Recap of virtual reality panels at San Diego Comic-Con 2017

Even though I’m not connected to the world of high tech consumer electronics I enjoy following news of them. I follow tech news sites with my RSS feed, I listen to tech podcasts, and I follow a bunch of tech journalists on Google+. I’m equally not connected to the world of virtual reality, but I’m an even larger consumer of its news and podcasts. Between getting into tech and getting into VR I got excited about 360° photography. I spent time chasing a basic knowledge of its dos and don’ts, with the lessons learned being completely applicable to virtual reality. This stew of a hobby steers me into events and talks about how virtual reality and immersive settings gets made. It gives me appreciation for the work that goes into the things I enjoy, plus I also like knowing a few things about a few things. When I was at San Diego Comic-Con in July I attended as many panels about virtual reality as I could and I learned a few more things.

Left to right: Jonathan Callan, Nathan Burba, Andrew Robinson, Collin Kelly, and James Iliff

There were quite a few jokes about the Simulated Worlds: Writing for Virtual Reality and Games being the Survios panel because it was stacked with their people. They had their Chief Executive Officer, Chief Creative Officer, and one of their writers on the stage (Nathan Burba, James Iliff, and Jonathan Callan, respectively) alongside of Andrew Robinson, who writes for Blizzard, and Collin Kelly, who advises the USC Games Program. The Survios guys even had a video presentation and brought along promotional comic books for their game Raw Data. Callan moderated the panel and provided the comic relief. That said, the panelists were good about sharing the mic and talking about how writing for VR games works. For starters, writers need to write. They need to practice and to hone. To better understand story structures it was recommended they write for mediums other than just games, such as scripts or novellas. Writers also need to possess some coding and design skills. This allows them to understand the requirements and limitations of the product being developed and to communicate ideas in more than one method. Further, it sounded like everyone at game companies is leaned on to perform a variety of roles, with writers having an emphasis on writing but that not being their sole role. Writing for virtual reality is very similar to writing for other video games, but with more attention given to the world, prop placement, and sound design. The overall design of VR games is closer to the design of theater or escape rooms, both of which guide viewers without the benefit of a camera lens. Since you can’t rely on users seeing the action of your choosing the dialogue was compared to radio dramas where actions are put into words. Perhaps the most interesting response was to an audience question about what a VR script looks like. It begins with high level story outlines which are separated into components. Each component is further divided into smaller parts and each part receives story boards, concept art, and animatics for significant scenes. The action or fight sequences are described using the same language and methods as movie action and fight sequences. All of these pieces are inserted into a single document that gets shared to art, design, and engineering directors.

Left to right: Ted Schilowitz, Colum Slevin, Marlene Sharp, Wayne Kennedy, Kiki Wolfkill, Nathan Burba, Brooks Brown, Randy Pitchford; not pictured: Anastasia Staten. Photo credit to Colum Slevin.

The panel for World Creators – Crossing Platforms (Film, TV, VR, AR, Gaming and Comics) had a lot of chemistry, allowing them to guide the conversation fluidly in a lot of directions. They gave good insights into the challenges for brands here at the cusp of the virtual reality era. The panel was moderated by Anastasia Staten, who is the Executive Director at the Electronic Software Association. Her panel was composed of Ted Schilowitz (a futurist at Paramount Studios), Colum Slevin (head of experiences at Oculus VR), Marlene Sharp (a producer at Sega), Wayne Kennedy (Director of Creative Development at Digital Domain), Kiki Wolfkill (Executive Producer at 343 Industries), Nathan Burba (CEO of Survios), Brooks Brown (Global Director of VR at Starbreeze), and Randy Pitchford (CEO at Gearbox). What leapt out from this group was that modern day media properties need to exist over a variety of media, such as cartoons, video games, and comic books. They’re stressed with making their content accessible to all of their fans and are faced with the concern that new media (like VR) will leave some fans without access. There’s also the problem that brands have baggage in the form of nostalgic older fans who want the content to be similar to how they remember it. Virtual reality is definitely different and poses unique challenges in this regard. By advancing to new mediums you might part too strongly from those fans’ expectations; the older a property gets the harder it is to innovate within it. One solution was to select a part of the audience and give them the focus. Another was to invite fans to make decisions in guiding the property. There is no one, best solution. There was an overall sense that story-telling in virtual reality still needs to be defined. Video game designers and Hollywood story-tellers are both wrong when it comes to creating for VR, but there is an overlapping group of people who have the right idea. It will be people in that overlap who will create the language that is necessary to properly tell stories in VR. Nathan said that until that language exists it’s best to tell stories outside of VR and let the VR experiences capture decision-making moments or moments of action. His company, Survios, has produced comic books and cartoons to deliver the story of Raw Data and has produced a VR video game to deliver the action. They are three mediums working together to deliver the full Raw Data experience.

Left to right: Jonathan Callan, Neo Edmund, Brandon Easton, Andrew Robinson

Late on Friday night there was the An Adventure in Digital Storytelling panel. It was nominally moderated by Neo Edmund (writer/actor; connected to Power Rangers), but it was such a casual event that it was generally led by free-flowing discussion and questions from the audience. In addition to Neo the panel consisted of Jonathan Callan (writer at Survios; connected to Justice League Action and Thunderbirds Are Go), Brandon Easton (writer; connected to Transformers, ThunderCats, and Agent Carter), and Andrew Robinson (writer at Blizzard Entertainment). The conversation went in a few different directions with the main theme being writing. It also covered some of the same ground as the Simulated Worlds panel. While the act of writing hasn’t changed much the job of a writer is changing. Comics have traditionally moved horizontally across a page, but in the smartphone era there’s a new format – called Webtoon – that displays panels vertically so they can be scrolled through with a thumb on the screen (much like reading Facebook). Interactive components are being added to digital comics and augmented reality components will be coming to market soon. Writers need to be aware of both of these changes and modify their work to suit. Writing for virtual reality is still being explored. It currently feels like a hybrid of writing for stage or radio and writing for video games. It feels like writing for theater in that you need to anticipate the audience not seeing critical elements. It feels like writing for video games in that the writers are the last hired and the last fired; they meet with designers after much of the game has been designed and assembled. Also like video games, the writers need to be able to do more than write. Jonathan used the analogy of someone wanting to direct a movie needing to assemble the camera first to gain the respect of the crew, that’s what breaking into video game and VR writing is like. Writing for Netflix was differentiated from network television in that the Netflix writers will write an entire season before filming begins, whereas network writers meet week after week while the show is airing. What that means is that the Netflix model allows for a show to get soft in the middle as long as it starts and ends strong; viewers don’t require episodes to perform the same since they’ll consume them in a short time. The network model requires something to hook viewers into returning and to give them payoffs in each episode. It also allows writers to modify their stories based upon fan feedback and ratings. The panel expressed a desire for comics to come into virtual reality, but none of the men had an idea what that would look like. It was stressed that there needs to be a payoff for users for going to the trouble of donning their goggles and wearing them for a length of time. Once again the idea of Survios providing story outside of the goggles and action within them was brought up as the solution until VR is more user-friendly and the storytelling model is better established.

Left to right: Anastasia Staten, Robert Miller, Russell Naftel, Nick Eisele, Matt Stern, James Iliff, Sean Ahearn, David Hanson, Sophia, Professor Einstein
Left to right: David Hanson, Sophia, Professor Einstein

The convention had a couple of other panels that I had hoped would offer good virtual reality conversations. The Rising Stars in Tech: Drivers of Innovation and Entertainment panel had people from VR and AR fields, plus robotics, Hyperloop, and more. It proved to be too diverse to really focus on my preferred topic. One gem I heard, though, was the point that augmented reality will be an all-the-time sort of tech once it reaches maturation, while virtual reality will always be short-form on demand. A related comment was that virtual reality will be a place for private experiences, where people can feel deeper emotions. The panel How Entertainment and Tech Leaders Are Uniting in Mobile VR To Deliver New Content Adventures: Power Rangers VR Experience turned out to be a rather drowsy panel discussing the Power Rangers Zord Rising VR app that was designed to help market their most recent movie. I pretty much guessed that from the panel’s name but I sat through it just to be sure. No complaints, though, as they offered swag bags on exit.

Overall I feel like I got some really good information at the virtual reality panels at this year’s San Diego Comic-Con. Couple this with the actual VR experiences I got to try and it made for a great time that I can’t wait to repeat. They’ve got me scanning the calendar to see what other VR events I can attend between now and then. Hopefully more opportunities will present themselves so I can learn more and spend even more time under the goggles.