At Observer, our goal is to help XR developers and content creators build the best content. We believe that the community is at its best when we share our learnings and encourage each other to succeed. This is why we created the XR Creator Series, where we talk with the people helping push the industry forward. We hope to shine a spotlight on the amazing experiences people are building, as well as learn about how they got started, their development practices, and their thoughts on the future.
In this interview, we talk with Robyn Gray, co-founder of Otherworld Interactive, an indie VR studio who's been building VR experiences for the last four years. Robyn sheds light on building for mobile VR, the difficulties they faced along the way, and what she hopes for the future. We hope you enjoy!
Observer: Can you introduce yourself and Otherworld?Robyn: I'm Robyn Town Gray and my company is Otherworld Interactive. We've been around since July of 2014, so it's been about four years now. We’re best known for our piece Sisters, which was originally a Google Cardboard title. It’s a short horror story and since then we've gone on to create longer form pieces in that franchise, as well as some contract work here and there. We [recently released] a new piece on Daydream called Taco Sloth, which is a food cooking simulator.
Observer: What were the driving factors behind Taco Sloth? How did you decide on a cooking simulator type of experience?Robyn: Taco Sloth actually spawned from one of our employees, he'd been mulling over the idea for a while and we just hadn't really seen many food sim games on mobile. It’s pretty much the only one that we'd seen out there. Taco Sloth was an attempt at seeing how you might make a more literal cooking simulator on mobile without having fully tracked controllers. It's a funny and whimsical art style, very humorous. We also took a lot from Mexican culture; the experience takes place in different regions throughout Mexico and we do a little bit of Spanish teaching in there as well. We wanted to take a break from horror stuff a little bit and Taco Sloth gave us that opportunity, it's a lot of fun!
Observer: You’ve launched a majority of your titles on mobile instead of PC-based VR, what’s been your draw towards mobile?Robyn: I would say we initially built for mobile because we knew it would hit people's hands sooner, which I think has been true. It's been a constant struggle to find the amount of funding necessary to make larger, higher fidelity projects. We're super excited because our unannounced title is actually going to be built for high-end platforms, it’s going to be super awesome. So it's kind of been more an opportunity-cost reason more than anything else. We've worked with a lot of the mobile game companies and platforms and that's where a decent chunk of our funding has come from thus far.
Observer: With standalone headset specs closely resembling mobile specs, does that get you excited? Do you view that as a competitive advantage, having content that will port well to those devices?Robyn: No, not at all. We’re excited to check out things like the Quest because our team is quite good at optimizing stuff at this point, but more looking forward to the Quest type of headsets in four or five years. We want it to be running high-end computer spec, not mobile spec. We've done a decent amount of contract work that tends to be advertising pieces, so clients would request mobile experiences to expand their reach and get non-VR enthusiasts to actually see stuff. We've also done some educational things and mobile makes it more accessible to kids and parents. I think it's still an opportunity-cost decision right now, but hopefully that will change.
Observer: Throughout the VR development process, what have been the biggest problem areas or pain points for you and your team? Has optimization been an issue as you build experiences for both mobile and 6DoF experiences?Robyn: Well, we tend to start quite simple because we're a small team, so in some ways, optimization isn't a terrible problem. I personally don't like hyper-realistic visual direction so all of our games are more stylized, a little bit more cartoony, and that takes care of a lot of the issues. I guess lighting has always been one of those things where it looks a lot better if you have really good lighting and it's harder to do on mobile. So optimization, while a constant thing to think about, hasn’t been the biggest challenge. I think the biggest hurdle has been confining ideas onto a mobile platform. There's a lot of we'd love to do that you just can't do with limited controllers, that’s always a little bit of an issue. Also, adapting experiences over time has been hard. When you build for mobile platforms you end up needing to port a lot of stuff because you need to be on as many things as possible to reach a large audience. This constant swapping between all the different SDKs is always a huge issue as they have slight differences in tracking, touching, etc. When porting we also run into issues with scaling, especially when porting form mobile to 6DoF.
Observer: How do you playtest your experiences?Robyn: We mostly do our playtesting in our office. We’ve also been fortunate in the fact that a lot of the organizations who’ve given us funding or contracted work through us have done a lot of playtesting themselves. In terms of the tests, it's been mostly asking questions like: what are you looking at? How's it going? How do you feel? We do have a Chromecast which we've hooked up for various things, but it feels like all these other methods of playtesting suddenly break for no apparent reason. It’s a crude process at best. There’s a lot of playtesting done in the editor to make sure the gameplay mechanics work, but testing in the headset is necessary to get the feel of what looks good and feels good for the environment.
Observer: After releasing an experience on the app store do you continue to iterate and push updates to the build?Robyn: We definitely try to ship a final product. Again, we're a small team so usually by the time one experience is done, we hurry on to the next thing. As we start porting, we end up circling back. For example, we’re currently mid-port combining an episodic series into one because we just found that in terms of sales and visibility, episodic content isn't working so well. During the porting process, we’re also updating and fixing various things or reintroducing stuff that we just didn't have time to do when we released the game originally.
Observer: What’s the future business model for VR content? Will in-app purchases help accelerate the growth of VR?Robyn: I see no reason why there wouldn't be in-app purchases coming to VR. It’s been working for basically all game models, even things like AAA games these days have in-app purchases. I don't know why it wouldn't, but I personally don't opt for the method as an indie developer. In-app purchases are annoying to implement, annoying to design for, and frustrating as a player. It's not my preferred experience, which is why I tend to shy away from it, but I'm sure there are tons of experiences out there where it works really well.
Observer: You’ve been in the space for over four years now. In your opinion, where is the market at and how do you see it maturing over time?Robyn: It still feels quite crude. I feel like we're just barely out of the prototype hardware phase. Things like the Quest are still going to look extremely simplistic versus what it will eventually pan out to be in a few years. I don't know when, if ever, VR will reach the height of consoles or PC gaming, it's clearly a different experience. Even as we're seeing people stay in headsets for longer, it still seems that the allotted playtime for console gaming versus VR headsets will be pretty different. So I can't imagine at this point, but I hope to be proven wrong with a headset that people will want to stay in for five or six hour marathon sessions. I would hope that within the next five years or so, it becomes common enough that most people who consider themselves to be gamers will own one of the higher end VR headsets. Again, I don't think it's going to go away at this point, but it's going to definitely take longer for it to become common.
Observer: Do you currently use any type of analytics or publicly available metrics when making development decisions?Robyn: That’s the constant struggle as an indie dev, the bigger studios can put their money into any services, but for small teams, VR or not, the issue is always tracking statistics. We definitely felt the loss of Steam Spy. It didn’t matter how inaccurate it was, it still felt like it was a metric that you could hold on to. It was definitely more than good enough to give us rough estimates for VR. It’s different for traditional indie devs, but for VR, there is a bit more funding out there, so with Steam Spy you could make a compelling case as to whether or not you could make “X” money back based on a level of funding.
Observer: How big is your team? How did you guys get into VR and, and what's next for you guys?Robyn: My business partner, Andy Goldstein, and I came out of University of Southern California’s Interactive Media Grad Program. The program is well known for VR because a lot of our professors were in VR back in the 80's when it came out of NASA. While in school we were able to work with a lot of experimental tech, including some of the very early precursors to the Rift. I personally have never really wanted to work for a big company, I just like telling stories and doing my own thing, so upon graduation, we started working on a few contract pieces. It was kind of natural, we were quickly offered a couple of small VR contracts and ran with the opportunity. It’s not often that you get the chance to make content in a market that is not saturated, so we decided to roll with it. Fast forward to today, our next project will probably be about 10 people, we work anywhere between say 5 to 14 depending on the size. We usually run maybe two projects at the same time, juggling an independent project and a contract thing, whatever those might be.
Observer: What type of products or services are missing in the VR ecosystem that Otherworld wishes existed?Robyn: As we're stepping into more 6DoF stuff, it would be awesome if there was a standard package for movement and physics. I believe there are a few teams doing something like this, like NewtonVR and a couple others I’ve heard of, but I haven’t found one that everyone is using. It feels like most teams have to build their own from the ground up for each project, which is ridiculous. VR, more so than traditional games, creates so many edge cases making it extremely difficult to build your own fundamental components. These steps take so much time away from creating an actually good product. I think that it’s part of why a lot of the content we see tends to be similar in nature and not as deep as many of us would want in terms of story or interaction. Having someone conquer that piece would be pretty dope!
Thanks to Robyn for lending her time to be interviewed. You can follow Otherworld Interactive on Twitter.
To learn more about what they're up to, check out their website or download one of their amazing experiences on Google Play & Steam.
To learn more about other developers building awesome experiences in the space, check out previous postings on the XR Creator Series!