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30th Time's The Charm: Jesse Schell Reflects On 3 Decades In VR

30th Time's The Charm: Jesse Schell Reflects On 3 Decades In VR

Jesse Schell is incredibly bullish about VR. He’s also often very wrong about it.

This is not something he hides, it’s actually something he seems to enjoy. In fact, Schell once revealed he thought VR would be a mainstream technology by around 2005. The jury’s still out but it’s looking like he was off by about 20 years or so.

And that’s far from the developer’s only misfire; in 2016 he made 40 predictions about the future of VR during a GDC talk, some of them are yet to come to fruition, some of them were right, but many of them were staggeringly off the mark, like the prediction that PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive would sell a combined total of eight million units in 2016. Even now that VR is finally gaining steam, he admits it’s growing faster than his more recent, much more conservative predictions suggested.

So, why should you listen to Jesse Schell?

Well, aside from years of experience, being incredibly charismatic and often electrifying to simply listen to, Schell knows that getting things wrong is not only okay, it’s actually part of life with new tech. It’s this spirit of trial and error that’s kept the developer invested in VR for nearly 30 years and, notably, even informed some of his studio Schell Games’ best titles. I Expect You To Die is all about persistence, experimentation and the eventual satisfaction that comes with success. Jesse Schell and the wider Schell Games’ story is much along the same lines.

In fact, Schell’s work with VR extends even further back than when he founded the studio in 2002. He can trace his first memories of hearing about VR back to an early-90’s issue of Mondo 2000 magazine (described in his own words as a “techno-hipster” vibe). From that spark would come three decades of on-again, off-again association with the tech. He attended Carnegie Mellon Information Networking Institute, where he met a professor that was exploring early work in VR. “I asked if he needed any assistance from people who were doing networking work and he said, ‘Yeah, I’m creating the Networked Virtual Art Museum.’ And I said ‘Wow, what’s that?’ And he said, ‘I don’t know but I could probably use some help.'”

VR’s First Quest

DisneyQuest Aladdin
The Aladdin ride at DisneyQuest featured a large headset and a haptic chair.

You might imagine that the VR of the 90’s was very different to where we are now. And it’s true that the hardware was clunkier, heavier and much more cumbersome than an Oculus Quest 2. But, to Schell, the differences stop there. “The tracking worked magnetically instead of with video, but you had head tracking, you had hand tracking, you had fewer polygons on the PC, but when you’re on the silicon graphics machine you had about what we have now. The difference is the cost is about 1000 times different. The machines we’re working with were typically $200,000 to $400,000 machines. and now we’re talking about machines that are like, $400 machines and do the same thing.”

And you can very much see that in the projects Schell would work on in the mid-90’s, when he joined the Walt Disney Imagineering team. Imagineering developed a range of projects but one of its primary focuses was on the virtual rides and attractions for DisneyQuest, a somewhat unique addition to Walt Disney World Resort in Florida and, for a time, a standalone location in Chicago too. DisneyQuest was essentially an immersive arcade, with themed rides that used 3D screens or other interactive elements. Two rides, however, used elaborate VR headsets. One was a melee combat game named Ride the Comix and the other was a virtual ride on Aladdin’s Magic Carpet.

Whilst Ride the Comix was developed by an outside studio (though Schell notes there are some interesting direct comparisons to draw with Until You Fall), the developer worked directly on the Aladdin experience. “I learned so much about both game design and VR during that experience,” Schell recalls. “Elements of it, and moments in it, I’m intensely proud of. It was groundbreaking in its use of audio, steering interface, and even a tactile seat.”

But DisneyQuest, overall, was a strange venture for Disney itself. As Schell points out, the Florida location was successful in its 19 years of operation, though the Chicago center was short-lived, struggling to find an audience outside of holidays and weekends. “The biggest problem DisneyQuest had was too much focus on first-time experience,” Schell reasons. “Again and again, we’d ask management, ‘Do you want us to focus on first impression, or on replay?’ And the answer was always first impression. As a result, it was a great time for tourists, but what it needed to survive was a mix of tourists and regulars.”

But the actual tech behind DisneyQuest’s VR experiences was solid, if cumbersome. “I remember sitting at Disney in 1995 and staring at the problem, these magnetic trackers, which were hard to work with, and talking to one of the senior engineers and saying, ‘Why don’t we just do this with video? Why don’t we just use video and track it?’ And he laughed and he’s like ‘Yeah, maybe in 20 years, but the CPU can’t do it.’ And I was like, ‘Oh yeah, no, I guess you’re right. It’s gonna be a lot of processing.’ Turns out he was right.”

Once DisneyQuest had launched, however, Schell wouldn’t return to the world of VR for some time. Imagineering’s next project was the family-friendly MMO, Disney ToonTown, and Schell left the group shortly ahead of launch to move out east taking a job back at Carnegie Mellon University to teach at the Entertainment Technology Center. There he would continue to teach about building virtual worlds and critique those his students created. During this time, though, he started up a side gig consulting for some companies on a freelance basis. Old contacts at Disney and others came through to offer some early work eventually, consulting turned into light development work. This became an increasing emphasis. He called the outfit Schell Games.

A New Beginning

But, even as Schell Games was born, Schell himself had no intention of diving back into VR development. “VR had gone really cold because we’d seen what was possible, knew how hard it was to do magnetic tracking and it was really expensive. So it could only work if you’re gonna do entertainment. It was only going to work in location-based situations.”

Instead, Schell Games toiled away for over a decade on various projects, including some different types of experiences that would prove formative to the developer’s identity. Alongside games for the Nintendo DS, the studio would also work on educational and medical apps, with a particular focus on the former. But it wouldn’t be until the summer of 2012, a decade into Schell Games’ existence, that VR would enter the conversation once more. That was, of course, with the help of Oculus’ historic $2.4 million Kickstarter campaign.

“I remember seeing that and thinking, ‘Oh wow, this might be ready’,” Schell recalls. “Because it was working with optical tracking and a number of problems that we had worried about were getting solved.”

And so Schell Games started to do what it does best, to tinker. The developer would host internal game jam weeks where members could work on passion projects. Some members started to work on VR content, but not without a push in the right direction from Schell himself. “That was actually a really important part of it because I was always hype on VR, but a lot of people in the studio were like, ‘Ah, it’s just bad. It’s going to be like the next Kinect.’ So I started working with Jason Pratt, one of our engineers here, and said ‘Hey, see if you can fold together the best of the best experiences we can show people.'”

Some of these experiments led to Schell’s first commercial VR games. A Gear VR port of its ‘choose your own adventure’ sci-fi spoof, Orion Trail, was born out of a joke about how the text-based game would work in VR. It turned out if you ported the game to a virtual screen and then sat players in a Star Trek-style bridge, it worked pretty nicely. Water Bears VR, meanwhile, was an idea Schell himself bought off of some of his students at CMU for an educational grant the studio was applying for. It came to mobile first but the team thought its logic-based, pipe-connecting puzzling would be a great fit for VR.

Despite discovering some incredible experiences (Schell fondly remembers Daniel Ernst’s Blocked In) and working on its own, there was still some pessimism about VR within Schell Games in these early years. Ironically, that skepticism would set the team on the path to its first fully native game designed for VR first and foremost.

“We had somebody working on a prototype and I was like, ‘Okay, now I don’t want any locomotion in this because it’s gonna make people sick. I don’t want to deal with motion sickness. So do teleporting, keep it limited, try and avoid it,'” Schell says.

“And they completely ignored me that they just had you flying all over the place. And I’m like, ‘Whoa, this really makes me sick’. And they’re like ‘Yeah, this is why VR sucks because you can’t go anywhere. You put on the headset and you feel like you’re going to be a superhero and you’re not a superhero, you’re tied to a chair. What kind of superhero gets tied to a chair?'”

“We all looked at each other and said that actually happens all the time, but nobody ever made a game about that.”

No Mr. Schell, I Expect You To Die

The bones of I Expect You To Die were in place much earlier than you might think. The game wouldn’t release until November 2016, when the Oculus Touch controllers first shipped for the Rift. In that iteration it would feature fully interactive levels designed for hand controllers. But, long before that, Schell actually published its prototypes for the game on the now-defunct Oculus Share platform, where developers could release free experiences for the first two Rift development kits.

Its first release was, in Schell’s words, a “weird bookcase room” with some initial mechanics in place. “No one really paid much attention,” he says. “And we were like, ‘That’s okay. Maybe we can do better.’ And so then we worked in one that was a lot richer and had a lot more detail and we put that up and people really started to notice it and it became the highest-rated experience on the site.”

In fact, the demo remained one of the platform’s most popular experiences right up until Share’s demise in early 2016.

For Schell Games, this was a sign it was onto something. And so the team kept pushing the boundaries of what was becoming an escape room-style spy game in which players would have the power of telekinesis. Objects would handle in realistic and expected ways, but you’d be able to grab them from afar and bring them back toward you, or fit puzzle pieces on the other side of the room right in place. This was I Expect You To Die’s super power, a game that delivers richly-detailed and highly interactive environments that you could explore from the comfort of your chair.

More than just a puzzle game, though, Schell was building out a world where challenges had to be solved with real world logic. That’s why the team built cardboard sets that would mimic their virtual levels, so they could more easily get a feel for how things should be proportioned in a world and what would be in the player’s peripheral vision. It’s a perfect distillation of how VR development gets much closer to replicating reality than is necessary on a flatscreen.

The team was also adamant that there should be as few discrepancies between the real and virtual as possible. When I interviewed Schell a little earlier on this year, he spoke a little about that: “I remember on the first game we put in a champagne bottle as a prop and people were like, ‘Oh, great. I want to open it!’ Oh, of course you do. Okay. Now it’s got a cork and you can open it. ‘Now I want to pour out the liquid into a glass!’ Of course you do, now we’ve got to support liquid. Okay. All right. We’re supporting liquid now and ‘Great I poured it out and I can drink this champagne and that’s so cool. Now I’ve got an empty bottle. I want to break it.’ Oh, of course you do. Okay. So now there’s a broken glass. ‘Oh, okay, I want to take this broken glass, use it as a knife and cut this wire.’ Oh, of course you do. Now this is impacting our puzzles, but oh, okay, actually, that’s kind of an interesting side solve that maybe we didn’t think of and think about.”

The attention to detail clearly paid off. Nearly two years after launch, I Expect You To Die had generated $3 million in revenue on PC and PSVR headsets. It went on to launch on Oculus Quest in late 2019, drumming up a further $2 million on that platform alone by mid-2020. Several free levels were released, which Schell says allowed the developer to keep the game at its current price point. And, of course, it’s sequel launched this week, something that precious few VR games have enjoyed in the past five years.

Keep On Fighting

But, for all its success and innovation, I Expect You To Die had been a difficult project. “So we had our success with I Expect You To Die, but we knew the problem of making [it] is that it’s really hard and slow,” Schell says.

“You can’t make good puzzle games fast. You gotta think about them hard, you gotta build prototypes, you gotta do it wrong 50 times, and then you’ve got to polish it and polish and add and add and polish. It just takes really long to do.”

And, for all that work, you don’t get something that’s intensely replayable. A first-time run of I Expect You To Die’s missions could take you a few hours to see through. But, once you know what you’re doing, repeated playthroughs could take mere minutes. For its next project, then, Schell Games wanted to make something that players could go back to time and again.

“I always felt like the fantasy of sword fighting is a strong fantasy,” Schell says. “It’s like core to Dungeons & Dragons and so many different games. It’s just a core thing that video games have always delivered on pretty poorly.”

Plenty of VR games had looked into sword fighting, of course. Early hits like Vanishing Realms remain some of the best experiences for headsets, even. But plenty of other experiences suffered from poor implementation. Schell calls it the “waggle problem”; the idea that you can just stick your hand in an enemy, waggle it about and they’ll die in no time. That, Schell points out, isn’t sword fighting. But, without haptic feedback to help inform a player’s movements, how could you possibly make sword fighting work in VR?

“We can create tactile feedback in VR because every human being is already wearing a tactile suit and it’s made of muscles,” Schell says. “And if we can figure out ways to activate it, we can actually create tactile feedback.”

That was the basis for Until You Fall, a radically different experience to I Expect You To Die. Players would tackle an endlessly replayable dungeon, facing down different types of enemies in arcade-style melee combat. But the key to the game’s fighting was that it was lightning quick and reactionary – players would first block a series of attacks telegraphed by on-screen indicators. Eventually an enemy would tire and you could get in some fast-fire swipes. By keeping the combat light with only momentary contact between blades, Schell wanted to trick players into a sense of impact.

“When you know [where an attack is coming from] it creates a desire in you to move your weapons to that spot and stop. And when you quickly move a muscle and then stop your body, does this kind of pulse thing at the end, because that’s just how muscles work. And it sounds silly, but that pulse thing feels tactile, not necessarily the conscious level, but it’s at an unconscious level. It feels the clunk as you move your arm around. So we basically built a whole game around this notion of this, in this feeling of a thing that’s halfway between a rhythm game and an action game.”

Until You Fall took this concept and ran with it, creating one of VR’s most playable experiences (that still sits in our list of the 25 best VR games). The entire game is one big exercise in wish fulfilment, from slicing through the hordes of enemies to even little things like picking up a powerup and crushing it in your hand to activate it.

“To me, honestly, it is my favorite VR game of all time,” Schell says. “I’ve played it more than I’ve ever played any other VR game and not just because I had to work on it, but just because I just really enjoyed it. The whole, the way it involves your whole body. It’s just exhilarating, like physical activity in a virtual world can be really exhilarating and be really rewarding.”

Until You Fall was successful on a sales front, if not the runaway hit Schell had seen with I Expect You To Die, but the studio is planning more content in the future.

VR’s Lift Off

Perhaps what’s most surprising about Schell Games is that it has these two tentpole VR releases, with a sequel out to one of them, but it’s far from the only work the team’s done and doing in VR. Alongside those early mobile VR releases there’s been work in AR with Lenovo’s Jedi Challenges and Magic Leap, partnerships with Google for Daydream titles and Lego for more VR. The team’s also retained its focus on educational experiences, putting out Chemistry experimentation app, HoloLAB Champions in 2018 and HistoryMaker VR last year.

“VR is a tool for education,” Schell told me in a previous interview. “It’s an incredible tool for that. However, practically, so far that’s been in the realm of experimentation, the platforms that have been out, the PSVR and the Vive, the Quest, none of them are particularly friendly to educational institutions. None of them are designed for that. So that’s a little bit of an uphill battle market-wise to figure that out, but that’s going to come, that’s going to happen.”

So, no, Schell hasn’t always got things right. And, like every other VR developer, the path hasn’t always been easy. Schell, prone to firing off great quotes, once said that if Oculus Quest couldn’t make it the industry should “hang it up”. But Quest has succeeded, and it’s succeeded faster than the developer had predicted. Now Schell Games doesn’t have any reservations about pushing on in VR.

“We spent years trying to get the rocket to take off and now the rocket is launching and flying across the sky and we’re not going to jump out now,” Schell says. “We’re going to go, we’re going to ride this thing.”

“And for me, this is personally important because I really believe in the medium of video games. I believe in video games as just a powerful means of artistic human expression and VR is the most immersive most powerful video game experience there is. It might not be the number one most lucrative, but it’ll be in terms of human experiences that can be had and artistic experiences that can be created it’s going to be the sort of the vanguard and the most powerful and the best in the world.”

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