If you wanted a historical barometer for the shifting 'next' of the games industry, you could do a lot worse than the timeline of Oskar Burman's CV. Building his early experience across a number of smaller Swedish studios, Burman soon found himself at Avalanche, serving a four year stint as a producer, development director and studio manager making AAA boxed games like Just Cause.
Then came EA Easy Studios, where he switched over to free-to-play development as the team transitioned into its own entity after its incubation as a part of DICE, bringing the Battlefield brand to a new audience with Heroes.
However, he grew disillusioned with the PC and console scene not long after, finding it a difficult market for small teams looking to make interesting games, so from there Burman joined the mobile rush - headhunted by Rovio to launch, lead and build up the mobile publisher's new studio in Stockholm. There, he grew the office to 40 people and produced Angry Birds 2 in the process, still the fastest earning title in the company's history.
He speaks fondly of that time, clearly proud of his considerable achievements in establishing the studio. "It was a playground for innovation," he tells me. "A space where you could actually do a lot of meaningful work in a short amount of time with a small team."
But now, under a pall of dry ice behind the pyrotechnical bombast of the main stage at the Slush conference in Helsinki, he tells me he's sick of mobile, and that since leaving Rovio Stockholm in April he's since founded a new studio, Fast Travel Games, working exclusively on VR development.
"Over the last four years it's felt like the industry has lost steam in terms of innovation"
So why the switch? Mobile, he believes, is a market increasingly dominated by the cynical recycling of ideas and a blind fixation on revenue generation by any means. He makes no bones about what he thinks of a medium he once considered to be so replete with fresh ideas.
"Over the last four years it's felt like the industry has lost steam in terms of innovation. I mean, it's pretty challenging trying to build and launch something new in that space today, partly because if you were to do a startup in the mobile space today I think you would need to build it on an existing IP, either something from the games side or from the movies side, but I think it's really really hard to come in there with something that's completely new.
"It's kind of tragic to see how many brilliant minds are spending so much time on making just another empire-building game. I mean, I would puke if I had to work on an empire-building game or another infinite runner, because we've seen so many of them."
And what's driven this spiral of recursive development and all but killed the excitement which mobile once held for him? Somewhat heretically, he suggests that a portion of the blame lies firmly at the feet of that cornerstone of modern mobile business: metrics.
"I think part of it comes from the over-reliance on digging in data," he offers. "I mean, don't get me wrong, it's a core part of the business, and it's also something that the PC and console side should be using more, that they are using more and more, but I think it's come to a point where you only look at past successes and you start to see, 'That's the game that works. That's the game that works.' And you're not gonna do anything else.
"It comes in too early in game development, at the concept stage you're using data to see if this is gonna work or not, whereas in my mind in the early phases you need to be on your gut feeling. You need to ask, 'Is this gonna be fun?', and then, sure, when you're in your live beta phase you can definitely use data to improve your experience, but that early it's... dangerous. And to be honest, I think the consumers feel this too. I mean, there's a lot of fatigue, I think, on the consumer side, when they open App Store and see, 'Okay, I've seen this mechanic before and they've slapped it on a new IP or they've slapped it on this movie brand.'
"It feels a bit cynical, in a way. You can see the business behind it, the business machine, trying to make money. And this is not...I definitely felt it at Rovio but it's not only Rovio. Like, this is the whole mobile space. You know, this is happening within all the companies."
In addition to that focus on analytics as design tool, Burman says that the mobile space is too crowded, too poorly presented in its storefronts, to an extent which he's never witnessed previously.
"I've never seen a place where it's that bad to get through with your product," he tells me. "Part of that could be that mobile users are not looking for games that actively. You know, they're stumbling across a Candy Crush or something else. They're not active consumers in that way, that's why it's so hard to sell them new stuff."
Of course, there have been a couple of recent exceptions. Nintendo's entrance into the smartphone marketplace has been accompanied by a certain amount of disruption, but vicariously in the success of Pokemon Go's location-based systems and more directly with the premium pricing of Super Mario Run, and the former Rovio man sees a chance for some optimism in that.
"I'm really really hoping to see, now, after Pokemon Go, more of the big companies at least try to experiment, because for a while it's been almost like you're not allowed to even try new stuff"
"I'm really really hoping to see, now, after Pokemon Go, more of the big companies at least try to experiment, because for a while it's been almost like you're not allowed to even try new stuff. I do think that might be a turning point. Also I think it's gonna be harder and harder to make money from clones from games that have been done before.
"That said, everything Nintendo does is hard to repeat, I think, for the other big game developers, just because the IPs are so iconic. It would be really interesting to see Nintendo do something new for mobile."
But the mobile world is behind him now, and whatever happens there isn't too likely to affect his current trajectory too much. True to form, Burman refuses to stand still: his new outfit is 100% dedicated to VR development.
"At the time when I worked at Rovio, the whole VR thing happened," he says when I ask him what's next. "That's a childhood dream. I saw Lawnmower Man back in, whatever it was, '91, '92, and it wasjust something that made me think "when this happens I want to be part of it." And it's started started to happen. We have the first headsets, it's in the market now, so I really wanted to move into that space. And obviously that was not gonna work within the Rovio framework, because that's just not where they are right now."
Keeping that single platform focus is wise, he explains, there's was no real desire to try and move the Stockholm branch of Rovio in the direction of VR. Focus, he believes, is a key factor to lasting success.
"They are very focused on the mobile space and making sure that they succeed in that space, and I think that's probably right.," he says of his former employer. "You know, it's really hard to reach out and do a little bit of this and a little bit of that. And that's actually part of the reason also why we're focusing only on VR in this new company, because I think if you look at mobile the companies that really succeeded were the ones that truly went in there and said, 'We're only gonna be mobile games. We're not gonna care about the past or what we know. We're gonna look at this with fresh eyes and see what UX works, what genres work on this platform.'
"I think we're gonna see the same thing in VR, that the ones that succeed are the ones that really focus and say, 'Okay, we're VR first"
"That's why today there's not many of the big publishers in the top ten grossing chart, because they came into the game rather late. And I think we're gonna see the same thing in VR, that the ones that succeed are the ones that really focus and say, 'Okay, we're VR first. We're just gonna build for these platforms and learn them for a long time until we find that hit.'"
In many ways, VR is the diametric opposite of mobile. It has a very small install base. It's an incredibly specific piece of equipment, with a single use case. It's hugely exclusive of the outside world - not something which can be played on the bus, or whilst watching TV. It demands attention, and offers a correspondingly strong reward for the players who want that experience.
Like anyone working in the medium, Burman is hoping to see at least one of those metrics: the small install base, change as rapidly as possible, citing price and the lack of killer app as the key factors in preventing that growth currently. Whilst the first issue is out of the hands of developers, he says that the second is going to mean paying a great deal of attention to the unique strengths of the technology. He also thinks that the killer app is probably going to be a game, but it's going to mean throwing a lot of received wisdom out of the window - it's going to need to be a unique experience, something which could never be done elsewhere.
So far, he sees that magic being most obvious in experiences like The Lab from Valve, or Google's Tilt Brush - creative tools which really encapsulate the quasi-magical presence offered by a headset. Crucial to that is the presence of hand movement and controls, the absence of the haptic barrier introduced by a joypad. For that reason, he's going to be sticking to the big three tethered headsets for now, devices with the ability to track movement beyond the head.
Similarly, he's aiming for a pretty core audience, people who want to use VR primarily to play games with depth and complexity, something he feels the ecosystem currently lacks. Nonetheless, he understands that the use case is going to be very different from traditonal console and PC titles.
"What we're really trying to build is a game you want to come back to again and again and again. That's really something the market is missing right now. Most of it feels like demos"
"I mean, it's definitely more of a core audience, the early adopters. We're trying to build a game that they would enjoy. Most of the team have worked on the Battlefield and the Just Cause kind of games, so we're fairly familiar with that kind of audience, we think. When it comes to the session length...it's interesting. We've done a lot of prototyping and testing in the summer, and we've come to the conclusion that the sweet spot is when you play for 20 to, kind of, 35 minutes. That's kind of the timing we're looking for.
"Obviously you can keep playing, but we're trying to build in natural points in the game where you can actually step out and breathe and do something else for a while. That said, what we're really trying to build is a game you want to come back to again and again and again. That's really something the market is missing right now. Most of it feels like demos, most of the things you're playing in the VR space, and we want to create a game that's something that's pulling you back day after day. And that's maybe the biggest challenge, because we need to keep the team size fairly small, so early in the market cycle, but at the same time, create a game that keeps pulling people back, that's challenging."
Key to solving that challenge, for Fast Travel at least, is getting people to play together.
"The whole social aspect is super important," says the CEO when I ask about what sort of worlds he's looking to create. "I think social has so much potential in VR, because while it's great fun to play a social game on your phone or on your console, but when you are in the same space as someone else it's a fantastic difference. You are there, you can see, you can wave, just being there together with someone else is magical. So that's something we're trying to build right into the core of the game. And that's something that could be built out over time. You could have some asynchronous features early on, which turns into synchronous multiplayer eventually. But we're really trying to cater for that, because that, I think, is gonna be one of the key drivers for VR to get big.
"We need to move fairly fast, because the market is small and you can't be working for two, three years on something in this space, I don't think. You will be able to do that later on, but right now you need to move fairly fast. That said, I do think if you look at the the VR market on Steam, for example, it's a lot of games created by one or two or three persons. They throw something together, they buy some assets from the Unity store, and they get it launched and test the market.
"But there's not many games that feel a bit more like real games: crafted, with some love spent on them, where they tried to get the visuals to a little bit more higher quality. That's something we're kind of aiming for, putting ten to fifteen people on a game and work on it for a year, and we're gonna reach production qualities that are closer to what we see on the PC-console side. You know, obviously not in the Battlefield budgets, but closer to what a smaller indie team can create on the PC-console side.
"We're hoping to reveal and launch the game this year. We'll see. That's our goal. Whether we can make it happen, we'll see."