraft, but could be tremendously practical for games like Homeworld, where units can be manipulated in three dimensions. Imagine issuing commands to fleets of starfighters as they float about your living room, assigning a destination waypoint by simply pinching that point in space.
Imagine building a model city in your own three-dimensional space, with computer-generated skyscrapers rising up from your dining room table, and miniature civilians buzzing about the streets like the denizens of some holographic ant farm. Level mountains with the swipe of your hand. Draw roads and rivers with the tip of your finger. With technology like Hololens, all this power could be yours.
But why stop there? The limitations of Hololens are yet to be seen. Why limit your city to the table when you could project it onto the living room floor? From here you could survey your entire city in all of its grandeur, without the need for zooming in and out. Peer into windows like a curious giant, or stomp through buildings like a rampaging kaiju. The city is yours. Do as you please!
Depending on the size of the table, I feel like a MOBA on Hololens could be played zoomed all the way out, with the entire map rising up from the table's surface. This perspective might grant players betters situational awareness, allowing them to quickly survey the entire arena in the blink of an eye, then refocus on their own characters without missing a beat.
To seasoned competitors, however, this mode of gameplay might be an unnecessary complication. In that case, the Hololens perspective might still be appealing to eSports viewers, who could watch a match unfold below them as if they were seated in a football stadium.
Yes, I understand why there can't be a Pokémon game on XBox, but that doesn't stop Microsoft from developing its own competing property--especially when they have the potential to do so with better technology. A Pokémon-style pet battle game on Hololens could project miniature monster battles onto a table, or even life-sized ones onto the floor of your living space, using trading cards or even amiibo-style figurines as augmented reality markers.
Remember Eye of Judgement? It was a PlayStation 3 game that used the PlayStation Eye to turn a trading card game into a Yu-Gi-Oh styled augmented reality experience. It had an interesting concept that might have been better realized with the help of Hololens, and could possibly even be expanded upon through Amiibo-style figurines. Imagine a game where players buy and collect creatures as lifeless cards or figures, but bring them to life through the power of Hololens. Players could raise these creatures as pets in a fashion similar to the Pokémon-Amie minigame, interacting with them in a three-dimensional augmented-reality space. By keeping the creature's stats saved to the cloud, or even to physical media within the figure, players would be free to carry their creatures from place to place, challenging others in one-on-one Hololens battles in real-world settings.
The crazy thing about this idea is that nothing is stopping Nintendo from doing it now with the 3DS's augmented reality capabilities. It's just a race to see who does it first, and who does it better.
See "board game feel" on slide two and tell me that playing Mario Party on tabletop wouldn't be rad as hell. Most fans would probably buy a physical Mario Party board game if there was one, but packaging seventy-five minigames into the box would be impractical, and Mario Party without minigames is just... well... a board game.
A game of Mario Party on Hololens (or similar technology) could begin by opening a virtual box, revealing a selection of boards to choose from. Once selected, the chosen board would fold out onto the table as a flat surface, then spring into life as a three-dimensional landscape. Imagine the board shown above with a rotating Ferris wheel, functioning roller coaster, and even a flowing river cascading over the edge of your table. Imagine using gestures to roll virtual dice, and maybe even using amiibos as game pieces.
Between rounds, the board could temporarily disappear, revealing whatever arena necessary for that particular minigame. I can't imagine that every game could be played with gestures and voice commands, so a controller would be a welcome peripheral. Coins won in minigames could be represented by growing stacks arranged around the edge of the table. Give those coins physics and watch players maliciously topple each other's stacks at every opportunity.
Let's not hide from it, people: The Sims is a dollhouse simulator. You create a character and play dress up with it. You build a dollhouse and decorate it. You use the game to live out the life you wish you had. Learn to own it: playing with dolls is fun, playing with Sims is funner, and playing with Sims on Hololens could be the funnest yet.
I could see The Sims being played on surfaces of varying sizes and shapes, from a small plot of land on a tiny desktop to a luxurious estate spanning a banquet table. Building your home could be as simple as drawing up blueprints, then watching those plans spring to life. Furniture could be previewed as an over-sized 3D model before being shrunk down and placed inside. Need to expand your home? Moving walls could be as simple as "pinch" and "drag."
Until I know the limitations of the Hololens, I'm going to assume that with the right setup, gameplay could be projected onto just about any surface. With that in mind, I can imagine character creation and character interaction sequences being projected onto the floor, allowing the player to view his or her creations at full scale whenever appropriate. Need to make fine adjustments to your character's appearance? Go full scale and tailor him or her to perfection. A fight broke out at your house party? Project it to the living room floor, grab your popcorn and watch the drama unfold.
All right, boys and girls: let's talk co-op.
Cooperative multiplayer games are usually some of my favorite video games of all time. I can't think of many single player gaming experiences that wouldn't have been made better by co-op. To me, just about any video game is best when enjoyed with a friend.
Top-down action RPGs are great for drop-in drop-out co-op play, and thanks to the camera angle, they're also perfect for Hololens. A game like Diablo 3 could easily be projected onto the surface of a coffee table, with up to four players seated around it. While each player would view the game area from different angles, each Hololens doesn't have to display exactly the same image, allowing each player his or her own GUI to always appear right-side-up.
Unfortunately, scrolling 3D worlds on Hololens can look a little weird around the edges, as we saw at E3's Minecraft demo. I could imagine isometric games having less of a problem here, especially Supergiant's Bastion, whose mysteriously floating platforms could easily fly in and out where necessary. As for games like Diablo 3, I'd suggest some sort of visual effect, like a boundary of fog to obscure the edges of the projected area.
With all these considerations in mind, I can't help but imagine just how cool it would be to control a team of miniature heroes fighting a scaled-down version of Belial, bursting from the center of my table.
The more I think about it, the more I can't help but feel like Hololens was made for tactical RPGs. After There Came An Echo showed us the potential for voice commands in a tactical RPG, this seems like a rational step forward. Plus, by using hand gestures to draw a path for units to follow, players can circumvent any unintentional pathfinding mistakes (like the kind that get me killed in X-Com every damn time).
This could work particularly well for isometric games like Final Fantasy Tactics, which--like Bastion--appear to lend well to the format. Imagine circling around one of the cubic stages of Final Fantasy Tactics as it hovers just above your table, selecting units with a hand gesture and bringing them to life with a word.
The Hololens format also allows for competitive multiplayer at a single table. Having two Hololens headsets would enable players to view the same shared landscape, but with different context-sensitive details, such as fog-of-war. This feature alone makes virtual tabletop stealth tactics an actual possibility. Without it, you have a game of holographic "wizard's chess." With it, you have a three-dimensional game of combat battleship. It's win-win.
Tabletop RPGs are very much intended to be a "theater of the mind" experience. Sure, there are rules and mechanics in place to facilitate gameplay, but most of the actual experience relies on player imagination. That means that depending on the player, a game of Dungeons & Dragons may be better than any video game, or it may be more boring than a game of Clue.
More visual or tactile players may look to supplement their RPG experience with decorative elements like lead figures and miniature terrain, and there's nothing wrong with that, but it ultimately restricts the flexibility of your story. It doesn't matter how well you describe your character's appearance; if you have a mini, that's what your character is going to look like to the rest of your party. Likewise, Dwarven Forge terrain (like the set seen above) is really cool, but also really expensive. If you want to get your money's worth, you'll be stuck spending your next several adventures revisiting the same eerily similar hallways, when you could have stuck to the endless possibilities of wet-erase markers and a vinyl mat.
Microsoft Hololens provides a possible alternative to this, allowing game masters to project virtual landscapes onto an augmented reality tabletop, without the need for expensive model terrain. Even with something as simple as a basic level editor, a game master could construct any number of diverse roleplaying and combat scenarios for his or her players to experience, interacting with each instance as if it were a level in a tactics RPG.
But that's only the beginning. An online marketplace of downloadable tilesets, items, and creatures would provide game masters with an even greater variety of atmospheric set pieces, and at a fraction of the cost. By allowing creators to share their own custom assets with one another via "Steam Workshop" or something similar, these options increase exponentially. Create a campaign set entirely in The Elder Scrolls universe, or use an indie designer's assets to create something entirely original.
With the power of Hololens and the support of the community, a GM's only limitation would be his or her imagination.
I tried to cover some pretty broad genres in this article, but if I made any glaring omissions that made you go, "WHOA! How could he forget this!" please let me know in the comments below. I look forward to hearing anything you've got to say, and maybe in time we'll see some of these fantasies become augmented realities.