A twenty-year veteran in the world of sports video games, David Ortiz spent five years leading the team behind Madden NFL—likely the most iconic football gaming franchise of all time. And that's after developing NFL Fever at Microsoft.

But now, he's taking on what he thinks will be the next evolution in fully immersive sports games: virtual reality. With his new company Emortal Sports, he plans to help create a whole new language of sports games in three dimensions—not only for players but virtual spectators who can plop themselves down in the red zone or the 50-yard line and watch games like they've never seen them in life.

This March, Ortiz will be appear at Techfest NW at the Portland Art Museum, a gathering of leading thinkers, startups and established companies that has showcased the the Pacific Northwest's talent and innovation for the past five years.

There, he'll talk about the new possibilities of VR sports games—and possibly even offer a demo of his forthcoming game.

WW: So what will you be talking about at TechfestNW?
What I'm going to talk about is the use of VR as immersion in gaming, especially competitive gaming. One thing is will talk about that I've helped develop over the course of my career is the sense of player progression—a sense of player identity. At Microsoft [with the game NFL Fever], we instated a dynamic player progression model, an RPG style approach to character development inside of our game.

It was all inspired by Kurt Warner. We started making that game [NFL Fever] in '99 before he was MVP. A year before that he was a grocery clerk. Trent Green got hurt, and they had to take Kurt Warner warner off the bench.

None of the games captured that—there was no progression. They all had Kurt Warner as a low performing player. We wanted to see something to reflect that if your player played better, your player should improve. We did that , and that was one of the better things we did in NFL Fever. We were one of the first to do it.

[With VR] I want to take it to the next level, to build a sense of true identity and permanence. 

I've always played games for the sense of being immersed—I don't mean to say escaping, just the chance to have a really intense experience. As graphics get better and better, it lends to that fantasy. VR gives us even more tools to create a nice fantasy.

By immersion, you mean the chance VR offers to be in first-person perspective, where you play the role of the athlete?
I don't agree with that at all. I think gaming in VR is so early that anyone locked into the idea that a VR game must be viewed a certain way is wrong—you can't lock yourself into one perspective. There are so many things to try, ways to address certain challenges that just haven't been done yet.

It's fun to play standing up and moving around, but I think VR's longterm future is going to be seated. There's room for standing or maybe a more interactive seated experience—but the long-term future for consumers, based on traditional gaming patterns, the player will be seated. We're gong to need things designed for longer play sessions. First person experimentation is necessary—it gives you something—but I'm not locked into it.

 

How do you push beyond first-person perspective in VR?
There tends to be a copycat mentality, where people grab low-hanging fruit—you see someone else do something and they do it that way. They don't challenge themselves and push a little harder. Take a look at [shooter game] Gears of War. It's an awesome franchise, they did a great job with that game. They grough in great elements from first person, but they're over the shoulder 3rd person. It's a great balance, a great solution. It took some time to get there and they do it well. That could happen with VR.

I like to think that ultimately it's gonna be more exciting for the spectator to be able to participate, to feel like they're in the arena watching things happen. More and more people want to watch competitive gaming, and VR will provide the most satisfying way, from the spectator's perspective. You have to have an audience for something to really grow.

 

So what are you working on at Emortal?
We're getting really close to launching something on the Vive [device]—we're trying to get our first game out. We're working on our platform, an immersive avatar-based experience that works so it can serve its purpose of providing a foundation for VR sports—a really immersive experience, with the kind of potential to carve out a niche.

Will we get to see a demo of your game at Techfest?
We're getting close to releasing it—if we're not out, we'll be really close, we'll be able to show something while we're there. You can check out what we're up to. Overall, with VR sports, these are the types of experiences that will let people have a good experience as a location-based experience–or sit down and have a nice competitive experience at home. We're just excited about the possibilities that are available.

TechfestNW will be held at the Portland Art Museum March 23-24, 2017. For information and tickets, go to techfestnw.com.