Is "creative ADD" the key to avoiding burnout?
Ready at Dawn's Ru Weerasuriya on why his studio has mostly avoided sequels, the rise of VR and eSports, and the demise of portables
Game developers are inherently creative human beings. The very best games come from some of the most creative minds in the industry. When teams of creatives keep on coming back to the same franchise, it can start to wear them down. Bungie, Epic Games and the old edition of Infinity Ward (with West and Zampella) were all beginning to feel the weight of their respective AAA franchises in Halo, Gears of War and Call of Duty. The folks at AAA independent studio Ready at Dawn have not felt that burden, instead always choosing to create something fresh.
With the exception of God of War: Chains of Olympus, followed by Ghost of Sparta, on the PlayStation Portable, Ready at Dawn has never gone out of its way to make sequels. Creative director Ru Weerasuriya tells me during GDC that it's not a deliberate choice per se, but his studio always gets caught up in the next new idea.
"Creative ADD, right?" says Weerasuriya. "It's a good and bad thing because I think that doing sequels gives you the opportunity to perfect things that you've done in the past... Sometimes some of the guys go, 'Hey, why don't we just do that?' And we always have the chance to do those things. I tell them the same thing all the time... The question is whether, at the time that you're making that decision, there is something that would make you be more passionate about something or bring an idea to life that's existed for a while, or bring something brand new to the table where you go, 'Wow, I just saw this and it just changed my mind.'
"Yes, you want to have the money coming in for everyone. But the other side is the pursuit of something that you don't know and something that you find intriguing"
"The first example I can give you is really our first game, where we shipped Daxter. I think in our heads we were like, 'Hey we're going to make Daxter 2.' It was a given, right? But I remember that day we played God of War on the E3 show floor, and the day after practically we just went, 'Guys, did everyone play God of War? Wouldn't it be cool if we made a game on PSP?' They hadn't shipped the game yet. It was almost the natural thing to do. That's the best example of the way we've kept our mentality."
That mentality has led to Ready at Dawn pursuing new projects that are wildly different from one another, whether it's the action-adventure game The Order: 1886, smash-'em-up brawler Deformers or upcoming VR title Lone Echo, which offers a virtual sport like arena combat meets ultimate frisbee.
Creative passion is definitely what led Ready at Dawn to the world of VR. The studio struck a deal with Oculus, meaning Lone Echo is exclusive to the Rift and totally funded by the VR company. Most game developers don't have that luxury and investing sizable funds into VR is still quite risky. That said, Weerasuriya insists that Ready at Dawn would still have delved into VR at least in some capacity without the funding from Oculus.
"With the birth of something [new] there are always going to be risks - there were risks in the past," he says. "The question was whether or not this time around we [as an industry] had enough legs to create not only good content but a lot of it as well. In the past, that's always been the case; whenever good content doesn't get created you kind of feel like, 'What now? What more does this hardware offer to me?'
"I remember seeing the very first iteration of Morpheus [which became PSVR] behind closed doors... At the time, a bunch of us actually thought, 'This is really cool and this could turn into something' rather than 'This is just a really cool gimmick.' It was never like an active thing that we wanted to do, but every year we'd see Morpheus grow and become what it was going to become, seeing little apps and games that were being developed for it, and it spawns ideas.
"There's one side of it, the commercial success; yes, you want to have the money coming in for everyone. But the other side is the pursuit of something that you don't know and something that you find intriguing... There are things that today we cannot do in games. Games try to give people immersion in a world that doesn't exist, whether it's a combat game or adventure game or whatever it is. That immersion only goes so far when you see it through a window.
"The question was really, can gaming and interactivity go into the VR space where it's full immersion and where you feel like you're there? It's the closest thing to reality that you can have, and could we really achieve that and bring some of the things that we did on The Order, a character that could really play against you in a game like that. Those questions were really why we wanted to pursue VR."
"We had to go back to school, learn everything we thought we knew about game design again to try and figure out how all of those things work in VR because they just don't work the same way"
Deciding to make a VR game and then actually making one are two entirely different things, of course. We've seen a number of developers simply try to make the traditional games they always make, but in VR. That's a recipe for disaster.
"What ended up happening was that it was a lesson for everybody. I never foresaw that part, how big of a lesson it was going to be from day one," Weerasuriya acknowledges. "We had to go back to school, learn everything we thought we knew about game design again to try and figure out how all of those things work in VR because they just don't work the same way... I think the first iteration, the first few years have to be about, in so many ways, research. It has to be about breaking boundaries that people think are there and that, often, people tell you like, 'Don't do this because it's not going to work in VR,' and you're like, 'I want to try'."
One of the "rules of VR" that Ready at Dawn looked at breaking is "don't move fast." The studio examined what could be achieved with hand presence and the Oculus Touch controllers.
Weerasuriya explains, "As soon as you give your hands some kind of estimation inside VR, things change... We recreated your whole body so you can look down at your body and you can see it. But then, the first moment we started developing our hand tech - which actually grabs every surface and contours with every surface inside the world - you suddenly feel like certain things about motion sickness and moving in VR, a lot of those things disappear.
"As soon as you estimate eye-to-hand distance in the VR world, you suddenly realize that even though I'm moving fast and I'm grabbing something and I'm pulling myself against it, you don't feel sick... That's what's fun about VR today. It's the fact that we're going to learn so many new things that are going to apply to VR and beyond I think."
The focus on the hands that Oculus Touch encourages turned out to be the perfect mechanism for Lone Echo, because in zero-G environments your hands take on much greater importance.
"We saw how, in the international space station, astronauts were moving around. It's amazing how adept they are at doing everything they would do without the use of their legs. Their legs are just there to push themselves up. So we went to this whole doctrine of the hands are the new legs kind of thing... Because of that relationship, suddenly, the nausea factor goes away. We've tested people who are extremely nauseous usually in VR and they've been totally fine playing for an hour in the game."
Weerasuriya notes that Lone Echo is one of the biggest VR projects undertaken to date (that's where the Oculus funding clearly helps) but his team is also keeping an eye on eSports. You can't force any game to become an eSport, but Ready at Dawn certainly has aspirations and believes that the world of VR and eSports can merge for certain titles.
"I can see why people would try to push that blend [of eSports and VR] because it is true spectating, it is being in that game," Weerasuriya says. "How cool would it be if you were playing League of Legends and you could literally see the action happening in front of you? If you were playing Overwatch and you were sitting on top of a building looking down at this whole thing and going, 'This is an amazing match going on.' I mean, that's what VR provides, and I think that every single game in some ways could build a component that way... And it goes the other way around too. VR could provide spectating through traditional means as well."
For Lone Echo, spectating will be a key aspect, and it's one that Ready at Dawn is still fine tuning. Truth be told, because VR is so new, no one has figured out what the perfect fit is for spectating within the nascent medium.
"It's different in VR because of how the playing field works, how you want a spectator to be inside VR - do we allow the VR ones only or do we allow everybody, even on a regular screen, to watch? Or are we allowing some people to jump inside the game and actually navigate inside the VR world while the game is going on?" Weerasuriya notes.
"It's almost natural the first time you actually see the game that, even if you're playing the game, sometimes you become a spectator yourself. You kind of see the stuff happening. People are throwing the frisbee and having a smash and punching match and, suddenly, you become a spectator. You think, 'Yeah I could sit here and watch this for a while.' It's pretty cool."
Ready at Dawn's last major title, The Order: 1886, received mixed reviews at best, and while the studio clearly wishes that the game had performed better, the investment in technology they made for the title was absolutely worth it in Weerasuriya's mind. The same tech behind The Order has been versatile enough to power both Deformers and Lone Echo, and the company continues to tweak its engine.
"I would say a true portable device that is only a gaming device... I don't think there's a true future there"
"Our technology was so important to us for the long term that we started in 2003/2004 and built by revisioning up all the way through [our new projects]... A lot of the tools we use today are kind of evolutions of tools that we had even 10 years ago," he says. "It's fun to see all of these things that have functioned for so long kind of work in so many different environments... [And] we feel like as long as our tech is diversified and that powerful, it allows us to make games with a much smaller team, which we try to remain a smaller team than most studios would.
"We're now learning things on VR that we're going to reapply. Part of those things are tools. We're getting new tools that we're building for the VR side of it that now I know I'm going to apply back in traditional games."
So that begs the question: where will Ready at Dawn's next AAA effort appear? Will the lure of the red hot Switch bring the company into Nintendo's ecosystem, or perhaps the raw horsepower of Microsoft's Scorpio will be too tantalizing? The answer may be both, as Weerasuriya admits that he and his team have always loved "shiny new objects."
"Every time a platform comes out, we always feel like there's something really cool that can be done with it - a huge graphical advance, a huge technological advance, a new way of interacting in games like VR does," he says. "Switch, I think, is the same kind of thing. We see it and we see the market that they're trying to really kind of grab, expand, and also build. I would definitely tell you that, yeah, internally at the studio there's a lot of interest for the Switch."
He adds, "I think Scorpio is actually pretty cool. I'm happy to see the shift [in console iterations]... I think that it's interesting to see how the next cycles are going to go, not just Scorpio but the PS4 Pro coming into play. What is Sony going to do next? When are the platforms going to become either almost singular in the way they function or even disappear where everything's going to be on the cloud and you won't need a platform?
"It's interesting to see that all those plans are kind of slowly being pursued and you're wondering - I'm actually wondering, at least - where they come together because it seems like there's going to be another cycle. There probably will be two and then you'll be at the point where you don't need hardware. It's just always connected."
The one area that Ready at Dawn probably won't be targeting is dedicated portables, because the market may soon be extinct.
"It seems like we have all the playing power we need with our phones," Weerasuriya says. "I would say a true portable device that is only a gaming device... I don't think there's a true future there. But I think something that is a hybrid like the Switch - that kind of hybrid or a hybrid in a different way [will remain appealing].
"The interesting thing is going to be to find out what we can get out of portability. Not just doing what the Switch did, which is a home console and a portable console, but what else haven't we explored yet?"