The technology has been converging for years: high-quality, computer-generated visual effects; immersive interactivity in a 3D virtual world; motion-capture in live-action filming; real-time mobile apps; and a global network to tie it all together.
So, naturally, from this technological morass would rise . . . a game show.
Next year, if everything goes according to plan, TV viewers and mobile-device owners around the world will get their first taste of “The Future Universe”, the virtual setting for a one-of-a-kind interactive live game show pitting in-studio contestants against a potential worldwide group of people playing at home on their phones, tablets, and laptops, all vying for a range of prizes.
Created by Norway’s The Future Group, the as-yet-unnamed show (“Future Universe” refers to the world in which the game will take place) is expected to air on major TV networks in countries around the world. Although the company would not be specific about its production plans, it says it already has a deal in place with one of the largest production companies in the world to begin airing The Future Universe in prime-time 2016 in a single, major country.
More production deals, resulting in additional networks and countries are expected to follow, says Bård Anders Kasin, the founder and CEO of The Future Group, and a technical director at Warner Bros. who worked on The Matrix films. Most likely, Kasin told Fast Company, each country will have their own version, although it’s possible production could be shared between nations.
These days, everyone’s talking about virtual reality, and the kinds of environments that can be created using VR platforms like Oculus Rift, Microsoft’s HoloLens, Sony’s Morpheus, and HTC’s Vive. But with the exception of a few demo projects, these are still largely single-user experiences. While not exactly the same kind of project, Future Group’s show is trying to leverage some of the elements that make VR compelling to a lot of people. It’ll also be much deeper, especially for the in-studio contestants, Kasin says by phone from Oslo, Norway’s capital.
“We’re not just putting them in there with goggles,” says Kasin. “We’re putting them in a virtual world as characters, in real time.”
The idea is that the game play will be a competition between handpicked, in-studio players tasked with doing things in a virtual environment like navigating an obstacle course, walking a balance beam, or chucking giant eggs into space in what the Future Group describes as an “Angry Birds-style” game–all while people around the world are playing the same game optimized for their stand-alone devices.
“Imagine people in the studio are driving Mario Karts through the streets [of a virtual] New York,” Kasin says. “[The studio] audience would see them driving in Mario Karts. The at-home audience could be doing the same task [on their mobile devices], and if you do better or worse than them, you can see [the] people in the studio driving past you.”
The Future Group’s idea is that each production company would be able to make choices about how the game is presented. Among them is whether mobile players would be going head-to-head with each other, or only against the studio contestants. Kasin says the TV networks will be able to choose, for example, if they want to create competitions between mobile players by geographical region or other criteria.
Of course, the show will have a major e-commerce component as well. At-home players can play along for free, but will be asked to pay a small fee and set up a profile if they want to be eligible for prizes. The Future Group imagines highly targeted ads based on the personal information users provide.
“From an advertising and sponsorship perspective,” Kasin says, “this lets advertisers jump from your TV screen to your mobile or desktop.”
It’s a long shot, of course, but Kasin says one of the prizes that could be offered is a car, perhaps a Tesla. Regardless of the prize, it would only be available to paying players at large when it’s offered live on TV. But mobile players can spend as much time as they want in the game, trying to rack up points that they could spend on a variety of prizes offered by sponsors.
Those handpicked to play in the studio, however, will only compete for cash prizes.
At its heart, the Future Universe game is kind of a mix of Hollywood computer-graphics technology and video-game design. The in-studio portions will be filmed with players in front of green screens as they face the individual challenges, while the resulting video is incorporated into a Unity game engine–which is used to make a great deal of virtual reality content across multiple platforms.
“What’s unique here,” Kasin says, as opposed to a motion picture, “is that we’re doing it in real time. All the rendering and the graphics, we can do it instantly.”
The Future Group is betting that once it gets the game up and running in its first country, it can quickly scale the project to other countries. To do so, it has hired a few hundred people around the world, many of whom are animators and script writers, Kasin says.
In the future, the company also plans on a system where anyone with the skills to program a mobile game could design content for the game. That won’t be possible at initial launch, but it would help The Future Universe game have a far wider collection of potential scenarios than what would be possible with a hired staff.
To date, The Future Group has raised $7.5 million and is currently looking to raise about $10 million in additional financing. One of its new investors is Nolan Bushnell, the founder of Atari, who recently put an undisclosed amount of money into the company that was significant enough to earn him a board seat.
Because the company isn’t saying who its current production partner is, beyond the fact that it’s one of the biggest in the world, it’s very hard to judge the show’s prospects. As described, it’s extremely ambitious–implementing technology in a way that hasn’t been done before–and relies on large numbers of people being engaged enough in what’s going on to be willing to pay to play.
That is far from certain, although it’s probable that the cost will be small, and there’s certainly plenty of precedent for people paying for special content in mobile games. For example, several mobile developers, including Clash of Clans’s Supercell, and Candy Crush Saga’s King, have reported revenues in excess of $1 billion a year, despite their games being initially free to play.
It’s also unclear whether The Future Group is capable of scaling the game beyond a single country and network. According to Kasin, though, TV audiences in a range of countries will soon be enjoying the game, and the company will do everything it can to keep growing it. Really, he says, they have no choice.
“We have a production deadline,” Kasin says. “Networks start TV shows at certain windows of opportunities . . . We have no slippage. It has to ship.”