If you've donned a VR headset in recent months, odds are you've at least tried Job Simulator from the folks at Owlchemy Labs. The quirky title is a perfect showcase for anyone new to the medium of virtual reality and it's earned numerous accolades, including Best VR/AR title at the GDC Awards in March.
More recently, Owlchemy partnered with Adult Swim Games to make Rick & Morty: Virtual Rick-ality. GamesIndustry.biz caught up with Owlchemy CEO Alex Schwartz in advance of the game's launch to talk about learning the "language of VR," among other aspects of the nascent field.
"When we started on Job Simulator every single concept of a part of a game or an experience had to be redesigned and thought through," Schwartz says. "We didn't really understand how much rework and design from the ground-up was necessary to build an end-to-end experience."
Even something as simple as exiting a game environment in VR could represent a new challenge: "We thought, 'How do we get back to the hub world or menu or centralized place in VR?' ... Well we don't want to do 2D menus, like other people were trying to do... and that's when we went through the iteration process of like, 'OK what verbs exist in this world that we could reappropriate for exiting a level?' And that's when we came up with the exit burrito, which is kind of a tongue-in-cheek joke that you could use physical interactions like eating that we already had in the game and apply it to a choice-based selection, like a restaurant's menu. So it's like 'Let's make the menu a selection of food that you could eat to pick various options.'
"Our desire to be multi-platform simply started with the fact that we would have gone out of business with only one revenue stream"
VR development truly does require fresh thinking and design approaches, and that's something that Schwartz feels has been lacking from some developers. "It strikes me that in these early days of VR, there was so little to draw from and I think the people who said 'Oh video games used to be...' and threw in content... Let's say they were building a game for PlayStation or Xbox and then said 'Oh cool, this new VR thing we'll just adapt it to that' - that's where you end up with bad VR.
"Good VR takes the platform and looks at its strengths and the types of verbs and player actions that are possible and takes advantage of what you could do with your hands and 6DOF (degrees of freedom) of hand position and a trigger and builds up from the ground from there."
Schwartz sees these early days of VR as analogous to where developers were in the beginning with touchscreen controls (many threw virtual buttons onto the screen), but eventually new control paradigms and gestures evolved, like the drag and release in Angry Birds or pinch zooming in a strategy title map.
"You asked about the language of VR - we're starting to see those types of design patterns emerge," Schwartz notes. "The 'reach over your shoulder to grab a backpack for inventory' [mechanic], I think Cloudhead with The Gallery kind of pioneered that. These are natural interaction paradigms that equate to a real life type of maneuver and making it so that you don't have to memorize an abstraction. I think that's the key. Even on touchscreens, it's an abstraction. There's no existing map on a piece of paper you can zoom in on by taking two fingers and stretching them out wider. A stretchy map, that doesn't exist in life, but it's still a natural thing and even babies will reach out to an iPad and start moving their finger around and panning and tapping and maybe pinch zooming.
"What we're doing in VR with 6DOF controllers is applying real-world paradigms without abstraction to an interface, which I think is really, really cool. And it just means that we're opening the door to way more people with different backgrounds and different experience levels in computing to this new type of platform. I can give Job Simulator to my grandma and with zero video game experience. If I handed her an Xbox controller it would be game over right there, but if you hand her two plastic wands that melt in your mind into kind of like an extension of your own hands and say go, she's cracking eggs on the counter and making soup in Job Simulator, so it's pretty magical to see."
Apart from focusing on the unique language of VR design, another aspect that's been key to Owlchemy's success has been a truly agnostic platform approach, or as Schwartz calls it: "absurdly multi-platform." And that philosophy started way before the studio's jump into VR, when it was still working on mobile titles like Snuggle Truck and Jack Lumber.
"Our desire to be multi-platform simply started with the fact that we would have gone out of business with only one revenue stream," Schwartz states matter of factly. "So the thing that saved us and allowed us to make Jack Lumber, our next game, and then build Aaaaaa, and then Dyscourse, and then finally get to the point where we built Job Simulator, was the fact that we launched our first game on, I think there were 12 different platforms.
"What that ended up doing for us was it balanced out the risk of having all your eggs in one basket. If we did a sale here and we did a Humble Bundle here and then we did a discount on Blackberry platforms, our revenue graph ended up being much, much smoother because we combined all the peaks and valleys."
Naturally, Owlchemy has taken that same approach to the VR marketplace, calling itself the "Switzerland of VR." From a risk perspective for the average studio, it simply makes sense to make your game as widely available as possible, especially when installed bases are still somewhat small.
"Every time you open up a VR - like, when you go to the store to test a system - Owlchemy's content should be there, right?" Schwartz says. "So if VR is an early market and people have to decide between getting headset A, B, or C, today but in the future it'll be A, B, C, D, E, F, and then in two years it'll be A-Z, why would you only want to be available on one if your goal is to be associated with the best quality VR?"
"It seems like it's only advantageous to the future of VR and to the future of your company to be platform agnostic like we are"
"So you want to get all sides of the market which means being multi-platform, which means if you're exclusive then you can't be everywhere, so it comes down to a half financial strategy and half marketing approach of Owlchemy. If Owlchemy wants to be associated with good VR, I can't be only on one third of the market. That's pretty much how we see it. But I've never had malice towards someone who took an exclusive deal."
"[VR's] a tough place to be... We're in a smaller market. If you have two choices, either going out of business or taking a platform exclusive deal, I see why people do it. If you're in a position, though, to not have to do it, and you can somehow make it work by not doing it, it seems like it's only advantageous to the future of VR and to the future of your company to be platform agnostic like we are," he says.
"I haven't seen anything right now as far as strategies of various VR companies that I would label, like, they're intentionally trying to destroy this industry or fuck it up somehow. I wouldn't say that that is the case at all. I would say that Sony is funding things, HTC is funding things, Oculus is funding things, and I think that's great for the market in general, and then it comes down to developers and how they want to kind of navigate the seas of what's available and how they can make it through these early days as the headset numbers kind of grow over time."
Owlchemy's newest release, Rick & Morty, is a low-risk investment for the studio thanks to publishing being handled by Adult Swim. It's also unique in being one of just a few licensed titles in the VR market to date. Don't expect this to be a pattern for Owlchemy, however. The studio remains steadfastly committed to original IP creation.
"Rick & Morty was an interesting experiment in our favorite show combining with a hilarious freak opportunity to meet the creators and then kind of jamming together and thinking, 'All right, we should do this because it is almost the perfect overlap between what Owlchemy does with the cartoon style and the humor style where everyone at the studio loves Rick & Morty," Schwartz says. "And then, because we were between original IPs, we could build Rick & Morty while we're starting to prototype other new things. So it was like a match made in heaven that we couldn't pass up... I would say it's the first fully-featured game of length that will be licensed, but there's been a lot of things in the much maligned demo/marketing content, where someone makes something like John Wick."
When Owlchemy isn't busy working on unique VR content, it's thinking up ways of how to best portray this nascent medium to people who haven't yet jumped in. As the studio says on its website, "We believe that sharing the magic of VR to those not currently playing is one of the greatest challenges we face today," which is why it's been building up MR (mixed reality) technology.
"[It became a] necessity with Job Simulator because we wanted to show people what it felt like to be in a virtual, spatial world, like you're actually standing in a cubicle," Schwartz explains. "We've never had anything like this in the history of games and technology that's felt like this with full presence. It's very hard to communicate and you tell people, 'No, it's amazing...you've gotta try it,' but until you put it on their head, everything's lost until they finally see it. But mixed reality, we've found is the closest thing to the actual experience of putting it on your head... If you're showing someone who's never had access to a VR headset the composited footage of a human being standing inside of a virtual world and them reaching out and picking something up one-to-one, it all kind of clicks in your head."
"It all helps Job Simulator grow, which is great for us. But it opens the door for every developer to show any piece of arbitrary content with a human being in it. And we think, actually, that it's so important to get it out there to the world that it'll actually push VR forward as a medium, because one of the big things is convincing the large populous of people in the world to actually go out and try it," he continues. "Our thought is, it's useful to us, and that means it'll be useful to other people, and we're working hard...we're trying to get that out to people with the least amount of friction as humanly possible."
Owlchemy hasn't quite figured out the business side yet, whether the MR solution will be sold, licensed, offered as suscription, etc. "We want to make it so that it can go to the widest group of people possible. So charging a million dollars for a license for that would mean that there's very few people who could access it. So we're trying to figure out a good way to balance the fact that everyone in the world that's building and showing content needs this," he says.
"We'll look back and laugh at how bad it was to show people Let's Plays of VR content"
Schwartz also brings up a very important point in this new world of online influencers like PewDiePie. As VR gains more traction, there will be streamers who want to show what certain VR games play like. "They want to show this content and they want a better way to do it than having a webcam set up in the corner of a room and then slapping that footage on top of a game footage," Schwartz notes. "We'll look back and laugh at how bad it was to show people Let's Plays of VR content. We're hoping that from a streamer ecosystem play, [our MR tech] will help make it much, much simpler.
"[So] from a developer standpoint, I'm just making a cool game, I don't want to build some crazy mixed reality tech just to show it. It should somehow be available to them. And from a consumer standpoint, I think the end result is, 'Ok, cool, I get to see more representative VR that really shows why it's great rather than being some kind of confusing mess of visuals.'"
With Owlchemy dabbling in MR tech, and given that MR or AR headsets are on the horizon for Windows 10 and Project Scorpio, you might assume that Schwartz is eager to dive into the AR world next. Not so, he says. In fact, while Schwartz sees a nearly endless array of possibilities for the medium of VR, AR faces both a creative and technological challenge that won't be solved in the near future, he believes.
"First off, I think quality AR that anyone will really want to use in a normal setting is much farther away in years than people are predicting. I think, basically, VR is giving us a ton of lessons learned about how people interact, about how people move within a world, and it's so much easier because you can blank out the background," Schwartz says.
"AR is with the black part of VR background removed and now you have to track every part of the real world around you in real-time with a fully self-contained headset that has to get spatial learning. We're just not there yet [considering] the frame rate with all the heat and power problems trying to do AR. I don't think we're even close. So, at Owlchemy, we think that reasonable AR is over five years away."
Schwartz also notes that Microsoft and others are confusing the lexicon. "Microsoft's using 'mixed reality' as just a term that means upgraded AR because AR kind of had a bad run in the early days where people think using AR is using a cellphone and pointing it at a QR code to make some advertisement of an Audi car appear on your living room table," he says.
Creatively, Schwartz doesn't think people have many visions for AR aside from maps navigation or LinkedIn-style profiles appearing over people's heads.
"AR just seems to be more of a blue ocean of possibility where people don't really even know what will be the form factor, the types of apps you would need or want"
"When I show people good VR, there's like 10, 20, 50 ideas of amazing things that could be built or industries that could be changed... AR just seems to be more of a blue ocean of possibility where people don't really even know what will be the form factor, the types of apps you would need or want," he continues. "It just is a lot more of, like, promises without great execution yet. We get pitched on a lot of hardware and we try a lot of controllers and input and headsets and new stuff. So we try to remain healthily skeptical until we've tried a great demo of something that really proves to us that, like, 'Wow, this is really going to change something.' HoloLens is the closest thing and the tracking was pretty good but it's not something that would immerse you. It's more of an informational overlay in a small FOV. And there's a lot of challenges with tripling that FOV."
On the VR side, what gets Schwartz excited is thinking about where headsets go next. Almost everyone would agree that untethered is the next major step, and while some would argue that mobile could evolve to provide proper VR with positional tracking, Schwartz sees self-contained standalone units as the future.
"We don't think that the slot-in phone in your pocket, even though it's an $800 phone probably, with a high-end GPU and a high-end CPU and a camera and an accelerometer and all that... We don't think that's going to be the path. There's a whole bunch of people who are going into a third form factor: standalone," he says.
"The problem is that if you're going to do inside-out tracking with a camera on your phone, the camera was built to take photos of your family and your cat. It's not tuned or built for the type of absurdly low latency direct-to-hardware type of tracking that's needed. With the Gear, you saw that over time they're using less and less of the hardware in the phone and putting more and more of the sensors into the headset, so if you imagine that continuing onwards, there's no phone, all the components are built specifically for VR, and it's a thing you go out and buy in one shot that has a battery and a processor it in and you just put it on your head and you go and you play or experience whatever it is you're going to do."
And it's at that point, Schwartz believes, that we'll finally see a true explosion in the VR market. "I think that's when we're going to start seeing numbers that are 10x or 100x the adoption as where we are today. That's our prediction of how the form factor war will play out over the next couple of years."