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Schell Games CEO: ‘Standalone VR Headsets Are Definitely the Future’

Mar 28, 2020
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Schell Games may not be a household name among game developers yet, but the Pittsburgh-based studio is definitely growing. Founded in 2002 and started with just a handful of people, it now employs over 125 developers making a wide variety of games, everything from mobile games to PC, as well as doing things like interactive theme park experiences, interactive museum experiences, even interactive toys. Schell Games does both education and entertainment and lately, they have been doing a lot of VR, publishing about a dozen VR titles.

So far, the most successful one was I Expect You To Die, a puzzle game released in 2017 where players take the role of a secret agent who needs to escape deadly situations through clever problem solving. The latest VR game released by Schell Games a few months ago, Until You Fall, is perhaps more appealing for core gamers. A sword fighting game that can best be described as a hack and slash rogue-lite, it has garnered overwhelmingly positive reception (97% approval in recent user reviews on Steam and 94% overall) and has been updated with lots of new content in the early access phase.

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We got the chance to interview Jesse Schell, CEO of Schell Games, a while ago. The man had quite a few interesting insights to share on VR and AR games, making for a pretty good read. Enjoy!

 

I've noticed how Schell Games is among the most prolific VR studios right now. I mean, not everyone is as enthusiastic, perhaps, with the creation of VR games and experiences. Why do you think that is the case?

Well, most people don't like to experiment very much. They just like to take a familiar genre and make little changes to it. But we get excited about doing things that are really new and really different. And VR is definitely an area where there's room for lots of experimentation and growth and just new experiences.

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For sure. In terms of level design and stuff like that, how does making a VR game differ from a standard game?

The main thing to have to be aware of is that the affordances are really different. It's similar to when mobile showed up and at first, everybody tried to make mobile games like they were PC games or like they were console games, and they're just not. You have to make the affordances different in mobile, you have to make everything kind of touch-oriented and your interfaces are different. And the types of games that succeed on mobile are really different than the types of games that succeed on PC or console. And VR has the same thing. PC and console games are about running around, you're constantly running, moving through space over large, large areas. And VR is not very good at that. But what VR is good at instead is manipulating objects that are close to you, so the games that succeed tend to be about things that are close. Swords instead of guns, that kind of thing ends up working a lot better in VR.

Do you want to support things like the Valve Index finger tracking in future Schell Games projects?

Oh, yeah, we've supported that a little bit right now. So far we haven't found it to be a very useful interface and the market for it is very small, so it hasn't been a high priority for us. But we definitely have plans to support it more going forward.

Do you think that the big release of Half-Life: Alyx could be something that entices both new players and new developers towards the VR market?

Absolutely! I think that's a great thing for the entire VR industry that that is happening. Because right now there's a lot of gamers who haven't really taken VR seriously, they feel like maybe this is just a fad, maybe we shouldn't pay attention to it. And the appearance of Alyx really signals that, hey, no, this is a serious part of the game industry. And if you're a gamer, you might want to take a hard look at the games that are happening here. And it's also just a signal of a larger investment. That's been the problem so far, you get a lot of complaints. People say, well, why aren't there triple-A games in the VR space? Well, because triple-A games cost $30 million or more to make in most cases. And it's not a worthwhile investment because the market isn't big enough, yet. Seeing the growth of the games is just more confidence that people are getting ready to make big investments in this space. As a graph as an example of that, and half, you know, Alex halflife is definitely the next example of that.

A VR headset that's very popular right now is the Oculus Quest. It's selling a lot, mostly due to the fact that it is standalone. Does it signal that standalone headsets can be the future for VR?

Standalone headsets are definitely the future of VR. PC and console are kind of a temporary half step for VR. But the standalone headsets, they're so much more convenient, there's so much easier to use. They're completely wireless, they're much more affordable. It's just an overall much better experience. We really look at the Oculus Quest and platforms like it as the dominant future of VR.

Do you plan to support the Oculus Quest more in the future?

You know, we are giving a lot of attention to it as we really think it's the most important platform and so the game I Expect You to Die was a launch title on the Quest. And yeah, we're definitely going to be doing a lot more work on it moving forward.

Okay. You're also working on PlayStation VR, right?

Yes, I Expect You to Die has been out on PlayStation VR for quite some time.

Do you plan to also release Until You Fall on PSVR at some point?

There's definitely a lot of talk about that. We're looking hard at that. We're trying to figure that out, I guess long story short, we very much hope to but we're still figuring that out.

I've seen that Until You Fall is still in early access on Steam. Do you have an estimated timeframe for the full release?

We haven't announced anything. But it's going to happen. Yeah, we are starting to put together plans. We don't want to announce anything because we may change our mind about it, but we're starting to get together plans for the 1.0 release.

I'm watching the Steam page and it seems like the feedback is very positive. How did it feel for you at Schell Games?

Yeah, we're thrilled. I Expect You to Die was very successful for us. The problem it has is, being a puzzle game, it doesn't have a lot of replayability. Furthermore, it's very hard to add new content to it, because it's just very expensive to develop in and add new content, though we've added three new levels since the initial launch of I Expect You to Die. But when we did Until You Fall, the goal was to create something where we could keep adding new content and keep dropping new content over time and keep it growing. And further, we wanted a game that was very replayable and we've really seen that. You look at the reviews and you can see not only are people playing it for dozens of hours, but people talk about how it's nice to see a VR game that really supports meaningful replayability. So, we've been thrilled with that, we've been thrilled with the reaction and it's a game that we definitely are going to continue to support.

Did you ever consider adding some kind of multiplayer to the game or is it staying just single player for the foreseeable future?

Anything is possible of course, but so far the plans are to keep fleshing it out as a bigger and bigger single player title. Sometimes we talk about, we look at the Torchlight model. We'd wanted to make Until You Fall multiplayer but when we looked at the realities of it, it wasn't making sense. And same thing for Torchlight, they had initially wanted to be multiplayer but they realized it didn't make sense. They made it single player and later as they were successful, they made a sequel that was multiplayer. We sometimes talk about that. Part of the challenge of it is a sword fighting head to head over the Internet is challenging because the Internet can't handle the latency of that, you can handle gun games because that way you can handle slow latencies and that's fine but sword games require latencies that are, you know, in the area of 10 milliseconds or less and that's very challenging. For that reason head to head multiplayer with a sword game is very difficult, or you have to just come up with a like a trick to do it. What would work much better would be Co-Op.

The reason you don't see a lot of Co-Op games in VR is that there is a network externalities problem with that. The number we always talk about is 10 million. When you have less than 10 million people on a platform, probably none of your friends have that platform. And if probably none of your friends have it, then what the heck is the point of Co-Op, because people want to co-op with their friends, not with strangers. Once we start to get platforms that have over 10 million, then suddenly co-op makes a lot of sense. That's partly why we've been focusing much more on single player and other developers have been doing the same. Even the games that have come out that have been multiplayer haven't been particularly successful yet, because of the network externalities problem. But we're on our way there. I mean, PlayStation VR already has a base of over 5 million units. My prediction is the first one to cross over 10 million is probably going to be the Oculus Quest.

Also, it's probably going to be a good idea to implement cross-platform play if you want to do multiplayer in a VR game, so at least you have a bigger player base.

Exactly, yeah. However you can get to that 10 million threshold. That's what you want to get to. That's when everything changes.

Speaking of PlayStation VR, as you said, right now it is still the platform with the biggest install base and Sony is launching a new platform later this year, the PlayStation 5. They've confirmed it will support PlayStation VR as well, so I'm wondering what you think about the new PSVR possibilities of the PS5 hardware, which is much more powerful?

To be able to have something that is more powerful would be wonderful because right now, there's a significant gap between what you can do on the PC and what you can do on the PlayStation 4. And this will help close that gap a little bit and make it easier to develop better games for PlayStation VR.

There's a lot of talk and even some rumors that there might be a PSVR 2 in the next couple of years. Do you think Sony should do that?

I think it would be great. I think everyone's staring at the Oculus Quest right now and trying to figure out what to do. 'Wait a minute, do we need to do that? Do we need a wireless system? Do we need a standalone system?' In my dream world, I'll tell you what Sony would do. In my dream world, Sony would come out with a headset that's kind of like the Nintendo Switch but for VR. You can imagine a headset that is standalone like the Quest, but if you plug it into your PlayStation 5, you get more powerful games. So sort of like people using the Oculus Quest. Now, you can run games independently, or you can use Quest Link and run PC quality games through the headset. And you can have the choice of doing either one. I think Sony would be well positioned to do something like that if they care to. But I guess it remains to be seen how they'll feel about that.

On the other hand, Sony's big competitor, Microsoft, seems to be way less interested in VR for the Xbox platform. Do you think that's perhaps a bit short-sighted for the future, as the VR market should get bigger according to market analysis?

Companies like Microsoft, they don't have any reason to hurry. They can wait and watch and see what's working and then they can act on that. If you have a base that likes your platform, you can watch what other people are doing and then you can kind of come in with a system that makes sense. You don't have to take as many risks when you do it. So I don't necessarily look at it as short-sighted. It's just that they have chosen to be followers instead of leaders in this space and when you have a big enough market advantage, you can afford to do that, you can be a follower and still be very successful. That's, for example, Apple's strategy. Apple tends not to invent things, they tend to just make better versions of things that someone else created.

Something else I wanted to discuss is the possibilities of cloud streaming with VR, particularly with the advent of 5G. There was already a demonstration of that at last year's Mobile World Congress where PlayGiga demonstrated streaming via 5G to a VR headset. Then, a few months ago, PlayGiga got purchased by Facebook, suggesting they clearly feel the same way the same potential. Do you think that's 

While I think it's technically possible to do it, I don't believe that it will be technically possible to do it with the latency that players will want. Because the latency that you need with VR is very low. If you turn your head and you're not getting feedback within 10 to 12 milliseconds of the head motion, that's a real problem. And even with 5G getting latencies that low, it has to be full loop, because you've got to detect it. You got to detect the motion, upload it to the server, the server has to process it, the server has to render the image and then they have to send the image back to display, all that within 10 milliseconds or so. I can't comprehend how that would be technically possible. And even if it was technically possible, I have to wonder whether that would be an economical choice because of the amount of crunching you'd have to do on the server side, it would get quite pricey, not to mention the bandwidth costs on all of this. People talk about it as 'Oh, this will be a great way to do things cheap', but that's not the problem. It's cheaper hardware, but then it gets very expensive to do to run the servers very expensive to eat up the bandwidth. So, I'm skeptical about streaming. I mean, just like we haven't seen streaming take off in the regular gaming space, people have been trying it for 15 years. And we haven't had success there. So it seems unlikely to me that VR, which demands much more, would have an easy time of it.

On the local processing side, there were some advancements recently. For example, the variable rate supersampling (VRSS), which was added by Nvidia recently for VR games, and there's also foveated rendering, which can be even dynamic through eye-tracking. Do you think these are going to be important technologies for VR games?

Yes. Funny part of the secret of what makes the Quest work is foveated rendering. They use static foveated rendering, which isn't intuitive. You wouldn't think that would work. But it works and it actually helps a lot. So yeah, those are definitely technologies that will help smooth the way and create minor improvements in performance.

Do you plan to support them at Schell Games as they will become more widespread?

Yeah, yeah. We'll certainly use any tools that the platforms bring to the table that actually help. Those are things that we want to make use of, because particularly when you look at systems like the Quest, which is effectively just a glorified mobile platform, to be able to make games look high quality on these low-end systems is a real challenge. And so we're inventing tricks all the time, we've invented dozens of different tricks for kind of making these things work and work well. Any kind of tricks anybody can kind of bring about is going to help because this is a real battle to make things look great on lower end platforms. The games that really succeed are the ones that are going to be thoroughly tested, deep and rich, and then have beautiful artwork because that's part of the challenge with VR, as people really want to be immersed in kind of a gorgeous world. The quality of art, the quality of sound design, everything just needs to go up in VR because you're not just looking at it on a screen anymore. You're holding it in your hands and looking at every little detail of every object. And things might have to seem a lot more real, so we always look for any kind of technical advantage we can get.

Something to round up everything you said. I know you've also been doing some educational stuff at Schell Games, right? Where do you see VR headed in terms of higher education?

I think part of what's great about VR is it really lets you put yourself into a situation. There are certain types of education that lend themselves really well to virtual reality and augmented reality. We've already created a virtual chemistry lab game called HoloLAB Champions that's up on Steam right now. And that's great because it really puts you in the chemistry lab and you really get to learn muscle memory for working with various kinds of lab equipment, that's a really good match for VR. We're also working on a game right now called History Maker VR, that is a game all about performance where you basically get to become a historical figure. It's kind of like a little TV studio. So you get to make videos of yourself giving a speech as a historical figure. It's designed for junior high, high school students to just kind of as a different way to kind of engage with history. So I think there's a lot of room and a lot of space to do meaningful things with this. And again, I think portable systems like the Quest are going to help because they make it a lot easier to get these systems into educational settings.

What do you think of augmented reality? There are some who believe it will be more successful than VR in the long run because it's, you know, easier to put on some glasses than a full-blown VR headset, for instance.

Well, it depends on what you mean by successful. So far for gaming, we haven't really seen how augmented reality has power in gaming. After all, gaming is usually about going to some other world. That's what people want do, they want to get lost in another world, and if every world is in your own living room, you kind of start to run out of options and possibilities right there. So for gaming, I think there's a place for augmented reality games, but it's kind of a different place than traditional gaming goes

And then on top of it, you have a lot of technical challenges with the approaches people have been trying with augmented reality glasses so far. The belief that I have is what we're going to see happen over the next five years or so is that people are going to start to understand that a very good way to do augmented reality is through a virtual reality headset. Already, these VR systems have stereo cameras in them. Being able to use those stereo cameras, making higher quality ones, lower latency ones, and then using those same headsets as a virtual reality system and an augmented reality system. I think that's going to be the dominant form of augmented reality in the next few years.

But the part of what's so hard about augmented reality is it's a much harder problem than virtual reality, because with virtual reality I just have to show you a lot of images. Augmented reality, I have to actually augment reality. This means your machine has to be able to look at and parse the reality that's around you, and augment that. It needs to understand what is the furniture here, who are the people here, what are the objects. That's an awful lot of processing to do. And that's I think the greatest weakness of these systems so far, having very primitive room solving.

It probably needs some high level AI, machine learning based solutions.

Absolutely. There's a lot of work happening on that front and a lot of people believe that that'll be one of the really important things about 5G. People talk about 5G as a way of receiving data faster. But I think in terms of sending data is maybe where 5G is more important because it will create the ability, just as Google has gone around and scanned all the roadways with their cars, now if you have every person who has a phone scanning their own 3D environment and uploading that to one central database as they move through the world constantly. That's going to greatly help with the room solving problem. Obviously there's a lot of weird privacy issues with that we're going to have to figure out. But those sorts of systems are going to be necessary if you really want to make augmented reality games that involve the real world.

But then you have a larger problem, which is the psychological issues with that adults don't like to mix reality and fantasy very much. They like strong walls between their reality and fantasy. It's why when people talk about LARPing everybody usually laughs because LARPing is a blend between reality and fantasy. Children, on the other hand, they don't mind at all, they love it. Even though it's an unpopular thing for me to say, but I believe it's true, augmented reality in the long run will primarily be a game and entertainment platform for children. Because they will love it, they will embrace it, they will understand it. They don't mind running around in the front yard playing kickball with Pikachu, they'll think that's great. But adults will feel weird and uncomfortable about that. So I think in the long run, that'll be part of the difference is that augmented reality will be largely for children, VR will slant a little more toward adults.

Well, that's an interesting point of view. Thank you very much for your time!

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