PSU recently sat down with Cognitive Code’s Alex Mayberry to chat all things VR gaming, including Sony’s upcoming PlayStation VR headset, which is due to hit stores in October 2016. We cover a range of topics including Mayberry’s feelings on VR adoption over the next few years, as well as his own history in the video games industry.
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PSU: Hi Alex. The last time you and I spoke was during the release of Diablo 3 when it debuted on console. Would you care to provide our readers with a brief introduction on you are, past titles you’ve been involved with, and what you’re currently working on right now?
Alex Mayberry: I started my career in the games industry 20 years ago when I joined Xatrix Entertainment as Lead Level Designer. While at Xatrix, we developed the Redneck Rampage series of games, the first mission pack for Quake 2 called The Reckoning, and Kingpin: Life of Crime. After Xatrix, I moved on to Electronic Arts as a Creative Director on the James Bond franchise, and worked on The World is not Enough, based on the film of the same name. I then spent a short time with Kalisto USA, working on a Highlander game that never saw the light of day. The next several years were spent as Creative Director and Executive Producer over the America’s Army project at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California.
The game was developed for and funded by the U.S. Army. To the best of my knowledge, we were the only game team that ever had active duty soldiers rappel from a Blackhawk helicopter as it hovered across from the main entrance of E3 at the LA Convention Center. Once I was done with the army project, I spent almost a decade working for Blizzard Entertainment. Initially, I joined them as Senior Producer on StarCraft: Ghost, but when that was shelved, I moved over to the World of Warcraft team, and was Senior Producer on the Burning Crusade, Wrath of the Lich King, and Cataclysm expansions. Later, I moved over to the Diablo team and served almost five years as Lead Producer on Diablo 3, as well as its expansion, Reaper of Souls.
I left Blizzard in 2014 to seek new challenges. I spent a brief year as Executive Producer on the crowdfunded game Star Citizen, but left to explore the new creative opportunities that were presenting themselves with the emerging technologies of VR, AR, and Artificial Intelligence.
Which takes me to where I am now, working as Chief Product Officer for Cognitive Code, and using our SILVIA artificial intelligence platform to create a new kind of experience with intelligent digital characters in virtual worlds.
So now that you’ve "Seen the light" shall we say, like many who have also experienced VR, what to you is the most compelling aspect about the technology?
VR quite simply can do what no other platform has successfully done – put you in an entirely new and different world. For decades now we have been staring at our lighted video screens, peering through our digital windows at fantastical worlds and trying to imagine how it would feel to really be there. And if the game is exceptional, then it might make us almost forget about our surrounding world. When this happens we call it immersion. But in Virtual Reality, you don’t have to try to forget about the real world. Because the real world is gone, replaced by an entirely new one.
And when the experience is exceptional, the mind gladly accepts the illusion and makes it all feel real; the surrounding world truly disappears. It is a technological feat of magic, and it offers a true kind of immersion that the average gamer has never experienced before.
Would you like to share anything what you’re currently working on within VR, but more specifically to traditional game design as well as the ideas that have not yet been embraced?
Because VR is not just another game platform, but rather a new kind of digital medium, developers are discovering that the traditional mechanics that have proven successful on the video screen don’t necessarily translate when the user is actually present in the virtual world. And because the world takes on such a tangible reality, mechanics like scripted characters and floating dialogue options feel terribly out-of-place, breaking the user’s sense of presence and immersion. Add to this the lack of a keyboard and mouse for input, and it creates a true barrier to delivering realistic character interactions.
At Cognitive Code, we are utilizing our patented SILVIA artificial intelligence technology to develop unique characters that sound and speak like natural human beings. The SILVIA platform allows developers to create interactive VR experiences where conversation becomes an interface of discovery. Instead of clicking on a quest giver and choosing between four options, you just talk to the character, ask him questions and tell him what you need. And as the discussion unfolds, so does the adventure.
For me, and maybe this lies more with my interests for how I would prefer to use it, I see more excitement and time dedication from the consumer’s perspective leaning to movies. But which medium, industry, or form of entertainment do you see VR having the most appeal?
While I do think that traditional forms of entertainment like movies and music will be a logical entry point for many consumers, especially on mobile devices, Virtual Reality really does offer us a new frontier to explore. For me, it’s the experience that matters most. VR is a medium where different genres mix together in new ways. It all comes down to achieving presence with the user, and making them feel like they’ve been transported to a place they could never otherwise go. Just imagine what it will be like one day when we’ve got VR cameras on the Moon and on Mars and other places in the solar system. The possibilities are endless.
Did you have the opportunity to experience Nintendo’s Virtual Boy back in the 90s? Would you say it’s had much of an influence on modern VR or pushed the ideas and technology in anyway, even though it debuted just over twenty years ago?
I never experienced the Virtual Boy, but I did get to play Quake in VR at a game center during the ‘90s. I was working on the first expansion for Quake 2 at the time, and I remember how dreadful the experience was. Not only was it impossible to control, but it left me suffering from terrible motion sickness. As a designer it didn’t have any appeal to me at the time. For people who experienced VR during this time, I think it left them with a heavy dose of skepticism about the concept. But the concept itself has been around for many decades. It’s just that we now have the technology to finally implement a functional version of it.
Do you see VR potentially splitting game development for those who may possibly decide to make two versions of the same game? One in a traditional gaming sense and the other being in VR.
While some designs may translate to both VR and traditional gaming, it’s never going to be as simple as typical cross-platform development. It’s not as easy as making a game function on both a PC and a console. Even if the game content is identical, the end-user experiences are vastly different between virtual reality and on-screen gaming. These are different mediums with different requirements. The other thing that developers need to remember is that in VR their game has to be rendered twice. So beyond design mechanics, you can’t just assume that your PC game is going to just port right over to VR.
When creating an experience for VR, it’s also critical that developers give careful consideration to human physiology. There are well-documented studies on how the body reacts to being in Virtual Reality, and anyone who ignores those facts will do so at their peril. Because when your experience causes your users to become violently ill, it’s never a good thing for your product. So yes, I think because of the inherent differences between VR and on-screen gaming, there’s a very strong likelihood that development teams at some level will have to split their focus.
Have you faced any challenges working with VR? Such as the way you’re used to working and designing things within games, implementing ideas, or how the player may respond to the differences in actually playing something that they may be used to doing in a traditional gaming sense.
Consumer VR is in it’s infancy, and in fact, the industry is just giving birth to it. We are very much in a learning phase right now, so it’s not about spinning up a large team to implement a specific vision. Being the new medium that it is, working in VR right now is about learning what works and what doesn’t work. It’s about trying out new ideas and just seeing how they feel. And the things that you think are going to be great ideas often end up not working out, while simple things that you may not have given much thought to end up being extremely effective. For VR developers, we’re all going back to the drawing board to learn and develop a whole new bag of tricks. And for me, that’s one of the things I find most exciting about virtual reality.
Where do you stand on wearables in VR? Do you think it’s practical for players to be suited up top-to-bottom in VR suits, chunky gloves or the like? It looks "cool" in movies but in all honesty, it’s a bit naff in the real-world.
My mind is always on how to deliver the best experience to the widest audience possible. While wearable technology can offer a higher degree of fidelity in the experience, as soon as it becomes a requirement you instantly lose a huge number of potential users. So for that reason I have a hard time seeing such peripheral technology as being anything other than a niche market.
While I don’t doubt that developers will find a way to integrate VR into genres of games that some think may not work out so well, which genres within games do you see having the most appeal or practical use-cases in VR over the next few years?
The best experiences will be the ones that bring the adventure right to the user. The magic of virtual reality is the ability to take another human being and put them somewhere that not only could they never go, but they could never even imagine going. In traditional gaming, we speed through levels and are always looking to see what’s over the next hill. As developers, we have to create massive amounts of content just to quench the insatiable thirst to see what comes next in a game.
But in VR, the experience isn’t about what’s over the hill. It’s about what’s all around you, and the genuine feeling that you have of being in another place and another world. The games and experiences that strongly leverage and exploit that specific feeling of “presence” will be the ones that most capture the minds and hearts of the audience.
It’s clear that the factor of immersion ties directly into the development process. What paths of freedom and ideas has VR given you within the development of games? Be they those that may not have worked within traditional gaming or couldn’t have been done without VR.
As a designer, the fact that I now have the ability to transport you directly into my creation is more freedom than I’ve ever had before. Not only can I take you to another world, I can put you in situations that you’ve never dreamed of. I can show you things you’ve never seen before. And more than that, I can make you feel things. I can make you feel the elation and wonder of a visual piece of magic, or I can plunge you into the fear and foreboding of a dark and dangerous place. If I can make you feel present in the world, then I can make you feel personally affected by what you see and hear.
There is great power there. And yes, there is great responsibility too, as the saying goes. As an industry, we’re going to have to be careful about VR, as it presents an avenue into a person’s psyche that traditional games can’t reach. In VR, there will be a much greater chance of crossing a line and pushing users too far. And while I hope that developers will be cautious with their designs, I’ve no doubt that some will discover this the hard way.
As of right now there’s three big dogs within the space of VR: Oculus, Vive and HTC, and Sony. Samsung do have the mobile iteration with GearVR, along with the potential to expand to other areas. But which of these do you see having the most mainstream appeal? Sony appears to be pushing the technology as a consumer product while the other two seem aimed strictly at the hardcore PC gamer audience.
My expectation is that the mobile VR market will have the most success early out of the gate, at least when it comes to wide adoption in the market. Most people these days are walking around with a mobile phone that is capable of delivering a VR experience. Inexpensive HMDs like Gear VR or even Google Cardboard allow people to easily get a sense of what VR is without spending a lot of money. And the fact that it’s mobile means they can use it anywhere and freely pass it around to friends and family to try out.
When it comes to the higher-end experience, then I think that Sony has the potential to make the biggest early impact. There are over 35 million PS4s out there, and the positioning of Sony VR as a peripheral device avoids making users feel like they are investing in an entirely new system. Add to that the fact that the Sony VR will be roughly half the price of Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and it’s hard to imagine that it won’t have the most success. Oculus and Vive will battle it out for the hearts of the enthusiasts, but the high price tag and requirement for a beefy computer rig means that they will be fighting over a much smaller pool of players.
That being said, do you see cross-development taking place or collaborations between the three? It would make the most sense in pushing the technology forward as a whole, rather than going after two different audiences.
That seems very improbable to me. These organizations are all in direct competition with each other, and each one wants to win. The fact that we’ve never seen much cross-collaboration in traditional gaming is a good indicator that we won’t see it in VR either. Certainly not in this early stage where everyone is jockeying for position in a new and emerging market.
For many, 2016 seems to be the year of VR, I see it as the beginning with 2017 being the year it really takes off. I say this due to the quantity of games and the production of movies such not yet being fully available. And with PCs the entry fee is still rather high.
I agree, 2016 is an introductory year for VR. I think 2017 will see wider adoption, and by 2018 it will be mainstream. I will just assume that sometime after 2020 we’ll all be hanging out in the Metaverse.
Sony seems to have this sorted to some extent with the PSVR implementing some form of breakaway processing box, as well as a rumoured more powerful yet divisive and negatively-perceived machine on the way. VR clearly demands quite a substantial amount of processing power in addition to the craftsmanship, skills, and integration from the work of developers. So my question to you regarding all of this is when do you see VR becoming more widely adopted, to the point where it’s available at a more consumer-friendly price, say to that of a TV or gaming monitor?
I think that 2018 will be the point where we’ll see mainstream adoption of VR. But at the same time, we also have to think about the impact of Augmented Reality, as well as location-based Mixed Reality experiences. Ultimately, consumers will have a number of options available for digitally altering their reality. And as technology improves, these units will get lighter and smaller and cheaper, and the experiences that are delivered will become more realistic and immersive.
Do you see any challenges for VR over the next few years? Be it consumer adoption, developer hurdles, or the way that companies may use it for their technologies and the perception they may deliver? It would be quite a shame to see cheap, underdeveloped technologies ruining the image of VR.
It’s so early that we’ve only reached the tip of the iceberg when it comes to what’s possible in VR. Just like any new medium, there will be greatness and there will be garbage. But VR will stick because it simply has too much mind-blowing capacity to be ignored. Underdeveloped technologies won’t ruin the image of VR, but they will definitely ruin the brand names of any companies who cause their users to puke their guts out. But just like traditional game development, we’ll work through the early challenges and eventually find the sweet spot of VR design. And by that time, everyone will have a headset or a pair of glasses that will transport them to the fantasy world of their choice.
What would you say to someone who’s skeptical of VR? How would the best way be in describing it to someone? As of right now it’s practically impossible to do so without actually demonstrating it.
Virtual Reality is an experience, and so it can’t really be described to someone who has not tried it. I’ve tried to describe it to people, but at some point their eyes glaze over and they just kind of wander off. But put an HMD over their eyes and load up a really good experience that achieves presence, and the greatest skeptic becomes an instant true believer.
I have no doubt that controllers, keyboards and mice will still be here for years to come, with players still using their traditional screens for gaming. Do you think VR can rival this in anyway or strictly remain as an alternative? Would you say game adoption rate in VR will impact this, with developers dictating as to what form games are released in?
I think we’re going to see a blurring of the lines between VR and traditional gaming, not to mention film, movies, education, business and other media. I don’t see VR as replacing anything, and its emergence doesn’t mean that another medium is now obsolete. Virtual Reality is its own thing, and while it can certainly be used purely for gaming, it’s going to have a much broader appeal once it becomes truly mainstream. So I don’t think it’s accurate to look at it as though it’s bifurcating an existing market. This is a new market that will happen to touch and overlap with a number of others.
Fantasy mind-digging here, if you could have any experience VR, be it a specific game from your past reimagined or a movie, which would it be? The likes of Assassin’s Creed’s time-simulating Animus comes to mind, as well as those seen in popular film such as The Matrix and the Lawnmower Man.
I want to put on a headset and find myself watching the sunset on Mars. I want to step inside the imagination of others and see things through a new pair of eyes. I want to be taken back in time to watch the events of history unfold in front of me. I want my mind blown and my reality bent.
I guess I don’t care too much about reimagining things in VR, because I’m far too busy imagining brand new things to explore. That’s a rare thing to find in a world where it’s generally accepted that there’s nothing new under the sun. I am feeling an excitement about VR that I haven’t felt since my early days of game development. It feels like something I’ve been waiting my whole career for, and I’m thrilled to see it finally arrive. We are truly on the brink of a whole new realm of human experience. With Virtual Reality, the 21st century is turning science fiction into reality. It really is a great time to be a game developer.