"It's weird and soft and malleable and strange."
That's Alex Schwartz's summary at the end of a nearly four-minute-long answer to our question about Absurd:joy, the company he co-founded with fellow former Owlchemy Labs developer Cy Wise. The question we had asked was, "So the company is working in VR/AR?"
It is not the only question of our interview with Schwartz and Wise about their new project that receives a less-than-succinct answer, perhaps by necessity.
"The list of things we do know is [Absurd:joy] will be a team of game designers and game developers coming together," Schwartz says. "The list of things we know it won't be is that it won't be highly violent, shooting people directly in the face with guns type of interactions. It'll be approachable and accessible, and that's the design space we're working in. Outside of that, it's fair game."
As Wise explains, "Talking about VR and AR tends to, in a lot of people's minds, confine it to the hardware we have available right now. And while that's amazing, wonderful, beautiful hardware, the interactions, paradigms, and language we're developing now is going to apply in the future to how we interact with all technology in the future. So we're focused more on that rather than any specific hardware. So right now it's VR/AR, but who knows in five or ten years?"
A lack of detail about what software they will make and which hardware they will make it for hasn't appeared to scare away potential partners. Absurd:joy has raised $4.4 million in investment from Ed Fries/1Up Ventures, WXR Fund, and Beat Saber composer Jaroslav Beck, in addition to deals with Valve and Oculus "to help produce a variety of experiments and experiences."
"Games come with all this baggage, and when you're developing for emerging technologies... you want to get out of those paradigms to stretch what this technology can do"
"It's an interesting challenge to say to someone, 'We want to try to invent a genre of content no one has ever seen before, and we want to bring the best people in the world together to try to figure that out,'" Schwartz says. "It's near-impossible to pull off, but the only way you can have some confidence in being able to do that is to bring together folks who have had some success in having done that before."
In addition to Schwartz and Wise, who both worked on Owlchemy Labs efforts like Job Simulator and Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality, Absurd:joy has also brought on board Andy Moore, CEO of Fantastic Contraption studio Radial Games. They are looking to expand the team as well, albeit slowly and deliberately.
While they are all game developers by trade, they are hesitant when asked if Absurd:joy will actually make games.
"Games come with all this baggage," Wise says, "and when you're developing for emerging technologies like virtual reality, you want to get out of those paradigms to stretch what this technology can do. If you come with preconceived notions, you won't push on those boundaries. And we want to be able to push on them and discover what's really great about VR. We're both game designers. We both come from game development backgrounds, so it'll be interactive."
Schwartz said the question of whether or not things count as games has been knocking around the industry since Dear Esther and Gone Home touched off a discourse on "walking simulators." It's one he actually welcomes, although not because the substance of such discussions (or "internet fist fights" as he put it) is particularly interesting.
"People kept saying, 'Is Job Simulator a game," Schwartz recalls. "And in the background, I was quietly cackling, because I think when people have that kind of almost anger about whether this is or is not a thing, you're pushing on a genre-defying moment. And that's the kind of thing we want to be creating."
"If [analysts' VR predictions] were aligned with a new medium coming from nothing into existence, then we're actually at a great clip"
There's another common question Schwartz is asked that seems less enjoyable to answer, and that's about whether VR has lived up to expectations to date. He thinks back to the 2013 debut of the Oculus DK1, which he calls "an incredible technical feat" for its use of off-the-shelf hardware to deliver a relatively affordable new experience.
"The people who were sitting there working on, building, and involved in the technology thought, 'If this could grow at a reasonable pace for the next 5-10 years, we could be in a great spot,'" Schwartz says. "I remember thinking there's a reasonable curve for this being a brand new medium, a brand new sector of technology, and here's how it could look.
"Then a bunch of analysts came in and said, 'No, this is going to be a curve that is 1,000 times more aggressive than what you think it is.' And then the curve was exactly what we thought it would be -- a conservative, positive growth curve of a new industry -- and then the analysts went and said, 'Shit, we way overblew it! Guys, it's failed based on our massively over-predicted predictions! VR has failed our incorrect predictions therefore it has failed!'
"And like, no, your predictions were just shitty. If they were aligned with a new medium coming from nothing into existence, then we're actually at a great clip. It's been in line with exactly how I thought VR was going to take off, but there was this rush of false enthusiasm and wave of disappointment based off that that came in and then left, leaving the original curve fully intact, exactly as it should have been."
That said, he doesn't think the explosion of excitement followed by the disappointment that comes with unrealistic expectations was harmless.
"That process can let some steam out of an engine," Schwartz says. "But the reason this takes off is not because of hype, it's because the experience is so good at a base level. The false hype doesn't affect the fact that the quality of the experience continues to stand on its own."