We talk to CEO Oskar Burman on the history of this VR-exclusive developer as it prepares to put out its fourth title in three years.
In VR, you’ve probably noticed, there isn’t much you can depend on. This industry is a minefield of risky markets and unwieldy technology that any developer is lucky to simply navigate and come out on the other side unscathed, let alone successfully. But there is one studio that’s earned an uncharacteristic reliability in these past five years, and that’s Fast Travel Games.
The Stockholm-based studio, which has the luxury of neighbouring alongside talent hotbeds like DICE and Rovio, already has three released VR games under its belt and will add a fourth next month with Wraith: The Oblivion – Afterlife. None of its past titles are what you might consider stone cold VR classics. They are, however, consistent performers – rock solid in playability, considered in design and never anything less than enjoyable to experience.
Slipping a headset on to play a Fast Travel title often feels like sitting down in front of your console and booting up a new release. These are games you can count on, a persistent trait only a few studios can claim to have matched this far in. Whether it’s the core thrills of Apex Construct’s archery combat, the warmth of The Curious Tale Of The Stolen Pets’ whimsical worlds or even the brilliantly physical stealth of Budget Cuts 2 (co-developed with Neat Corp), we’ve come to depend on Fast Travel as a sort of VR constant.
Perhaps that’s no surprise when you consider the culminative experience behind the studio’s three core founders. CTO Kristoffer Benjaminsson and Creative Director Erik Odeldahl both hail from DICE, working on the Battlefield and Mirror’s Edge series respectively. For a time CEO Oskar Burman also worked at the EA-owned juggernaut, but he’s also held senior positions at Just Cause developer, Avalanche Studios and, until 2016, was the General Manager of Angry Birds creator Rovio’s Stockholm studio. Quite a résumé between them, then.
Why leave the safety and comfort of those established studios for all this, though? Burman’s own story is familiar – dreams born after watching 90’s cult classic, The Lawnmower Man and then brought into stark reality after getting to demo the HTC Vive in 2015 at a space Valve’s Chet Faliszek had set up at the offices of Payday developer (and StarVR creator), Starbreeze. Talking to me over web-call, Burman even describes the experience with the same ‘mind-blown’ sound effect I think we’ve all made to translate our VR excitement at some point.
“I had been at Rovio for three of four years by that time,” Burman says, “I was leading that studio but I felt like now is the time to go and build my own studio and focus on VR. I’ve been kind of waiting for the right time to start something new, but this is the time.”
There were discussions, Burman notes, about possibly working on VR projects in their current positions, but the three didn’t want to be weighed down by corporate bureaucracy (which, to this day, is very real when it comes to VR). EA, for example, had shown interest in VR with a Star Wars: Battlefront experience on PSVR, but were years away from giving it the serious commitment seen in Squadrons. They wanted to be lean and nimble, to move fast, maybe break a few things, but start learning from those fragments right away. “That’s one of the things I’ve learned throughout the years is, when you launch games, that’s when you learn,” Burman says. The aptly-named Fast Travel Games was born.
The trio’s connections and body of work afforded it the benefit of venture capital, something few other start-up VR studios will have been fortunate enough to enjoy. But the team set it to work almost right away; the remaining months of 2015 were spent on R&D and securing office space (which, at first, included sharing with Budget Cuts’ Neat Corp) and Fast Travel’s first game entered development in the early days of 2016.
Constructing Apex Construct
The team had big ambitions within the context of the VR market. It wanted to make a full, multi-hour campaign, the kind that Burman and co had been crafting for their entire careers and a direct response to the influx of wave shooters and short experiences VR was seeing so much of at the time. Apex Construct, Fast Travel hoped, would be the game early VR adopters had been pining for.
Design was smart and tight, sticking to what we already knew worked in VR. There was archery-based combat against enemies that fired huge, glowing projectiles you could dodge, for example. Though the narrative was linear, Fast Travel built out wide-reaching levels that could be revisited in later missions to open up new doors and passages, a neat way to reuse assets whilst maintaining the illusion of progression. Apex was an exercise in ticking the boxes not normal checked by your standard VR fare.
Critically, it performed quite well but, to Burman and co’s surprise its efforts to make a game VR owners wanted weren’t immediately rewarded with sales. “I think, we were disappointed at launch because we thought the market– we just thought there would be more demand at that point in time,” he says.
Over time, thanks to news headsets like Quest, Apex’s sales did begin to pick up — something Burman notes as very unusual for a single-player narrative title — but those early days were definitely a challenge for Fast Travel. “I would say 2017 but even more 2018 was the tough years when the momentum kind of died off and you started to question yourself: is this going to happen? What’s going to drive it going forward?” Burman recalls.
But Apex did accomplish one key goal; it gave Fast Travel a lot to learn from. “We learned a lot about VR interactions and what you need to think about when designing a VR game,” Burman says. “There’s a lot of other people that can speak to this but the detail of interactions, the stuff you’re expecting in VR like, if you see a texture with a button on you go press it immediately.”
There was also the growing demand for smooth movement locomotion, which Fast Travel had to implement into the game at a fairly late stage (before it had been teleport-only). Indeed, the bones of Apex Construct can be seen in every game the developer’s made since, if not always in the most obvious of ways.
A Curious Diversion And A Stealthy Surprise
Fast Travel wouldn’t take these learnings into a direct sequel to Apex Construct. Instead, for its next project, it picked something a little smaller, more manageable and — on the surface at least — quite different from its debut title. The Curious Tale Of The Stolen Pets was a cutesy puzzler that looked a little like a VR version of a Wallace & Gromit animation. You didn’t fire a bow and arrow, but instead rotated diorama-sized worlds in search of cutesy critters hiding in sunken ships and chests filled with carrots.
This, Burman says, was a passion project for the game’s lead, James Hunt, who worked with a smaller team inside the now-growing Fast Travel Games in a short amount of time to produce something of a light treat. “It’s a shorter game but it’s in many ways more polished than Apex,” Burman says. “It’s polished through and through, and also how the art comes together with the music from Wintergatan. It really works out perfectly.”
And, like Apex before it, Curious Tale has slowly but surely built an audience. “I think it’s the best-selling game we have right now on the market,” Burman reveals. “We did the hand-tracking addition to the game last year and it seems like it’s sticking and has this kind of unique niche in the Quest ecosystem.”
But, even if Curious Tale was unexpected, it wasn’t half as surprising as Fast Travel’s collaboration with Neat to release Budget Cuts 2: Mission Insolvency. The first Budget Cuts was an early showcase of how VR literally changed the game, emphasising physical movements to remain out of sight and rewarding player skill in ways flatscreen games can’t quite match. It’s also a pretty consistent seller on Steam – so why did Neat ask for help on the sequel?
“It was pretty natural to us,” Burman explains. “We had been spending a lot for time together, we knew each other, we trusted each other. Neat felt like they really wanted to build a sequel to the game and they didn’t have the capacity to get it out in that short time-frame they wanted it out.”
And so Fast Travel was enlisted. “It was fun, to do something, to work together,” Burman recalls. And a deeper bond has formed because of it. The two studios are now working on separate projects, but share a Slack group to talk about other games and movies. You can’t help but wonder, as the VR industry grows, if these two along with other Stockholm VR developers like Resolution Games and Cortopia might begin to hold reputations just as respected as the gigantic mega-studios that surround them.
The Afterlife Awaits
Around the time Fast Travel was working on Curious Tale and Budget Cuts 2, though, another opportunity arose. Paradox Interactive, another Stockholm-based publisher, was interested in getting into VR. The question was how to do that; existing IP like Empire of Sin and Prison Architect likely didn’t seem like an ideal fit.
But Paradox also owns the rights to an entire universe of horrors, the World of Darkness franchise, home to a tabletop RPG and games like Vampire: The Masquerade – Bloodlines. Its lore is comprised of various mythical monsters creeping out of the shadows and causing all sorts of misery. Fertile ground for a VR horror game, then.
“We felt like this being a ghost must work very well in VR,” Burman says, referring to the Wraith factions in the world. Wraiths are, essentially, dead people. They can enter the world of the living and effect it with supernatural powers, which is exactly what Fast Travel pitched to Paradox for Wraith: The Oblivion – Afterlife.
“It’s… uh, it’s a horrifying game,” Burman adds with a laugh. He doesn’t share the same affinity for horror that Creative Director Erik Odeldahl clearly does, but still says Wraith represents some big steps for the team. “If you play Wraith, you can definitely see the history from Apex and from Budget Cuts 2 in it, but there’s also things from Curious Tale in terms of interactions and such. But we’re taking all our learnings into this project. It’s a lot of stuff we’ve learned throughout the years that’s coming together here. It’s definitely our most ambitious project yet.”
In our interview earlier this month, Odeldahl told me Fast Travel Games was named as such because himself, Burman and Benjaminsson saw VR headsets almost as a portal to instantly bring you to new worlds. But, looking at the developer’s expansive output in the space of the past few years, the label feels all the more appropriate. Wraith arrives on Quest and Rift on April 22nd, and there are SteamVR and PSVR versions arriving later down the line but, given the precedent Fast Travel has set, it might not be long until we hear about what’s next.
“We’re not going to be a horror studio from now on, we are going to move between genres, definitely,” Burman says, confirmed the studio is working on its next game (and even games) already. “Because I think we have the capability to do that and we have a great team that spans over different genres and games. So it’s going to be a variety. There’s a lot of stuff in the works. I really can’t say much more than that.”
Quite a rollercoaster of a few years, then, though that could be said of any VR developer at this point. What makes it all worth it for Burman is that, after all those ups and downs, Fast Travel is not only still here, but it’s growing, with nearly 30 employees already. “There’s so many that didn’t make it in a way,” Burman says of other studios, “like steered away and built something else. So I’m super proud of that. We’re still here, almost everyone in the team is still with us. It’s a bunch of true VR believers in this company that stick around and fought for this to happen.”