In recent weeks, I’ve been using the Unreal Engine and Unity game engines a fair amount, and I’ve come to two realizations. First, game engines and animation software are becoming so good that video games and virtual reality (VR) are finally getting close to exiting the uncanny valley. That is the point where we can use technology to create virtual depictions of people that look almost real but slightly off and a little creepy. Second, game engines are complex to use and difficult to learn, often requiring whole teams and several years to create those impressive immersive experiences. So when will those of us without enormous budgets or computer science degrees be able to make gorgeous, immersive eLearning experiences?

Cheap, easy, and good

For a new(er) medium to advance to the point where most people, including L&D professionals, can use it, it must have these three traits:

  1. Cheap: Cost-effective to create and try out experiences
  2. Easy: Simple and intuitive for people who aren’t technically savvy to create and try out experiences
  3. Good: Realistic, visually appealing, high-resolution experiences that viewers/visitors enjoy

The evolution of video serves as a good example. With the advent and proliferation of smartphones, the internet, and YouTube, almost anyone can now shoot relatively high quality video and publish it for the world to see, at virtually zero cost per video. Similarly, website development went from expensive, difficult, and terrible to cheap, easy, and good (i.e., WordPress and Squarespace sites) over the past two decades.

In contrast, game engines, video games, and VR technology have recently evolved to the point where developers can choose two of the three, but not quite all three at once yet.

Cheap and easy, but not good

Bitsy, a free game engine platform that allows non-coders to create and publish extremely low resolution pixel-art video games in a couple hours, is cheap and easy but the quality isn’t good.

Cheap and good, but not easy

Unity and Unreal Engine game engines are free to use for individuals and indie developers, and the quality of the experiences can be mind-bogglingly good. However, these programs are not at all easy to use, as they’re complex and finicky, require programming skills, and often have insufficient tutorials.

Good and easy, but not cheap

Hollywood has begun developing specialized VR cameras and Unreal Engine plug-ins to shoot animated and CGI-heavy feature films such as The Lion King and Solo: A Star Wars Story. With this specialized technology, directors and film crews can shoot and edit scenes in real time. They can virtually and physically move animations, CGI objects, backgrounds, actors, and cameras around each other on the fly. This helps to get better shots and create more engaging content. This technology is fast and easy to use on set (well, not exactly easy, but far easier to use than traditional filmmaking methods), and the results are really, really good. But it’s not cheap, as it costs millions to buy and build the cameras, background screens, computers, and software plug-ins.

The trajectory

If we step back a moment to think about what’s going on here, we see that each of these three content creation platforms has rapidly evolved in the past two or three years, moving from having one only trait of the cheap-easy-good trio to two. The history of media technology tells us that with a little help from Moore’s Law, Kurzweil’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law, and the Gartner Hype Cycle, we’re only a few years from game and VR content creation platforms offering all three traits at once: cheap, easy, and good.

Given the trajectory of the evolution of game engine, video game, and VR technologies, I predict that within the next five to ten years, at least one or two affordably-priced, high-quality game engines will shift to a simple, easy-to-use, fully WYSIWYG development interface (“what you see is what you get”, i.e., no coding required), just like WordPress and Squarespace did for website development. Meanwhile game distribution platforms and streaming channels will also continue to grow and evolve. Hardware will rapidly improve too, as game consoles, game controllers, VR headsets, and augmented reality (AR) glasses all become cheaper, smaller, faster, more comfortable, more stylish, and orders of magnitude more powerful. As a result, making video games and immersive experiences will soon be easier than ever before.

So what?

If the destiny for the technology is to be cheap, easy, and good, and if linking all three in one platform won’t be feasible for several years, what can we do in the meanwhile?

Cheap and easy are very important to L&D professionals. Good is certainly a nice quality to have, but it’s far from the most important factor. That is, higher quality graphics and animations in serious video games and VR training experiences don’t necessarily translate to more learning. Thus, we can look for ways to create cheap and easy games and training simulations with today’s existing technologies. For example, Modular Experience Design, microlearning, short sims, and interactive 360-degree videos are innovative methods for creating training experiences and serious games more cheaply and easily than in the past.

We must keep playing with and evolving alongside new technologies, including software (i.e.,game engines) and hardware (i.e.,VR headsets) alike. The technology is already cheap and good enough, in most cases. You’ll quickly overcome any difficulties associated with aspects that aren’t yet technically easy to use. You’ll certainly make some valuable serious games and VR training experiences. Most importantly, this practice will keep you abreast of what’s changing and give you an edge as cheap, easy, and good do finally converge.