Paul Bettner has been waiting for virtual reality for decades. That’s one reason why his VR gaming studio, Playful, created Lucky’s Tale as a launch game for the Oculus Rift VR headset.
It launched as part of a bundle with the Rift on March 28, and it has drawn praise as a platformer that was designed for the ground up for VR. It’s sort of like a cross between Mario and Crash Bandicoot. But it’s also not likely to sell many copies, as the number of Oculus Rift headsets that have shipped so far is fairly small. But the company is also planning to ship games on other VR devices over time.
Back in October 2015, Playful raised $25 million in funding from private investors. Bettner said the company is positioning itself to be ready for the gaming technology that will exist a decade from now. In the long run, VR is expected to be a $30 billion market by 2020, according to Digi-Capital. But first, it must survive the early years, including the “gap of disappointment” that Unity CEO John Riccitiello is warning about.
In the past, Bettner made one of the best bets ever. While at Newtoy, he co-created Words With Friends, a Facebook version of Scrabble, that became a hit first on Facebook desktop and then on mobile. In 2011, Bettner and his brother David sold their company to Zynga for $53.5 million. Words with Friends remains one of Zynga’s top franchises, and it has mass appeal. Lucky’s Tale builds on some of those lessons, easing players into VR in a way that likely won’t give them motion sickness.
“Our true mission is to create characters and stories and worlds that people fall in love with,” said in a fireside chat with GamesBeat writer Jeff Grubb at the GamesBeat Summit 2016 last week. “We like to look at ourselves like Disney in the 1920s or something. VR is our silver screen, a way to take our stories and characters and bring them to life in a way consumers have never seen before.”
Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation.
GamesBeat: Playful just launched a VR game, Lucky’s Tale. How do you end up in a situation where you’re the pack-in game for the Oculus Rift?
Paul Bettner: It was quite a journey to get to this point. The simplest answer is we took a bet on this technology kind of embarrassingly early. We were one of the first developers to work with Oculus.
I spend a lot of time obsessed with what technologies can impact the game industry and the type of products I create, entertainment products. I’m spending a lot of time out there reading, getting my hands on new technologies, thinking about what will continue to expand our audience. There are still tremendous barriers between the experiences I love to create and the audience that I love to reach.
It drew me to create iPhone games. We were early in that space too. When I held the iPhone in my hand, I saw a device that was going to become the most popular portable game device in the world. It could turn my mom, my wife, my daughter into gamers, and that’s what happened. My mom hates when I call her a gamer because that’s still a bad word here in the west, but I can look at her Words with Friends account and see that she plays several hours a day.
Anyway, three years ago — this is after we left Zynga — with that same thought in mind, I was looking around for the next thing that would expand the audience we could reach. I read on a forum about this work Palmer Luckey was doing in his bedroom or wherever. I reached out to him through a friend of mine, John Carmack, and we flew out to see the first early prototype. I saw the same possibility there. I saw something that could bring down barriers and expand gaming for new audiences.
This is weird to say, because right now VR looks like a lot of wires and an awkward box you have to put on your face. But even with the products we’ve already created, like Lucky’s Tale, we’ve seen we can create a game that was in some ways inaccessible to gamers for a long time. Complex 3D character action games, like the latest Mario games, we can make those games as accessible as when we were playing 2D Mario on our TV.
Mario 64 is one of my favorite games of all time, but Nintendo added another stick to control the camera and left a lot of gamers behind. With Lucky’s Tale, a lot of players are telling us that this is the first time they can experience a rich, immersive 3D world and have it still be as simple as playing the oldest Super Mario Bros.
GamesBeat: Can you explain more to people why it brings down those barriers?
Bettner: There’s a quality to these technologies that we’re all interested in. We use the word “magic” a lot. Another way to put it that it’s a technology a child could use. We all saw that with the iPhone and iPad. You can hand these technologies to a three-year-old and you don’t have to tell them how to use it. They just know.
The technologies that we’re working with now — although putting the headset on my 5-year-old still dwarfs his entire head — have that same quality. He starts looking around and reaching out. Nobody has to tell him how to control the camera or navigate the world. If you look where this stuff is going, when you start to see your hands and get these direct manipulation interfaces that are becoming available, those barriers and distractions go away entirely. That quality is the way the audience expands.
GamesBeat: Lucky’s Tale does a good job of exploring how people can jump right in there and interact with the world. Is that what people are going to need to experience to appreciate this?
Bettner: That’s one type of experience you can have in VR. We’re fascinated by it because we feel like it’s something we discovered with the work we’re doing in Lucky’s Tale. There are different genres of games in VR, though, and a lot of them are undefined. One thing that surprised us was the recognition that third-person character action experiences — there’s a power inherent to meeting a character in VR that you couldn’t experience on a TV.
We’re experiencing this on a weekly basis as we discover new things. High-fiving a character in VR — you’ve never felt something like that before. It’s transformative. We’re strong believers as a studio — one thing we’re interested in doing is continuing to take these more nostalgic experiences, games we’ve played in the past, and use VR to bring them to life in new ways. We didn’t expect how much power we’d find there.
It’s obvious that putting someone in the cockpit in a spaceship is going to be awesome, or putting them in the driver’s seat of a race car. But it’s surprising that some of those experience that we’ve tried to build — I was mentioning that we tried to build a fighting game, a Street Fighter type of game. The first thing we tried was, “OK, you’ll be there in first-person with your gloves and you’ll fight someone in front of you. You’ll dodge and punch and it’ll work with the motion controls.” But it turns out that boxing is extremely difficult and very stressful. When you have fists flying at your face like that everything happens too fast. Even if we slowed that down, it wasn’t as fun and game-like as we’d hoped.
Later experiments, taking those characters and putting them on a table in front of you — I can relate to a lot of the things Jeri Ellsworth mentioned earlier about the work they’re doing at CastAR. That experience is much more delightful. It’s surprising, because it’s not what you’d expect, building a VR experience with that idea in mind. But it’s some of the stuff we’ve found to work the best.
GamesBeat: It’s almost like a distinction between VR games and games in VR. Bringing old-school games into VR, is that the distinction you’re talking about?
Bettner: It’s almost a category in and of itself, and it’s probably going to be a significant category. That’s what folks are starting to see. Some of the bigger VR titles coming out now are third-person games. A lot of the work Insomniac is doing is third-person.
GamesBeat: I went to your GDC talk about all the tricks and all the things you’ve experimented with to make sure people were comfortable being in VR with these characters in front of them. I’ve played a lot of games that don’t appreciate what you’ve learned. Do you think people need to do that to see all the things you’ve done well?
Bettner: There are plenty of those experiences that people can play right now, yeah. Most of the stuff coming to the market is small-budget indie types of games, more experimental, lightweight experiences. We set out to create something that transcends the gimmick or the tech demo and becomes a worthwhile game. I don’t think technology platforms like this can take off unless that starts to happen, unless content creators build experiences that aren’t just about impressing investors or showing off a new technique. It has to be something that fits into someone’s lifestyle, something that will move them to go home and take this thing off the shelf.
GamesBeat: There aren’t a lot of Rifts out in the world yet. They’ve had some component shortages. Lucky’s Tale is the included game now, though, and everyone who gets a Rift will get your game, at least for the time being. Given the current situation, how do you define success as it pertains to Lucky’s Tale and VR in general?
Bettner: When we set out to work on this game with Oculus, we defined three goals for the project, three things we were going after. We wanted to find a strategic partner, with funding and all the other things that come with a platform type of partnership. We wanted to use this wave of new technology and the hype surrounding it to take one of our characters and — Playful is not a VR company. Certainly it’s easy to look at us and say that we are. Our investors look at us that way. That’s normal. But we don’t tell that story internally.
Our true mission is to create characters and stories and worlds that people fall in love with. We like to look at ourselves like Disney in the 1920s or something. VR is our silver screen, a way to take our stories and characters and bring them to life in a way consumers have never seen before. Which leads to the other thing we were aiming for, which was to get this extra public awareness for what we’re trying to create — the character and the world — that we wouldn’t have otherwise been able to get if we weren’t using this new technology.
One goal we did not have was reaching any consumers at this period of time. I completely agree with John Riccitiello about the shape of the curve for VR adoption. We don’t have any false expectations about that. I do think VR is going to surprise the more skeptical folks out there as far as how big it takes off. But there will still be stories in the press about VR disappointing whatever expectations. We’re set up for that. We’re not going after millions of consumers. We’re trying to create an experience nobody’s ever seen before, so that people gain an awareness of the characters we’re creating.
GamesBeat: We talked earlier this week and you mentioned you were building a company that’s going to be able to take advantage of tech that will exist in 10 years or so. Right now, I feel like we don’t really know what things will look like in more than two years. Do you have any thoughts as far as what makes you confident about that long-term vision?
Bettner: It’s going to be the most important platform any of us have created anything for. It’s the platform I’ve been waiting for my entire career. When we were working on iPhone games, we were able to reach a new audience. Looking at where this technology is going, with the miniaturization and the eventual mixing of reality, we’re going to be able to create this ambient entertainment that constantly surrounds you, that lives on your shoulder or in your pocket. That makes it accessible to everyone.
All the abstraction is going away. There are no more barriers in that world. There’s price, which will continue to fall, but eventually you get to a ubiquitous platform that lets us create the most compelling experiences with the least abstraction. That’s the end platform.
GamesBeat: Will Playful be building this for seated experiences? Do you plan to go room scale? How do you view the tension between seated and room scale VR?
Bettner: We spend a lot of time thinking about how to navigate that. It’s tricky. The sweet spot for VR and games in VR is probably going to be like console experiences. But every time that I personally want to go experience something in VR, I’m most drawn to the experiences with the Vive at room scale. It’s truly this holodeck in your house. It’s something I wouldn’t see in my lifetime, and now it’s happening so fast.
It’s a constant tug. As a creator I want to make something for that. It’s the most incredible platform I’ve ever seen. But there are all these barriers as far as what room scale requires. We used to talk in game development about minimum specs, the GPU and CPU required to run a game. Now we’re talking about min space. I’ve never dealt with that before.
GamesBeat: Most gamers haven’t, either. A lot of them are stressing out about this.
Bettner: It’s a sophisticated problem because there are multiple angles. You have an experience like PlayStation VR. That’s not just a min space thing, where Sony is targeting the area in front of your couch. It’s also a face-forward thing, which is an additional fracturing of that market compared to what Vive supports, which is full room scale, turn around and go wherever you want.
As a game developer, I’m struggling to balance this, trying to figure out the best place to land as far as the coolest possible experience I can create versus the least common denominator, which is probably sitting around with a controller and not moving at all, always looking forward. We’ll try to find that sweet spot. I’m very excited about console VR. But like I said earlier, I’m obsessed with what’s possible, not necessarily what’s practical. Playful is always going to have an effort doing what we did initially with Oculus, taking the most cutting-edge hardware we can get our hands on and trying to build a transformative experience with it.
Question: A very simple question. How playful is Playful?
Bettner: That’s absolutely core to who we are, everything we try to do. We did this Oculus developer video a little while ago, a spotlight video. The film crew showed up and they were already down in the dumps, because these videos are always the same thing. It’s always a bunch of guys in a room pretending to have a meeting. We said from the beginning that we didn’t want to do that. Even that video ended up being very different from the rest of the Oculus spotlight videos.
We’re not building a VR company, like I said before. Our true value, the thing that I am entirely focused on building, is this engine for delightful IP creation. There’s not enough of this in the world. I have a seven-year-old, a five-year-old, and a two-year-old. I play all the Nintendo games we can get our hands on. Usually we have to play through them two or three times before the next one comes out. I’m so frustrated by the lack of that Pixar of games that people talk about.
At Playful our mission is to create that. We’re using VR as the platform right now and that’s great for all the reasons I’ve talked about, but that’s not our core mission.