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"We fart rainbows. Who needs cash?"

Julie Heyde and the power of VR Unicorns

Julie Heyde is a thunder storm. She's everywhere, a boundless force of nature who imbues the countless projects, conversations, panels and events she's an integral part of with enormous amounts of energy. She crackles with constant enthusiasm and excitement, and pretty much everyone who knows her always says her name with a smile.

When I first met her, four or five years ago at the Nordic Game Conference, she was already talking about the potential of VR, relishing the idea of breaking new boundaries and doing things with the technology that had never been possible before. Soon, she established Shayla Games (named after her beloved horse), a part conference, part game jam, part rubber dinghy race in Copenhagen dedicated to the experimental edges of VR. Frenetic, friendly and 3/4 utter madness, it's quintessentially Heyde, but it's not self-indulgent. Valve's Chet Falisek is there almost every year, and he's usually joined by people like CCP's Hilmar Petursson and Oculus' Callum Underwood. Heyde is well connected.

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She's also tough as nails. At our first meeting she's recovering from a case of severe whiplash, shrugging off a work and travel ban from her doctor because she prefers the pain to the boredom of not working. Last year she was diagnosed with sarcoidosis, the symptoms of which she alleviates by going swimming and kayaking in the freezing Danish straits. It hasn't slowed her down.

Her newest venture is VRUnicorns, dedicated to the more physical side of VR development. Its first game, Selfie Tennis, puts players on both sides of a tennis court and doesn't come with nearly enough safety warnings. Archery, which I play at GDC, has you shooting ice creams at the heads of swarming children. Utopia is...something else. It's probably best to let Heyde explain herself.

Who are the VRUnicorns, and what brought you together in virtual harmony?

We are all game jammers who magically forced each other into VR. We work under the umbrella of VRUnicorns as everyone wants to be a unicorn...naturally.

Your games have a reputation for being a little dangerous. How much VR equipment have you broken?

A lot. We have a game called 'Race to the East' where you slide across the floor, jump up and back when reaching the chaperone (Vive's object proximity warning) and then slide again. We...I broke 3 early Vives on that game because I kept ignoring the chaperone and went straight for the wall head first. We once demoed it to friends from HTC and Valve and used a cardboard box as protection buffer between player and brick wall. Then we received more Vives - and stole some too. We have that locomotion mechanic in #Utopia now and we call it the Giant Mode.

Someone broke one of my controllers in #SelfieTennis recently...that hurt, as those controllers usually survive our games...when we play them ourselves at least.

"I absolutely love the Sony Move controllers, but Sony does not seem to embrace physical VR as much as we do"

#SelfieTennis would only really work on Vive, but #Archery seems portable. Any plans to come to Rift or PSVR?

Oculus 360 set-up yes - we already have it running on Oculus because of SteamVR, but we need to test a bit more before I push the Oculus version live on Steam. We're still waiting for Sony to get back to us on PSVR. Maybe they are scared? Maybe they just prefer to ignore us crazy unicorns and our very physical games?

I absolutely love the Sony Move controllers, but Sony does not seem to embrace physical VR as much as we do - I feel like puking every time I try one of their seated games. It's sad, because Sony could have pushed roomscale/360 so much more and my early conversations with them were moving towards that.

How closely tied to Vive-first development are you? Would you consider other platforms for other games?

We absolutely love 360 and roomscale. We are making #SelfieTennis, #Archery, #Utopia and #SkiJump so we have a place to live in the future when the world goes to shit. Any platform that supports 360/roomscale well is interesting to us.

#Archery involves a lot of shooting children in the head - any trouble getting that past Valve? Is there an age rating?

No complaints so far. So don't you DARE go making a complaint on the Steam forums. Cause then we have to add mature rating and that would suck. Besides, they get ice cream when they get shot. Who doesn't like ice cream? I would like more violence, but Jakob says no. He's the father of two kids, so he's soft.

I want kids to run out in front of the truck in the Paper Delivery scene and then you have to shoot them with the bow and arrow, so they don't get run over, but Jakob (Johansson, Archery dev) keeps putting the no-hat on. Everyone else from VRUnicorns has a yes-hat on, it's my main management tool. Jakob doesn't obey me...but I might be able to convince Max (Nilsson).

At the moment, we're seeing VR mostly being pushed forward by teams funded by platform holders. Is VR a viable market for developers who don't have that external support?

We fart rainbows. Who needs cash? I've taken out some loans to keep the show running as I got really sick last Summer and that fucked up our development and launch schedule a lot. It really shook our little shop. I'm luckily on steroids for a little longer, so we're working like Duracell bunnies to ship a couple of more games and secure the future of VRUnicorns before the sarcoidosis takes over my body again.

We want more games out there and live for making wacky VR. I have sold my soul to the devils a few times, but we're completely independent now. If I had kids I would probably have sold their souls, too, but my horse would never be part of any deal. I've tried to sell other unicorns' kids' souls too, but they didn't let me.

"I really enjoy watching our games being played in a public space. This is one of the reason we make games that are not only fun to play, but also fun to watch being played"

How long do you think there's going to be between VR hardware generations?

I personally think the industry is heading towards mobile VR, but before someone makes a proper mobile tracking system and some hardware that can run our games, then we'll stay on PC with roomscale/360. I'm in love with the Vive and I haven't tried anything else that lives up to it yet. Most other hardware makes me feel sick, and I really hate puking. The Oculus Touch controllers feel a bit fragile to me as I like to smash things and Vive controllers feels more solid, but other unicorns like the Touch too.

How important is it that a companies of Valve and Facebook's size are directly driving and supporting VR?

Size doesn't matter, but expertise and knowledge do. Valve has been an excellent help to us for many years. Chet Faliszek has been the closest thing I've had to a boss in my 'adult' life and him and the rest of the people we know at Valve have helped us become what we are today. There's so much shit VR out there, so getting feedback and pointers from Valve has been crucial to our development.

Do you see much of a future in VR as a public entertainment system, in arcades and other spaces?

I very much think so - and I really enjoy watching our games being played in a public space. This is one of the reasons we make games that are not only fun to play, but also fun to watch being played. We have a lot of local multiplayer features in both published and unpublished games. That's why we started focusing on the semi-realistic grotesque sports genre, because we like the interaction between VR-players, non-VR-players and spectators, as playing them looks so fun. We've been demoing our games all around the world and we still spend a lot of time on the road, so we get to test this a lot. This reminds me, I need to get my act together and remember to create those arcade licenses for our games.

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Latest comments (4)

James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada5 months ago
Great interview, thanks GI :)
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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada5 months ago
Great interview, thanks GI :)
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James Berg Games User Researcher, EA Canada5 months ago
Great interview, thanks GI :)
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Show all comments (4)
Mike Spence Course Leader for Game Art BA, South Thames College4 months ago
We put together a VR game last year and gave it to the public. It was supposed to be a serene canoe game (called 'Oarsome'). Most people moved around quite gently, appreciating the water, movement of the boat and the gentle vibration of the oar (broomstick with Vive controllers taped to the ends) when it dipped in the water.

However there was one or two absolute nutcases that immediately starting rowing like crazy, smashing the controllers on the floor. One punter shoved the oar right into the balls of my hapless demonstrator.

How cool is it that you can make games that jeopardise people's plums?
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