Orange County, California-based Turtle Rock Studios is best known for its innovative shooters Left 4 Dead and Evolve, but the once traditional games developer that has dipped its toes in VR waters is now looking to jump right in, despite the major challenges that the still slowly growing VR market presents to game makers.
Speaking to GamesIndustry.biz in advance of announcing its brand-new RPG for Gear VR called The Well, Turtle Rock president and GM Steve Goldstein explains, "I'd say we've got a split focus now. Up until about October of 2016 we'd always been a one-game, one-team studio. Then when we were starting to shift off of Evolve, the guys here have been really interested in VR and we had a really great relationship with Jason Rubin given he was at THQ when we were first working on Evolve...
"So we started two teams. One team was working on what we would call a VR art piece. It's an experience called Other Worlds. Another team worked on an experience called Face Your Fears. Face Your Fears is this jump scare type experience where you can select from a choice of different scary environments where horrible things happen to you. And it took off. It went viral. And it made us realize, 'Wow, this could be something real.' We've built an entire 30-person team to work strictly on VR stuff. We still have another team that's doing the more traditional game development work, but we always envision having multiple teams and having teams working on VR going into the future."
"Absolutely, it's a difficult space. As an independent developer, it would be tricky for us to just be able to put a bunch of money into our own VR products"
Turtle Rock's 30-person VR group (which is actually multiple teams working on different VR projects) represents nearly a third of the whole studio, which is a lot to dedicate to a field that is having a tough time proving itself to be profitable. That's one reason that Turtle Rock has been so laser focused on Gear VR - it's simply a matter of install base. Of course, it's a huge advantage for Turtle Rock that Oculus is partnering with the studio to fully fund its VR projects.
"Absolutely, it's a difficult space," Goldstein acknowledges. "As an independent developer, it would be tricky for us to just be able to put a bunch of money into our own VR products, but that's the same thing as if we were putting a bunch of money into our own game. It's just very difficult for us to do given the types of budgets that we're used to working with on the games front. And even on the VR front, as a work-for-hire developer, it's hard to just strike out on your own. We usually need a publishing partner. The indie space is [like] that anyway. Either the indie is going to put their own money into their own game, their own VR experience, or the indie is going to need to get money from an external partner."
So yes, the actual risk for Turtle Rock is a bit lower thanks to Oculus footing the bill, but that doesn't mean the studio is any less passionate about VR. Goldstein, like Jesse Schell and others in the burgeoning space, is 100% convinced that VR is only a few years away from exponential growth.
"The Rift and Vive remind me of when I went over to my friend Brian's house when I was in fifth grade and he had a computer because his father was a scientist and next to the computer was a modem... And he and I got to play a MUD. And I'd never seen anything like that," he reminisces. "It was the most amazing experience I had ever had, but it's not like I was going to go hit up my folks to go spend $15,000 in, what was that, '79? But it was this amazing experience on this thing that was way too expensive for most people. But then if everyone looked at that and said, 'Oh, computers are too expensive. There's no way I'm getting into this right now.' Clearly that's a mistake.
"We've not yet hit that Apple IIE moment, that Atari 2600 moment, but I think that's going to happen soon, especially as you read more about untethered headsets. If we get to the point where I can put on a headset and there's no cord, there's no exterior sensors, there's no computer, and I am in a virtual world and I can go wherever I want, I think that's the point in time where we're going to start seeing mass adoption."
"That future of computing may not hit for a decade, but we as a studio want to make sure that we have an incredible amount of experience when people get to that point"
When that mass adoption in the VR space finally begins, Goldstein believes that studios such as Turtle Rock, which have been grappling with the constraints of mobile VR, will actually be better positioned to become the leaders of the future.
"What I like about where we're at as opposed to, say, working on the Rift or the Vive, is that our teams have been working under the constraint of [mobile controls]," he says. "And the initial round of these untethered headsets are going to probably be a lot closer to a phone's specs than a $5,000 computer specs, right? So I feel like developers who understand how to work with compute that isn't state of the art in terms of what you can achieve with high-end graphics and stuff like that, developers that can work within the constraints of mobile devices and that have experience with VR already are going to be poised for that mass market moment.
"I think there's going to be a lot of really exciting things happening in the course of the next, let's say, 2 to 5 years. Just because the stuff's really expensive right now, and, for a mass market, difficult to set up and things like that, that doesn't mean that this industry stops."
The respective high-end VR platforms still have very limited install bases, with Sony's PSVR leading the pack thanks to its built-in PS4 market. Sony may not be comfortable with its leading position, and at the same time numerous analysts have given the edge to HTC Vive over Oculus Rift, despite the latter's price advantage, but all this talk of which platform is in the lead is completely meaningless at this stage, says Goldstein.
"I think everyone needs to take a step back and consider what VR, AR, MR, XR, whatever you want to label it, really means, and it really is the future of computing," he states. "So when we all recognize this is the future of computing, then we don't necessarily get too terribly concerned that one piece of hardware is outperforming another piece of hardware in 2017/2018, right? That future of computing may not hit for a decade, but we as a studio want to make sure that we have an incredible amount of experience when people get to that point.
"So I think when you start talking about the future of computing rather than pieces of equipment, then suddenly it makes a lot more sense that Facebook is going to be in this for the long-term. Likewise with Google and Microsoft and everyone else. I think they all realize - each of them want to win the future of computing."
"If you think about the size of the [VR] install bases... you want to remove as many barriers as possible. The best way to do that is give the game away"
The Well marks Turtle Rock's first true VR game (as opposed to a VR experience) and it's an RPG with a unique quasi cel-shaded design driven by the vision of lead artist Justin Cherry.
Goldstein comments: "We basically approached him and said, 'Look, you can create any kind of world you want. What is that going to be?' So it's not a situation where you're going to be seeing something that's your traditional Tolkien-esque swords and sorcerers or the type of world that you're used to seeing where it's an environment of woodlands and elvin constructed buildings and things like that.
"What's been really great about Oculus and working with them is that they encourage that type of creativity for their platform. They're able to do that because there aren't the similar type of market constraints that you have with, say, AAA. Like, AAA, you have to put something out that's going to be akin to other AAA products so it has the mass market draw so you're able to make back your $50-100 million that you put into it. Whereas, with Gear and with Oculus, it's much more free flowing. They want to see things that are going to draw people into worlds that people haven't experienced before."
Turtle Rock, which has been a huge proponent of free-to-play and is also working on a new IP with Perfect World Entertainment, will be selling The Well for $9.99. While there's obviously some concern from developers that the free-to-play model could take players out of a VR experience, Goldstein still believes that with the right approach it could work, and indeed, in some ways it already has.
Epic, for example, has given away Robo Recall and players can buy coins to get stuff, while Ready at Dawn also offers the multiplayer portion of Lone Echo, Echo Arena, free of charge. As for Turtle Rock, Face Your Fears actually worked wonderfully for the studio as a free offering.
"If you download Face Your Fears for the first time, you get two free experiences. One takes place in a haunted room and the other takes place in a skyscraper. But we have a bunch of additional experiences that you can buy for a dollar... In effect, that DLC is sort of like the free-to-play business model, right? We give you a couple experiences for free and then you can buy additional ones if you want to try them out," Goldstein says.
"Maybe there are ways to make it even less of a barrier... You could do it in a way where you're not necessarily leaving your game environment. I think, just like with PC titles, console titles, and mobile titles, we're still a ways off before you see free-to-play integrated with VR. I think VR still needs to mature as a gaming platform itself before it starts going that direction. [But] if you think about the size of the install bases, it makes a lot of sense because you want to remove as many barriers as possible. The best way to do that is give the game away."
The Well will release in just over a week on October 11. It's an interesting release strategy, as the games business usually operates on a much longer announce-to-release schedule. This is more akin to the Apples of the world that announce a new product that consumers can get a short time after.
"It's a totally new frontier in terms of how we market this title," Goldstein says. "We felt that trying to build hype over the course of a year, it probably wouldn't happen. So why not talk about it and be able to to show what it actually is right after we start talking about it? We think that we'll be able to get more traction that way.
"[With] bigger budgets you've got to get the word out a lot earlier. When you're dealing with stuff like what we're doing with Gear and Oculus, we're not talking about giant AAA budgets. So once again, we have a lot of leeway and flexibility and creativity, not only with what's in the product itself, but how we're able to market it. So all of this is experimentation to see what actually works."
The Well is just the start of Turtle Rock's VR gaming ambitions, and Goldstein fully anticipates headcount to grow. Right now, the studio stands at about 80, but he wouldn't be shocked if one day it reached almost double that number. With the VR team being siloed, though, it becomes more manageable.
"I think anyone in leadership in a studio always gets concerned when their studio's growing," Goldstein admits. "You're adding on a lot of mouths to feed. I think we're a lot more comfortable with that now. When Evolve was at its peak, we were at 126. The nice thing about the way the studio is structured at this point is, sure, total size we may grow to 140 or 150, whatever it may be, but when it comes to the VR teams, those teams don't get beyond 20.
"For those teams, working on VR projects is a lot like what it was like to make a game 10 or 15 years ago where everybody knows what everybody's doing. So they're all running as their own creative units. I think from that standpoint, it's actually easier to manage."