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Richard Marks has been working on PlayStation VR since 2010, but the senior research engineer at Sony Interactive Entertainment says that he can still be surprised by the immersiveness of virtual reality.
Marks, who spoke at our GamesBeat 2016 event last week, also said that VR is turning out to be much more social as an experience than people thought, as even solo players want to share their experiences with their friends.
Sony is working on both solo experiences and multiplayer VR games for the PlayStation VR headset, which debuts for $400 in October on the PlayStation 4 video game console. The Sony launch will be the next major platform debut in the “year of VR.”
Joost van Dreunen, the CEO of SuperData Research, interviewed Marks on stage last week. Here’s an edited transcript of their interview. You can also see the video embedded below.
GamesBeat: Give us a sense of what you do every day. What’s the job description?
Richard Marks: I have a weird role, because I’m a technology researcher, so we do a lot of the interactivity things – EyeToy, Move, and now VR. But I also do evangelism for our new products, especially VR right now. I’m at the very beginning of projects, and also at the very end.
GamesBeat: How long have you been working in the space?
Marks: I’ve been at PlayStation for 17 years. It’s a long time in Silicon Valley. My parents owned a video game retail store in 1983, so games have been a part of my life forever.
GamesBeat: First things first. Here is PlayStation VR at the beginning of August, a few months out from launch. The first step in my mind — you guys are formulating this as a platform. How do we think about this in terms of third-party development? If you frame it as a platform, how do you cultivate third-party relationships?
Marks: Right, because it is a platform. We have the hardware part of it, and also the software side. On software we have our own first party, which has to be committed in order to make the hardware fully realized. But always, at PlayStation, we’ve felt that third parties have to be there to make the platform complete.
It’s great with VR, because there are such good middleware companies right now. You can get into making a game quickly. Getting something on the screen in VR is easier than it’s ever been to do anything in games.
GamesBeat: The focus for all the console platforms has been on getting third parties to build content. But it’s not as easy for each of them. How would you go about explaining to the people who are thinking, “I need to be in VR” — what’s the path? Can you give a little clarity on how to move forward?
Marks: Right now some of the greatest ideas in VR are coming from the indie crowd. There’s no real road map as far as the “right thing” to make in VR. There are so many things that could work. People are exploring all over the place. There’s this balance of this great amount of ideas and energy coming out of the indie side. But at the same time, it’s important to have some of these titles people have heard of before to get the mainstream audience to care.
We have things like Batman and Star Wars coming to our platform. It creates this great balance of established things with new ideas. Any developer could be the one to figure out the thing that people will try. As long as enough VR headsets are out there, somebody making something new will have people ready to try it out.
GamesBeat: As someone who doesn’t know how to make games at all, it seems to me, though, that the first thing you do with any kind of new platform, you always look back to what came before. You’re moving forward through the rear-view mirror in a sense. What can we expect as far as the design agenda here? At E3, we saw Resident Evil. Obviously, we’ll use VR to scare people. But where do we break new ground?
Marks: A lot of people ask about what’s the right kind of game to make in VR. There is no right thing. It’s easy to get things up on the screen and be in VR, but the design of what you do there is still not fully fleshed out. But we do know that some things work very well.
The feeling of presence in a space lends itself to certain kinds of activity. Actually, it lends itself to activity in general. Sitting there passively feels awkward. That’s why games resonate so well with VR. When you’re in VR, you feel like you should do something. Things are happening. You feel like they’re next to you. You want to contribute and be part of the action. Interactivity is th enumber one thing that works best in VR, we find. Keeping people busy doing stuff.
The big difference with VR, again, is that things are all around you. It’s not remote, through a window, like on a 2D screen. Things that are close to you feel very powerful, things where you can reach out and interact with them directly. That doesn’t exist when you’re doing things through a window. On a 2D screen it’s a layer of abstraction, always keeping you away. You’re one step away from what’s happening. In VR it feels like you’re doing that. That lends itself to a lot of things.
Sandbox games are perfect, where you can just play. You can take a very simple thing and tweak one factor, like gravity or friction, and all of a sudden you have a whole new world around you to interact with. Superhero games are fun to play normally, but when you’re seeing the fireball actually shoot out of your own hand, or you’re levitating something, it’s so much more visceral.
GamesBeat: Arguably, there is a transition here from more passive entertainment to active entertainment. What does that look like? Are we breaching a kind of mimetic experience for people? How do you close the gap from a design perspective?
Marks: We’ve already been doing first-person games. That’s a thing that comes over quite well. Third-person games in VR are also still not off the table. There are some great third-person experiences. Another thing that works well, any world that you would want to visit—people already have some places from books or movies that they’d like to try. Getting to be in that space is another great thing.
Maybe the existing designs of games don’t go over so well, but the existing worlds come over very well. A new game we have is something I first played in 2D, this beautiful world called Bound. It reacts to the player’s third-person character as they move around. I just really wish I could be in that world. But now they have a VR version, and when you go in it’s exactly what you’d want it to be. It feels like you’re seeing that world all around you. You just feel completely like you’re there. That’s the beauty of what VR gives you for games.
GamesBeat: We’re strapping devices on people’s heads. How do you make it so we’re doing something immersive but still keeping it social? Where does that come in?
Marks: My lab has worked on that a lot lately. Last year we worked with Massive on this kind of cooperative experience, a little bit similar to the Toybox we mentioned earlier, where you can reach out and hand things back and forth and talk with the voice chat. Then we worked on full body avatars. You can see the other person’s whole body. Now we have a lot of different social things going on. We have multiplayer VR games coming out.
That social experience, being in another place with somebody, there’s nothing else like that. It’s one of the most powerful aspects of VR. There’s a lot of different ways to get a social engagement in VR. You can have two people over a network in this shared space. But also, we’re finding you can have people in the same real-world space interact with a person in VR. We call it asymmetric VR, asymmetric gaming. Some people are playing through the 2D screen while others are in VR.
We have the Playroom game that comes with PlayStation VR for free, because we want to encourage that kind of experience where people aren’t isolated. They’re connected to what’s going on.
GamesBeat: It’s easy to forget that we as an industry, to some degree, are an echo chamber. We’re all very excited about this. But consumers, how do they seem to — do they pick this up intuitively? What experiences have you had showing this to your family and other people?
Marks: I have three boys. They’re 21, 18, and 16 years old. The 18-year-old had a friend over when we had it at home that weekend. He tried it, and then he called his parents to come over and try it. That’s a pretty interesting thing for an 18-year-old to do. And then they called their other son and his girlfriend. Pretty soon the house was full of people trying VR. It’s because it’s so different, so powerful an experience.
GamesBeat: In a few months, the device comes out. How do we get this in people’s hands? It’s one thing to have this pie-in-the-sky dream we’re all working toward. VR goes back decades as an imagined space. How do we operationalize it? How does Sony get this done and build the platform?
Marks: We started in 2010 as a grass roots engineering effort. It expanded into a full project indoors. At the time it seemed like it would be more of an enthusiast thing. It wasn’t the “year of VR” like it is now. But we still felt it was important as a company to do this.
We have a long history of manufacturing consumer-level hardware, of course. It’s a pretty straightforward thing to bring a product like this to market. But there are some important differences with VR. We can’t broadcast it. It doesn’t broadcast well. The important thing is to let people try it for themselves. That’s a very big challenge.
We have two major ways we’re trying to deal with that. One is through the idea of a demo disc. We had them back in the day, and now it’s coming back again. That’s important in VR because you can’t have a game that’s completely amazing for two straight hours, every bit of it. When someone comes over and you want to show them a demonstration, you want that ultimate five minutes that you can give them. The demo disc is these five-minute bits from each of the games that encapsulates them.
Another approach is being in stores. This is a brute force kind of effort. We plan to do 500,000 demos by the end of the year in Best Buy and GameStop.
GamesBeat: You’ll have a human in the store?
Marks: Yeah. It’s important to make sure that the experience is good, especially if it’s the first experience anyone’s ever had. We have someone in there running the demos who knows what the player is supposed to experience and making sure they have a good time doing it.
GamesBeat: Retail is always a tough thing for a non-incumbent to penetrate. You have to have the kiosk, which you pay for yourself. It’s an expensive but critical part of the process. You need the distribution set up. Ultimately, it’s an expensive device. It’s extra money out of people’s pockets, and you’ll require some killer applications to get it there.
Marks: One thing we’re seeing in stores is that different people have different tastes. It’s important to have an offering that matches people’s tastes. Having one single experience is not the right answer. We’re finding that some people are very into space games. They want to play EVE Valkyrie. Other people don’t know anything about it. They want something that feels more like a Disney ride, so we have this Ocean Descent part of the VR worlds. Others want an action game. We have all these different choices. If we give players that choice, it’s more likely they’ll have an experience that resonates.
GamesBeat: If so many people are going to make content for this, where does the curation process begin? How do you make sure it stays within certain parameters to present an experience that you guys want to present?
Marks: Probably more than with any other content, that matters in VR. It’s completely replacing the world you around you with generated content. We have the luxury of, because we’re on a fixed platform, the developer can tune their experience exactly and know how it’ll play in everyone’s home. We have a technical requirements checklist that we go over to make sure it will be a good experience for people. We want creative content, but we also want to make sure that the content going into people’s homes is a good experience.
GamesBeat: You’ve seen much more than anyone else in this room, especially for your own platform. What gets you excited?
Marks: The thing that’s the most amazing to me is—I do have this luxury, because I go to a lot of events and know a lot of researchers. I get to see things at really early stages. I get to see the final polished things from all the companies. But I’m amazed that there’s still stuff that surprises me. I’ve tried location-based VR. There are some amazing experiences people are making there.
Recently I tried one of our own internal projects and I was shocked at this new kind of experience. It’s the PlayStation VR aiming controller. Farpoint is the experience. I’ve tried experiences where you have an interactive plasma cannon or whatever it is. And I’ve been on a ledge in VR I don’t know how many times. But because you’re holding this thing in your hand it feels like you’re looking down—you’re seeing it visually as this really heavy thing. The sense of vertigo I got was way more amplified than anything before, because it felt like the weight of that thing should pull me over the ledge. I should have known that, probably, that I would meet that multiplier effect. But things like that still surprise me.
Actually, the research we’re working on right now I’m really excited about. The whole idea of social presence, when you’re talking about social VR. But also, you can get a feeling of social presence from autonomous characters, virtual characters. Virtual agents. When you’re in another space with these game characters, it’s different from seeing them on the television. You see what their heads are looking at. You hear multiple voices talking spatially around you. They feel like they’re actually there with you. You have this presence from a game character and they feel more intelligent in how they react. That’s a really rich area for research.
GamesBeat: Responding to AI can be a much more detailed experience, with things like facial expressions.
Marks: Yeah. And also just having a character turn to look at you, then look over at his friend. Maybe he picks up something and hands it to you. All of this is virtual, but you start to buy into it much more. You’re completely immersed in what’s happening because of the social feeling of another agent giving you that belief, that this thing is really happening.
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