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50 Days Of PS VR #6: A Q&A With The Creator of 'Headmaster'

50 Days Of PS VR #6: A Q&A With The Creator of 'Headmaster'

6 days to go until the launch of PlayStation VR! We’re counting down to the release of Sony’s VR headset on October 13th by highlighting one game a day for its anticipated release. Today we’re talking to Frame Interactive about its anticipated title, Headmaster.

Headmaster is one of the games we’ve been seeing time again on PlayStation VR, having been revealed all the way back in the days that the headset was called Project Morpheus. It takes a simple action, hitting a football with your head, and brings it to a technology where it feels right at home. In fact, it’s so intuitive it’s already inspired several other imitations.

Recently we sent some questions over to one of the game’s developers, Ben Throop of Frame Interactive. In the answers below, he talks about perfecting the game’s mechanics while also revealing a surprisingly in-depth story more. Headmaster is out next Thursday, October 13th alongside PlayStation VR itself.

UploadVR: Is Headmaster a game for sports fans? Or is it for VR owners in general?

Ben Throop: It’s for anyone, really. The game does not require interest in soccer. We’ve made a lot of deliberate choices to be gamer-focused because we love video games and it was our chance to make whatever we wanted. Luckily explosions and prison and bureaucracy and soccer all go together (somehow?).

You could even say Headmaster is an ANTI-sports game because it co-opts a sport and brings it into the gamer’s world in a similar way to Rocket League. Soccer provides a shorthand to explain some rules and take advantage of some popular tropes… but then we abuse the sport a bit to just make a fun video game.

Unlike Rocket League though, the mechanic doesn’t use a controller – just your head. This makes it more accessible for non-gamers who are interested in trying out VR. Gamers and developers take controllers for granted, so it was really surprising to see how non-gamers took to Headmaster, with actual excitement and enthusiasm like “this is great, I don’t have to think about the complicated buttons and stuff”. I thought hands-free gameplay was cool, but I didn’t quite realize how much it would widen the audience. It’s turned out to be a really fun way to show VR to family and non-gamer friends. When I have people play, I like to get a group together, turn up the external sound and keep the headphones off the player so we can all share the game space. Then we all watch and talk to the player/victim while we take in the campaign together. Watching someone try to make shots and deal with the game world is really strangely fun.

UploadVR: How is the game structured? Is there a story mode?

Ben Throop: There’s a campaign with a story and an ending. You’re a professional soccer player and you had a bad season, so you’ve been sent to the Football Improvement Centre, which you are told is not a prison – but there’s razor wire and floodlights and alarms. I guess that’s a bit of a comment about how school felt to me as a kid. The best way I can explain the story without spoiling it is to say that the Centre is run by people and they have their own flaws and problems. You learn of the only employee and he communicates with you by leaving you notes since he’s not allowed contact with students. Things aren’t what they seem and you end up in the middle of a crisis.

So you take Lessons and ultimately try to pass your Exams and then graduate, which means you can go back to your club.

The progression has you trying to earn up to three stars on each lesson. One star is required to pass and move on to the next lesson. The story unfolds as you advance. Generally getting one star is pretty easy, but every 10 or so lessons, there’s an exam. Exams are boss fights, pretty much. I can’t believe we made boss fights but now we’re done and I look back and yep there’s boss fights in this ridiculous game.

You need a certain number of stars to unlock exams, so usually you need to go back and choose some lessons to do really well on to earn more. Getting two stars on a lesson is a challenge that will take a little thought and concentration. Three stars on a lesson though… that will not only take some skill, but also problem solving. When you get three stars in a lesson, you get a Motivational Item chucked at your head, which is pretty much a worthless found item that the cheap administration of the Centre deemed “valuable enough”. You collect Motivational Items for viewing on shelves in your room, which is not a prison cell.


And then of course there are some crazy hard shots that I hope people will just record themselves nailing for the pure glory of it. I’m really excited to see how good people can get – right now our team contains the best Headmaster players in the world, so we are looking forward to being humbled after the game launches. The video share function on the PS4 is especially cool for this because it’s like a DVR, so if you make tough shot you just jam on the Share button and you can put it online.

There’s also local multiplayer for 2-6 players where you pass the headset and compete for high score. At launch we’re going to have one level in that mode but we plan on adding to that set in updates. This mode has more range of scoring so it’s where we’d really get to see who has skill.

UploadVR: How difficult has it been to perfect the action of heading the ball with fine tuned feedback?

Ben Throop: Surprisingly tough. It’s a pretty standard case of a simple, intuitive experience being complicated to create.

When first prototyping heading a ball in VR, the action was so direct and convincing that it immediately was fun. This was deceiving because it was the novelty that was carrying it despite the flaws in my first implementation. So despite the great early response in which time we partnered with Sony, many early testers came away saying “man, I loved it but I really suck”. So we had to figure out how to make it controllable and as intuitive as it could be.

Digging into why they felt that way was tricky, because nobody could really articulate it. The mechanic is very analog and people don’t have a vocabulary for it like they do for, say, an FPS. So we took that as a challenge.

One of the things that helped was counter intuitive, and that was reducing elements of randomness in the physics. I play soccer myself, but Eric (my creative partner on the game) does not. So he represented the gamer’s point of view, and I came from the athlete point of view when it came to tuning the mechanics. There would be arguments where he’d say “I need to be able to replicate this hit exactly so I can adjust my angle and timing” and I’d say “That’s not how sports works! You can’t replicate anything, you just have to practice.”.

Ultimately, he was right about a lot of stuff. Too much randomness in the serve of the ball and randomness in how it spun made the game really hard – not in a good way. But that’s what you do when you make video games… you inject a little randomness into things so they don’t look cold and computer like. It just turns out though that in VR the position of your head is random enough. So we took out a lot of the normal gamey random stuff and you would never know. All you know is that the ball goes where you want.

The other side of the mechanic discussion is how it is a physical motion that comes with a lot of expectations, and we need to show people how to play well. Anyone that’s ever headed a soccer ball knows that it carries a lot of inertia and you need to really brace yourself to head correctly. Thing is it’s not safe to be jumping around and moving like a crazy person when in VR, so our tutorial introduces “The Proper Heading Motion™” to get players to use a sustainable action when playing the game. And it’s not just about safety, but also fatigue. You want to have a motion you can repeat for an hour without having to quit because you’re tired. So it’s more chill and skill based. The action is still true to heading a ball, but it shows that you don’t need to be jarring or strenuous about it because the ball isn’t actually there. … so you rock your upper body back and forth and keep your neck straight as opposed to really blasting your neck and getting all sweaty.

However the first time you have a ball launched at your face, you definitely react! That first moment is the best to watch.


UploadVR: How long as Headmaster been in development for? Has developement finished?

Ben Throop: The first prototype of the mechanic was in June 2014 at the Boston VR Bender game jam that Owlchemy, Valve, and Unity put on. I met Alex and Devin from Owlchemy, Chet and Aaron from Valve, and Pete Moss from Unity there. Valve brought their prototype desktop hardware with positional tracking and the theme of the jam was to make something that used positional tracking for gameplay. Heading a ball was just this obvious-seeming idea that I immediately had. The prototype came together really quickly and showed promise. It’s still really fun to think about meeting those guys back then, and where the VR industry has gone since. It still felt very much like garage days.

The world and trappings of Headmaster evolved November 2014 and through the holidays. The game was first shown at Indiecade East in early 2015, and then we started on the PS VR version after pitching Sony at GDC 2015, around April. So by the time it comes out it will have been over two years since inception. The funny part is that this was my “I just quit my job let me make one quick game and see how it goes” game.

As of this writing we’re done and racing to make trailers for launch on Oct 13.

UploadVR: Do you have a price set for Headmaster?

Ben Throop: Not yet but very soon.

UploadVR: Were you expecting people to copy the idea for Headmaster? Especially before the game was even out?


Ben Throop: We expected other devs to independently discover the mechanic of heading stuff. It is a natural for VR. So to avoid any chance of having a direct competitor, we concocted this weird world of The Football Improvement Centre, set the game at night, and made the kind of video game that we’d wanted to make without worrying if anyone wanted to play it. We figured if it was really unexpected and came from the heart then nobody would be able to plot a line from here to there and end up doing the same thing.

Since the choices we made are so odd, I never thought anyone would clone Headmaster. But the game’s gotten some attention, Sony has been showing it everywhere, and it’s known to be exclusive and a PS VR launch title, so I suppose it’s natural for some teams to want to take advantage of that. Luckily they are basing these clones off of a surface level idea of what the game is and what the old trailer has revealed, and I think players will not have any problem telling them apart when the final game comes out. On some level it is flattering. Maybe we can get “Dystopian Soccer Prison Simulator” listed as a genre on the storefronts.

UploadVR: Have you considered how a full soccer game might work in VR? Could that be possible right now?

Ben Throop: I haven’t thought about this. Anything is possible but we’ve been pretty tied up. 🙂

UploadVR: Is Frame a VR studio from here on out? Will your next game be in VR?

Ben Throop: Yes, Frame is a VR studio at this point. We’ve gathered a great little team and all of our processes are streamlined now. Starting a new studio and doing the first game, there are so many firsts that need to get done. I look forward to doing a game without having to, say, choose an email provider or get an accountant in the middle of it all.

I can’t wait to see what we do next. Once you get into VR you realize there’s so much unexplored territory. It’ll be tough to decide on what our next project is but I’m looking forward to getting back into that exploration mode.


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