Peaky Blinders Developer Maze Theory Doubles Down On VR

Nearly three years on from its first release, Maze Theory is doubling down on VR.

After a few years away from the medium, expanding the initially VR-only Doctor Who: The Edge of Time into other versions for different platforms, the London-based studio is prepping the release of its next major VR title, Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom. At the same time, Maze Theory has hired 14 new staff, including developers from studios with VR experience like nDreams, Rebellion and Codemasters.

It’s also keen to push into the social VR space with its first multiplayer project, Engram (formerly The Vanishing Act). But why is now the right time to push further into uncharted waters? And what can we expect from the studio past the launch of Peaky Blinders VR? We spoke to Russell Harding, Chief Creative Officer, and Marcus Moresby, Creative Director, to find out more.

Peaky Blinders VR 2

UploadVR: Why is now the right time for Maze Theory to expand its staff and VR operations?

Maze Theory: We’ve been really excited and encouraged to see the prolific expansion of the VR market. With platforms such as Pico Neo emerging and PSVR 2 on the way. Quest has been evolving new headsets and the VR experience is really having its moment, having lived through some hard times! 

The socially connected experience within VR is also coming to the fore and it’s set to play a pivotal role in the future of the metaverse. 

It’s the perfect time to invest in our team and broaden our portfolio of experiences.  We want to capitalize on these opportunities. At Maze Theory, we’ve coined the phrase ‘Storyliving’ to describe our approach to gaming in VR. Never has there been a better time to develop this and watch it take root within the VR community! 

UVR: We’ve seen the success of Quest lead to renewed interest in the VR market. As a developer, is your approach to be Quest-centric going forward or do you foresee new hardware that will be equally as important?

MT: Quest is very much the leading platform at the moment. So naturally we’ve been focused on finding the best way to make the most of that and ensure we can deliver the quality and experience the IP we work with – and develop – demands. 

Now that PSVR 2 is on the horizon, it’s of huge interest and something we are working towards. It makes sense to keep exploring new platforms. 

In addition to these two established formats, we are also very interested to see what impact Pico will have in the future.

UVR: Tell us more about Engram and the strive for original IP. Why is that important to you after close partnerships with the BBC and Banijay?

MT: It’s part of the studio’s intention to develop its own IP. We have amassed a huge amount of experience and learning from working with titles such as Peaky Blinders and Doctor Who. We want to use that experience to push the boundaries of VR. We have developed specialist knowledge and an incredible team, and an understanding of creating lore. It’s the natural next step to bring this to Engram and other projects that will be announced forthwith.

Engram VR

With Engram, we are also exploring the wealth of possibilities around multiplayer and social VR. The core premise of the game is exploring memories, and we’re working on ways to achieve a heightened range of emotional experiences. 

We are not announcing a launch date for Engram at this stage. But we feel very excited about it! For us, it’s a symbol of exploration and experimentation within VR, as well as the creativity and aspiration that feeds into all of our games. Some of this will also spin off into other products and IP. It’s the ultimate expression of what Maze Theory is about. 

UVR: Peaky Blinders and Doctor Who are single-player experiences. Why, with this experience, is it important for you to push into social VR in the future?

MT: Community-driven gaming and shared experiences are gaining traction and people are really enjoying this aspect. It means you can be in the story together and that makes it ultimately more powerful. That in itself changes the way we approach the development of the story. It’s an exciting proposition! 

UVR: After the release of Doctor Who you turned to some flatscreen adaptations, presumably because VR is a tough market. Are you anticipating continuing flatscreen development considering VR’s momentum going forward?

MT: Within the Doctor Who universe, it was part of our remit to think about different ways of telling the story. So the multi-platform approach was more about delivering different types of experiences for fans. The community has a deep involvement in the IP, so they are drawn to crave Doctor Who stories told in different ways, across different windows and platforms. 

Our dedicated focus on VR  – at this point – is because that market has changed and grown. We’re still aiming to deliver in a space where fans can have the best experiences. 

Green Hell Quest Dev On VR Differences, Design Choices & Future Support

We sat down with the developer of Green Hell VR to talk about the just-released Quest version of the game.

Green Hell is out now on Quest and it’s A. very good and B. quite different to the original version of the game. Developer Incuvo has gone back into the Creepy Jar original and worked out how to get the experience to properly work for mobile VR, redesigning areas and reworking mechanics to work with motion controls. We spoke to the studio’s Radomir Kucharski about some of the changes and the work to bring the game to Quest.

Kucharski also talks about the future of the game, including progress on the already-confirmed co-op support and if the original game’s DLC expansions could make it into the Quest version too. Need more? Check out our video comparing the Quest and flatscreen versions right here.

Don’t forget that this is just one version of Green Hell VR. The PC VR version is still in development and is expected to retain a lot of the core elements of the original game. We’ll be looking forward to testing that edition out in the future.

Are you playing Green Hell VR this weekend? Let us know in the comments below!

GDC 2022 Day 1: Walkabout Mini Golf Content, Zenith Dungeons & More

Day 1 of GDC 2022 is done and dusted and we have interviews straight from the show floor, talking to developers about titles like Walkabout Mini Golf, Zenith VR and more.

This year, the team from Between Realities are our UploadVR Correspondents at GDC — Alex and Skeeva are on the show floor for us, talking to developers about the latest and greatest in VR titles.

Our Day 1 Wrap-Up video features talks with Mighty Coconut (Walkabout Mini Golf) creator Lucas Martell, CEO of Ramen VR (Zenith VR) Andy Tsen, CEO of MobX Games (Everslaught) Gihad Chbib, as well as Jonathan Ovadia and Albert Ovadia from AEXLAB (Vail VR).

A few spicy tidbits were dropped in the interviews. Most notably, Walkabout Mini Golf developers Mighty Coconut seem interested in going further with licensed content in the future, hinting that there might be more IP-themed content to come after the upcoming Labyrinth course.

Andy Tsen from Ramen VR also gave a bit of clarity on the schedule that Zenith players can expect for content releases. “We’re really excited about the next major content update. I can’t give you guys an exact launch date on that yet. What I can say is that we plan to push our major content updates roughly once a quarter, and minor updates monthly. So you should start to see some news coming out about that soon.”

He also spoke about the philosophy towards future dungeon designs, indicating the want the environment to be more of a focus compared to traditional MMO dungeons.

“We really want the dungeons that you guys encounter in the next major content update to really embody that same sense of open exploration that you felt when you’re seeing Zenith for the first time or gliding around. So more environmental puzzles, more parkour things, and we want it to feel different from what you might get in a traditional MMO.”

Keep an eye out for more GDC news over the following days. 

Polyarc Talks Moss, VR Sequels And Future Tech

We sat down with Polyarc to discuss the upcoming release of Moss Book 2 and the future of the VR industry.

Moss Book 2 comes to PSVR on March 31, marking the launch of one of VR’s first major sequels. We got a first look at the game earlier this week and thought it was shaping up well, but we also got the chance to chat to Polyarc engineer and designer Joshua Stiksma about the game.

Read on below for a chat on building sequels, exploring player connection, and where the future of VR is headed.

UploadVR: It was really cool to see this demo because I think there was a danger with the sequel that you guys could just fall into the trap of just doing more. You already had such solid foundations. And it would have been easy just to essentially, make new rooms for Quill that would last 10 hours.

But what I really liked seeing this gameplay was, it seemed it was a much more interactive experience for the player this time around. And that’s why I asked the question about, what we are of the other influences, because it seemed the players were reaching into the world more, for example.

And yeah just to talk a bit about that.  The thing that came into my mind was it almost felt in some ways Quill was becoming. As much of a cooperative partner as she was a playable character.

Joshua Stiksma: Yeah, absolutely. I think it’s one of the things that, when we finished the first game, we knew we wanted to do it more.

And I forget, I think we talked around the time of Twilight Garden or might even be just talking more about Moss 2 in general. But one thing we’re just really excited about is what these weapons and these new abilities that we’re going to give the player provide.

Moss Book II_FoundryThat is our goal. We want the world to feel physical and for that, we need to have you reaching in a whole lot more. And, there’s the world, that’s a conduit for reaching in but when it’s with Quill it feels so much more powerful because it’s like she’s looking at you, when you’re reaching in and charging her weapon or reaching in and– in the case, of the hammer, setting off this big hammer that she created for you, you feel more involved.

And, we spent a lot of time exploring, what kind of elements we’d have that would provide that gameplay and feel powerful for players. Experientially powerful and in the case of the hammer physically powerful, but it really amps up the interaction that’s required without needing to have big devices everywhere. It allows us to leverage a smaller device, which is Quill, throughout the world in more varied ways throughout the game.

UploadVR: Is there a part of you that wishes that you had the standardization of the two-handed motion controllers so that you could have potentially two points of interaction at the same time? Is that something that you were looking into, but decided to stick with gamepad for now?

JS: I think we absolutely want to do more with the new tech. With us being committed to PSVR, how do we utilize this as best as we can and play to the strengths of it? So I would be lying if I said I wasn’t excited about the way things are headed and where they’re going and how we can utilize that more for Moss as a franchise and as a series.

There’s still a lot that we’re able to do with the existing single tracked control. With the way that we do that motion tracking for PSVR and by setting proper constraints and understanding where the strengths are we can still come with some pretty powerful experiences.

But also keeping in the back of our minds, how do we level this up for whatever the next thing is? So, yeah, excited about releasing on PSVR and excited for the future.

UploadVR: What about the storytelling this time around? Cause obviously I expect we’ll return to, the kind of page-based narrative when you’re not directly in the world, but is there going to be anything more in terms of much more direct in-game cinematics and moments of communication?

JS: That’s a good call. We didn’t really talk about that in the session, but yes, we will be returning to the storybook narrative, the chapters. They’re going to go through the game. And I am pleased to say we are going to have I would say substantially more in-game storytelling that we couldn’t quite pull off for the first game, mostly due to just limitations for the studio.

We definitely had a desire and players were asking, they want to see more happening in the game. So players can expect a mix of powerful scenes that are happening within the book within the library, but also some very powerful scenes that are going to be happening in-game.

Moss Book II_CastleHub

UploadVR: What about the direct communication with Quill? Obviously you have so many cool ideas in the first one. And there must have been so many ideas leftover that you had more time to hopefully implement in this one. Are there new ways to, even just in any given incident, you can stop her from walking and just talk to her essentially in new ways?

JS: Yeah, there are. I’ll try not to go into too much of them, but mentioning talking to her we are excited to, pay attention to what is going on with the mic on the PSVR headset. She’s not going to intelligently be able to make out what you’re saying, but understanding that there’s somebody there who’s speaking, maybe her ears might react to that in some way.

Or perhaps if somebody is blowing through the microphone, that could actually be wind that might affect her. Some exciting things along that vein, I think would be, or could be things that players really enjoy and make it feel they’re in the world a little bit more.

So yeah, things like that and, we do want to have plenty of opportunities for you to, interface with her directly. Players loved giving her high fives. They loved petting her and all of that. We’re going to have more of that in the game for sure.

UploadVR: You mentioned a winged creature following her throughout the story. Is that going to be almost– I don’t expect it to be this dynamic of a system — but the Resident Evil Tyrant kind of thing of this big force, just showing up from level to level, unexpected moments that cause these kinds of real panic moments.

JS: I wouldn’t want to draw any comparisons like that. I think it’s going to be more story-based and emotional with moments of this character coming in. We wanted to build upon what we have from the first game where we didn’t just be like “Here’s your big boss character at the end.”

We wanted to through not just gameplay of that, yes, this character will show up at various points throughout the game, but also in terms of story and learning about these characters in the world. We want to make sure that you understand who this villain is and understanding motivations for that character as you’re exploring the world and we reveal more of the story to you as a player.

Moss Book II_Conservatory

UploadVR: And just moving, to the industry a bit more generally what does it mean to be releasing in 2022? We started the year with the hope that we’ll be getting PSVR 2 potentially towards the end of the year, maybe early next, Project Cambria is coming.

There’s talk of Apple and everything like that. It seems like a transitional year for VR hardware almost. So it’s an interesting time to be releasing in some ways.

JS: Yeah, it is. These are interesting times for sure. I’m going to stick to the VR landscape with the interesting times that are hitting us.

It’s exciting. I’m in my sixth year working in VR and there’s just been– hearing about these advancements and these new things; it’s faster now, we’ve increased the processing, it’s real, tangible, cool hardware that’s coming out.

And I think for me, one of the big bits of excitement is seeing what the larger playerbase really push hard on on VR AR and mixed reality kind of stuff. Where you see that there’s potential to, for Polayrce as a studio, to keep growing and creating new experiences on these new sets of hardware.

Because we’re a creative studio we’re focusing on VR at the moment but, as these new things come out, we’re going to evaluate that new tech. And that’s really exciting because we have what I think is a really cool and powerful IP that we’re working with.

And there’s so many different ways to tell these stories. It starts to get your mind spinning about what potential opportunities there might be for us as a studio for VR as a medium or as a platform players to engage with this stuff. For me, I’m excited and you see just even the leap getting to Quest and now, you’ve got a Quest 2 and you start hearing about a PSVR 2, and you mentioned the Apple thing.

Personally, I’m very excited about Apple just because I’m a bit of an Apple fanboy, but it’s exciting.

UploadVR: I feel specifically with Cambria, obviously you guys aren’t confirming any other ports for Moss 2 right now, but that’s eye tracking and that’s face tracking and that certainly seems like something. You could shoot  Quill a smile or she’ll know when you’re looking at her, right?

JS: Yeah. That tech specifically is amazing. I’m really excited to see what everybody’s going to do with that kind of technology, but I think you kinda hit it there on what’s exciting for Polyarc. The ability to try to communicate with the character through a language we can all understand.

Smiling is a great example. That’s powerful. And as developers, that’s something that’s really exciting. And then the eye tracking, obviously, being able to know where you’re looking and she can understand, hypothetically she understands where you’re looking and can react in some way.

It’s amazing. If you’re having a conversation with anybody at all, those are key things that make that conversation real. And with us being able to connect in that way, it’s only gonna mean that we’re able to have our experiences feel more real. And I don’t want to downplay how tough that probably will be for us to implement and pull off because there’s probably going to be a fine line between, oh, this is just a quick reaction and then skirting over it too, “Wow this is a real person or a real character that I feel is real.”

We’re going to have to spend a lot of time making that, but it’s powerful. And if we can keep creating those kinds of powerful experiences I think that the future is bright for VR.

Lost Recipes: How Schell Games Wrote A Perfect Recipe For Virtual Education

When Lost Recipes launched a few weeks ago, one of the questions that seemed at the forefront of everyone’s mind – my own, my colleagues and even the team at Schell Games – was whether this was actually a game, or something slightly different?

“I would consider it an experience more than a game, even though it definitely has some game elements,” said Lost Recipes Project Director and Schell Games Senior Game Design Manager Melanie Harke. “Of course you’re being scored and there’s lots of different mechanics in it. But in the end, the real goal was for it to be kind of like a vacation.”

Melanie and I had a lengthy conversation in VR last week in UploadVR’s virtual studio. We discussed Lost Recipes’ origins, development and the reasoning behind some of the decisions made by the team at Schell Games during development.

What makes Lost Recipes so unique is that it blends VR gameplay into a much more relaxing, educational experience than we’ve ever seen before in VR. You travel back in time to three ancient cultures and learn recipes in a relaxed, stress-free and educational manner. You can even take what you learn with you back into your actual kitchen — the VR cooking process informs the same process in real life.

This was all part of a plan from Schell Games to appeal to a different kind of crowd – those who don’t necessarily think of themselves as ‘gamers’, especially when using a Quest headset. “I personally think everyone’s a gamer, but you know, they might not title themselves that – instead it’s people who want to use the Quest as maybe like a lifestyle tool,” said Harke.

“We got a bunch of people when they were play testing [Lost Recipes] that said, ‘You know, I haven’t played any games. All I play is Beat Saber, that’s it.’ And they don’t consider that a game either. They’re like, ‘That’s my exercise routine.'”

This idea of the Quest as a lifestyle tool is becoming increasingly popular – just look at the many options for fitness and workout apps on the platform, which Meta itself is using as a marketing angle.

“We wanted to get those people [lifestyle users] in and have them play this. We had a lot of people after the play tests that were like, ‘Oh, I didn’t know they made games that are like this… For me.'”

lost recipes quest

Even if it doesn’t quite fit into the traditional ‘game’ label as we understand it now, there’s a lot to love about Lost Recipes’ approach. It’s one of the few games on the platform that doesn’t just copy mechanics or gameplay beats from traditional, flatscreen games. This is an experience that only works in VR, and delivers educational content not through lecturing or instruction, but more like a field trip or hands-on activity with game mechanics applied.

It is so brilliantly unique and specific to VR that it is arguably more, not less, of a proper VR ‘game’ than many other titles on the platform.

But before finding its way to Lost Recipes, Schell Games developed lots of varied experiences that would later inform this new venture. There was a mixture of both more straightforward education content, developed for flatscreen platforms, and more ‘traditional’ VR games that the studio has become recently known for — namely the I Expect You To Die series and roguelike action game Until You Fall.

Harke herself joined Schell right back at the company’s beginning, well before VR was part of the picture, working initially in QA and then in design for titles like Disney Pixie Hollow, the Disney fairies MMO, and then later other VR educational experiences as well as mobile educational games based around PBS’ Daniel Tiger show, a spin-off from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.

Lost Recipes China

After running the gamut on many types of games on many platforms, Schell Games worked with Oculus Education on ideas for a new experience exploring what made education in VR so powerful.

“It’s really about presence,” said Harke. “Being there in the location.” The studio took what it learned from its other educational experiences – Water Bears VR and HoloLAB Champions – but aimed to make something less formally educational in nature. “We knew we didn’t want to be like a classroom experience. We wanted to be something that just a normal, everyday person who’s curious about things – cause we all like to learn – might want to experience. And so that’s really where I think cooking came from.”

With development beginning during the pandemic, the idea of escaping to another location – a virtual vacation – also became quite appealing.

I just don’t want to cook just in my normal house, because I’m in my house 24/7. I want to cook and experience these places that maybe – right now, especially – I can’t get to. That really helped push us into exploring what if you were cooking in locations that are not like your house? How did people cook in ancient times? How did they cook in like prehistoric times, even? That was one of the conversations. And that really got us excited.”

But how did the team decide what cultures would be featured, and how they could be represented in a way that was properly authentic and respectful, even if they were from time periods that have long since passed?

“It really came down to what could we get good data for. That was very important to us, because we did want this to be a very authentic, real experience,” explained Harke. “We wanted to make sure it was a place that we could find a human that was willing to work with us for the long-term. We wanted to have people at the very early [stages], to research, but also looking at the art later on and everything.”

The final game features voice actors playing the chefs, one for each culture, voiced by people representing the closest modern analog for each ancient culture. But it wasn’t just the voice acting that had to be authentic. The team wanted everything — the food, recipes, environments, art — in the game to be as authentic as possible.

They achieved this through connections with subject matter consultants at the Kenner room at Carnegie Mellon university, collaborating and talking to them during the development process. “We had oftentimes weekly meetings with them, because we had so much to talk about. It’s not just the food, it’s… what’s the language that you would use? How would the scene be arranged? What’s the decoration on the walls? What sort of material would they have?”

They didn’t always have the answer – sometimes they would point us to resources, books to look at – but it was just good to have someone who was connected to the culture, working with us the entire way.”

For Harke, the authenticity that the subject matter consultants and voice actors lend the game is what makes it so potent as an experience. “Without them, we wouldn’t have a game,” she said. “And really, I just hope everyone gains some new appreciation of both how different and also how similar all of our cultures are. How familiar cooking is and how it connects us all together as people.”

Harke’s hope certainly isn’t unfounded either — cooking the recipes in the game does give you a new perspective, with transferable skills and methods. While playing the game for review, I was able to recreate the game’s steamed fish dish in real life, using methods and recipes learned from the game.

“We definitely wanted people to try these recipes in their own homes. We didn’t want people to get bogged down in like super details, and in fact, a lot of ancient recipes, they’re not going to have those super details anyway,” said Harke. 

This was an approach discovered during play testing. Early versions of the game had more details for each recipe, providing more specific instructions than what ended up in the final build. “People got really bogged down in the detail of making sure that the color of the liquid that they’ve made exactly matched the picture that’s on there, and that they’ve measured it exactly… It started to feel really stressful to people. That’s not what we’re going for at all. We want you to feel accomplished, that you can do these things in cooking.”

This was when the team transitioned to using ratios and other looser measurements, focusing less on outcomes and more on process. It was at this point that adding in some tricks from traditional games also helped improved the feedback loop – the little sparkles that shine once an action is finished, for example, help players know when something has been done correctly and avoids unnecessary worry.

Early versions of the game experimented with implementing support for the Quest’s controller-free hand tracking, but it ended up being a less than ideal option. “Really it just became much harder to do things [when using hand tracking],” explained Harke. “People started to look at the technique of how they’re holding the hand and I think it took some of the enjoyment away.”

Lost Recipes Screenshot

Hand tracking also made some of the actions, like stirring a pot, problematic — when using hands without any controllers, it often became harder to manage what Harke described as the ‘fakery’ behind some of the physics interactions.

So while the finished product opts for controllers-only, the overall community and critical reception of the game has been positive.

“We’ve got lots of feedback of people sort of saying that this is not like other cooking experiences.” Other VR cooking titles – like Cook-Out or Cooking Simulator – focus on being frenetic and chaotic, but Schell opted for the opposite direction. “I certainly love those games, but we did purposely try to make something different and unique. People have really picked up on [that]. This is a game where I can sort of relax. I can chill in it. And that’s, that’s definitely the vibe we were going for.”

Speaking hypothetically, Harke says the team still has plenty of avenues to investigate. “We have like full lists of other environments that we are excited about exploring, even with some reference people that we might reach out to. I think that that is certainly something that, as a team while making it, we’re definitely thinking about and very excited about. No promises or anything, but…”

When it comes to potential updates, new content or DLC expansions for Lost Recipes, Harke’s lips are sealed.  “Stay tuned. I can’t really speak to that yet. But we really liked the product. We really enjoyed working on it, and we’d certainly love to do more.”

This feature piece is an edited version of our full conversation with Melanie Harke from Schell Games, available in video format on our YouTube channel here

You can read our full review of Lost Recipes here

Loco Dojo Dev Talks Bringing VR Party Games To Oculus Quest

Last week saw UK-based Make Real return to the VR gaming scene with a fresh release of its party game, Loco Dojo, on Oculus Quest.

We sat down with the team’s Sam Watts in our virtual studio to talk about bringing the experience over to the standalone headset. Loco Dojo first released on PC VR headsets back in 2017, so it’s been quite a journey to make the Quest port a reality, and a lot of work had to be done to make it fit on the standalone headset. Make Real also does a lot of location-based entertainment and enterprise-based client work, and Watts spoke to how those experiences compare to competing in the VR games market.

Loco Dojo Interview

For those that don’t know, Loco Dojo offers up to four-player online tournaments in which players compete in a number of the 16 minigames in a battle for supremacy. We reviewed the game last week and gave it a ‘Good’ rating, noting that some of its minigames hide incredibly fun VR interactions.

“Loco Dojo doesn’t rewrite the rules on the party game format, but it successfully finds the fun in adding VR to that template,” we wrote. “Its best games are brilliantly entertaining explorations of the different kinds of experiences the platform offers and, although it has some structural issues, tournaments move with a pace that makes them easy to jump into and tempting to replay time and again. “

Sandbox VR is Coming to the UK in 2022, Robotic Bartenders & HoloDecks Included

Sandbox VR

As lockdowns begin to ease, location-based entertainment (LBE) is back on the march as people want to get out of their homes and do something different. There’s been an uptick of virtual reality (VR) focused locations either reopening or launching brand new experiences, allowing players to dive into movie and videogame franchises for the first time. Prior to the pandemic Sandbox VR was one operator that went from doing very well to declaring bankruptcy and then bouncing back by the end of 2020. It’s been expanding ever since and soon it’ll make its way to UK shores thanks to franchisee Andy Scanlon. VRFocus sat down with Andy to find out why he’s so excited about the industry’s future.

Sandbox VR Amber Sky
Amber Sky. Image credit Sandbox VR

Unlike some VR arcades that use generic platform management systems to offer players immersive titles from a range of developers, Sandbox VR is one of the few operators that has its own exclusive titles like Amber Sky and Deadwood Mansion. They’re all designed in-house so visitors are getting a VR experience that’s unique and can’t be found anywhere else, one of the reasons why the company was doing so well pre-Covid.

Even so, starting up a new franchise is no small task, especially when you consider Scanlon plans on opening multiple locations across the UK starting with London. Cities including Birmingham, Manchester and more are all on the cards. Initially, London will see 2-3 sites open during 2021 before moving further afield.

The following interview has been edited for clarity.

So how did you get into VR in the first place?

“Working in technology investment which I loved, that brought me to Singapore where I was working with entrepreneurs and investors, really supporting them by finding investment companies that were at the forefront of their particular industries, sorting out business models and their strategic direction.

“And quite serendipitously I found myself in a Sandbox VR venue, the one in Singapore, one of their longest-standing venues. I just remember taking off that headset for the first time after that 35 minute experience and that light bulb just being switched on. It changed the way I saw entertainment, it changed the way I saw social leisure. I’d been looking at VR for some time and to invest in a couple of companies in the UK and Singapore but I hadn’t looked at the location-based VR space at that time.

“That first experience I was with my partner and her three friends for her birthday, and it was just that moment where I saw what entertainment could be. I took that headset off and thought “this is it”, I can just see the industry evolving into something that hasn’t really been considered by 99.9% of people on the planet.

“There are around six LBE VR brands in Singapore so instantly the next day I booked to go see the other ones, went to Zero Latency went back to Sandbox and it was then that I thought “this is what I need to do“.

So how did that lead on to being a Sandbox VR franchisee?

“I reached out to Sandbox and reached out to Steve (Zhao, CEO) in Hong Kong and gave my back story and said have you thought about esports and this and this, it could be bigger than 3D that IMAX always promised, a true innovation step in leisure.

“So I probably spoke at him for 20 minutes before he said ‘have you thought about being a franchise?’ and I said no but the moment he said it I knew I would 100% do it. A couple of weeks later [after looking at the market] I said I think this could be huge in the UK, I’ve lived in London for a few years, I know what it’s like to do corporate events and beers after work with your team. If you look at the UK as a whole in terms of leisure density it’s got the highest [outside of China] leisure density – so that’s the highest number of venues per capita in the world.  

“And so I thought Sandbox is the leading player in the space, it’s been highlighted by the amount of money they’ve been able to raise but also the direction under Steve. Without a shadow of a doubt, it was the best experience that I had out of every VR experience I’d played to date.”  

That deal was struck in 2020, mid-pandemic, mid-lockdown, you obviously had a very positive industry outlook for the future.

“To be honest, the way I think about it is that technology as a whole has been great during the pandemic to keep us connected but at the end of the day that’s always been a remote connection. This is why phrases such as ‘zoom fatigue’ have begun cropping up, people are just fed up with doing their weekly team meetings over Zoom. So the way I see it from a sociological perspective is the demand for shared group activities has only increased during the pandemic as we’ve been torn away from each other. I feel, personally – and everyone I speak to – is that when we’re in lockdown all you really want to do is go to the pub with your mates or do something with your mates and colleagues. And so we haven’t been too concerned about the sociological impact from the pandemic, we don’t think it’s going to impact social leisure shared experiences over the long term.

“Obviously we are concerned about future lockdowns, if we can’t be open that’s a concern. I don’t think that Covid will disappear at the end of this year or even next year but I think it’s an easy to overcome hurdle. Firstly due to Sandbox, as it has demonstrated across its network that most of the venues that Sandbox has they’re actually trading above pre-pandemic levels. Secondly, the actual experience or customer journey that Sandbox offers is very geared towards maintaining and adhering to safety standards when it comes to Covid-19.

“The demand for shared experience has only increased during the pandemic and we are looking to provide customers with an experience that they can enjoy with their friends and family. For us a real passion project behind the company, to build a business that can see people remind themselves why they like to go out and organise things with their friends. Because what we’re offering is better than anything on the market at the moment.”

Sandbox VR Deadwood Mansion
Deadwood Mansion. Image credit: Sandbox VR

So how will the UK roll out work and what can customers expect?

“So the VR rooms are called Holodecks like Star Trek and are about a quarter of the size of a Zero Latency room [for reference]. What Sandbox does really well is it uses the gameplay and the map to walk over your [previous] steps so it feels like a different room. So it’s a smaller room but what that allows us to do is really bring this technology to city centres, focusing on where the masses are, whether that’s shopping centres or actual city centres, something most of our competitors can’t do.

“We obtained the UK franchise that gives us exclusive rights to bring Sandbox VR to this market. We’re looking to launch a large number of venues across a pretty short timeframe, across five years, starting with London but we’re looking at the whole country. Following one to two locations in London, we’ll then be looking to go to Birmingham, Manchester, Bristol, Brighton, all kinds of large cities where we think the technology will do well.

“We’re looking at city-centre locations at around 6000 to 10,000 sq ft, we’d like to have around four to five Holodecks in each venue. That allows us to offer multiple start times, we’re not just reliant on one or two Holodecks, people can arrive and leave pretty quickly. What we’re looking for is to build this social environment where people are coming and going, there to enjoy the VR. In addition to the VR, something that’s not being done across any Sandbox venue in the world, none of them currently offer food and beverage. We will be the first Sandbox venue to offer food and beverage, to not offer that I think would be a misstep. So we’re looking to develop a really futuristic venue with a robotic bartender, we want people to feel like they’re entering London 2068, so very cool, very futuristic.”

VR has that futuristic vibe but how do you get around the general public’s uncertainty regarding the tech?

“As long as you’re aware of that you can focus and design your marketing campaigns around that, you have to make sure you spend more time on the education piece rather than the “come to Sandbox VR”, it needs to be “what is location-based VR?” What I really like about it, and I don’t know whether it is because I’m an optimist, is that the lack of awareness of it ensures that the gap between post-experience and pre-experience is greater because people don’t have a clue what they’re getting into.

“You can only do that with a high degree of confidence that the product and the experience are good enough. You don’t need to educate everyone to the nth degree that they know exactly what they’re going into but know that just through word of mouth, that once people do it once they’re going to tell all their friends and post on social media.”

With 14 Sandbox VR locations open worldwide when will the UK venue debut?

“That’s the big question. We’re targeting Q1 2022, likely a soft launch gearing up to a hard launch at the end of Easter. Then site number two during the summer and possibly squeezing in a third by the end of the year.”

How ROTU Brings Rhythm of the Universe’s Song Of Empathy And Nurture To VR

We talk to Rotu’s Jason Parks about the developer’s big VR launch, Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia.

The forest vibrates with song around you, as animals of all kinds follow their ancient rituals seemingly unimpeded. But the woods are also hurting, grappling with a pain only you can help ease. If you’re unsure whether I’m talking about a real-life ecosystem or Rhythm of the Universe: Ionia, that’s exactly what Rotu Entertainment CEO and executive producer Jason Parks wants.

Rhythm of the Universe’s roots go deep, down through a decade’s worth of music education, advocacy, and undercover environmental activism. Rotu Entertainment’s founders attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. Parks started a film scoring group during his time at the college, and ROTU’s future CCO, Emir Cerman, approached him with a proposal to bring dozens of musicians and countries together for the project that eventually became Anthem for the World, the seed from which Rhythm of the Universe grew.

“We had a music video that the support team created that brought 90 different countries together, and they wrote a song of peace,” Parks told Upload during Gamescom 2021. “We literally had citizens of countries that were at war with each other at the same table, afraid to even share their real name because of the retribution they would face and that song went viral all over the world on YouTube, and ultimately led us to selling out Symphony Hall in Boston.”

ROTU continued working on documentaries and other advocacy music videos, and in 2015, the Amazon Aid Foundation approached them with a request. The foundation wanted ROTU to travel to the Amazon rainforest and film both the illegal mining and deforestation and how they affected the environment.

“That trip really inspired [Ionia] because it was all about going to this beautiful lush jungle, then coming across just absolutely devastated land and understanding this was human impact but ultimately, there was something we could do about it,” Parks said.

ROTU wanted to create something big out of this experience, their own Star Wars franchise or Avatar, Parks said. A friend introduced the ROTU team to VR around the same time. He’d purchased an HTC Vive headset and invited them over to see what it was like. Parks said the sense of immersion, particularly in a nature scene as they watched a whale swim by in the ocean, is what sold them on VR for ROTU’s dream project.

Rhythm of the Universe Ionia

Immersion is key for Ionia. Parks wants it to feel like a lucid dream, something that pushes the boundaries of entertainment forward through interactive storytelling and imparts a message about humanity’s relationship with the environment like no other. 

“Our message and our vision is all about creating empathy through our lore, through our stories and through our universe,” he said. “It’s a lot easier to do that in virtual reality because I can put you in front of a creature that you have to take care of. You have to progress through making decisions that help you understand the world around you.”

To that end, ROTU also partnered with Wildlife Warriors, the conservation organization the late Steve Irwin founded that’s branching into Europe and Africa, as well as its native Australia. 5% of proceeds from Ionia will go to the foundation to help further its efforts.

Parks said they recognized even creating Ionia was a risk, though, let alone pinning such hopes on it. Ionia’s conception took place before VR carved its niche in entertainment, but the ROTU team believed the medium was here to stay and would only grow bigger. Working on video projects with nonprofits and other clients led ROTU to Epic’s Unreal as their ideal production vehicle. The next step was recruiting a team with “decades” of experience working with game engines and no shortage of ideas for bringing Ionia to life.

Ionia’s gaming inspirations are too many to count, but Parks noted Uncharted, Ocarina of Time, Breath of the Wild, Moss, Lone Echo — anything with a unique approach to narrative and storytelling.  Music was always at Ionia’s core, though. They vary as much as the games that inspired Ionia, from John Williams’ sweeping scores, to Ennio Morricone’s score for The Mission (1986) and its idea of music creating harmony among disparate cultures. 

Rhythm of the Universe Swing

Ionia’s musical identity is its foundation, so much so that ROTU composed the soundtrack before even designing the first area. They build every stage, encounter, animal, and puzzle around some aspect of music theory. One puzzle Parks demonstrated has you using a basic understanding of intervals on a scale to align a set of stones and unlock the way forward. Another involves using the environment and music to care for a turtle and earn its respect to help heal the forest.

Even more spectacular, set piece events, such as traveling through a valley on zipline, weave a sense of wonder and curiosity into its soundscape. That area, in particular, comes from a brief, 30-second segment from John William’s “The Never-Feast” (Hook, 1991), the moment where Peter realizes that the imagination affects reality. 

It affects ROTU’s reality as well. While Parks couldn’t divulge much about Rhythm of the Universe’s future, he said this transmedia franchise will only continue to grow. Ionia itself is just one region on the continent of Pangaea. Other regions — inspired by music modes, such as Locrian and Dorian, of course — exist with their own stories to tell. ROTU plans on telling them as standalone narratives anyone can access, regardless of how familiar they are with Ionia or any of Rhythm of the Universe’s other parts, with more information to come later this year after Ionia’s September 23 release date on Oculus Quest, PC VR and PSVR. 

Maze Theory Envisions Fan Metaverses for IP’s Like Peaky Blinders

Peaky Blinders: The Kings Ransom

You a big Peaky Blinders fan? Well, cast your mind back to 2019 and you may remember that British virtual reality (VR) studio Maze Theory confirmed it was working on a tie-in VR experience, revealing a little while later it is called Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom. VRFocus recently sat down with one of the Maze Theory team to glean a bit more info and find out what else they’ve been up to, which involves VR’s current buzzword…the metaverse.

Peaky Blinders: The Kings Ransom
Does this bar look familiar? Image credit: Maze Theory

Whether it’s a giant tech company like Facebook or Epic Games or a small indie studio when the word “metaverse” is mentioned you might imagine a digital landscape that’s designed for socialising, with its own or multiple currencies based on crypto and brands as far as the eye can see. Maze Theory’s CEO Ian Hambleton has that same passion for metaverse creation, but he envisions it slightly differently, or more importantly them differently.

Having previously released Doctor Who: The Edge of Time and with Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom in development, big-name IP’s and the fans that support them are key to this metaverse future. “Our approach has always been around well-known IP and well-known fan universes. And so for us as a studio we’re trying to create significant “chapters” in the metaverse, that’s what we want to do,” says Hambleton. “Peaky Land!” or whatever you want to call it, places that fans can congregate around IP and we think that they will be more successful because there’s lore and there are significant fan bases that all want to come together and experience them. And you know that the Star Wars stuff that’s been done by Oculus Studios would really suit that.”

What we don’t want to do as a business is become like a VRChat, so we’re not trying to create areas where people just congregate and chat about anything; that’s not what we’re interested in [in regards to] the metaverse. What we’re interested in are fan universes and story narratives. We will have multiplayer in our games but within those multiplayers you’ll also experience NPC characters that are AI-driven and telling the story, players will go on missions with each other and they’ll roleplay.” Confirming indirectly that Peaky Blinders will have a multiplayer element, in what form that would take has yet to be revealed.

Doctor Who: Edge of Time
Doctor Who: Edge of Time

Like many in the industry, Hambleton acknowledges that this current trend toward a more digital society has, in part, been aided by the pandemic: “What’s been interesting in the last year, COVID and everyone working from home…what I would say is that people are more at home and they’re missing real-world experiences but they’re not necessarily likely to return to those real-world experiences in the same way as they did. And I think that all those things coming together at once means that the metaverse can be a way of existing, and being social and being more together, and the embodied internet will be a VR experience.”

I think the crucial thing in VR is what’s said about the embodied internet,” he continues. “The metaverse will exist in mobile and other aspects but for us, as a VR-focused studio, the embodied internet is experiencing the metaverse in VR.

To deliver this idea Maze Theory is developing some core technology that’ll underpin all of its current and future projects: “We’re calling it “Storyverse” technology,” Hambleton explains. “Basically tools and tech we will use in all of our games and it’s starting to bring together a number of things that feel very relevant with all the conversations about the metaverse.”

It’s a mixture of things that we see as really important in the future of VR like multiplayer and roleplay but also even things like emergent gameplay, so one of the big things in Peaky is the amount of emergent gameplay which has been so successful in titles like Half-Life: Alyx and stuff like that. And it’s a mixture of those three and being social, and allowing players to play together that is a really powerful mix. And so we’ve started to build these tools and tech which be underlying all of our games from Peaky onwards.”

Peaky Blinders
Image credit: Maze Theory

Peaky Blinders or Doctor Who, Maze Theory is definitely going for a multiverse approach to this broad topic rather than an all-encompassing space preached by others: “I think people like to simplify and go it’ll be one metaverse but people have said that’s a bit silly. And I think people would like it to be boxed into a simple “oh you insert in one place” and that’s all you do and maybe one day [it will]. For now, there will be lots, like the Oculus metaverse and you go into all the Oculus games, and they talk to other games on other platforms. The metaverse won’t just be VR it’ll be lots of things interconnecting with each other, I just think the purest form of it will be in VR,” Hambleton adds.

So what happens when all of this emergent, roleplaying, AI-driven, narrative tech has a metaverse of its own? “It’ll bring together everything that’s brilliant about VR and gaming.”

For continued updates on Maze Theory, Peaky Blinders: The King’s Ransom and the metaverse, keep reading VRFocus

30th Time’s The Charm: Jesse Schell Reflects On 3 Decades In VR

Jesse Schell is incredibly bullish about VR. He’s also often very wrong about it.

This is not something he hides, it’s actually something he seems to enjoy. In fact, Schell once revealed he thought VR would be a mainstream technology by around 2005. The jury’s still out but it’s looking like he was off by about 20 years or so.

And that’s far from the developer’s misfire; in 2016 he made 40 predictions about the future of VR during a GDC talk, some of them are yet to come to fruition, some of them were right, but many of them were staggeringly off the mark, like the prediction that PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive would sell a combined total of eight million units in 2016. Even now that VR is finally gaining steam, he admits it’s growing faster than his more recent, much more conservative predictions suggested.

So, why should you listen to Jesse Schell?

Well, aside from years of experience being incredibly charismatic and often electrifying to simply listen to, Schell knows that getting things wrong is not only okay, it’s actually part of life with new tech. It’s this spirit of trial and error that’s kept the developer invested in VR for nearly 30 years and, notably, even informed some of his studio, Schell Games, best titles. I Expect You To Die is all about persistence, experimentation and the eventual satisfaction that comes with success. Jesse Schell and the wider Schell Games’ story is much along the same lines.

In fact, Schell’s work with VR extends even further back than when he founded the studio in 2002. He can trace his first memories of hearing about VR back to an early-90’s issue of Mondo 2000 magazine (described in his own words as a “techno-hipster” vibe). From that spark would come three decades of on-again, off-again association with the tech. He attended Carnegie Mellon Information Networking Institute, where he met a professor that was exploring early work in VR. “I asked if he needed any assistance from people who were doing networking work and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m creating the Networked Virtual Art Museum.’ And I said ‘Wow, what’s that?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know but I could probably use some help.'”

VR’s First Quest

DisneyQuest Aladdin
The Aladdin ride at DisneyQuest featured a large headset and a haptic chair.

You might imagine that the VR of the 90’s was very different to where we are now. And it’s true that the hardware was clunkier, heavier and much more cumbersome than an Oculus Quest 2. But, to Schell, the differences stop there. “The tracking worked magnetically instead of with video, but you had head tracking, you had hand tracking, you had fewer polygons on the PC, but when you’re on the silicon graphics machine you had about what we have now. The difference is the cost is about 1000 times different. The machines we’re working with were typically $200,000 to $400,000 machines. and now we’re talking about machines that are like, $400 machines and do the same thing.”

And you can very much see that in the projects Schell would work on in the mid-90’s, when he joined the Walt Disney Imagineering team. Imagineering developed a range of projects but one of its primary focuses was on the virtual rides and attractions for DisneyQuest, a somewhat unique addition to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and, for a time, a standalone location in Chicago too. DisneyQuest was essentially an immersive arcade, with themed rides that used 3D screens or other interactive elements. Two rides, however, used elaborate VR headsets. One was a melee combat game named Ride the Comix and the other was a virtual ride on Aladdin’s Magic Carpet.

Whilst Ride the Comix was developed by an outside studio (though Schell notes there are some interesting direct comparisons to draw with Until You Fall), the developer worked directly on the Aladdin experience. “I learned so much about both game design and VR during that experience,” Schell recalls. “Elements of it, and moments in it, I’m intensely proud of. It was groundbreaking in its use of audio, steering interface, and even a tactile seat.”

But DisneyQuest, overall, was a strange venture for Disney itself. As Schell points out, the Florida location was successful in its 19 years of operation, though the Chicago center was short-lived, struggling to find an audience outside of holidays and weekends. “The biggest problem DisneyQuest had was too much focus on first-time experience,” Schell reasons. “Again and again, we’d ask management, ‘Do you want us to focus on first impression, or on replay?’ And the answer was always first impression. As a result, it was a great time for tourists, but what it needed to survive was a mix of tourists and regulars.”

But the actual tech behind DisneyQuest’s VR experiences was solid, if cumbersome. “I remember sitting at Disney in 1995 and staring at the problem, these magnetic trackers, which were hard to work with, and talking to one of the senior engineers and saying, ‘Why don’t we just do this with video? Why don’t we just use video and track it?’ And he laughed and he’s like ‘Yeah, maybe in 20 years, but the CPU can’t do it.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, no, I guess you’re right. It’s gonna be a lot of processing.’ Turns out he was right.”

Once DisneyQuest had launched, however, Schell wouldn’t return to the world of VR for some time. Imagineering’s next project was the family-friendly MMO, Disney ToonTown, and Schell left the group shortly ahead of launch to move out east taking a job back at Carnegie Mellon University to teach at the Entertainment Technology Center. There he would continue to teach about building virtual worlds and critique those his students created. During this time, though, he started up a side gig consulting for some companies on a freelance basis. Old contacts at Disney and others came through to offer some early work eventually, consulting turned into light development work. This became an increasing emphasis. He called the outfit Schell Games.

A New Beginning

But, even as Schell Games was born, Schell himself had no intention of diving back into VR development. “VR had gone really cold because we’d seen what was possible, knew how hard it was to do magnetic tracking and it was really expensive. So it could only work if you’re gonna do entertainment. It was only going to work in location-based situations.”

Instead, Schell Games toiled away for over a decade on various projects, including some different types of experiences that would prove formative to the developer’s identity. Alongside games for the Nintendo DS, the studio would also work on educational and medical apps, with a particular focus on the former. But it wouldn’t be until the summer of 2012, a decade into Schell Games’ existence, that VR would enter the conversation once more. That was, of course, with the help of Oculus’ historic $2.4 million Kickstarter campaign.

“I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘Oh wow, this might be ready’,” Schell recalls. “Because it was working with optical tracking and a number of problems that we had worried about were getting solved.”

And so Schell Games started to do what it does best, to tinker. The developer would host internal game jam weeks where members could work on passion projects. Some members started to work on VR content, but not without a push in the right direction from Schell himself. “That was actually a really important part of it because I was always hype on VR, but a lot of people in the studio were like, ‘Ah, it’s just bad. It’s going to be like the next Kinect.’ So I started working with Jason Pratt, one of our engineers here, and said ‘Hey, see if you can fold together the best of the best experiences we can show people.'”

Some of these experiments led to Schell’s first commercial VR games. A Gear VR port of its ‘choose your own adventure’ sci-fi spoof, Orion Trail, was born out of a joke about how the text-based game would work in VR. It turned out if you ported the game to a virtual screen and then sat players in a Star Trek-style bridge, it worked pretty nicely. Water Bears VR, meanwhile, was an idea Schell himself bought off of some of his students at CMU for an educational grant the studio was applying for. It came to mobile first but the team thought its logic-based, pipe-connecting puzzling would be a great fit for VR.

Despite discovering some incredible experiences (Schell fondly remembers Daniel Ernst’s Blocked In) and working on its own, there was still some pessimism about VR within Schell Games in these early years. Ironically, that skepticism would set the team on the path to its first fully native game designed for VR first and foremost.

“We had somebody working on a prototype and I was like, ‘Okay, now I don’t want any locomotion in this because it’s gonna make people sick. I don’t want to deal with motion sickness. So do teleporting, keep it limited, try and avoid it,'” Schell says.

“And they completely ignored me that they just had you flying all over the place. And I’m like, ‘Whoa, this really makes me sick’. And they’re like ‘Yeah, this is why VR sucks because you can’t go anywhere. You put on the headset and you feel like you’re going to be a superhero and you’re not a superhero, you’re tied to a chair. What kind of superhero gets tied to a chair?'”

“We all looked at each other and said that actually happens all the time, but nobody ever made a game about that.”

No Mr. Schell, I Expect You To Die

The bones of I Expect You To Die were in place much earlier than you might think. The game wouldn’t release until November 2016, when the Oculus Touch controllers first shipped for the Rift. In that iteration it would feature fully interactive levels designed for hand controllers. But, long before that, Schell actually published its prototypes for the game on the now-defunct Oculus Share platform, where developers could release free experiences for the first two Rift development kits.

Its first release was, in Schell’s words, a “weird bookcase room” with some initial mechanics in place. “No one really paid much attention,” he says. “And we were like, ‘That’s okay. Maybe we can do better.’ And so then we worked in one that was a lot richer and had a lot more detail and we put that up and people really started to notice it and it became the highest-rated experience on the site.”

In fact, the demo remained one of the platform’s most popular experiences right up until Share’s demise in early 2016.

For Schell Games, this was a sign it was onto something. And so the team kept pushing the boundaries of what was becoming an escape room-style spy game in which players would have the power of telekinesis. Objects would handle in realistic and expected ways, but you’d be able to grab them from afar and bring them back toward you, or fit puzzle pieces on the other side of the room right in place. This was I Expect You To Die’s super power, a game that delivers richly-detailed and highly interactive environments that you could explore from the comfort of your chair.

More than just a puzzle game, though, Schell was building out a world where challenges had to be solved with real world logic. That’s why the team built cardboard sets that would mimic their virtual levels, so they could more easily get a feel for how things should be proportioned in a world and what would be in the player’s peripheral vision. It’s a perfect distillation of how VR development gets much closer to replicating reality than is necessary on a flatscreen.

The team was also adamant that there should be as few discrepancies between the real and virtual as possible. When I interviewed Schell a little earlier on this year, he spoke a little about that: “I remember on the first game we put in a champagne bottle as a prop and people were like, ‘Oh, great. I want to open it!’ Oh, of course you do. Okay. Now it’s got a cork and you can open it. ‘Now I want to pour out the liquid into a glass!’ Of course you do, now we’ve got to support liquid. Okay. All right. We’re supporting liquid now and ‘Great I poured it out and I can drink this champagne and that’s so cool. Now I’ve got an empty bottle. I want to break it.’ Oh, of course you do. Okay. So now there’s a broken glass. ‘Oh, okay, I want to take this broken glass, use it as a knife and cut this wire.’ Oh, of course you do. Now this is impacting our puzzles, but oh, okay, actually, that’s kind of an interesting side solve that maybe we didn’t think of and think about.”

The attention to detail clearly paid off. Nearly two years after launch, I Expect You To Die had generated $3 million in revenue on PC and PSVR headsets. It went on to launch on Oculus Quest in late 2019, drumming up a further $2 million on that platform alone by mid-2020. Several free levels were released, which Schell says allowed the developer to keep the game at its current price point. And, of course, it’s sequel launched this week, something that precious few VR games have enjoyed in the past five years.

Keep On Fighting

But, for all its success and innovation, I Expect You To Die had been a difficult project. “So we had our success with I Expect You To Die, but we knew the problem of making [it] is that it’s really hard and slow,” Schell says.

“You can’t make good puzzle games fast. You gotta think about them hard, you gotta build prototypes, you gotta do it wrong 50 times, and then you’ve got to polish it and polish and add and add and polish. It just takes really long to do.”

And, for all that work, you don’t get something that’s intensely replayable. A first-time run of I Expect You To Die’s missions could take you a few hours to see through. But, once you know what you’re doing, repeated playthroughs could take mere minutes. For its next project, then, Schell Games wanted to make something that players could go back to time and again.

“I always felt like the fantasy of sword fighting is a strong fantasy,” Schell says. “It’s like core to Dungeons & Dragons and so many different games. It’s just a core thing that video games have always delivered on pretty poorly.”

Plenty of VR games had looked into sword fighting, of course. Early hits like Vanishing Realms remain some of the best experiences for headsets, even. But plenty of other experiences suffered from poor implementation. Schell calls it the “waggle problem”; the idea that you can just stick your hand in an enemy, waggle it about and they’ll die in no time. That, Schell points out, isn’t sword fighting. But, without haptic feedback to help inform a player’s movements, how could you possibly make sword fighting work in VR?

“We can create tactile feedback in VR because every human being is already wearing a tactile suit and it’s made of muscles,” Schell says. “And if we can figure out ways to activate it, we can actually create tactile feedback.”

That was the basis for Until You Fall, a radically different experience to I Expect You To Die. Players would tackle an endlessly replayable dungeon, facing down different types of enemies in arcade-style melee combat. But the key to the game’s fighting was that it was lightning quick and reactionary – players would first block a series of attacks telegraphed by on-screen indicators. Eventually an enemy would tire and you could get in some fast-fire swipes. By keeping the combat light with only momentary contact between blades, Schell wanted to trick players into a sense of impact.

“When you know [where an attack is coming from] it creates a desire in you to move your weapons to that spot and stop. And when you quickly move a muscle and then stop your body, does this kind of pulse thing at the end, because that’s just how muscles work. And it sounds silly, but that pulse thing feels tactile, not necessarily the conscious level, but it’s at an unconscious level. It feels the clunk as you move your arm around. So we basically built a whole game around this notion of this, in this feeling of a thing that’s halfway between a rhythm game and an action game.”

Until You Fall took this concept and ran with it, creating one of VR’s most playable experiences (that still sits in our list of the 25 best VR games). The entire game is one big exercise in wish fulfilment, from slicing through the hordes of enemies to even little things like picking up a powerup and crushing it in your hand to activate it.

“To me, honestly, it is my favorite VR game of all time,” Schell says. “I’ve played it more than I’ve ever played any other VR game and not just because I had to work on it, but just because I just really enjoyed it. The whole, the way it involves your whole body. It’s just exhilarating, like physical activity in a virtual world can be really exhilarating and be really rewarding.”

Until You Fall was successful on a sales front, if not the runaway hit Schell had seen with I Expect You To Die, but the studio is planning more content in the future.

VR’s Lift Off

Perhaps what’s most surprising about Schell Games is that it has these two tentpole VR releases, with a sequel out to one of them, but it’s far from the only work the team’s done and doing in VR. Alongside those early mobile VR releases there’s been work in AR with Lenovo’s Jedi Challenges and Magic Leap, partnerships with Google for Daydream titles and Lego for more VR. The team’s also retained its focus on educational experiences, putting out Chemistry experimentation app, HoloLAB Champions in 2018 and HistoryMaker VR last year.

“VR is a tool for education,” Schell told me in a previous interview. “It’s an incredible tool for that. However, practically, so far that’s been in the realm of experimentation, the platforms that have been out, the PSVR and the Vive, the Quest, none of them are particularly friendly to educational institutions. None of them are designed for that. So that’s a little bit of an uphill battle market-wise to figure that out, but that’s going to come, that’s going to happen.”

So, no, Schell hasn’t always got things right. And, like every other VR developer, the path hasn’t always been easy. Schell, prone to firing off great quotes, once said that if Oculus Quest couldn’t make it the industry should “hang it up”. But Quest has succeeded, and it’s succeeded faster than the developer had predicted. Now Schell Games doesn’t have any reservations about pushing on in VR.

“We spent years trying to get the rocket to take off and now the rocket is launching and flying across the sky and we’re not going to jump out now,” Schell says. “We’re going to go, we’re going to ride this thing.”

“And for me, this is personally important because I really believe in the medium of video games. I believe in video games as just a powerful means of artistic human expression and VR is the most immersive most powerful video game experience there is. It might not be the number one most lucrative, but it’ll be in terms of human experiences that can be had and artistic experiences that can be created it’s going to be the sort of the vanguard and the most powerful and the best in the world.”