Software frameworks known as game engines are opening up new markets for game designers and making high-quality simulations available to companies that otherwise couldn’t afford them. With help from software based on the technology used to create the immersive virtual worlds of video games, paramedics and firefighters are finding ways to train more effectively and inexpensively, and architectural firms are showing designs to clients at an unprecedented level of detail.
Epic Games, based in Cary, North Carolina, was one of the earliest game developers to explore the market for its game engine in the arena of so-called “serious gaming”—a catch-all term that refers to uses of gaming technology for non-entertainment purposes. Game engines perform functions such as rendering the 3-D environment of the game and coördinating sounds, object collisions, and the interactions between players. The current global market for game engines like Epic Games’ is estimated at $100 million to $200 million, says Ben Sawyer, cofounder of the Serious Game Initiative, an organization based at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars that is dedicated to promoting non-entertainment uses for games.
Epic Games’ Unreal Engine software, which is at the heart of such best-selling games as Gears of War and Batman: Arkham Asylum, makes it simple to build a scene—say, several city blocks affected by a natural disaster—and then allow users to move around the scene while interacting with each other and with characters that simulate people they’re likely to encounter.
The technology has been used to develop health-care training programs with clients such as Duke University Medical Center and the National Institutes of Health. A paramedic training application, for example, lets users approach the victims of a simulated accident, ask questions, assess a patient’s vital signs, and apply treatments. The technology also allows instructors to monitor and measure performance from afar. Students learn faster and remember more of what they learn, says Jerry Heneghan director of product development for health-care simulations at Applied Research Associates. It’s also an easier way to train large numbers of people than conventional methods in which teachers demonstrate on mannequins. “Overall, it’s less expensive,” he says. “You can train more people faster, so you get a faster return on investment.”
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On the simulation side, the architectural firm HKS used the Unreal Engine to allow owners of the Dallas Cowboys football team (and, later, members of the public) to explore designs for the new Cowboys Stadium before construction was completed in 2009. Another customer, currently undisclosed, is blending architecture visualization with first-responder training, creating a detailed model of streets and the interiors of major buildings. Firefighters can use the model to learn what to expect when they’re called to specific sites. “When they go into a building, they’re not going in blind,” says Jay Wilbur, vice president of product development at Epic Games. “They know where every door is, where every door leads to.”
The applications of the company’s game engine extend beyond serious gaming. One of the most popular ways of using Epic Games’ technology has been in animated movies made with the tools developed to create expository cinematic sequences in video games.
Many game engine developers were reluctant to expand into nongame markets, in part because their business model typically involved licensing their technology to other game designers in exchange for a cut of the revenue from the resulting games. Each “serious game” might be bought by only a few people with specialized needs, and animation studios wouldn’t sell any games at all, so it didn’t look like much of a revenue stream. Epic was one of the first game studios to open these markets by developing new licensing approaches that made sense for both them and their clients, says the Serious Games Initiative’s Sawyer.
For companies that want to develop in-house software, such as an oil company that wants to develop a simulation of an oil rig for training, Epic Games offers yearly licenses of $2,500. The client can then use that simulation within the company free of charge. (Epic negotiates similar licenses for film projects.) Developers who want to build products for sale pay $99 for the license and then give Epic a 25 percent cut after the first $50,000 in sales. Epic also offers a free development kit for noncommercial use; it’s been downloaded a million times so far. The next stage of the technology is likely to be simplification: if it’s easier for nonprogrammers to create training and simulation applications, game technology can be used to educate a wider group of employees.