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Survios isn’t slowing down because the virtual reality market has been slow to take off. Instead, the company is running full speed ahead with the impending launch of its latest VR game Sprint Vector, a “get off the couch” game where you get exercise by waving your arms as you race against other players.
Sprint Vector comes out on Thursday on the PC and on February 13 on the PlayStation VR. The company is also working on a music VR game called Electronauts, and it is opening a new virtual reality arcade in a mall in Southern California. While other VR companies are starving for cash, Survios had a hit with Raw Data, a sci-fi shooter game, and that enabled it to raise a $50 million funding round from investors including Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
I caught up with James Iliff, chief creative officer at Los Angeles-based Survios, in an interview. Iliff and his team came out of the University of Southern California, working on early VR prototypes in 2014 before the launch of the Oculus Rift VR headset. Iliff hopes to be one of the survivors as VR eventually hits its stride.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview
GamesBeat: You guys are launching pretty soon, right?
James Iliff: Our next title, Sprint Vector, is coming out February 8 on PC, all platforms there, and then February 13 on PlayStation VR. We have an arcade opening, too, our owned and operated Survios arcade. That’s February 9. There’s a lot going on all at once for us.
GamesBeat: Is Sprint Vector cross-platform, where people can play each other, or is each a kind of silo?
Iliff: It’s cross-platform between Oculus and Vive users. Currently PlayStation VR is its own platform. It’s something we’re looking into. We’ll see where we go. Ideally, cross-platform is a great thing for all players. Judging from the beta weekends we’ve had the past two weeks with all our PC users — we have a lot of concurrent users with our event space strategy. We can have up to eight players all together in VR.
GamesBeat: I think before when I saw it you could only have two people?
Iliff: That’s right, you tried the very early demo. We’re going to be launching 12 full competitive maps, as well as nine challenge courses, and it’s open for up to eight players. Those can be human players or AI. We’ve created a very robust AI, so that all the slots in the race are filled by smart AI racers that you can fight against. And of course there’s a bunch of power-ups and boosts and other types of things to give that rubber-band effect. If you’re in seventh place, you still have a chance to catch up.
Sprint Vector is building on top of our core product pieces that we’ve had since day zero in the industry. We’re building active, premium VR content. With Raw Data, or really with every one of our products, we’re striving to solve the biggest challenges in VR each time. We don’t want to just rinse and repeat the same style of games. We want to always tackle something new and something challenging. In doing that, we forge a whole new genre.
I’m sure you remember, in the early days — you played our Zombies on the Holodeck demo, back when we were pitching for our series A round with Rob Coneybeer of Shasta Ventures. That was essentially an early version of Raw Data. That was the first wave shooter to exist in VR, the first action combat experience. Now, with Sprint Vector, we’re inventing this genre we like to call adrenaline platforming. It’s very much like a parkour racing experience. It’s very active. Same thing with Electronauts as well, with music creation. It’s all very intuitive, very active. It’s always a premium quality experience.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me more about what Electronauts is about?
Iliff: We don’t have a release date yet, but it’s a very intuitive co-op DJ and music creation experience. I can barely scratch the surface here, but there’s a whole bunch of tools. For new players, there are nodes you can play around with, using different sound effects. You can do very deep, layered stem arrangements, or change backing tracks. There are these intuitive hologram tools to change the phase across three different axes of phasing. You can jam out with your friends using all these music tools. It’s a really fun spectacle, too. We have some crazy visualizers.
We have some really exciting music creators teaming up with us to create different rooms. We call them rooms instead of songs, because you’re physically experiencing a three-dimensional space. We did announce Stargate, the Mikkel Eriksen duo. Mikkel Eriksen of course has produced for many top artists. That’s coming up later this year.
We have a lot of exciting titles as yet unannounced that are soon to come. They all build on this core philosophy of not just building very active, premium content, but also making content that’s accessible, that people can pick up and play. This feeds into our arcade strategy. We want to bring VR to the masses, to where people go. There’s a whole market, in our opinion, of users out there that love VR, but they’re not interested in committing to a large purchase, or they’re not interested in the friction associated with installing it in their home. They’re saying to us, “Instead of making me put this in my home, why not put it where I go? If I’m going to the theater, the mall, the bowling alley, why not put VR there?”
From our very early tests, our Del Amo arcade location is just the very beginning of this business we’re building. We’ve been learning a lot about how arcade customers work, what they’re looking for. It’s a huge untapped market, but it’s not just arcades. It’s also just the business of bringing VR to people. “Arcade” might even be too limiting a term. There’s a big market here that we’re getting an early lead on, and it’s extremely compelling. In our opinion, it will pop the cap off the market in tandem with retail, but even beyond what retail is doing.
In all of our games we’re building, we didn’t want to sacrifice quality for accessibility. There’s a lot of interesting hardware products out there, like mobile VR and different hybrids that are interesting. We think there’s cool content there. But it’s kind of sacrificing the full body user experience, the really high quality user experience, to have something that’s more accessible.
GamesBeat: You’re not doing anything with just three degrees of freedom.
Iliff: Right. Some of them — you have a three-degrees-of-freedom (3DoF) controller, but you don’t get positional tracking. It’s going to take time. Ultimately we hope for the day we can have super accessible products that have all the tracking and all the graphics. That’s going to be a wonderful day. But even still, there’s this huge opportunity to bring VR to where people go in their daily lives, making it both accessible and premium. In this way, we’re fulfilling our original mission, which is making premium VR content and getting it into everyone’s hands.
GamesBeat: Where is your arcade location?
Iliff: We’re opening up in Torrance, California, near Palos Verdes, at the Del Amo Fashion Center. It’s not far from where you have the GamesBeat Summits, actually. It’s a beautiful, fairly new mall complex, and it’s gigantic. I keep discovering new wings every time I’m there. There’s a whole outdoor section, and we just did a soft opening not too long ago. We’re doing a big grand opening on February 9.
GamesBeat: Are you going to have a bunch of games, besides your own?
Iliff: Absolutely. We believe in premium content. Whatever content is the best, whatever content best represents VR as a medium, we’ll be showing it front and center.
GamesBeat: Do you know how many games you’ll have at the start, then?
Iliff: We have our three games, our in-house games — Raw Data, Sprint Vector, and soon we’ll be doing some Electronauts activations with DJ nights, when we get closer to product launch. And then we’ve published Smashbox Arena, of course, to all of our arcade network. We have one of the largest arcade networks in the world right now, across 36 countries. We’re distributing other VR games, both to our own arcade and to our partners. Then we also have a larger list that we’re showcasing at the Del Amo center. I think it’s around 20 premium titles.
GamesBeat: Is this a way to deal with the friction VR is facing?
Iliff: Very early on — I know I’m not the only one who feels this way, but for a lot of us who started in this industry, who were there at the inception point, we always felt that this is a long play. It’s going to take time for user adoption of new hardware. We see this consistently with console cycles. It takes a full seven years for the console cycle to grow and for more content to come out.
There’s something similar here with VR. A lot of early predictions were very generous, very optimistic, and it’s cool to see that everyone was very excited, but we expected to see the growth rate that we’re seeing here. This is something we expected early on. We’ve noticed that the retail market does have velocity. It’s going up at a steady rate, and that’s wonderful. But if you look at the acceleration, it’s actually not providing an exponential growth as predicted. It’s fairly steady. That’s when you start to notice a ceiling in the market. The ceiling is going up, but only at a certain pace. It’s not rapid, exponential growth.
That retail ceiling is essentially an acceleration ceiling. It’s happening when there is friction with the hardware user experience. It’s taking time and effort to install cameras and install PCs and get everything up and running and have a running VR unit in your home. That’s what we’re seeing right now, what’s causing the retail ceiling. But these strategies around arcades, bringing VR to where people are hanging out already, that changes the game.
We’re not bound by that ceiling anymore. Now we’re dealing with a different customer set, a different business that can get foot traffic in quickly. We can get people playing many different games very quickly and give access to anyone who’s capable of picking up a headset and controllers to play the games. They don’t have to buy or install anything. Ultimately we think this market, in tandem with retail, is going to be a very big opportunity for VR.
If there’s one thing we all realize in the VR industry — every time we go to conferences, every time we’re showing off our content, there are still so many customers who walk up and they’re still blown away, as if it’s day one. I’ve shown people a demo and they get super excited, just like it’s three years ago. But for us, we’ve seen it all. That’s what’s fascinating for me. There’s no trough of disillusionment for them. This is their first time.
What that says to me, and ultimately to all of us in the industry, is that the customers are there. It’s up to us to figure out how to get those customers while the hardware is catching up to demand.
GamesBeat: Back to Sprint Vector, I’m sure you guys have tuned it over time? I remember having a hard time controlling the game as I was running.
Iliff: I remember you had trouble climbing. Climbing is still in the game, but we’ve put it in the advanced section of our tutorial. We have three tutorials: beginning, intermediate, and advanced. We did realize that climbing takes more time to learn. We’ve evolved a lot of things, done a lot of things to improve that particular feature set. One big thing was making it part of the advanced stage of the game. The later maps are the ones with climbing puzzles. You’re not hit with a huge climbing wall right out of the gate, so you can learn a bit more, take more time.
We’ve also been polishing a feature we call group streams, where instead of having to grab an individual node on a wall and deal with the spatial challenge of climbing using VR controllers; instead we actually invented a stream. It’s a 2D plane with arrows that go in a direction and they can behave like a ladder, behave like monkey bars. You can essentially grab anywhere in this plane, within the stream, and it’ll start shooting you forward, like a moving walkway. If you want to accelerate faster, you can climb up and grab anywhere you want, or you can swing forward like the monkey bars. You can grab anywhere you want inside this volume and climb or swing yourself through the stream.
We’ve found, with our user tests, that this is much more successful for new users. They don’t have to deal with proximity, with getting their hand close to a node in order to climb. Also, if they fall off a wall, fall down the side and there’s no nodes there, those issues are gone. A lot of the initial upfront challenge that users had with the climbing functionality, we feel that’s been addressed by group streams. It’s a whole new concept and we’re excited to get feedback.
We have a whole bunch of community videos coming up on YouTube now, where people are trying these special challenge courses with all these group streams in them. One in particular is called Sidewinder, where you’re actually using group streams vertically horizontally and jumping and slinging through all these crazy contraptions. It’s really insane to watch.
It’s a lot of fun to play with other people as well. That whole social multiplayer aspect is huge for us. That’s consistent through all of our games. With Raw Data we wanted to have back-to-back combat action. In Sprint Vector, we have head to head racing with your friends. In Electronauts you’re jamming together with your friends. Having that full one-to-one avatar together in VR is still some of the most compelling stuff you can do in the medium. Having online multiplayer enabled is a key pillar for us.
GamesBeat: Do you see these games crossing over with esports?
Iliff: There’s a lot of excitement around esports right now. We think there’s a whole new genre happening, a new type of athlete happening. I don’t know if you caught the Alienware VR Cup in Vegas in January, but we had thousands of people come out. We showed off Sprint Vector. People were paying it for about $10,000 in prizes. We were just testing the waters.
It has to be community-driven, though. If people love the product, if people are competing in the product, then people will build an esports community. That’s our number one belief. You can’t force it or pay your way into it. It has to be something people believe in. I think Sprint Vector has a solid shot. We’re excited to see where the esports angle goes.
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