VR Visionaries #4: Robert Nashak, COO, Survios

Robert Nashak is the COO at Survios, Inc., a game and technology developer born out of the University of Southern California’s Games program. Their latest game, Raw Data, is available on Steam in early access and has received considerable media attention.

Tell us about Survios and your relationship with VR, how long have you been looking into it?

Survios was founded in 2013. It was borne out of a project called Holodeck, which was set up by four University of Southern California students. They were working in the Mixed Reality Lab at USC literally side-by-side with Palmer Luckey, who went on to sell his company Oculus to Facebook for US$2 Billion.

In July 2016 we released our first commercial game – Raw Data – which was developed for the HTC Vive. It’s a fully immersive multiplayer cooperative first person shooter. Raw Data immediately went to number one in the charts on Steam, the largest digital distribution platform for PC. The game went to number one not only in the VR charts but also in the overall game charts, so we’ve had some real success with it.

All of our success really comes down to the fact that the team’s DNA really is in research and development – they came out of a lab. We all truly believe that we need to keep those R&D roots growing because we’re still essentially in the early days of VR.

The secret sauce for our success to date has been in our vision. The founders from day one were committed to a certain type of experience in VR. Specifically that is standing up, with full body tracking and freedom of movement. That allows full immersion within a world that feels real. You’re not so much playing a character within our games – you are the character.

That's what excites us about VR – we put an Easter egg in Raw Data where you get to climb up a crane over a city. It is thrilling to climb. If you’re like me and you have a fear of heights then it absolutely taps into that because it feels so real. We’re interested in tapping into that reptilian side of the brain and getting it to react to things.

I understand a lot of your focus initially was more towards hardware, but, as you've already alluded to, you're getting a lot of attention for your early access VR game Raw Data...

The most important thing has always been user experience. The reason the team were building hardware when the guys first got together is because the hardware to provide the user experience they wanted simply did not exist.

It turned out to be one of the absolutely essential things to our success because we understand VR from every angle – from a hardware stance; from the software side; even down to the firmware that connects them. That deep understanding has really enriched our understanding of how to create the best user experiences.

2016 has been the year where the biggest consumer headsets have hit the market. Already at this early stage are you noticing development rules for VR emerging?

We are learning so much it is ridiculous. On a technical front, to have a really good experience you need to be hitting at least 90 frames per second. That requires deep optimisation of things like art assets.

You can play a regular video game at 30 frames per second, so having to hit 90 frames per second is really challenging. Another complication is the fact that in a regular game you can pick up a rifle and you have two animations associated with that rifle, two controls and you can shoot away. In VR you can pick up the rifle and spin it around – you can look at it from all angles. The sheer level of detail required, where everything is basically real and can be handled in a variety of ways, makes optimisation a real challenge.

I was really interested in whether hardcore gamers would take to VR. My worry was that hardcore gamers get this sense of games that are easy to pick up and difficult to master because they start mastering the controller. If you think of people playing Madden or Call of Duty – their mastery comes from being able to master the controller. That’s why for non-gamers it can be really hard to pick up and play something like Madden or Call of Duty at first.

What we’re finding is that hardcore gamers don’t mind when you remove the abstraction of the controller. No longer are you having to master a controller so that you can shoot a gun – you’re actually shooting a gun; you’re swinging a sword; you’re performing these actions not with button prompts but with actual body movements. It turns out that experience is super compelling.

What are the worst mistakes you can make when developing in VR?

I don’t know if this is the worst mistake, but in video games you spend a lot of time trying to stop people from doing things you don’t want them to do. For example you do collision detection to prevent people from walking into or through things that you don’t want them to.

In VR, you don’t have to overthink this. The VR environments are so real that people don’t walk through walls because they wouldn’t do that in the real world. That’s one of the big lessons we’ve learnt – how to not take control away from the user unnecessarily.

We’ve just hired a programmer who spent ten years at Blizzard working on Starcraft. That’s a pretty hardcore PC game using a mouse and keyboard. About a week in I asked him how he was getting on with programming for VR and his response surprised me.

He explained that when he was programming for Starcraft he was doing so for users that would only ever use a mouse and a keyboard. Now users have a full spectrum of movement possibilities, so he has to guess and intuit what a user could possibly do. For him that was a game changer.

Does this kind of new development require a different approach to development?

Absolutely. We have HTC Vive headsets for example all around the office so that our developers can test anything they create whenever they need to.

When I speak to my level designers, as soon as they go into VR to test it out they learn so much. Often what they think they have created in the walls of code they have written, doesn’t always correlate exactly to what you see when you experience that creation in VR. Once great example is with scale – one of my designers created a part of the level, and once he put on the headset and took a look he realised he had misjudged the scale big time. Our designers constantly jump in and out of VR in order to test every detail.

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

Still the single biggest barrier is price point. You need a US$1500 computer, plus the US$799 HTC Vive headset to play our game. That’s simply out of reach for the average consumer. Over time that will change. Components will become less expensive and over time the price point will be brought down to a level more affordable, which will help drive mass adoption.

The other big barrier is the trial. Once you get someone into high-end VR to experience it, the change from sceptic to believer happens incredibly fast. The problem is that within the industry we’re struggling to get out there and get people to try out VR. Great strides are being made already, but we need to do more if VR is truly to become ubiquitous.

One of the cool things that I’ve taken away from VR is watching how much emergent behaviour happens. I think of it in a similar way to Guitar Hero, if you remember that. When you’re playing Guitar Hero, sure you can play it sitting down, but once you stood up to play Guitar Hero, you started to act like a rock star.

One of our guys who joined us from CCP likes to say that Rock stars don’t sit down. Exactly the same things happens in VR games, particularly games like ours where you’re whipping pistols around and doing all this crazy behaviour because for the first time you have the ability to actually perform all these cool moves.

Robert spoke at the VRX 2016 event in San Francisco on December 7-8 and Raw Data is available in early access now on Steam.