Microsoft was willing to plunk down $68.7bn (£57.4bn) to acquire Activision Blizzard in January, which isn’t the sort of money a company invests without good reason. For the tech giant, the motivation is clear – the deal “will provide building blocks for the metaverse”.
The apparent aim is to rival Meta’s exploits in attempting to build virtual workplaces in the metaverse. It raises an interesting question – will the hybrid offices of the future draw more inspiration from the lush worlds of video games than the wonky Mark Zuckerberg animations we see on social media?
Jason Kingsley is CEO of Rebellion, a British games firm responsible for the shooter franchise Sniper Elite. He feels that while the metaverse is a recent addition to most people’s vocabularies, it merely describes the type of simulated collaboration his industry has been doing for decades.
The current trend is symptomatic of other forms of media and enterprise wanting “a piece of the action”, he says. For instance, one feature of Kingsley’s industry that could soon be making its way to the hybrid offices of the future is gamification – the application of typical elements of game-playing, such as point scoring or competitions, to other areas of activity.
Kingsley asks us to imagine a situation where HMRC has embraced games. “Look, if you get your taxes done early, we’ll give you a point and if you get five points, you get 1% off your tax bill.”
This type of rewards-based approach could be particularly useful for firms in meeting their ESG goals, he says, by rewarding or “nudging” employees to complete projects in a less emission-intensive fashion – or for simply commuting to work in a greener way.
Drawing on the video game industry’s culture of “achievements”, he believes this approach could be useful in the modern office, comparing it to the “gold stars” students get in school or to military medals, which effectively influence human behaviour even though they don’t have much material value.
“In a game, you very rarely tell somebody what to do directly. What you do is you offer them choices, and you reward the correct choice,” notes Kingsley.
He highlights a point of psychology apparent within the gaming industry: if you give something to somebody, and then their behaviour makes it go away, “it has a bigger impact on them psychologically than it would otherwise”. This could be a particularly effective motivational tool.
Rainer Usselmann is co-founder of Happy Finish, a team of developers who work on augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences and build virtual offices. He doesn’t believe the average office worker will be “sitting there wearing VR goggles” any time soon. But, he’s extremely confident that VR-fuelled collaboration will become indispensable in industries such as design and fashion, where employing virtual models can greatly cut down on costs like shipping expenses.
“Imagine you have a design lab in California and you have a brand team in Stuttgart,” explains Usselmann. “They want to collaborate on a project and be able to look at digital twins of products, let’s say a car part. With a digital twin of the real thing, they’ll be able to look at and interact with it in a shared virtual space from a number of different devices.”
According to Usselman, by virtualising this sampling process, you can minimise the number of physical objects that you need to ship from one place to the other, shortening development cycles.
Notably, the tech that makes these virtual worlds run often draws directly from the video game industry. Usselman’s firm recently created a virtual space for fashion brands using Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, which powers some of the world’s most popular video games, including Fortnite, Gears of War and the latest Final Fantasy VII remake.
Usselman also highlights the work that BMW and other manufacturing firms are doing with Nvidia to build a virtual factory. Nvidia derives a big chunk of its revenue from producing graphic cards for video games; it creates much of the hardware that computers need to render these shared virtual environments.
A changing landscape
Joost Rietveld, assistant professor at the UCL School of Management, thinks game engine makers such as Epic Games and Unity have plenty of incentive to diversify their revenues beyond the video game industry by exploring workplace applications for their tech. As we’ve already seen, this is making the video game industry an increasingly fertile picking ground for the likes of Microsoft and Meta.
Rietveld compares the situation to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when many people working for defence contractors and the US Army decided to put their skills to use in non-combat industries, including video games. “The pendulum has swung from video games attracting people from outside industries, to outside industries now attracting people from video games,” he says. As Kingsley points out, the significantly higher salaries offered by the big tech firms will contribute to that desire to jump.
So although big tech firms have always had a huge footprint in the video games sector, the rise of their metaverse aspirations could well lead to video games having ever more influence in the corporate world. Highly skilled video-game workers in search of higher salaries may soon bring their skills to building the hybrid offices of the future, and video-game firms will be looking to extract more revenue from their decades of experience in creating immersive virtual worlds.