Disney’s ILMxLAB and Facebook’s Oculus VR announced this week that the Oculus Quest wireless virtual reality headset will debut in the spring of 2019 with a new original Star Wars VR story dubbed Vader Immortal: A Star Wars VR Series.
The original VR series will have three parts and is part of the same effort that led to The Void’s Star Wars: Secrets of the Empire location-based VR experience. David S. Goyer, a Hollywood screenwriter on everything from The Dark Knight trilogy to Call of Duty: Black Ops, is the executive producer and writer of the Vader experience. He is working with Mohen Leo, ILMxLAB director of immersive content, and Colum Slevin, head of experiences at Oculus, to bring Darth Vader to life.
While earlier efforts to create VR Jedi experiences were cool demos, Goyer said this experience will be the “gold standard,” where you’ll be able to wield a lightsaber in a 360-degree, wireless VR experience. I interviewed them this week at the Oculus Connect 5 event in San Jose, California. Lucasfilm established ILMxLAB in 2015 to create immersive storytelling powered by real-time computer graphics. The Oculus Quest VR headset is a standalone device and it will go on sale for $399.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: I didn’t realize that Secrets of the Empire had so much work behind it until now. How long ago would you say you got started on that?
David Goyer: I think Lucasfilm first contacted me almost three years ago. At the time they knew they wanted to do some form of VR narrative involving Vader. That was about the extent of it. It started a very long learning process. At a certain point, once we landed on what it was going to be, the opportunity to do Secrets of the Empire came up.
Even though Secrets came up first, the more contained experience, we actually started work on the Vader project earlier. There was an opportunity to tease some of the elements of this in Secrets of the Empire. The locations are obvious. Some will become apparent once this comes out. Maybe midway through that, that’s when we became aware of Oculus Quest. Conversations started happening with Oculus.
GamesBeat: Even before you got in touch with Oculus, was it always VR?
Goyer: Yeah, it was always VR. It wasn’t AR or MR. But we hadn’t decided what platform we were going to use. Once we started seeing demos, we decided to create that partnership. That even started affecting some of the storytelling.
Leo: When this project started, I was actually still working on the visual effects side. I was in London working on Rogue One. While we were working on the movie, we started getting phone calls. “Can you scan these sets? We might want to do something in VR with it.” We were already scanning them, so no problem. But it’s been in the works for a long time.
GamesBeat: What are the challenges of writing for VR? You’re not always certain of things like where the viewer is looking when someone’s supposed to be speaking to them.
Goyer: Yeah, there are lots of different challenges. When Lucasfilm first approached me, I’d been involved in film and TV, but I’d also worked on some of the Call of Duty games, which I guess you’d consider a cousin of VR, something like that. I had to re-learn, un-learn a lot of things, a lot of assumptions. We started off with a full script and then realized, as soon as we did the very first test, that we had to throw a lot of assumptions out the window.
It took us a long time, but ultimately we evolved this sort of iterative process where I would write an outline. Mohen and his team gray-boxed things in R&D, different interactive experiences. Then I would go back and rewrite and suggest some things. We’d just go back and forth. I wish I’d known then what we know now. [laughs] We would have saved some time.
Leo: One thing we learned throughout the process is how much we have to make the experience about you as the user, the person in the experience. What we found early on is that if you have two other characters talking to each other, pretty quickly – much faster than in the movies – people start zoning out. “They’re just ignoring me.”
Goyer: Because you can literally just go walk somewhere else.
Leo: But as soon as a character turns to you and speaks to you? You suddenly have the attention. You feel like you’re part of the story. The characters acknowledge you. That became a big part of the design, to try to make sure that every scene puts you in the center.
Goyer: When we first approached it, two and a half years ago, three years ago, there was a thought that in some ways it might be a VR version of immersive theater, where you’re watching a play and you have freedom to move around and observe it from different points of view. As Mohen said, we quickly realized we weren’t capitalizing on this enormous opportunity.
But then the flip side of that is, when someone like Vader is paying attention to you, almost everything else fades away. You don’t hear anyone else talking because you’re so intimidated. We did a lot of tests with that. We did an initial test where Vader comes out and talks to you. That informed a lot of what we did.
GamesBeat: I assume he’s even more intimidating in VR.
Goyer: Way more. I remember the first test I did. It’s so different from watching him on film.
GamesBeat: It seems like this is a moving target. I did Secrets of the Empire in January, down in Anaheim. Certain things about the experience are still clunky – the wooden gun, the heavy backpack. Although it was interesting that they made putting on the backpack part of the experience.
Goyer: We’re still in the early, early days of this medium. I liken it, in CG films, to when Pixar first released that short film, Luxo Junior. It’s so early. There’s a big difference between Secrets, which is location-based, and something you can experience in your home. This is also a cooperative experience. But I imagine all of that, the backpacks and whatnot, that will massively shrink very soon.
Leo: The second we got our hands on Quest and tried it out—you immediately understand that it changes the way you experience VR. One of the things about this experience, you do get to wield a lightsaber. Just knowing that you don’t have to worry about, as you turn around, wrapping yourself up in a cable and tripping over, that changes things. It allows you to dive deeper into the experience. When you have a cable coming out of the back of your head, part of your brain is always thinking about that. Having the freedom to not think about that is fantastic.
GamesBeat: Do you feel you learned some things from Secrets that went into the Vader project?
Goyer: Absolutely. Even tiny things, like what duration of time you can take to impart information to a person in VR. It’s different. We discovered that, for instance, if you really need the user to pay attention for a little while, you might have to spotlight the environment a bit more. You take away some of the distractions, because the feeling of presence is so real. People talk about VR and presence, but being able to inhabit a Star Wars story—we’ve all dreamed about this since we were little kids. Now you can actually do it. It’s a whole new ballgame.
The other thing we learned—Secrets is a very fast-paced experience. It’s also a fairly short experience. This is a more expansive experience. We shouldn’t and wouldn’t want to maintain that pace for the entire experience. There are moments where you can be reflective in this experience. There are even moments of strange beauty. We were able to modulate all these different emotions.
Leo: Pacing is something that we’ve thought a lot about over time. You can’t drag people at a particular speed through the experience. “Now this, now this, and now this.” You need to let them, in a way—you give them a bite of story, let them digest that, and then they can decide when they’re ready to move on. That also came out of Secrets of the Empire.
Especially when people do VR for the first time, or they haven’t done it a lot–the first thing that pretty much everyone does in Secrets of the Empire is look down at their hands. If you’re trying to tell them the story at that moment, it’s just not going to register. If you have to do setup or exposition, which is certainly something we’re doing in this project, you have to do it carefully. You have to keep it short and focused. You may have to repeat things.
GamesBeat: I just came out of Quest as well, and it seems like the size of the space available to you might change. Does that change the game experience in some way, with a smaller or larger area to play in?
Leo: We’re definitely trying to capitalize on the freedom of movement. What we have to be mindful of, though, is the experience has to work in spaces that everyone has — in your living room. We don’t want to make something that requires a massive space.
GamesBeat: How did you proceed once you started working with Oculus? You started with Secrets, and now you’re moving to this three-part thing, which sounds a lot more ambitious.
Goyer: It was actually a boon when Colum’s team came on. This is a new medium. Even this specific kind of VR narrative is new. It hasn’t really been attempted before. His whole department has been working on that from all these different angles. They were able to add all the experience they’ve had in some of the other projects they’ve been developing. It’s very helpful.
Colum Slevin: We’ve been talking to David and to the team at xLAB since the inception of the project, but Oculus Quest wasn’t formally on the road map yet. We didn’t have that all planned out. It took some time for the stars to align around what we wanted to do. I was really excited about helping to bring a Star Wars story to the platform, but until Oculus Quest came into view—that was the last piece for us, to realize that untethered VR and 360 degrees of motion with a lightsaber would be amazing.
Most of what we do with xLAB is similar to what we do with a lot of developers. We just try to remove obstacles, be supportive, and to the extent that we have the benefit of some wisdom from working with a range of developers, we try to bring that to the table as well. But these guys are the best in the world at what they do.
GamesBeat: Fans have already seen the Jedi experience in things like Disney’s AR products, or Trials of Tatooine. Is there something more you want to give to fans than what they’ve already tried?
Goyer: When I first did Trials of Tatooine I thought it was amazing. But that was a demo, in a way. This, we think, is hopefully the gold standard. This is an original story. It was constructed specifically for VR. It’s not a piece of marketing that’s done as an adjunct to one of the movies or a TV show. It’s a stand-alone story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. It’s an expansive story. Without giving too much away, it’s something fans will not have experienced yet.
Slevin: It’s richer. I love the glimpses and the tastes I’ve gotten of Star Wars in VR, but this is a full meal. This is a full story. It has its own creative integrity. It has depth. It’s connected, but it stands alone.
Goyer: It’s connected to the Star Wars universe. We’ve already had some touch points with Secrets of the Empire, and there may be more touch points with other Star Wars stories in other media. But it’s its own story. Hopefully we’re also adding to the Star Wars mythology in this.