Virtual Heroes, now a division of Applied Research Associates, has been active in the burgeoning serious games industry. The game developer utilizes Unreal Engine 3 to help companies, hospitals and government agencies better train for the future.

Randy Brown, division manager at the game company, talks about what the company is up to in this exclusive interview.

Why did you choose RTP for your base of game development?

Virtual Heroes was founded by game developers from the Research Triangle Institute and other companies around the Triangle. RTP provides a great place to live and raise a family, with reasonable cost of living, great schools, and three major universities creating and attracting talent to the Triangle. This is a great area to help attract game developers and I have been in the Triangle since 1987.

How have you seen the game development community here grow in the time you’ve been here?

There is more recognition of the wide variety of skills required for game development, and many schools and universities are creating or integrating game development into their curricula. Plus, from the initial creation of and growth from the Digital Game Expo to the Triangle Game Conference to the East Coast Game Conference shows the explosion of the game development community in this area.

How has your company evolved since being acquired?

With our acquisition, we are exposed to many more opportunities than we could have ever pursued as a small business. So we are working in many more areas of immersive training and education than before, supporting the Air Force, nuclear agencies, and international customers. We have also merged with ARA’s Central Florida Division to gain efficiencies in applying game technology to complex virtual terrain and real-time physics effects modeling problems. So now I split most of my time between Raleigh and Orlando.

What opportunities are there in serious game development today?

All the development positions required to create entertainment game content are also necessary in serious games development. Game design, programming, art, quality assurance, and game production are all necessary skillsets we use every day. With the wide range of serious games topics to address, everybody needs to be flexible and willing to learn since every new project likely brings a unique challenge for us to solve for our customers. The real opportunity is to create game content that makes a difference in people’s lives.

Can you talk about some of the organizations you’ve worked with through gaming?

We have created content for NASA, DHS, PEPFAR (President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, creating our Pamoja Mtaani game), the Army, Air Force, IAEA, Duke University, NIH, NIMH, and many other commercial, medical, and government agencies over the last 10 years.

How has your HumanSim grown over the years?

The HumanSim brand has grown to include many projects and products for customers, from anesthesia training for the Army to Combat Medic training, and a real-time digital physiology engine.

How many people do you have today and what are you focusing on?

The Virtual Heroes division is now just under 40 people, and we continue to focus on applying cutting-edge immersive game technology such as the Unreal Engine to solve our customers problems in the most relevant, cost-effective way possible.

How have you seen the local Triangle talent pool from schools grow in the time you’ve been here?

We have seen more schools providing game development, serious games, game design, and dual-track programs where students can pursue their core degree studies but still learn about game development along the way. This, along with the ECGC, the Carolina Games Summit, Internet Summit, and the local IGDA chapter has really helped provide venues for students to recognize the opportunities for them in the Triangle.

What are your thoughts on the new opportunities for different types of games today with free-to-play?

The types of games will always continue to evolve. How much longer will it be before there is no longer any physical game distribution? The same goes for monetization: DOOM came out as shareware in the early 90’s, so free-to-play will surely continue to evolve also. Certainly the accessibility of game content has greatly increased past PC and consoles to now include a wide range of handhelds and smartphones.

What opportunities do you see Kickstarter opening up for new serious game ideas?

Crowdfunding is a great mechanism to get your message out there and guage real interest. For serious games, you are in competition for people’s hearts and minds versus entertainment content, so I think it will always be an uphill battle in that regard. But sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo can only help serious game developers with their chances of gaining more open sources of funding.

What are your thoughts on the opportunities tablets and smartphones are opening up for games today?

As I mentioned earlier, the explosion of accessibility to content through handhelds, tablets, and smartphones greatly improves the ability of a game developer to get their content out there, without needing to work through a PC distribution system or a console provider. The main issue is the absolute explosion of the number of games on these platforms, where it is very difficult to get your game seen by others without spending targeted advertising dollars.

Can you talk about your recent deal with the US Air Force and what this means for virtual training?

The Air Force has approved the installation of the ARA Unreal Engine 3 Web Player, which is a browser-based plug-in we created that runs game content developed with the Epic Games Unreal Development Kit (UDK) or Unreal Engine-based content. This opens the door across the Air Force to use the power of the Unreal Engine for single and multi-player training and education purposes. This general-purpose Unreal plug-in is approved for Internet Explorer for Air Force computer usage, and it also runs in Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Opera.