Official key art for the Oculus Quest edition of Epic’s Robo Recall. (Oculus Images) A big story in the virtual reality market is the upcoming , an all-in-one portable headset that lets users enjoy VR games without requiring a wired connection to another device. Like the Oculus Go, it’s a standalone product; unlike the Go, the Quest is , combining the Go’s portability with enough onboard horsepower to run games from the Oculus Rift’s library of titles. It’s planned for release in spring of this year. In London on Tuesday morning, journalists got their first chance to go hands-on with many of the debut titles for the Oculus Quest, including a ported version of Epic Games’s . Recall, one of the top VR shooters of 2017, is being brought to the Quest by Seattle’s . Drifter VR is a small team of video game industry veterans, including CEO , who worked on the first two Gears of War games as their lead programmer. Their projects include 2017’s award-winning and last year’s Rise of the Gunters, a VR shooter made as a tie-in product for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. The company a $2.25 million seed round in 2016 from investors including Initialized Capital, Presence Capital, The VR Fund, Pathbreaker Ventures, and Anorak Ventures. GeekWire interviewed Davis about Drifter VR, its output in virtual reality, and the Oculus Quest. Robo Recall, as seen on the Oculus Quest. (Interview edited for brevity and clarity) GeekWire: Thanks for speaking with us, Ray. Can you first talk about Drifter’s founding story? Ray Davis: I started Drifter with two co-founders in the summer of 2016. , our art director, was actually at Oculus at the time, where he was doing a lot of first-party content. He got started back at id Software, so he was the art director for Doom 3, Rage, Quake, all these classic games. He was also at 343 Industries when Bungie split off, and Microsoft put him on Halo. The other co-founder, , was at Microsoft for many years, working on the Kinect at launch and on top secret stuff. With both of those guys, there was this moment where we said, “Wow, there’s some really cool technology ahead of us. We don’t know how far out this is, before it becomes viable, but creatively, this is absolutely where we wanna be.” The three of us brought that combined experience together. We love making AAA games, we’ve done all kinds of games, and the opportunity to pool that expertise and build a VR development studio was too good for us to pass up. That’s when we all jumped ship, and the rest is history, so to speak. The Oculus Quest. GW: Why’d you go for virtual reality, as opposed to anything else? Davis: I really enjoyed my time making Gears of War. There were a couple of cover-based shooters before that, but not necessarily the way that we’d envisioned it in Gears of War. I like to think that Gears helped set a new standard. If you’re going to make this kind of game, as a developer, you’re pushing what’s possible. For us, I think all the excitement was around virtual reality being sort of the last frontier. There are a lot of things in game development that you’ve understood for many years, that we’ve gotten really good at, and when it comes to VR, all kinds of things are different, like, “Hey, developers no longer have control of the camera.” That’s such a powerful tool for building experiences. How are we going to work around that, and what other new things can we find inside of virtual reality? For me personally, one of the things I really love about making VR games is taking away the plastic controller in your hands, taking away that you’re looking at a screen in front of you, so that players are totally immersed and lost in the experience. VR gives us so many more tools to accomplish that. Once you dive into that, you think, “Man, I don’t know if I could ever make a game that isn’t virtual reality at this point.” Robo Recall, as seen on the Oculus Quest. GW: How did you guys end up working on the Robo Recall port? Davis: It’s actually an interesting story. Before we started Drifter, my last job was as the general manager on Unreal Engine 4 at Epic Games. One of my responsibilities was shepherding all the early VR incubation efforts. A lot of the work we did was in partnership with Oculus back in the day, like on . To come back around, last summer, Epic Games and Oculus were having a conversation. “Hey, Robo Recall is one of people’s favorite games to play on the Rift. We think it’d be fantastic on the Quest. How do we make this happen?” And my friend was like, “How about Drifter?” Because obviously, we had that relationship with Epic. We ended up on that project for about five-and-a-half months. Working on the Quest was just fantastic. We were able to preserve the core gameplay that makes Robo Recall so fun, and we had a good time figuring out just what the hardware is capable of, and still maximizing the visual fidelity and what you can squeeze out of it. GW: Can you talk about the challenges of porting it from the Rift to the Quest? Davis: The Quest is based on a , so when you compare it to a desktop GPU, there’s an order of magnitude less of raw power that you’re dealing with. You have to take into account the power requirements of common techniques, like visual effects. What we spend a lot of time doing is running the device and then working backward. How can we change some of the content, and keep true to the visual style, while reaching our performance target? It involves modifying the content, the environments, bringing down poly counts, sort of the usual process across the board. Also, there’s a lot of great new technology for performance that Oculus and Epic have been doing research on. A lot of it’s just that we can do more with the hardware we already have, given that everyone is much more educated on VR and the opportunities there.
For the last few years, , maker of the 2013 episodic adventure game , has been quietly working on a top secret project in its Bellevue, Wash. studio. Last week, it that the project in question was Iron Man VR, an exclusive virtual reality game for the PlayStation 4 that places the player directly into the role of Tony Stark. Now we have details about the actual gameplay — and initial reviews are positive thus far: (Stephen Totilo, Kotaku) (Andrew Tarantola, Engadget) (Brian Crecente, Variety) (Caty McCarthy, US Gamer) This is the second major project from Camouflaj, an independent 50-person games studio. Its first release, Republique, was initially released in 2013 after a successful crowdfunding campaign in 2012, and was ported to VR platforms in May of 2018. The studio was founded in 2011 by Ryan Payton, a University of Puget Sound graduate and games writer who eventually went on to work on Metal Gear Solid 4 at Konami. Payton then worked at Microsoft and 343 Industries, where he was one of the narrative designers on Halo 4. Fun day at today :) — Ryan Payton (@ryanpayton) In Iron Man VR, Tony Stark faces off against a new enemy, an unknown woman using the guise of his old enemy the . (According to , the decision to make the game’s Ghost a woman predates the appearance of in last year’s Ant-Man & The Wasp.) Iron Man VR is strictly meant for virtual reality, played with Sony’s headset and a PlayStation Move controller in either hand. In-game, when Tony puts on the Iron Man suit, the positioning of your hands is used to determine how Tony flies with his repulsors. At the same time, however, the repulsors are your primary means of self defense, and you can blast enemies by pointing your Move controllers at them and firing. If you lock onto a distant target, Tony will fly at it to deliver a powerful punch. The armor in Iron Man VR is called the Impulse Suit, and is a unique design for the game created by British artist . Granov lived in Seattle for several years, providing illustration work for Wizards of the Coast, and eventually came to work for Marvel Comics. While there, he illustrated the Extremis storyline for Iron Man, written by Warren Ellis, which is one of the better Iron Man comics in recent years, and began the process of rehabilitation for the character that ended with Tony Stark becoming one of the linchpins of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Extremis went on to become of the first and third Iron Man movies, which employed Granov as a consultant. (Granov also contributed the design for the to last year’s similarly PlayStation-exclusive Spider-Man.) Other characters confirmed to appear in Iron Man VR include Friday, Tony’s AI assistant, and Pepper Potts. The initial releases mention that the game involves coming “face-to-face with iconic allies and super villains as they jet around the globe on a heroic mission to save not only Stark Industries, but the world itself.”
Even the most successful tech company is going to have a stumble from time to time. 45 years in the video game industry is spotted with a few doozies, but none are more infamous than . The 1994 portable console was marketed as an early home entry into virtual reality, but in actual reality ended up being little more than a blood-red headache. Nintendo knew the comparisons to the doomed console would come fast and furiously when it launched its next VR venture, so the company took the time to get it just right. In a sense, is a cautious push into the virtual realm. It’s nowhere near the all-in approach of Oculus, Vive or even PlayStation VR, for that matter — but it’s uniquely Nintendo. , it’s a friendly reminder that Nintendo’s chief job is to surprise and delight, and it happily delivers on both fronts. But just as the Labo piano shouldn’t be mistaken for a real musical instrument, Labo VR ought not be viewed as a real virtual reality. It’s not just the pop-out cardboard form factor, either. Google made that a perfectly acceptable beginner’s approach to VR. It’s more that Nintendo has taken a very casual approach to all of this. The kit’s virtual reality experience is an extension of Labo itself. It’s no more important than the process of building the headset and various accessories step by step on the app. Or, for that matter, sharing all of the above experiences with others. During a demo of the new kits in New York this week, Nintendo was quick to point out that the headsets are built without a strap. It claims this was a conscious decision so that the experience can be passed around and shared. I’m sure there are some practical reasons behind this decision as well, but it’s certainly a nice thought. Virtual reality is, by nature of its form factor, a solitary experience. Labo VR doesn’t have any sort of video-out feature to share the experience on a big screen (for now, at least), so the idea of offering it up in a more social play-and-pass scenario is appealing. This goes double for the fact that, like the original Labo kits, all of the games included fall under the casual banner. The experiences share a common lineage with Nintendo analog titles like Mario Party or Mario Paint. Your mileage with each title will vary. Certainly some (Bird and Blaster spring to mind) will stay with you longer than others and demand more repeat play. On the whole, each buildable peripheral launches with one (maybe two) compatible games. The good news, however, is that, like Labo, the company packs a lot of controllers (and therefore experiences) into a single kit. The standard Labo: VR Kit ships with six Toy-Con projects (VR Goggles, Toy-Con Blaster, Toy-Con Camera, Toy-Con Bird, Toy-Con Wind Pedal and Toy-Con Elephant), while the cheaper Starter Set comes with two (Goggles and Blaster). If you go for the latter to dip your toes in the water or just to save on cash, there are a pair of “expansion sets” to get the full experience. Unlike the last time Nintendo came to town with a Labo press tour, we didn’t actually get any time to build. That said, if previous kits are any indication, that’s half of the fun and value proposition here. Also, the amount of time you’ll spend building varies greatly from project to project — take it from me, someone who spent most of a work morning building that damn piano. Once built, the VR experience is about on-par with what you’d expect from a Google VR. Again, it’s a set of lenses attached to a hunk of cardboard. This is no Rift or Vive and the immersiveness of your own experience will vary. The graphics are cartoony and oftentimes just large polygons. But a well-crafted casual gaming experience can be enough to pull you out of your own head for a bit. Bird is the best example of this. The controller clips on the headset, with a Toy-Con popping out the other end like a beak. As a player, you hook your hands on either side of the display and flap along as you play a bird, flying around trees and completing different missions to feed an army of hatchlings. It’s a relaxing reprieve from some of the faster-paced games, as you glide around the skies. Add in the foot-controlled Wind Pedal, and the system delivers a puff of air to your face as you boost your bird, adding to the effect. Blaster, a big, fun novelty gun, is the most engaging of the bunch. When I ended my demos with some extra time to spare, the Nintendo rep asked me if I wanted to give any of the games another go. The answer was simple. A simple first-person shooter, Blaster pits you against an army of alien blobs. You load the gun by cocking it like a shot-gun, and pull the trigger to an explosive effect. Honorable mention goes to Doodle, which uses the bizarre elephant-shaped controller. The experience is unique from the rest in that it’s not actually a game, but rather a 3D drawing tool. It’s one of the more clever additions to the pack, though actually drawing on a 3D plane with a cardboard controller shaped like an elephant’s trunk is easier said than done. The implementation is a bit lacking, but it offers interesting insight into where Labo VR might go in the future. Honestly, I just scratched the surface during my briefing. But there’s little question that Labo VR is a fun and singular experience. There’s also a special screen holder, so users who have rough time with VR can experience a 2D version of the games and accessories. Also, as with the standard Labo kit, Nintendo has bundled in Toy-Con Garage, so users can start building their own games when they tire of the pre-packaged experiences. If there’s one disappointment in all of this, it’s that it will likely be a while before we see a full standalone VR experience from Nintendo. The idea of playing as Mario, Link and the like in virtual reality is no doubt something of a lifelong dream for plenty of gamers who grew up on the characters. But while Virtual Boy is a quarter-century in the past, the memory still lingers. Until then, Labo VR is a fully engaging take on VR, and a uniquely Nintendo one, to boot.
, or danmaku (Japanese; lit. bullet curtain), is a sub-genre of shoot-em-up games thats all about dodging constant streams of enemy fire. The archetypical bullet hell shooter many of which never officially make it out of Japan is ferociously difficult and represents a pure test of the players reflexes and pattern recognition, as you spend your time scrambling for that fleeting half-inch of screen estate that isnt currently occupied by at least two different things that will kill you. From the moment I first saw it at PAX, Evasion was described to me as a bullet hell shooter in VR. It was developed by , a studio based in Vancouver, B.C., which hopes to use it as a big flagship franchise going forward. When I got the chance to play it on my own, my first impression was that it was one of those games that was designed and balanced around team play, which meant anyone trying to play it solo was working with a severe handicap from the start. I was getting absolutely murdered by enemies that could hit me from any direction at any time, with mission objectives that further limited my ability to fight back. When the game is built around constant movement in order to evade enemy fire, it feels doubly restrictive when youre forced to stand still for a while. But of course, its a bullet hell game. They arent supposed to be fair. The more experience I got, the more I was able to adapt and overcome each challenge, even as the next one queued up to take a swing at me. Evasion is challenging in an old-school way, where each time you reach a new area, youll get through it by the skin of your teeth if you make it at all, but the next trip will be a little easier, and the trip after that will feel almost easy. Enemies show up in vast packs from all around you, but they do so in predictable patterns, and you have a lot of tools at your disposal with which to deal with them. Its a game about forcing fairness onto a fundamentally unfair situation, and doing so with style. Evasion is set in the nondescript space future, where you play as a member of a Vanguard, a team of troubleshooters from a rapid-response unit, which features a snarky AI handler and, to go by what shes saying, a low survival rate. The issue at the start of the game is that a mining colony has been invaded and seemingly depopulated by the Ophera, a race of robot insects, for no reason you can determine from orbit. Youre dropped into the fray to figure out whats happened to the colonists, and while youre there, to murder any alien bug that so much as glances in your general direction. You can play as one of four specialized units, each of which has a different arsenal. In each case, however, youve got a main gun in one hand and a portable energy shield in the other. Any enemy fire that strikes the shield gets reflected backward, letting you provide your own hard cover on the fly. The same hand that bears the shield also contains an energy lash the game calls a tether, which is used to interact with objects, yank power-ups over to you, heal fallen co-op partners, and finish off weakened targets. It probably also makes toast. The tether does it all. The trick with Evasion is that while youre surprisingly durable healing items dont simply restore a set value, but drop a healing field at your feet that rapidly restores lost health for as long as you stand in the area the game is also set up to encourage you to avoid incoming fire. You can get power-ups that gradually improve your guns standard mode of fire, but the guns power level gets lowered dramatically when you take damage. Its a lot like the old Gradius games, or Life Force on the NES: you can sort of stumble through Evasion by relying heavily on health, but as the name of the game suggests, you get further more efficiently by dodging and reflecting as much as you can. Youre rewarded for your ability to skate through enemy fire with a better, more destructive offense. There are a lot of shooters in virtual reality in 2018. A lot of them arent far removed from the old light-gun games youd play in an arcade 15 years ago. The only real difference is in the controls, and hopefully in the degree to which youre immersed in the experience. Evasion, conversely, feels like its own thing. It took me a while to get used to it, and I have to figure its going to be brutal on people who dont have my experience with the genre. If youre fine with a game thats more than a little sadistic, and you dont mind wrestling with Evasions particular learning curve, its a challenging, occasionally funny shoot-em-up that feels immediately rewarding as you learn its ins and outs. A challenge thats crushing you on one run will suddenly feel like a stroll in the park next time, and thats how it sucks you in.
A screenshot from the new interactive VR title, The Haunted Graveyard. (Holospark Image) A new virtual-reality title from Holospark, an independent developer headquartered in Bellevue, Wash., is working to expand the audience for VR by creating an approachable, newbie-friendly experience, with help from Seattle’s arts community. The Haunted Graveyard, now available for purchase on Steam, was created with the growing virtual-reality arcade (“VRcade”) audience in mind. Its developers are careful not to call it a game, but instead, it’s an experience: a short, spooky adventure where you end up stumbling into a cemetery at night, complete with a local population of eccentric ghosts, and must find a way out before midnight or risk being trapped inside forever. Every ghost you encounter on your trip through the graveyard is played via full-body motion capture by professional actors from Seattle’s theater scene, such as , Brandon J. Simmons, and . Dynamic programming is layered on top of the characters to make them react in real-time to your movements. According to its executive producer, , The Haunted Graveyard is meant to feel like a virtual-reality Disney ride, complete with a full orchestral score by veteran video game composer (God of War, Assassin’s Creed III) and a musical number by Seattle musician . Holospark has been working in research and development for the last two years to try to make characters who feel like they’re actually speaking with you, as opposed to simply reciting lines while you happen to be standing nearby. “We’ve spent a lot of time and effort on building out this whole approach, with the technology, pipeline, and expertise we need,” Tynes said. “Then we can bring those characters right to you, right in your face, connecting with you and taking you on an emotional journey as you go through our experience.” Bruce Sharp, The Haunted Graveyard’s creative director, said, “We guarantee you you’ve not seen anything quite like this.” There are no failure states in The Haunted Graveyard; you can’t die, there are no time limits, and you can’t get stuck. You’re free to explore its world as you like, and to take in the scenery at your own pace. The general idea is that The Haunted Graveyard can serve as a kid- and beginner-friendly introduction to the possibilities of VR, particularly for VRcade patrons who aren’t gamers, or who are brand-new to VR as a medium. “There are several thousand ‘VRcades’ worldwide, a lot of them in Asia, but plenty in North America and Europe,” Tynes said. “We’re really excited about this because when we talk to operators, they will tell you that people who are new to VR will often have a frustrating time if they don’t get into something that’s the right approach for them. There are plenty of fairly hardcore VR games, and if you’re a mom at a birthday party, or Grandma and Grandpa, or anybody who doesn’t play shooters, then you may have a lousy experience and be turned off of this medium forever. And we think that would be a real shame.” Holospark was founded in 2015 by a group of developers who had worked together before, first at makers of the only- MMORPG and then at Cryptic Studios North, which worked on the Dungeons & Dragons-based online game before its closure in 2015. Tynes in particular has a long, storied history in games, as one of the co-creators of the 1999 urban fantasy RPG Unknown Armies and a prolific contributor to the Call of Cthulhu tabletop game. Holospark’s other titles include its debut project The Impossible Travel Agency, a short exploratory VR game, and the cooperative first-person shooter , which .
Quill is the starring mouse in the VR game Moss, developed by Polyarc. (Polyarc Photo) More than a week after my almost-10-year-old daughter met Quill, she’s still talking about her. They spent only about an hour together, but she misses the tiny, sword-wielding mouse that stars in ‘s virtual reality game, Moss. Quill, the starring mouse in the VR game Moss by Polyarc. (GeekWire Photo / Lisa Stiffler) It’s just the effect that the game designers at this Seattle startup were hoping for. Because while some games are focused on shooting or sports or solving puzzles, the aim for Moss is to have players feel something deeper, making connections with a character like you do when watching a movie or reading a book. “VR is going to help accelerate the notion that games can be emotional as well,” said , CEO and engineer at Polyarc. Moss players can form a relationship with Quill, working alongside her, immersed via VR in her world’s damp Northwest forests and “Lord of the Rings”-worthy ruins and cottages. The big-eared mouse looks at you, can be startled if you sneak up on her and allows you to pat her on the head. “That’s a pretty exciting way to broaden the emotional depth of the games that we make,” said Armstrong. And it’s a definite change from the sci-fi, first-person shooter games that Armstrong used to build as an engineer at Bungie, developing the popular games Destiny and Halo: Reach. In 2015, he launched Polyarc with fellow Bungie veterans and The year after, they landed a and haven’t taken any additional funding since. The trio set out to do something different with their venture, “to push the boundaries of our craft at the intersection of art and science,” Armstrong said. “We want to use this advanced technology to create, play and tell stories in exciting new ways.” Polyarc team photo. (P.S. Boldt Photography) That meant creating small characters that players could physically interact with using VR controls. The Polyarc team considered populating their world with aliens, robots or toys, ultimately settling on tiny animals. And why make Quill a girl mouse? “We saw these other studios paving the way, featuring female lead characters,” Armstrong said. They decided to follow suit. When playing the game, you rarely get to see your own character navigating the mystical world. But catching a glimpse in a pool of water, you’ll see that it looks something like the masked spirits with wide-set eyes in the Miyazaki movie “Spirited Away.” While Quill is meant to tug at a player’s heartstrings — my daughter was considerably troubled when she let the mouse drown multiple times after missing a tricky jump over a waterwheel — the game includes plenty of excitement, problem-solving and adventure, battling with beetles and other foes. But what if Quill does her job too well, is too irresistible? Already there are many people who struggle with gaming addictions, and a lovable rodent will make it even harder for parents to wrest VR controls from their kids. “We do think about those kinds of things,” Armstrong said. He didn’t offer a solution to this problem, but emphasized that they’re working to create an experience that is fun and “honest,” suggesting that it’s not intentionally manipulative. Moss is available for $30 on Vive, Oculus, Windows Mixed Reality and PlayStation VR. This month, Sony released a PlayStation VR hardware bundle that includes Moss. The Quill figurine is not for sale, but you can buy a mug or an enamel pin with her likeness for $15 each through Amazon. Armstrong predicts there could be three or more adventures to come for the heroic mouse, adding, “Quill’s story has just started.” Tam Armstrong, co-founder and CEO of Polyarc. (P.S. Boldt Photography) Explain what you do so our parents can understand it: Polyarc builds games for technologies that bring its characters to life. We want you to directly play with and relate to them. Inspiration hit us when: Our first inspiration hit us when seeing prototype VR hardware at Valve. The possibility of immersing ourselves in the games we loved was very exciting. New input methods meant new exciting possibilities for interaction. The notion that we could build on the fundamental experience of physically playing with our toys was too compelling to miss. Our second inspiration hit us when we saw the first player cry meeting Quill during an early prototype of Moss. The experience of meeting Quill produced an immediate emotional response and it became clear just how much closer players could feel to our characters in this new medium. The combination of being in the same physical space as another living thing that can also acknowledge you directly and look you in the eye changes everything. VC, Angel or Bootstrap: Polyarc has gone from bootstrapped to VC over the course of its existence. We chose this path so that we would have the resources we need to execute on our vision, as well as the flexibility to adjust our plans as we go based on what we see happening around us. Our ‘secret sauce’ is: Polyarc is intensely focused on the experience the player has while playing our games. We are making games, worlds and characters because that is what we love to do. We are making these games FOR our players. With this laid out as our foundation we try to establish clear pillars for our work. The most fundamental pillars we follow for our development in XR are that physical interaction and emotional connection are two of the things that the medium can do better than any other. Everything we do here is built on top of these ideas. The smartest move we’ve made so far: The smartest move we’ve made so far is trusting our gut on people and relationships. We’ve been fortunate to work with amazing people both here at the studio and externally as business partners. The biggest mistake we’ve made so far: Early on we were consistently underestimating the time it takes to do most things on the business side. We tried to be conservative but were still off the mark. Recently we’ve become a bit more realistic about this. Would you rather have Gates, Zuckerberg or Bezos in your corner? I feel like I have to say that we’d be lucky to have any of them in our corner with their incredible business minds! Along which axis would we differentiate them? If Gates represents productive technology, Zuckerberg represents social connectivity, and Bezos represents customer experience… I would say Bezos, as the one of the three who most closely relates to our focus on player experience. Our favorite team-building activity is: So far it has been cooking! Occasionally folks on the team make food for the whole company. We’ve had breakfasts a few times, and most recently a home-made hot wing sauce tasting event. Cooking together and sharing the food has been a wonderful bonding experience. The biggest thing we look for when hiring is: Cultural contribution. Accepting a requisite combination of skill and experience, the way we select from the remaining candidates is how we perceive their ability to bring something unique and positive to our collaborative work. It is important to have unique contributions to challenge existing ideas and generate new ones. If we are not testing and iterating on all our work — including fundamental ideas — then we will inevitably become stagnant. What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to other entrepreneurs just starting out: Build genuine relationships. Running a company is a long commitment and you will depend on other people to see it be successful. Self-interested networking and deals can only get you so far, but truly seeking opportunities where everyone feels good about the outcome is holistically the best way in the long run.