Jesse Schell is a leader in the game industry, as the author of a book on game design and a professor at the Entertainment Technology Center at Carnegie Mellon University. But this academic is also the CEO of Schell Games, the Pittsburgh game design studio that focuses on “transformational games,” or those that seek to have some kind of impact.
And he is all-in on virtual reality and augmented reality games. In fact, Schell Games will publish four VR titles and three AR titles by the end of the year. The company is the creator of I Expect You To Die, the funny VR title being published for the Oculus Touch hand controller and Oculus Rift VR headset.
I spoke with Schell about his enthusiasm for VR at the Oculus Connect event in San Jose, Calif., last week. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: I got a chance to play I Expect You to Die. It’s a different kind of game for you guys. How did that come about, doing a spy game?
Jesse Schell: We started on that a couple of years ago. It was really the first serious VR project we had at the studio. It came out of an argument, which was all about what worked and didn’t work in VR. We had some people who really wanted games about locomotion. I was arguing against that. I’ve been working on VR for 20 years. Don’t do that. It makes people sick. One of the devs got really frustrated and said, “This is stupid. This is why VR sucks. You put on the headset, you want to feel like a superhero. What kind of superhero gets tied to a chair?”
Then we all looked at each other like, “That happens all the time. It’s just no one’s ever made a game about it.” We had this idea. What if we had a game where you couldn’t move, you were stuck in a chair, and you had to MacGyver your way out of a death trap? It sounded so fun that we built a prototype and loved it. Then we just kept at it.
GamesBeat: Where did you get the title?
Schell: Oh, we were talking about famous death trap situations, like Batman and Superman. Then we thought of James Bond, and the famous scene in Goldfinger. He’s tied up and the laser beam is gonna cut him in half. “Do you expect me to talk?” And Goldfinger says, “No, Mr. Bond, I expect you to die!” What a perfect title. Especially because we knew you’d be dying a lot in the game. That could be a big part of the fun. All these things would go wrong and you’d die over and over.
GamesBeat: Do you think of this as a purely fun game, or did you have any other angle on it?
Schell: No, it’s very much a game. It’s puzzle-solving. It requires a lot of thinking. But it was very much just the idea that it would be super crazy fun. It would use VR as a medium very well.
GamesBeat: Two years is a lot of work going into it.
Schell: Definitely. There was a library prototype we first put up on Oculus Share, and later we put up the car prototype. That’s the one that really got attention. It was the top rated game on Oculus Share for nine straight months until they shut Oculus Share down. It gave us confidence to invest in this and make it into a full game. We’ve been working on it quite some time. We wanted it to be great.
GamesBeat: How soon is it debuting?
Schell: It’s going to be released with Oculus Touch. That’ll be December 6.
GamesBeat: How much content will be in the full game?
Schell: It’ll be four complete missions and some bonus content for the initial release. We haven’t announced pricing yet, but it’ll be between $20 and $30. If you’re all about solving the puzzles, most people can do it in about three hours. But there’s a lot of bonus content and achievements to get. I’d say you could easily squeeze six or eight hours of fun out of it with all the replay value.
For right now we’re not trying to use the model from console games as far as price compared to hours of gameplay and bring it to VR. It doesn’t make a lot of sense when it comes to budgeting. The experiences are so different.
GamesBeat: Did you consider doing some teleporting in this game? It seems like that’s becoming popular with some of the titles here.
Schell: We talked about it a bit, but the game didn’t really need it. We opted for telekinesis instead of teleportation.
GamesBeat: Pulling things toward you and so on?
Schell: Right. The danger of teleportation is it has the danger of degrading your feeling of presence. Every time you teleport, you lose your relationship with the environment and you have to get that back. Whereas if you can keep the same relationship with the environment, the world seems so much more real.
For us, again and again, our focus was, “What can we do to maintain the sense of presence and make it seem as real as possible?” The phrase we often use is that presence is more important than gameplay. We have other games we’re doing where we’re using teleportation. We have one we’re doing right now for the Daydream that’s all about teleporting. But for this game, we wanted you to be in this place.
GamesBeat: I suppose if you don’t have legs in this, you really do need the use of your hands. The Touch is appropriate for this.
Schell: Yeah, absolutely. That’s a big shift. This is a lot like the shift from stage plays to cinema. In the beginning everyone thought, “Okay, we understand theater. We’ll just point a camera at a stage like we’ve been doing for thousands of years.” But gradually people learned that the medium is different. It’s the same here. A lot of people who were trying naïve adaptations from video games to VR are realizing that they do need to do things differently.
GamesBeat: Do you think that some of these attempts at doing much longer VR games are going to work? A few are debuting here, like the Metro 2033 guys, with a game they think you’ll play for 10 hours and more.
Schell: Oh, definitely. If you look at what people want to do and how people—people who are given good content and given the freedom to play how they want to play in VR, their play sessions are generally in the area of 45 to 90 minutes. That’s very normal.
GamesBeat: So you just have to make that comfortable?
GamesBeat: There have been a lot of uncomfortable experiences.
Schell: I know! I don’t know why people do it, but they’ve done it. It’s a bad idea. If you give people great experiences, they want to spend a lot of time in them.
GamesBeat: What else are you working on right now?
Schell: Oh my God. This year is a little crazy. Before the end of 2016, we have seven games coming out. Four of them are VR games and the other three are AR games. It’s a big collection of things.
We have our Happy Atoms augmented reality chemistry set coming out in November. We’ve been working with Osmo and helping them out with some things. We’re doing two different titles for the Daydream, Frostbound and another unannounced title. I Expect You to Die is coming out on Oculus Touch and possibly other platforms. Orion Trail, a game we did for PC and Samsung Gear VR, we’re going to bring that to the Rift as well. We have a lot of things coming.
GamesBeat: You obviously believe these new media and new platforms will be big. What stage do you think we’re in for VR and AR? What do you see on the horizon?
Schell: The way I always put it, 2016 is the year when VR devices move into the retail channel and never leave. This is the year it begins and doesn’t go away.
GamesBeat: We’re going to be seeing new platform every year, it seems like. Different players may be coming in with new hardware every six months. Is that a good thing?
Schell: A very good thing. One of the ways I think about it, I remember 1978. I look at that as a big year, when computers came into the home. The Apple II showed up, the Atari 800. They were super expensive and kind of nerdy and people weren’t sure they would stick. New ones were coming out soon – was that a problem? It turns out that no, that was great. New stuff kept coming out and prices kept going down. New inventions kept happening. People saw the power of these experiences. The entertainment experiences those platforms afforded were miles ahead of anything we’d ever seen. Better than Pong, better than arcade games.
We’ll see the same thing here. We’ll see a constant stream of innovation. We have at least five years – at least! – of solid innovation in this space. We’ll see it grow and evolve and flower. It’ll be very exciting.
GamesBeat: What do you think of the social VR we’re seeing?
Schell: I’m thrilled that Oculus is putting so much emphasis on that. We see this with every digital medium. It starts out as a single-player experience. Then someone adds social multiplayer and it gets huge. That’s when it gets big, makes money, really becomes a part of culture. These guys are trying to short-circuit that and get it happening a little faster than normally, which is great.
That’s our next focus. We’ve spent a lot of time so far just trying to get entrenched in the modern VR systems. As a studio we’re moving into multiplayer and social VR. It’s the most powerful social digital medium.
GamesBeat: Abrash’s talk was interesting. He set some of the boundaries for where tech is going in the next five years.
Schell: I agreed with some of his predictions. I think particularly the business of foveated rendering, that was pretty interesting. And the importance of wireless, how we’re going to take great strides toward having more wireless experiences. There were others I didn’t quite understand. [laughs]
GamesBeat: The latter part of the talk resonated more with me. The earlier part, I was wondering a bit where he was going.
Schell: When he was talking about a 140-degree field of view within five years that somehow happens without lenses, I didn’t really understand what he was talking about. I’ve been hearing that story for 30 years now and seeing no advancement. I’m not quite sure what that was. We’ll see how it all goes down.
GamesBeat: The foveated rendering part, I could see—if you make it less expensive to render then the machines get cheaper and the installed base can get bigger. You can reach a larger consumer base.
Schell: You can make a better experience more quickly for less money, which will be really important.
GamesBeat: What’s on your wishlist for things to come? What are you looking forward to?
Schell: Eye tracking is tremendously important for social. Primarily for social, secondarily for foveated rendering. My number one, though, is better hand controls that afford more natural hand movements, the things we like to do with our hands. The great thing about hands is they’re so flexible. I can punch and grasp and pull and touch. I can do very subtle things with a two-finger pinch and even more subtle things with a three-finger grip on a pencil. There’s so much I can do with hands.
Translating that into a trackable controller is a very difficult, subtle piece of business. We’ve seen some nice strides. Oculus Touch is a great first step that way. But some of our biggest advancements are going to come from people continuing to advance and allow me to have natural, expressive interaction with my hands.