Payton’s studio, Camafloj, finally revealed what it was doing this week with Iron Man VR. They have been trying to perfect Iron Man’s flights of fancy in the three-dimensional spaces of virtual reality. I tried it out, and the experience is immersive. You point the PlayStation Move controllers, with your palms down and pressing buttons so that you can fire your thrusters and move upward in VR.
You can point a palm at an enemy and fire your Repulsor Beams. The motions are a lot like the fantasy of being Iron Man, and that’s the way Payton wants it. I talked to him at a recent Sony event about making the Iron Man of his dreams and bringing it to the world. The game debuts in 2019 on PlayStation VR.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: How did you get connected with Marvel?
Ryan Payton: I was a journalist way back in the day. One of the folks I used to work with was Bryan Intihar, one of my best friends. Eventually, he became creative director on Spider-Man. Around the time they announced at E3 2016, he introduced me to Jay Ong, the head of Marvel Games, in the Marriott lobby, where all biz dev happens at E3. From there it was a snowball effect. I knew I’d love to work with Marvel and it seemed like they wanted to work with us on a VR game.
One thing led to another, and next thing I knew we were working with Marvel on Iron Man VR. We eventually created a partnership with Sony, and they’ve been extremely supportive. They’ve always been about wanting to enable developers like Camouflaj to make not just an experimental game, but a full-fledged real game for PlayStation VR. That’s what we’ve been doing for the past two-and-a-half years.
GamesBeat: What had you done before that? Have you done anything else in VR?
Payton: Our first foray into VR was actually doing a VR port for our first game a company, which was called Republique. We did a game called Republique VR, which was a launch title for Oculus Go. We were working on that with a small team while the majority of the team — it’s a 50-plus person team up in Seattle — was working on Iron Man VR. If you include contract help at the moment, we’re well over 60 people on the game right now.
GamesBeat: What sort of story did you come up with? Is it related to the movies?
Payton: Iron Man VR is a completely original story, built from the ground up. We obviously take some inspiration from the comics of the films, but it’s an original story. That’s one of the things we first started off with, working with Bill Roseman, the creative director of Marvel Games. How can we create an authentic Iron Man story that leverages the strengths of VR? The immersiveness and the first-person nature.
When you played the game you saw that we really mapped what Iron Man is about as a character to the strengths of VR. You have your helmet, which is the HUD. You have the repulsors, which are the PlayStation Move controllers. You can fly and shoot with those. We wanted to do the full Iron Man fantasy, but not just in an arcade game or an action game exclusively. We wanted to pair that with my favorite aspect of Iron Man, which is the Tony Stark character. He’s a very complex character. Exploring that character in first-person was a core pillar of the title from the very beginning. Early on we were developing the flight mechanics while we were also developing the story with Marvel, to tell an authentic story that would really match the VR aesthetic.
GamesBeat: How did you wind up with the way you do flight? The first thought I had was that pulling the triggers to shoot something would be more intuitive than pushing the buttons, but you went the opposite way.
Payton: From day one, when we first created our prototype of Iron Man VR, we mapped the controls as best we could to the repulsors. The most natural thing to us was that the triggers would operate the repulsor jets. Even in the early gray box form, building it in Unity, we were able to fly around just like Iron Man would, and it was super fun. Within the first week we had a prototype that really spoke to the strengths of what Iron Man is.
We knew we were on to something when we first showed the game to Marvel. One of the Marvel Games employees was in the corner playing our prototype for 20 minutes, just flying really fast around that gray box environment. That’s when we knew there was something here. It was a perfect match of the Iron Man IP to VR. From there we started working on the shooting mechanics. As you saw, it’s really trying to leverage that fantasy of being Iron Man, where the shots come out of your palms. That’s where we mapped the Move button to those actions.
GamesBeat: You don’t want to have one finger down when you’re trying to do that.
Payton: Typically not, yeah. Internally we talk about how our game, early on — I don’t know if you felt the same way, but it reminds us of the early days when we were playing the Tony Hawk demo on the PlayStation. The mechanics were totally different, and it was fun to learn. As people get more air time in the suit, they’re flying around with one trigger down, and then shooting with the Move button. They’re doing all these crazy tricks. It was fun to watch people as, over time, they’re getting used to flying around and shooting.
GamesBeat: I was still doing the opposite of what I thought I’d do sometimes.
Payton: It does require a bit of remapping, yeah.
GamesBeat: It almost felt like flying a flight sim, whether it’s inverted or not inverted. You’re not sure which way you’re going to go sometimes. Pushing down, you think you’re going to go that direction, but you’re going to go up because of the way the thrust works.
Payton: One of the big challenges of Iron Man VR is that there’s no playbook. There’s no blueprint for how to make a game like this. VR is still in its infancy. We’re also learning. We knew we didn’t want to create an experimental VR experience. We wanted to make a full game. Developing the flight mechanics has been a real challenge, but it’s been a lot of fun. Once players remap their brains to match the triggers in the bottom of their palms being where the propulsion comes from, then they’re doing all kinds of cool, crazy things. But it does require some time. We’ve been iterating on that initial tutorial for more than a year, learning about what’s most natural for players. We want to allow them to do full 360 movement in PlayStation VR, too.
GamesBeat: I wondered how you did that, because the sensors don’t usually allow that.
Payton: We have some absolute wizards working at Camouflaj and our development partners at Dark Wind in New York. They weren’t intimidated by the challenge of having only the single PlayStation VR camera. We designed the game so players can move around 360, uninhibited, and not have to worry about where they’re looking and whether they’re facing the camera. There’s a bunch of tricks underneath the hood, a dozen or so unique things we’re doing that are predictive, that use the gyroscope in the Move controllers.
GamesBeat: You always know if somebody is pressing the buttons, and where that’s going.
Payton: We have a lot of black magic that we’re using to predict, very accurately, what the player’s trying to do. It’s completely invisible to the player, allowing them to have that full 360 movement in large spaces.
GamesBeat: You still want to be mindful of the cord, though.
Payton: Exactly. One of the things that came online pretty late in creating the demo was the chaperone. I don’t know if you saw that come up at all, but it’s that Iron Man-looking gold cage that comes up. We wanted to make it look like part of the HUD and have that full 360 3D dimensionality, a cool representation of what the chaperone would look like. Players do have to stay within a four by four space, but we tried to make it as cool as possible. It feels like you’re in the Iron Man universe, even if we’re really just telling you to please move a bit to the left or to the right.
GamesBeat: It’s still pretty easy to get sick in VR, but I didn’t feel like that was affecting me at all when I was flying. It seems like a risky thing to try to do. Did you feel like you solved that, or does the PlayStation VR solve that?
Payton: I don’t want to take full credit for solving that, but, early on in development, the first question we would get after we told people what the vision of the game was, what we were attempting to do, was, “Is this going to make me sick?” You’re flying around at 250 miles per hour in VR. It sounds like a recipe for trouble. But very early on we made sure that comfort was the top priority. We also looked at hundreds of other VR games and tried to learn from them.
Again, my pitch to Marvel and Sony, originally, was that this would not be an experimental VR game. We’re going to build on the shoulders of other VR giants, other successful VR titles. We’ll learn what they’re doing not only from a game design perspective, but from a comfort and accessibility perspective, to ensure that when we finally show the game to outsiders, there’s going to be no instances of people getting sick. The only time I’ve ever seen anybody get a bit of a pit in their stomach is if they have a fear of heights. To me that’s not a VR issue. It’s more an individual issue, if you’re terrified of flying around with no safety net.
GamesBeat: If you’re getting sweaty, is that simply because you’re in there for a while? Does that indicate anything?
Payton: Based on my experience, the reason why anybody would get sweaty when they’re playing is because of the 360 movement. You’re moving your body a lot – moving your arms, moving your head, ducking underneath the hoodoos in the Malibu setting.
GamesBeat: Toward the very end I felt like I was trying to duck a lot while I was flying.
Payton: It’s one of the small joys of our development studio when we watch people play the game. Not on the screen, but when watch them physically play the game. Over time we notice that players are living the Tony Stark fantasy more and more. The way they hold the Move controllers looks more and more like Iron Man. The way they’re posing looks more like Iron Man when he’s flying. That’s one of the fun things about VR. It breaks down all these barriers to the fantasy. That’s one of the reasons we were so excited when Marvel gave us the blessing to make an Iron Man game. We couldn’t think of a better character to match with VR.
GamesBeat: In the opening scene there, have we seen just a very small part of the game?
Payton: What you played today was just a taste of what the full campaign is going to be. There’s a lot more than 80 left of the game that you haven’t seen. From the very beginning we pitched it as a full game, not an experimental demo. We don’t know exactly how many hours the campaign will be because we’re still building it, but our goal here is to create a Marvel-feeling, authentic Iron Man experience that PlayStation VR users can really sink their teeth into. It’s not a linear campaign. It also has areas with optional missions, deep customization, and other things we’ll be able to talk about soon.
GamesBeat: Do you have a launch date yet?
Payton: We’re shipping in 2019. The team is really over the moon about this game. We’ve been in lockdown, can’t talk about the game, for two and a half years. But we’re feeling really confident in the game. Every time we were able to show it confidentially, people would come out of the experience and say, “I feel like Iron Man.” That’s always been a good motivation boost for the team. Now we have the real test, when folks like you are able to get their hands on the game. Watching people play and do actions that look like Iron Man, it gives me a lot of confidence that we’re on the right track.