VR Visionaries #3: David Votypka, Senior Creative Director, Ubisoft / Red Storm

David Votypka is the Sr. Creative Director at Red Storm, a major studio within Ubisoft. They will release two major VR games – Werewolves Within and Star Trek: Bridge Crew.

Tell us about Ubisoft's relationship with VR, how long have you been looking into it?

As you may know, Ubisoft is generally pretty bullish with new technologies – and we believe in getting in early. We like to have the chance to ship games on new platforms when they come out because it provides great opportunities and advantages: ways to make games that either weren’t possible before or present new features and functionality that couldn’t be done on older hardware platforms. That’s definitely true of VR. More than any new console or PC advancement, with VR we can make games now that just weren’t practical or possible before.

We started prototyping and exploring VR at Red Storm, and I believe Ubisoft Montreal began around the same time, in 2014. For me though, VR goes back to the ’90s. Virtual reality is what I went to school for, what I worked in during the late 90’s, and developing genuine VR games is what I’ve wanted to do my whole career. The last big VR push kind of died off in the late ’90s and early 2000s. I then spent 15 years working in games, but now I’m super excited that it’s back – and I think for real this time.

Ubisoft is very open about the potential of VR because they see how deeply it can engage players into the worlds we create. Ubisoft takes great pride in creating these deep and immersive worlds that users and players can really relate to. VR has the potential to draw those players into our worlds even more deeply.

I understand a lot of your focus has been on Social VR, which to some people sounds like an oxymoron. How can VR be social?

When you think of VR and you see someone wearing a VR headset, it doesn’t look very social. When you’re in your living room wearing a VR headset with others around you, it’s not exactly the most social activity. However I would point towards games like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes – because games like that are blowing up these perceptions (pun intended).

However where VR becomes truly social – and I would say potentially more social than any technology that we’ve ever had – is when people are getting into a shared environment and a shared space together. When you’re networking where people are looking; their voice; where they are moving; their hand positions; their torso position – we can already do a lot right now with just the upper body. Things like eye tracking and facial expression recognition are imminent too, and that is going to move the technology on leaps and bounds.

Even without these additions, you’re looking at an avatar that looks like a human being because it replicates a person’s movements – your brain can tell the difference between an animated character and a human controlling it. Interacting with real people who react and move just as real people do creates a sense of social presence which hasn’t happened in a digital format before.

When we discovered these possibilities and we knew that social VR was going to be something special. We can make games that wouldn’t be the same without VR technology. That is true of both Werewolves Within and Star Trek: Bridge Crew. That sense of being with others and working with them, cooperating with them… or in the case of Werewolves Within, knowing when someone is lying and having this personality and discussion-based game where real world social cues come across in this environment – it’s really been amazing and the feedback has been very positive for it. We have big aspirations for social VR and big expectations for where it can go.

All three of the VR games Ubisoft currently have in development – Eagle Flight, Werewolves Within and Star Trek Bridge Crew – use the format in very different ways. Was that differentiation an active push from Ubisoft in terms of direction?

It’s in the DNA of Ubisoft to experiment and to give teams creative freedom. All three of these games came from the bottom up. It wasn’t a case of Ubisoft contacting the Red Storm and Ubisoft Montreal studios to dictate that they needed VR games and wanted some of them to be social. It was instead a case of Ubisoft being open to the idea of exploring VR and teams coming to them with their ideas.

We brought the ideas of Werewolves Within and Star Trek: Bridge Crew to Ubisoft a couple of years ago. For Red Storm to be working with the Star Trek licence – this massive franchise that has been around for decades – has probably surprised a lot of players. The reason we were able to make that happen is largely because of the culture at Ubisoft – we had the freedom to pitch the game idea and to prove that it was worth making.

The same goes for Ubisoft Montreal – they had the idea of being able to fly like an Eagle. They proved that it works and were empowered to run with it. That’s one thing that is so rewarding with working for Ubisoft; having the opportunity to do this bottom up approach.

What would you like to see coming from other companies working in VR?

We of course need the industry to provide exceptional content, and more than just games. But I particularly look forward to seeing what the VR hardware can bring. The more the VR hardware allows us to immerse your senses into a digital world, the stronger a sense of presence we can generate.. So for example when you can see somebody’s facial expressions, where they are looking and potentially representing their whole body, not just from the waist up – then you’re really going to see some interesting implementations of VR.

What I hope developers do, and what I ultimately hope to do in VR, is to create experiences that allow you to go places, or be people, or do things that you couldn’t otherwise do. I believe that the goal of VR – which is defined by the term itself – is to make experiences that feel virtually real.

And it is the continued evolution of VR hardware that will be needed to empower our abilities to reach this goal. .

VR has already been massive in 2016, however it will take a while before it can truly be considered mainstream. What are Ubisoft's aims with their initial VR games, and how will you deem whether you’ve been successful?

We’re still really only at the beginning, and Ubisoft wants to explore with VR and to let the teams prototype and learn what works and what doesn’t. One of the advantages of doing this early is that all of the teams learn early, so when the numbers do take off in terms of sales and Head Mounted Display (HMD) installation, we’ll be in a great position to take advantage of that.

In terms of how we measure success, it really has to be in the reaction to the games. Are our games something that the players really enjoy and are engaged by? Are we creating something that users couldn’t have experienced without VR? Based on showing all three of our games so far, the feedback has been consistently very positive. People are surprised at what they get out of the experiences we’re making, and we have been pleased to see VR skeptics go from critic to believer in the course of one play session.

VR is something that you really have to try in order to “get it”, and truly believe in it. It’s impossible to make a proper judgement without trying a quality VR experience first.

What are the biggest lessons you’ve learned through making VR games?

Because my fascination with VR began 20 years ago, I’ve spent a lot of time learning and thinking through so many applications of what could and (what I felt) should be done.

In the ’90s the hardware was very limited, as were the graphics capabilities. There were serious obstacles related to creating a strong sense of presence, so a lot of these ideas were just imagining what could eventually be experienced.

Since the ’90s I’ve thought through just about every type of VR application one could imagine, or so I thought… But one of the things that didn’t really occur to me at all was social VR. Once we realized and experimented with this type of VR at Red Stormit really was eye opening. Social VR is probably the most powerful applications of virtual reality.

Tell me about the idea of restraint within VR development. How will the content boundaries be pushed with VR games?

At Ubisoft we are focused on what might be best described as aspirational and positive experiences. There are other experiences you could put users through with VR, like horror scenes and jump scares, but it remains to be seen how many people actually want that. For the time being we are focused on the positive experiences and being someone or somewhere that you would aspire to be.

Star Trek: Bridge Crew is a great example of that. Fans have grown up with the idea that they always wanted to be a Federation officer on the bridge of a Starship. Flying like an eagle is also very aspirational, and being able to be in a medieval village with your friends and enjoy a hilarious social game – that’s something that you look forward to doing.

Regarding discovering boundaries what you’ll probably see is the smaller independent studios making a niche experience and taking a chance on it. Everybody else will get to watch what happens with players reactions and assess whether they’ve been able to break the mould and catch the attention of the audience in a way that you didn’t expect.

There are things that you can do at big publishers that Indies just don’t have the scale to do. We can make some great experiences, but you’ll probably get some surprises out of the smaller developers that might change people’s perceptions in terms of what players are willing to undergo in VR and what they want to undergo in VR.

What are the main barriers VR faces in terms of widespread adoption?

One of the biggest challenges facing VR right now is availability, you really have to try it, and it’s such a small percentage of the population right now that has been able to try it. As more people get their hands on the tech this will drive up interest and the market will grow as a result.

There are great things happening in this area before the end of this year even. Companies like Valve, Sony and Intel providing travelling VR trucks, as well as VR demo stations in retail locations in order to put the different HMDs into the hands of consumers without them having to pay up front. That can only be a good thing for VR.

Of course everyone will love to see the cost of the technology coming down. And it’s true with technology across the board whether you look at mobile phones, televisions or whatever – the cost of components does come down over time and it makes the technology more accessible. The same thing should happen with VR.

The third part is content. VR obviously needs to have compelling content because even with excellent hardware, small demo experiences won’t be enough to move the needle. At Ubisoft we’re going to be adding to that pool of content very soon, as we don’t believe in sitting on the sidelines to watch and wonder if others will make VR a success. Instead we jump in, take chances, and aim to deliver amazing titles that help prove the capabilities of a new platform, and its merit as an exciting new market sector.