Paul Bettner had a good time at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big game trade show in Los Angeles last week. His McKinney, Texas-based Playful studio debuted two games at E3, Super Lucky’s Tale for the Xbox One and Star Child for Sony’s PlayStation VR.
Those games show that Bettner is striding the line between traditional platform games and virtual reality. Bettner believes that VR will be a big market, but it is taking off more slowly than he and everyone else had hoped. His team has created new intellectual properties that can be used for both VR games and traditional console and PC titles.
Lucky’s Tale debuted on the Oculus Rift in 2016, but that platform has been slow to take off. In the meantime, Playful took the world and characters of Lucky and created a deeper platform game for the console. That’s definitely a smart way to keep the money coming in and the faith in VR. It’s also a good way to keep game developers excited about working on innovative titles on an emerging platform.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Paul Bettner: We’ve been busy. This is the first time I’ve debuted two games at E3 at the same time.
GamesBeat: How large a team does that involve?
Bettner: We have about 60 people at Playful now, just there in McKinney, Texas. Then we have 30 or 40 folks around the country we also work with.
GamesBeat: Super Lucky’s Tale seemed like a good idea. Were you planning that from the start?
Bettner: We had the idea to bring Lucky to other platforms. I would say—in the very beginning of Lucky, we were just looking for amazing things that would work in VR. We came upon this third-person thing and it worked. But then once we started building it, we realized—in development, it’s too much of a pain to go in and out of VR all the time. We kept this version of the game running that you could play on the monitor while developing on the PC. Pretty soon we realized, “This actually just works as a flat screen game. It’s a traditional platformer. Someday we could bring this to multiple platforms and let it work outside of VR.”
I worked at Microsoft for a while, because we sold Ensemble Studios to them back in 2000-something. I have a lot of friends at Microsoft. They got a chance to see Lucky early on in development. They started to make up this story in their head. What if Lucky was a mascot character, an Xbox mascot? Of course we fell in love with that idea, because that was the biggest way for us to get Lucky to as many gamers as possible. Here we are today.
GamesBeat: It’s rare when your secondary platforms are actually your biggest market.
Bettner: True. It’s usually the other way around. It’s almost like Lucky came to life, and now he gets to realize his full potential.
GamesBeat: Did you think of this as a cross-platform title, possibly, or do you feel like the exclusivity is better for it?
Bettner: In the case of what we’re doing with Super Lucky’s Tale, we think the real opportunity is to forge this tight partnership with Microsoft. Honestly, I was a bit apprehensive about this coming into the show. But what we were hoping is that this wouldn’t just be a game, necessarily, for families and kids to play. Of course it is that, but it could also be something Xbox gamers would want. It could be this thing they don’t get a lot. There aren’t many games like this on Xbox. This could be welcomed by that community. E3 is the big place to test that hypothesis.
GamesBeat: The only other way they can get something like this is to wait for another Conker game.
Bettner: [laughs] The great thing was, Microsoft had faith in it. They were willing to put it at the heart of their press briefing and all this other stuff and say, “Okay, gamers, what do you think?” It was on us to deliver something that was inviting enough, even to hardcore gamers. For a platform, I think the key to that is—it has to have enough depth, enough challenge. It wasn’t until people got their hands on the game, the day after the briefing. The press and YouTubers started to see that this isn’t just a cute game. It’s actually a good platformer. It controls well, plays well. It seems like we proved the hypothesis out. Xbox gamers and hardcore gamers are saying, “Yeah, I’d buy that.”
GamesBeat: Like you say, Microsoft is missing that. Sony has Crash and a lot of other characters. Nintendo has Mario. They’ve always looked for what their mascot could be. I thought they’d given up on it.
Bettner: Maybe they thought so too. But apparently not now. Some folks within Microsoft never gave up on that dream, and they helped us get this deal done. Now it’s the best outcome we could have hoped for. We wanted this to be true. We wanted people to fall in love with Lucky. Now we can do this. It can be even bigger than we hoped.
GamesBeat: I don’t know how you look back on the VR decision. Maybe you would have made more money sooner going this route first?
Bettner: We launched another game here at E3, Starchild. Starchild is actually not just a VR game. It’ll be what we call a flat screen game, a traditional game, as well, for consoles and PC. But we debuted it as a PSVR title here. It’s the same thing that happened with Lucky. VR is a great place for us to show people our IP first, because they can experience it in a way they haven’t seen before. It gets that IP a certain amount of attention and interest that might be harder if we were just debuting it initially as a flat screen game.
That’s what happened with Lucky. Back when we debuted that game a couple of years ago at E3, we got way more attention than we otherwise would have because it was something people hadn’t seen before. That helped us get to the place we’re at right now with Microsoft.
GamesBeat: Ubisoft has said the same thing. They always go aggressively onto new platforms with new IP, because that’s the best time to debut something. You get that extra attention. Even if it doesn’t make financial sense, you can establish the name and make money on the IP in later years.
Bettner: Right. It’s very similar to the way we look at this stuff. It’s also just super fun and cool to be making stuff for new platforms, though. Whether it’s the new Nintendo hardware or VR or mobile games, it’s the frontier. We get to figure out crazy stuff. None of the rules are written.
GamesBeat: Your people get more motivated.
Bettner: It’s a great hiring thing. We’ve been able to recruit folks to Playful because they’re interested in working on platforms like VR.
GamesBeat: It could be a model that nobody else is doing yet. I can’t think of another company that’s been able to do something like this.
Bettner: There’s another version of that. I’ve been thinking about it a lot at this show, because it sounds similar, but it’s a different idea. We are targeting two groups of gamers with what we’re working on, with Super Lucky’s Tale. We’re targeting 30- to 40-year-old gamers who grew up playing platform games and who love this genre. They see it and think, “That’s like a game I remember from when I was a kid.” Those are the folks that are going to talk about the game. They’re the reviewers that’ll give us a lot of press. But we’re also targeting the eight-year-olds who are playing their first game.
In the way that we’re using VR as our tip of the spear to get attention for the IP, we’re also using the enthusiasm and the nostalgia for these kinds of games to get that attention, and ultimately using that in service of introducing the game to a new generation of gamers. I was having this conversation with our creative director last night. I think that’s actually what Nintendo does, and has been doing for decades. It’s this endless cycle, because then those folks grow up and have kids. It’s a great strategy, I think, for the stuff we’re building.
GamesBeat: If you get that cycle established, you can do variations on the theme that keep the IP fresh.
Bettner: Right, like Breath of the Wild.
GamesBeat: Or Mario + Rabbids.
Bettner: I come home and I play with my kids. We play couch co-op. I’m playing, but they tell me what to do. For me, I’m having the time of my life, because I’m reliving the Zelda games I played when I was a kid, and for them it’s their first experience. They love it, they’ll grow up, and they’ll perpetuate the cycle. It’s this evergreen thing. But it requires us to build these characters that people fall in love with. This kind of stuff doesn’t happen automatically. We have to create this beloved IP for that to work. It’s not even about technology. It’s about characters and stories and worlds.
GamesBeat: How different is this from the VR game?
Bettner: It’s a full-on sequel. Completely made from scratch. If you remember from Lucky’s Tale, that was kind of a traditional platformer. Most of the levels were similar – different environments, but you start at point A, collect some things, go to the end of the level. Super has some levels like that, but even those have way more variety. If you look at the level we’re showing here, it has branching paths. It’s more like an adventure level. It’s not just running from one side to the other. It’s a hub and spokes. There are lots of secrets and paths to take. You have to return back and go on these little quests. It’s completely different from anything we did in Lucky’s Tale.
The other big difference—in Lucky’s Tale we had story in the very beginning, this little vignette we did where Lucky’s woken up by this tentacle monster called Glorp. Then you didn’t get any more story until the credits rolled. There was a little bit of story at the very end.
What we always wanted to go with this franchise goes back to games like Rare used to make, Banjo-Kazooie and things like that. It’s a platformer, but you’re constantly running into characters and having dialogue and narrative. It feels like a world full of characters and their stories. Super Lucky’s Tale has characters in almost every level that you interact with. We didn’t do any of that in Lucky’s Tale, but we wanted to, and now we finally have a chance to do that.
GamesBeat: What’s the origin of Starchild, your other VR project?
Bettner: For Lucky’s Tale, we had this idea that third-person character action open world platforming games could work in VR. It took a lot of tricks to make that comfortable, though. We have to shrink the world down and do a lot with the camera.
There was a type of level in Lucky’s Tale called a foxhole. You’d drop down into something like an underground world in Mario. Everything shrinks down. It’s almost like a shoebox. When we put those in the game, some people looked at those and said, “That’s a lot more like these other games we like, these 2D side-scrollers.” Those folks basically pitched us all on the idea of making a whole game out of that.
Our idea was, can you make a 2D side-scrolling game work in VR? The initial prototypes didn’t work very well, of course. We just used the Lucky’s Tale engine. The problem was, you’re looking ahead by default, but you’d look to the right or left and see the whole level stretching out, which ruined the effect. What happens in 2D games is there’s very intentional staging and control of what you can see. Especially in the more cinematic 2D games, like Inside. That’s one of my favorites – very rich story, a very emotional game. They do that by almost presenting this comic-book view of the world.
We kept trying to make that work, and finally the creative director, Kynan Pearson, who worked on the Metroid games at Retro—he was the one helping us prototype this, and he’s now the director of the game. He found this one technique where he vignetted the view. When you’re playing in VR, especially if you’re sitting down, the comfortable range of motion for your head is about 30 degrees in every direction. He said, “What if I just vignette the world outside that cone and not even draw it? Let it fade to the horizon or turn into a solid color.”
He built a prototype level where you’re in this cave and it’s dark. It’s in the playable demo now. You couldn’t see the level stretching out if you looked to the side. It ends after a certain distance. As soon as he did that, all of a sudden it worked. Now I feel like I’m playing one of those classic games. I’m only looking at this area in front of me. It’s like a stage or a vignette, this shoebox presentation of the world.
The other key thing was, we wanted the character to feel like an action figure, but a kind of premium action figure. One of those $300 collectible figures. Getting the scale of her correct, and the detail level—those things together brought this game to life.
GamesBeat: That’s PSVR?
Bettner: Yes, to start. We’ll be on other platforms too. We’re not exactly sure yet which platforms. But what we’re saying is it’s going to be on PSVR and it’s also going to be on TV. How it gets there, well, we’ll see.
The thing I’m excited about, and I think gamers who see this share this excitement—just like with Lucky’s Tale, when you see this it opens up a new genre to VR that people are not imagining right now even applies to VR. A 2D side-scroller? Nobody’s thinking, “I can’t wait to play a side-scroller in VR,” but when they try this demo they’re like, “Wow, what about this, and this, and this?” It’s another genre that VR makes amazing.
GamesBeat: How do you think VR is holding up right now as an emerging category?
Bettner: People are a little confused, honestly. At this show, there was more anticipation for a lot of VR announcements.
GamesBeat: People thought Microsoft would do something big.
Bettner: Yeah. VR is only a year old, really. The launch of Oculus and Vive was basically a year ago. As folks who all use technology – mobile phones and iPads and things – we expect a new thing every year. But I think the VR industry is too new for those yearly incremental improvements. What I’ve been expecting for a while now is that the companies investing in this technology and building devices—they’ll give it a couple years before the next generation. It might be next year, or even the year after. There are so many fundamentally new technologies.
When we were working with Oculus, they originally had this idea to ship the Rift a year before they actually did. But there were so many cool things happening in terms of tracking, breakthroughs they were making, that they just had to wait. With things like wireless, breakthroughs in hand tracking and motion tracking that are happening, with inside-out tracking—companies are thinking, “If we just wait another year or two, we can make a really amazing device. Let’s do that instead of just an incremental improvement on last year.”
From a gamer’s standpoint, that shouldn’t turn into disappointment. It should turn into excitement. If you look at the investment that’s happening in VR, it’s more than there’s ever been. This is just a building year.
GamesBeat: I don’t know if you’d call it the stand-alone generation, but it seems like everyone’s looking forward to better headsets, better sensors, other experiences.
Bettner: People are asking me if it’s going to be mobile. The thing I’d be most excited about for the next generation of VR would be a wireless headset that has the screen and the battery, but not necessarily the processing power. It doesn’t have thermal issues with a CPU and GPU on your head. It offloads that to a console or PC, but doesn’t have wires. That’s going to be a sweet spot in the next couple of years.
GamesBeat: When I asked Microsoft here, they said the Windows PC is more likely to be the place where VR evolves.
Bettner: I just wonder if you’re going to see these hybrid devices. We know Intel and Oculus are working on Santa Cruz. Those devices basically have Galaxy S8-quality hardware in them. But there’s this opportunity for those devices to support two things: native VR applications that run on the device, and also, if they have wireless embedded in them, they could offload to a higher power device somewhere else and operate in two different modes. Nobody’s shown anything like that, but I think that would be a really cool device.
I’m more excited than I ever have been about the mixed reality stuff that’s coming. It’s a little weird for there to be this feeling of disappointment. I think expectations got a bit out of line. People thought VR version two was going to happen just a year after version one. I don’t think that was very realistic.
GamesBeat: It does seem logical that this multi-pronged approach you have, targeting more than one market, will help you last until we have a bigger VR market.
Bettner: That’s been the key to Playful’s approach. I think it applies to almost any challenge I would face as an entrepreneur. There’s a challenge of timing, but also a challenge of being adaptable and agile, creating products and strategies that don’t rely on a single thing happening exactly when I want it to happen. We’ve been able to build games that were designed to be cross-platform from the beginning.