For most of his career in the games industry, Paul Bettner has devoted himself to social interaction. As creative director at Ensemble Studios, he worked on multiple IPs and projects where competitive and cooperative play were an essential aspect of the design. As the founder and CEO of Newtoy Inc., he led the team that created one of the most successful mobile-social games of the iPhone era, Words With Friends. When Zynga acquired Newtoy in 2010, he became an executive at a company synonymous with the concept of "social" gaming.
And yet here we are, in an overwhelmingly beige suite in one of the many hotels that ring San Francisco's Moscone Centre, discussing a game that couldn't be further from what one might expect to be Bettner's wheelhouse; a game only playable by one person at a time, and on a platform that isolates the user to such an extent they wouldn't even be aware if another human was in the same room.
"You try that in first-person and you're like, 'No, I'm not going to do any of those things, because that's bad. That makes me sick'"
"I've been doing social my entire career, and I think that social is the single most important thing that can happen in video games," he says, smiling, which is something he does a lot. "This is the first single-player game I've made in, like, 20 years."
With his latest venture, Playful Corp., Bettner is setting aside his guiding fascination to seize an opportunity. Not just to be one of the prime movers in the emerging market for virtual reality games - even the briefest visit to GDC 2016 will prove that there's no shortage of those - but to create a symbolic character for the whole technology. When Playful set out to make Lucky's Tale, creating a mascot for the Oculus Rift was an important aspect of its plan. In the tense period immediately before the Rift's launch, the frequent comparisons between Lucky and talismanic characters like Sonic and Mario are, Bettner admits, "my favourite thing."
Bettner seems particularly gratified by those who have likened Lucky's Tale to, "a Mario 64 moment." I think for a few seconds, rolling the idea around my brain. Does this warmly nostalgic platformer support such a comparison? Mario 64 is, after all, a game regarded with the kind reverence only a handful of pop cultural works have ever received: The Beatles' Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band for sure, Alan Moore's Watchmen maybe, and, yes, Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. Bettner, no doubt noticing my silence, steps in.
"When people describe it that way, I think they're talking about how, when Mario made that transition from 2D to 3D, it was really this magical thing. Here's this character I've already fallen in love with, but experiencing it this way is entirely new. That's the way Lucky's Tale is when you experience it in VR."
Bettner's summation is simple enough to grasp, but I think it misses the significance of a game like Lucky's Tale. Mario 64 was an exhilarating demonstration of the potential of 3D graphics to offer entirely new experiences, even with the medium's most beloved character at its centre. Lucky's Tale is, if anything, the inverse of Mario 64; a welcome reminder that, amidst the constant back-and-forth about what form VR games might eventually take, the technology can still provide comfort and familiarity. Some might interpret that as damnation through the faintest of praise, but it's quite the opposite. Right now, when 90 per cent of VR content seems designed to last no more than 15 minutes at a time, games like Lucky's Tale have a vital role to play in establishing the market.
According to Bettner, that, too, was an integral part or Playful's thinking. Like virtually every developer that comes into contact with VR, he says, all of the studio's early prototypes were based around first-person perspective. That has less to do with careful, design-oriented consideration, and much more to do with the "number one VR fantasy" of, "exploring an environment, running around and going on an adventure." Before trying its VR take on an epic RPG, Playful started with a more manageable prototype: a fighting game in the tradition of Street Fighter, only with the player inhabiting the body of their character. "It wasn't good," Bettner says. "Fists flying at your face really isn't what you want."
"In Lucky's Tale, you can see something off in this distance and you can go there. It won't make you nauseous to do it. That unlocks entire genres"
What quickly became apparent is that, while first-person may be what you intuitively want, in reality it places severe restrictions on the kind of experiences you can make. Any attempt to deliver on the heady promise of exploring a large virtual space very quickly runs into many of VR's biggest problems - specifically those around accelerating, decelerating and traversal, which will almost certainly trigger dizziness and nausea in the player. "You try that in first-person and you're like, 'No, I'm not going to do any of those things, because that's bad. That makes me sick,'" Bettner says. "And we were almost ready to let go of that. We thought we'd just have to do an experience where you're in a cockpit, because that works, or where you're just not moving and just watching something that's happening."
Based on my own experiences at a VR-saturated GDC, this is the path that a disproportionately large number of developers have taken. I climbed Everest, fought off waves of malfunctioning robots, defended a castle from fire-slinging barbarians, and shot the breeze (and a few stormtroopers) with R2-D2 on Tatooine; all of these experiences were in first-person, and all made use of the HTC Vive's room-scale VR technology and wand inputs (which were created with first-person experiences very much in mind). Yet despite that nominal freedom of movement, each one felt curiously restrictive and compromised. The disconnect between the open environments and my inability to walk more than a few paces in any direction was ever present, and for a medium where concepts like "presence" and "immersion" are sacrosanct, VR developers working in first-person seeem curiously blasé about any number of obvious distractions: the use of portals and teleportation to manoeuvre around any space larger than a boxroom, for example, or the way the headset's heavy cable dragged on the back of my head and coiled disconcertingly around my legs as I spun and pivoted.
To be clear, these aren't problems specific to Vive; they apply to first-person, consumer-facing VR as a whole, and the solutions probably aren't coming as soon as early adopters might assume. That bothersome cable? The power required to run high-end VR means that isn't going anywhere for a few years yet. Those abstract solutions to navigating environments? They'll be practically necessary for a long time, and maybe forever, due to a host of difficult problems: the size of most VR users' living spaces; the necessity of being tethered to a hulking PC; the relative expense of buying an omni-directional treadmill; and, most worrisome of all, the fact that all humans have an inner-ear. When Oculus releases its Touch controllers later this year, and eventually rolls out the room-scale VR it claims it can support sometime after that, it will run into the same crop of unsolved problems. However, it now seems like less of an error that Oculus packed in an Xbox One controller, and gave its Touch experiences more time in the oven.
Indeed, Playful built Lucky's Tale knowing that a controller would be the early standard, and that proved helpful in creating a stable, satisfying user experience. Bettner points out that, "a lot of those problems go away," in third-person, and while first-person experiences are more immediately striking, my time with third-person games like Lucky's Tale and Gunfire Games' Chronos provided a more consistent level of immersion. "When we found third-person it unlocked a whole world of possibility," Bettner continues. "In Lucky's Tale, you can see something off in this distance and want to go there, and you can go there. It won't make you nauseous to do it. That unlocks entire genres: the Zeldas, the Metroids, all these wonderful games. This perspective and this approach works.
"People don't understand what VR can do for this kind of experience... That's probably one of the key reasons Oculus wanted to bundle it, too. When people are thinking about VR, they're thinking about all of the new things that they've never done before, but they haven't thought about the things they already love. I think, really, the entire industry is going to wake up to this."
"Some of the first-person stuff, it's really fun and I want to show it my friends, but the thought of actually doing it every day is a little much"
And the early adopters may well do the same. Until now, the freewheeling experimentation of the VR development scene has been the technology's most alluring quality, but with both the Vive and the Rift now available as consumer products the market needs a good deal more if it's to grow and attract greater investment from publishers. If that is to happen - and it's far from a given, even after years of unrelenting hype - games like Lucky's Tale and seated experiences like EVE: Valkyrie will probably make the difference. They may not be the ne plus ultra of VR design, they may be familiar and operated with a standard controller, but they are the kind of substantial, value-for-money experiences that can make the extravagant price-of-entry feel worthwhile.
When I ask Bettner whether third-person games make it easier for the user to play for longer periods, he doesn't respond with any data or research - only a hunch. "We'll know in a couple of weeks when consumers have actually been doing it," he says, "but what I do know is when we first sent an early complete version of Lucky's Tale to Brendan [Iribe, CEO of Oculus VR], he told us that it was the first time he'd ever spent two hours in VR. 'This is our hardware, and I've never spent that long in it before.'
"So I do think so, and everything about the game we've designed to be that way: the way the art is, the colours that we use, we actually have effects going on that soften the look of the game... Because I've had the same experience as you. Some of the first-person stuff, it's really fun and I want to show it my friends, but the thought of actually doing it every day is a little much.
"It raises the question, how does it [first-person VR] fit into your life? And if you're honest about it, that question gets hard to answer."