We’ve met a lot of interesting figures at GDC 2023 and that includes an interview with the CFO of VR software company Vertigo Games: John Coleman. Vertigo Games is a major publisher of VR games and is currently partnering with VR manufacturer PICO to bring more games to their headsets.
John Coleman started as the Vertigo Games CFO back in 2015, right around the time they got into VR game development. He’s been able to see many VR gaming projects launch such as World of Diving, Arizona Sunshine, and most recently the zombie title, After The Fall. The team even become part of the Embracer Group in 2020 and purchased a company called Force Field Entertainment which is now Vertigo Games Amsterdam.
Pico was kind enough to arrange the interview with John at their GDC exhibit. In this interview, he told us more about designing games for VR and Vertigo Games’ partnership with PICO VR.
How many games have you developed for PICO compared to other VR company platforms?
Lemme see if I can count up because it’s a lot. There are also some that are currently in the process of being brought over to the platform as well. It’s easily a half dozen that are either already on the platform or in development, I think it will be in double figures by the end of the year.
So that number is slightly lower than what you would see on other platforms, but that’s just because we’re taking our catalog as well like the older games, and moving those over. Obviously what we want to do with PICO is have all of our new games released at the same time on both platforms.
We heard that you guys do Quality Assurance (QA) in VR games, could you tell us more about that?
It is part of our publishing services. If we were publishing a title we would support it with QA. It’s not a service that we offer as a, you know, somebody could just call us up and do QA, but you really got to have someone who specializes in it.
On some level, it is not that different from other kinds of QA in the sense. You’re trying to break the game and find out where the rough edges are. That being said, I think there’s a bit of a different testing pattern that you have to do. There’s obviously the UX side of things, like if you’re doing QA for a normal game, you have to ask “do these buttons work?” “Does this menu make sense?”. You still have that menu dynamic, but when you add the physicality of VR where you actually have to move and interact with something, that’s a whole new thing.
So any changes once you guys got into the Embracer Group? Does it have any big changes to your company?
The biggest thing was that it allowed us to go a lot faster in our growth. So we were about 60 employees when we were acquired. We’ve obviously continued to hire in our Rotterdam location, then purchased another studio, and now we have 180 employees.
From my experience with the Embracer Group, I think most of the titles of companies that acquire are targeted toward Western audiences. Do you guys have anything in mind for games in Asia?
We are working with Mixed Realms in Singapore. Are you familiar with the game Hellsweeper? It’s a soon-to-be-released roguelike game, with frenetic action, and lots of blood and gore. I don’t know if you would say it’s specifically designed for the Asian market but the whole IP is coming out of Singapore.
We create the games that we’re releasing in the West and then we look at what adjustments need to be made to make them more tailored toward the Asian market. A lot of that, because we do a lot of first-person shooters with blood and dismemberment, is not so much changing the story as much as changing certain features that are more appropriate for those markets.
When you started, you began developing in Oculus DK1. So when you were able to develop the PICO kit, was there anything that PICO provided better than DK1 in terms of features or capabilities?
So if you go back to the Oculus DK1, I don’t think PICO had even released a development kit at that point in time. So, I don’t want to make a direct comparison to those moments. I think both companies have their unique strengths and weaknesses and all of that kind of stuff. So I don’t want to be negative towards anything that they’re doing.
With Pico though, what we’ve been able to do is look across the slate of titles and how we try to bring large amounts of content across. We’re working specifically with their engineering teams and our particular games, to find out how we can best use the specific features of the PICO headset.
Some of that work is related to games that are in development, so I can’t really talk about all of that specifically, but it’s been a very tight relationship where we’re trying to accomplish something with the game. I’m trying not to disclose anything that’s unannounced on either side. So it’s been a very positive relationship for us.
Since most of your games are in first person do you ever have issues with players getting motion sick? If so have you developed any measures in your games to overcome this?
Yep. So for us, we’ve always viewed comfort as the primary thing that we want to accomplish. There are multiple ways that we address that. One is to have a very high frame rate. We found out very early on that if you were compromised in any way on frames per second, you’re much more likely to make someone feel sick regardless of what they’re doing, so you want to have that very smooth, natural feel.
The other aspect is figuring out how you allow players to move through the environment. We want to give people choices. So if you’re not motion sick and you want to just use the trackpad or stick and walk through the world you can do that, but we always will have teleport options. There are other tricks that you can do as well in terms of how you program the movement that makes it more comfortable for people but we want to give multiple choices so that everybody can find something comfortable. If that makes sense.
Yesterday we had an Interview with Peter Li of PICO and he told us that there be a new feature that would allow users to play with their hands and feet. Do you have any games that are gonna take advantage of that?
We actually already have games that use those types of features. They were created earlier with the HTC Vive trackers because that was the only option at the time. We typically use that for more out-of-home experiences because we like to create an experience where the user can make a larger footprint. So think 6 by 6-meter space, 4 players playing co-op together, and all of your movement is walking.
It’s a very comfortable thing. There’s no locomotion, and it’s always fun to look at another player and then you look down and you can see your feet. 2018 is our first product release that has foot tracking, so that code is there. It’s just connecting it with the Pico SDK to make that work.
Do you have any plans to implement these features into any new games?
In terms of specific plans to do that, we’re not sitting down saying “in this game we want to do foot tracking”. What we would do is say “foot tracking is something that we want to do in general”, most likely around our out-of-home experiences. Although with this current product, we’re actually evaluating how best to use it from an in-home perspective, but we always want to have that option with out-of-home experiences.
The reason I’m not giving the specific answer you want is that we try to do this with all of the games that we develop internally. For games that we publish, it’s going to be more up to that individual developer what they want to do.
You told us that you develop yourself, and also publish games by other people. Could you tell us what are the criteria that you’re looking at when deciding what kind of games to publish?
So Vertigo Games typically do a lot of first-person shooters, but there are only so many first-person shooters you wanna be releasing as a company every year. So if you look at some of the more successful partnerships we’ve had InnerspaceVR, which did A Fisherman’s Tale – a puzzle game, a little more whimsical adventure and covering some very interesting topics and in general about human nature and things like that.
So a lot of those studios that we work with, they’re bringing a particular IP or game mechanic that’s not something we’re doing already. That’s not to say we wouldn’t do a shooter with a third party, but so we’re trying to balance genres to a degree. A lot of it also has to do with the studio themselves, you know, “what’s their experience in VR?” “How good are they at delivering what they’re trying to do”?
It’s interesting the way you put it because they are publishers out there that only focus on certain genres but you guys balance things out.
We are taking the view that you wanna be pushing VR forward as a category. So while we’re really good at marketing first-person shooters, if you want to see the market grow overall then you need to have a puzzle game, an adventure game.
Actually, we have separate puzzle games that we’re working on right now that would sort of fit into different genres in terms of how a customer would identify them. But ultimately the mechanic has a puzzle element. You want to have a full set of experiences for consumers to play. If you’re playing games on your PC, you can play all these different things. Someone says you should try VR. You want to be able to find those types of genres that you like.
Which game actually has the best ROI (Return on investment)?
Arizona Sunshine. That’s an easy one. So, we sold millions of units and we made it with a team of 10 people, so that was impossible.
What kind of game will attract new users to try and play VR?
I don’t know if it’s genre-specific as much as IP, frankly. Embracer is sort of full of big IPs, so you could pick which one you personally liked. If you like living in that world whether it’s through a film or a book, it gives you the opportunity now. Not just to play a flat-screen game, but like actually be that character in that world – I think that has a strong appeal for people.
Pick an example like Lord of the Rings. If you can be in VR and the Lord of the Rings and see Rivendell all around you I think that would have a big appeal. So we see, not just what we’re trying to do, but also other studios and publishers in VR, first party as well.
I think every headset manufacturer wants to have that kind of IP because it’s so much easier to connect with the consumer, a player. Like this is what you’re going to get, you already know you are interested in this world, so yeah.
Since you have access to the Embracer’s IPs, do you think that there’s a chance that you could actually create say a Darksiders universe or Saints Row Universe in VR that you can actually explore?
So in terms of how the Embracer Group works, the ability to work across those IPs is there. Each group is able to sort of make their own decisions about what they think is best for the IP. So we would go talk to those publishers and see if it made sense. But the question you asked actually brings up a very good discussion point about what you look for in a VR game.
The other element aside from IP is: “Is there a gameplay mechanic or mode of playing that is native to VR that makes sense?”. I’ll just talk about hypothetically, like certain games that you just took them and particularly like a third-person game – you don’t want to just port that into VR.
It doesn’t necessarily work, so you want to iterate and play with it. “Is there a story that you could tell” or “a game mechanic that you could create” that’s still appropriate for that universe, but it’s native and makes sense in VR, particularly when you have your own hands.
I’m quite curious about the challenge when you design a game with foot trackers. Most of the VR games will involve just hand shooting. So when you design a game for feet, what challenges do you have?
I’ll give specific examples of it in Arizona sunshine, which is the 6 by 6-meter version of the game. There are things that you can do like walking across a beam. It’s not a challenge, it’s more of trying to think of design elements that accentuate the fact that you can properly show your legs.
So I think when you put something like that in the game, you don’t want it to be a throwaway idea that doesn’t mean anything. You need to design the game where the value of having your foot properly tracked makes for a more immersive experience. The challenge that is you don’t want to create something that changes the gameplay in a way that if you didn’t have a foot track, it would be a lesser experience.
We thank John Coleman for speaking with us and PICO VR for arranging the interview. Vertigo Games certainly has a lot on its plate but it’s cool to hear that they’re branching out into different genres and possibilities with VR. We can’t wait to see what they make in the future (and whether or not it’ll involve using our feet).
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