Shooting to thrill with a hero distilled, our in-depth interview with the game's director Ryan Payton.
Recently, Sony released a demo for Marvel's Iron Man VR, a new PlayStation VR title that lives up to its namesake by putting you in the shiny metal boots of one Tony Stark. The results are not only impressive for a fully-fledged VR experience, but also because it lives up to the promise of putting you in the virtual boots of an actual superhero. In a full-sized adventure that will offer somewhere between eight to ten hours of cinematic propulsion when it launches in July.
Gobsmacked by the Iron Man VR demo, I took off my helmet and virtual Tony Stark gear long enough for an in-depth chat with game's director Ryan Payton. Where studio Camouflaj has been working alongside Sony Interactive Entertainment to bring this experience to PSVR. In our discussion we talked about the process behind bringing the shiny red one to VR, the challenges of developing in the still relatively new virtual space, and the level of immersion that comes from putting on a helmet to then be able to put on a virtual one.
Let's get to it.
First off, thanks for the demo. It was such a generous chunk of gameplay. I'm sure readers have downloaded PSVR superhero-themed things that have full runtimes less than this slice. Can I ask what the percentage of it is from the full experience?
Ryan Payton: So I've struggled to do the math, but I can tell you that with the average playthrough for the game we're looking at around eight to ten hours. The intent with the demo was to give the player something challenging, to give them something to really start to hone their flying and shooting skills, so they know what to expect in the final product.
Obviously with that solid amount of the flying and shooting, we're offering the thrill of being Iron Man in his iconic armour, but in addition we have moments in between where you are Tony Stark. You know, in a more intimate setting, interacting with characters like Pepper Potts in interactive cinematics. The major third component that that didn't make it into the demo is being Tony in his garage, tinkering on the suit as he's researching drones and, you know, using that as your home space throughout the campaign. These three core experiences make up the campaign.
Speaking of runtime, what comes into play as you're deciding game length. I imagine things that factor in might be user tolerance to motion sickness, battery life of Move controllers, and the all-important value for money balance?
RP: Making any game is challenging but with VR being fresh and kind of new there's room for pushing the medium forward. This is one of the reasons I became interested in working in VR. One of the biggest problems in VR, general speaking, is how the player moves around. Just solving that locomotion problem is the first big thing you need to tackle. We knew that we if we couldn't get flying right, it was never going to be the game that we wanted it to be. And honestly, we just started with the source, and that ended up being great because Iron Man translates perfectly into VR. Tony putting on the helmet, your VR visor with the HUD booting up. Grabbing the Move controllers, having those thrusters in hand.
“Making any game is challenging but with VR being fresh and kind of new there's room for pushing the medium forward.”
We just started there and then continued pushing forward. Traditional things like making sure the framerate's high, adding a vignette to the screens when you're turning. You have to create a strong connection between the player's body, mind, and what they're experiencing in the game. Largely, that is little decisions made daily to get the player’s actions represented in game, the way they expect them to, and then having the game respond. There must be that one-to-one connection because when you start breaking that connection, that's when your brain is like “What?”
For 50 odd years we've seen this escapist medium of video games steadily evolve to drop players deeper and deeper into experiences. That said, VR is a new medium that feels like it drops the average person a fathom deeper. Do you feel the same way?
RP: I think when [VR is] done right, the degree to which you can immerse yourself in a title is greater than a traditional game. That is not to say that traditional games aren’t immersive - they are. But adding that additional sensation of literally being in the world is something that you can't experience outside of VR. Before I got on this project I hadn't played a ton of VR, so working on this title was kind of my initiation. When I initially went over to Camouflaj to check out the prototype, I put the helmet on, grabbed the controllers, flew around for 15 minutes and was like, “Wow, I've never felt this way in a traditional game before.”
The second wow moment came later, when we got one of one of my favorite cinematics in the game. Ghost was right up in my face and I felt this unease of her being too close to me. That sense of a villain being a little bit too close, physically, was cool.
One of my favorite things to do is watch people try VR. My test subjects are my wife's non-gaming friends who come over for dinner – folks who barely game at all. You just plonk a PSVR on their head, and their reactions are always amazing. I could do that all day...
RP: One of the great things about having the demo out now is we get to finally get to see some of that. People streaming and just reading the threads on Reddit. A friend of mine mentioned he had a non-industry buddy who was posting a picture of his kid playing the game. He's like fighting his kid to get in the VR headset. And I was like ‘Yes, that's like exactly what we want’. It's gratifying.
Today I'd like to focus in on something the VR medium does particularly well: wish fulfillment. It's one thing to pick up a controller and make an avatar do something on a TV. It's another thing entirely to truly inhabit the skin of a hero you could never hope to be, wouldn't you agree?
RP: One hundred percent. I mean that's the allure of VR, right? The degree to which you can get into the world is much greater, but we're still pioneers on the VR front. We’ve tried to take responsibility for ensuring that we're doing VR in such a way that it's comfortable, but also pushes the medium forward. The team wants to see VR continue to grow and grow and have the audience get bigger and bigger. Working with partners like Sony and Marvel to create a full-sized game, to offer something that feels like more than just a tech demo, that's what we want to be a part of.
One of the coolest things about Tony is his ability to adapt and invent. I hear you have a research points and suit upgrade system going. Can you explain that a bit, perhaps tell us your favourite augments to use in the field?
RP: As you progress through the campaign your missions are rated and then that translates into research points. In addition to having challenge missions that really push your flight skills or your combat skills to the test, you can earn additional research points doing that too. In Tony's garage you can then go to the suit station to start unlocking and crafting.
“The team wants to see VR continue to grow and grow and have the audience get bigger and bigger. Working with partners like Sony and Marvel to create a full-sized game, to offer something that feels like more than just a tech demo, that's what we want to be a part of.”
For example: we have modifiers to your repulsors – one has a charge element to it. You can unlock wholesale completely different weapons for your auxiliary slots. You can have a unique auxiliary weapon per arm, too. So, you can have a wrist cannon that's basically like a giant gatling gun on one arm and then a smart bomb that kind of acts more like a lob grenade with a giant explosion. That combo is one of my favourites.
You've also got more passive modifiers like an increase in your top speed. Increase in acceleration. Reduce the cooldown between the boosts. Make my health recharge faster. And then there's some purely aesthetic things like unlocking new decos in order to change the look of the Impulse Armor suit to make it your own.
How have you gone about making Iron Man authentic? Have you pored over 10 years of MCU films, are there super fans on your staff who are familiar with all his antics since his 1963 debut in comics?
RP: Yes, to both of those things. We’re not a part of the MCU, and that was a decision that made early on. From a developer standpoint, that's really freeing. [We could] go back and look at all forms of Iron Man comics and films and pull what we liked from all those forms, curating for the sort of VR experience we want to make.
When I think about the films, one of the things that was inspirational was being able to see the suit in action, flying and kind of how Tony's using his hands to navigate around. And then also the hud in the films were a big inspiration for the game.
When you're talking about narrative, we probably leaned closer towards the comic books. Specifically, the Demon in a Bottle series. We landed on this theme of Tony Stark being his own worst enemy and really wanted to explore that in the narrative. In my opinion that's one of the reasons why Iron Man's such a popular character –he is a flawed human underneath that armor and that's something we can all relate to.
It was difficult to gauge how the story flows in this. Possibly for demo purposes you had us jumping around the timeline with gulfs of years between. Is that the approach of the full-game, cherry picking cool vignette set-piece moments in the life of Tony Stark as opposed to a flowing narrative?
RP: Without giving too much away, it's a more flowing narrative in a tighter space of time for most of the campaign. The demo is not a contiguous slice, think of it as just a taste of the early part of the game.
Speaking of authenticity, Iron Man is a flight based, dogfight-happy character which, I know from my experience, can be the deep end for players prone to motion sickness. How hard was it to strike a balance of making this game true to character thrill-ride for VR enthusiasts who have their sea legs versus not making this a vomit-ride for first-timers?
RP: We've just put so much time into the flight controls and also ensuring that we offer options in how you want to control the game. I have the most fun and feel the most immersed and most comfortable using my body to turn. Most people feel the same – keeping a one-to-one connection between body and mind and game. I think that's key to keeping it accessible.
“We’re not a part of the MCU, and that was a decision that made early on. From a developer standpoint, that's really freeing. [We could] go back and look at all forms of Iron Man comics and films and pull what we liked from all those forms.”
Obviously, there are more hardcore players who have their VR legs and who are comfortable with different options. So, in the menu if you want to you use snap turns or split turning, we're going to make sure that that's available as well. It's all about ensuring that the baseline is as comfortable and as accessible for the widest audience, but also making sure we're paying attention to the more hardcore players who really like to push the limits.
Aside from some indie oddities, I've basically played the entirety of the PSVR library. And Iron Man ranks up there as one of the most technically impressive – you see things in it that aren't attempted by the average PSVR title, like having full reactive set of arms instead of disembodied hands. What are some other touches that you and the team are particularly proud of?
RP: We've had a few people commenting about the full arms and how happy they are with it. To be honest, it wasn't an option for us not to do. Because the armor is so critical to feeling like Iron Man, you've got to be able to see your arm. We knew it was going to be difficult, but we took it on. Not to mention the fact that Iron Man has got weapons that pop up out of the forearms and everything, so yeah, it's something we're proud of.
From a technical perspective, just the visual fidelity that we were able to hit on the hardware. We put tons of energy into developing core systems in Unity. Our engineers are rock stars and really pushed it to the limit on the visual front. Also, just the amount of polish we've been able to put into the controls, the AI and everything that goes into that 30-second loop of fun. We've put that loop on a pedestal and given it so much love. I think it shows in the demo, and it'll show in the final game.
Marvel’s Iron Man VR is out for PlayStation VR on July 3, with the demo available now via the PlayStation Store.