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VR awaits its Michael Jordan

New VR studio Drifter believes in the physicality of the medium and sees a bright future ahead for VR eSports

Remember how foolish we all looked playing with the Wii or flailing about in front of the Kinect? Well, if you've ever observed anyone who's donned one of the VR headsets, there's a new level of awkwardness we're clearly all embracing. But it doesn't have to be that way. Not everyone looks spastic and clumsy, and indeed, the best VR players often have a smooth and unique style of their own. Spectating the best players in VR could actually lead to a new dimension in the booming eSports field, believes Drifter Entertainment, a new studio devoted to the intersection of these two emerging spaces.

It sounds incredibly ambitious, but the co-founders at Drifter have some serious gaming chops to lean on. Ray Davis was a CTO on Microsoft's HoloLens and was more recently GM for Unreal Engine 4, Brian Murphy worked on both HoloLens and Kinect, and Kenneth Scott served as art director for id, lead artist on Doom 3 and just finished a stint working in VR for Oculus. These guys know AAA games, they know VR and they've learned quite a bit from the Kinect and HoloLens endeavors. But why are they so excited about taking the VR experience to the world of eSports?

Left to right: Brian Murphy, Ray Davis, and Kenneth Scott

"We think there's a whole new level of magic that's in play when we're getting your actual body movement as a source of input. We're super excited - there's rumors of knee tracking and all kinds of new things that we can't wait to get our hands on one day. Looking at our quick early multiplayer tests, it's just really compelling when you see that other person; it's no longer some anonymous avatar in VR. No, that's a human being," says Davis. "And when you start extrapolating on that and see what real sports means, what people really enjoy - and obviously it's the skills of these athletes and the teams and coordination and all that - but also it's their personality that comes through, a lot of times through simple body motion and whatnot.

"We kind of dream of the day that we get sort of our first great eAthlete in one of our games. Michael Jordan was amazing to watch not only because he was an amazing basketball player but because of his physicality"

Brian Murphy

"So from that fact alone, it starts to become very interesting. Plus the fact that when you're in VR whether you're actively playing or watching somebody else playing, there's a whole slew of opportunities around what it means to spectate."

Murphy adds, "The non-VR spectating experience is really leveled up by motion tracking and VR. We kind of dream of the day that we get sort of our first great e-athlete in one of our games. Michael Jordan was amazing to watch not only because he was an amazing basketball player but because of his physicality, the way he would jump and move was signature to him and we think with motion tracking it's going to be fun to watch these games on a screen because you're going to see all of the ways the players shift their weight to the left and fire from the hip and jump and duck and all these things will translate into the actual spectator experience which is going to change the way that we watch and experience it."

For Drifter, there's a huge social component to it as well. Similar to Ubisoft, which recognized the social power of VR with games like Werewolves Within, Scott discovered how important gestures are when he worked at Oculus. "There was an interesting point while developing the Toybox experience at Oculus where we had gotten this multiplayer feedback of two people using the exact same avatars but you could tell them apart simply by their body language. That was an exciting moment when we realized non-verbal communication actually has currency inside the digital world," he notes.

Of course, Drifter recognizes the challenge ahead. In order for VR to effectively become a legitimate part of the eSports ecosystem, VR itself needs to first grow to a much more sizable installed base. That's why Davis stressed that the eSports component for the studio is really more a long-term goal.

"We want to make sure first and foremost that we're making fun experiences that people want to play and that are beautiful and awesome. Competitive gaming is huge on every interactive platform these days and it's just a matter of time before it comes to VR and we have some really big ideas about that," he says.

And until that installed base grows, Drifter and every other VR-dedicated studio out there is taking a chance. "Anybody throwing their hat into VR is definitely taking a big risk, but we're such believers in the power of technology. We've all had those magical experiences that maybe it doesn't happen this year or next year but it's going to happen someday, and we're willing to commit to that," Davis states.

These Microsoft veterans know that Kinect ultimately was left ignored by much of the industry, but the experience of working with that camera was hugely inspirational for the Drifter team. "It really planted this bug in my head of like 'Wow, as a creative person in the games industry I love it when new technology opens the door for us to create new things we couldn't create before'. And a lot of those ingredients in that Kinect camera, depth sensing and all the skeletal tracking and that sort of stuff, that paved the path for products like HoloLens and a lot of the stuff you're seeing in VR as well, so it's interesting to see how those things are tied together," Davis comments.

Murphy adds, "Having worked on the Kinect project from its genesis and then moving on to the HoloLens and now in VR, I feel like they are all extremely related technologies and experiences. And VR is sort of the intersection or place where that's being fully realized at the fidelity it needs to be at in order to deliver on the promise and the dream we had 10 years ago when we started working on the Kinect."

While some developers are still coming to grips with the motion tracking component of VR, Drifter can apply some best practices it already learned from its Kinect experience. "After years and years of making people sick and tired as we experiment, one of the great things about coming into this new endeavor is that we have a deep understanding of how to build comfortable and fun experiences in this space in a way that when you're first just getting into VR/AR and motion gaming just takes a long time to get there. Being able to get past the comfort and get down to just making fun, great games is a really awesome way we can apply the experience on those other platforms," Murphy says.

"We decided teleport isn't a handicap, let's make it a first-class feature and explore what that starts to unlock"

Ray Davis

Davis reminds me that cramming existing experiences into VR will likely result in failure. Similar to the introduction of smartphones, when developers eventually created new genres to suit mobile, VR is likely to see the creation of new genres we've never encountered before. It's going to take a bunch of experimentation at first, but one mechanic that Drifter has been fascinated with in VR is teleportation. Yes, it's a crutch for some in room-scale VR because people usually don't have enough space to walk around virtual worlds in their homes, but it's also proving to be a neat gameplay choice.

"We're still very early on this project... We decided teleport isn't a handicap, let's make it a first-class feature and explore what that starts to unlock," Davis remarks. "What kind of variations in gameplay can we start building on top of that? It's already been really, really interesting. There are a lot of parallels with a mechanic like teleport with the cover system in Gears of War for example. Cover in Gears if you remember... up until then in a traditional shooter you're running and gunning all the time and you'd never stand still or else you'd die but with Gears of War we really pushed for that notion of pick where you want to go on the battlefield, attack from that point, pick your next point and repeat and sort of splitting it into chunks, and that lent itself well to more tactical coordinating gameplay. And it's really fun when we started experimenting early days with teleport and this sort of mechanic; it's like how does that dynamic cross right over into VR? And it already feels really, really compelling - I don't want to talk too much about the project itself yet. I guess if you look at our DNA it's not hard to tell we're going to go blow things up with whatever we build."

But what about the idea that teleporting, rather than walking, actually makes VR feel less immersive? Davis counters, "It's one of those weird things that I enjoyed with Kinect back in the day, the whole 'coffee table problem'. What we find with teleport is when you do it really right it starts to empower people, which is what video games are all about, right? I want to be a superhero in various different forms. Room-scale is really interesting because teleport allows you to transverse crazy amounts of distances in the virtual world without taking a step but what we find is you definitely still want some space because we love physicality, we love making you move your body and rewarding you for doing so. It's less about locomotion and more about how you're engaging with the stuff in your hands, etc."

Eventually, if implemented the right way, any mechanic should become "invisible." If you're thinking about something in-game too much, that's definitely going to hurt immersion. "One thing I noticed when I play in any teleportation VR for a long time is that I'll stop even taking a single step around the room-scale space that I have just because it becomes so natural to teleport even a foot in front of me that I don't think about it anymore," Murphy says.

Physicality is a big plus in VR for Drifter, but the team also understands that e-athletes may not want to have actual workouts when playing a game. "When I was working on Kinect Adventures I lost about 10 pounds testing the game out, and while that was a great side effect of working on the game that I've never replicated in my life, in hindsight maybe I should have looked at that and realized that maybe not everybody wants to lose weight while they're playing. So yeah, that strain and stuff is definitely on top of our minds," Murphy assures me.

"You can think about it as we're trying to build games that play well socially and so you can think about mechanics that have the same amount of strain as big hand talkers. From a game design standpoint I think that's the sweet spot for active play. You're not necessarily asking the player to do 27 squats over the course of 5 minutes. It's more the same kind of thing you'd get in an active conversation."

Davis further explains, "One thing that's interesting about fatigue in VR, even if you're doing nothing, just putting that headset on and being in a virtual world is a lot of stimulus for your brain. So we're being very mindful... we want to make sure that the game's super fun and super deep and all that good stuff but you don't have to be in it for 45 minutes at a time because man that might melt your brain. It's just too much. I'm sure people will acclimate over time, but we don't want to stress people out. From a physicality standpoint and the motions we find ourselves gravitating towards, we like very simple, very repeatable motions. There are motions we do a thousand times a day without thinking about it and those are the ones that are sort of gold mines from a design perspective that you can leverage and tie into the game and it's a win-win because it's yet another cue for your brain to be immersed in this world because they're motions you already do and they aren't naturally that fatiguing."

Drifter is aiming to have its first project ready some time in 2017, and while it's not ready to share any details, the studio recognizes the importance of community, especially if it intends to attract the eyes of the eSports world. But even without the appeal of eSports, community have become an integral part of the development process for many studios. Early Access and programs like it have become a wonderful opportunity for many small teams.

"I definitely like the notion of shipping games a little earlier than we're probably accustomed to. The whole work on something in secret for two and a half years and then walk away from it isn't really as appealing as it used to be. At the same time, I don't want to fall into shipping something that is not quite there yet. When we do go to market, it's absolutely going to be something really solid. We want to guarantee a good amount of fun out of the gate and definitely start the conversation with, Ok, here it is. Here's our vision. What do you guys like? What other crazy things would you like to see? And then start evolving our approach from that point," Davis says.

The number of people who can give feedback is still limited by that installed base, of course. But Drifter is encouraged by how quickly VR technology is moving forward. The recent announcement that Microsoft is working with several partners on $299 headsets is just one example. "Optimization of hardware and pricing and all that is happening much faster than I think folks were predicting. Even I just recently bought a laptop with an Nvidia 1070 in it and it blows my mind," Davis comments. "I've been lugging around giant demo laptops for my entire game career and they're usually like 60-pound bricks. We're finally to the point where it's like, 'Oh, wow, this is a portable laptop that is more than overpowered to run awesome VR experiences.' So we're not quite there yet but we're going to get there very soon."

"We're back to things that are specific and pointed to the experience and not necessarily the deranged detail that I think next-gen has kind of wandered into"

Kenneth Scott

The other thing that should make VR developers a bit better as well is that costs can actually be managed in a way that's almost impossible in the traditional AAA space. "If you look at a traditional AAA shooter, for example, a lot of the production cost can inadvertently get sucked into things like cinematics and linear storytelling and stuff like that. So we're being very intentional as we design, let's be smart about scope," Davis says. "Let's build content that allows for a good amount of playability but we don't necessarily have to go sign ourselves up for voice actors and a cinematics director and all that sort of stuff. The time will come where that makes sense in VR but probably not so much in these early days. And then I think, yeah, there's definitely a mindfulness of where do you spend your money in VR? Are all pixels created equal?"

Davis reminisces about how in the first Gears of War, "we could bang out a character rough and dirty in a couple weeks reasonably," and now "it's months of efforts" to make AAA game characters.

Scott adds, "I think there's an inherent cost to making sure the user is comfortable - and when I say comfort, I specifically mean not experiencing simulation sickness - where we do need to make sure the frame rate is high and a lot of visual optical flow is managed particularly well. And those things will inherently bring down polygon count. We're probably sitting around 2004/2005 in terms of the kind of the content that we can push into a frantic experience. That's kind of exciting for a lot of us... You're not dealing with people's eyelashes or how their nasolabial pull under their skin. We're back to things that are specific and pointed to the experience and not necessarily the deranged detail that I think next-gen has kind of wandered into."

The final aspect that VR developers have to contend with is pricing. Already in VR, some early adopters are balking at price points. VR developers don't want to be caught in a situation similar to what occurred on mobile.

"At it's core, you have to know that you're delivering enough value to justify asking whatever you end up asking for. But it is funny to see how the market is already evolving. I think Raw Data was closer to that $40 price point at launch. Probably the biggest impact you're going to see is from PlayStation VR. They're moving the largest number of units so they're going to get first impression on the largest number of consumers probably. There were already a couple of titles hitting that $60 console price point. So it's really interesting," Davis says.

"As anybody knows in the industry, making games is not a cheap process. So if we can find something higher than the race to the bottom on mobile, that would be fantastic... I'm just paying attention every day, every week to see what's happening and to see where we're going to end up."

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James Brightman

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James Brightman has been covering the games industry since 2003 and has been an avid gamer since the days of Atari and Intellivision. He was previously EIC and co-founder of IndustryGamers and spent several years leading GameDaily Biz at AOL prior to that.