Invrse Studios Interview: Ryan

This interview was conducted by Nima Zeighami and J. Keeling

Editor's Note: The Nest and The Wake are available on Steam.

Hi, I’m Ryan Smith and I’m the Creative Director of Invrse Studios.  I’m the artist, I do a lot of design, I run the company.

Ryan Smith, Creative Director at Invrse

Ryan Smith, Creative Director at Invrse

So how was Invrse started?

I should have thought of these answers before the interview started.  Okay, so off the cuff, I had been working as a contractor and consultant for a lot of Seattle-based VR companies and AR studios between 2014 to 2015.  The VR thing was happening really big, this was before the Vive actually came out, there was a lot of interest in the room scale stuff that was going on.  VRcade and Atomic VR are a couple of the companies I was working with.  Then, the Vive came out, and as soon as I got a hold of one, which I guess is an interesting story in itself, I knew I had to start making content for it.  I was using Unity, but I met up with an amazing outstanding Unreal developer, he was teaching some classes in Unreal at the time.  So, he decided to join me, and we started making games.  Hunter was in Southern California, but he saw our passion, saw how many good connections we had, and that it was a very safe bet.  And, the bet is already paying off, so we’re really happy.

So your original idea was to get the studio going with The Wake.  How did that go, and how did it evolve into The Nest?

The Wake was…a wish-fulfillment game.  The Wake fulfilled the wish of probably everyone who’s ever seen a zombie movie, who wants to viscerally feel what it’s like to crack a zombie in the head with a baseball bat.  At the time, there was already a bunch of announced titles for zombie shooters, but no one was doing melee combat.  To this day, almost no one is doing melee combat.  So we decided to start with the hardest possible challenge we could come up with(editors note: melee interaction in VR is very hard).  We figured out how to scope for VR.  Which, by the way, has completely different parameters than a traditional video game.  A 2D game has a much smaller scope compared to something where every polygon needs to be optimized, every texture needs to be perfect, and you need to be able to interact with things and get closer to objects than you were even capable of doing in traditional gaming.  So, The Wake was a brilliant way to get us to solve those challenges.  Ultimately, it got a little too cumbersome, what with the fervor of the Vive launch, and everything happening this year, we might not have been able to finish it this year(2016) and might finish it next year(2017).  It’s definitely still on our list, we definitely put a lot of time in it.  Everyone’s always still asking for it.  I may want to just give it away to the fans for free! 

Editor’s Note: Invrse eventually did release a version of The Wake for free.

So it sounds like you guys are very in touch with the community of VR and the demands of the VR consumers.  With The Wake, you kind of shifted from that to The Nest based on, what Hunter was saying, that in addition to other difficulties, people were afraid of killing a humanoid so close to yourself.  How was the process of reeling in that idea?

Well, the real trick to doing what we do, is making a game that we really wanna play.  I was part of another smaller, again two man, studio called PlayOnward back in 2009.  The mobile space was just getting started, we were doing phone and iPad stuff.  Ultimately, I realized we were making a lot of games that I didn’t want to play.  So we changed direction, we tried to make the game I really, really wanted.  Ultimately, another company did it first…and better!(Ryan laughs as he says this.  I believe he’s referring to Epic Games announcing and releasing Infinity Blade)

So then, the mobile space drifted away from me, I drifted away from it, so then when VR started happening, my first experiences were just…perfect immersion.  Things I had never thought I’d see in my lifetime.  So, fast-forward to when I get to make my own stuff.  There would be nights when I’d wake up in the middle of the night with an idea, by mid-afternoon we’d have a prototype running, and I’d be seeing something nobody has ever seen, and doing something nobody has ever done.  Now that we’ve actually turned it into a company, we can make money doing it, which is always good. 

Well this whole thing is wish fulfillment, being a creator at this point, and having an amazing programmer, Victor, as a resource, is like…well, I was gonna say “it’s like being a god” but that sounds totally pretentious!  It’s not a jerky “Look at me, I’m so powerful”, but it’s like you have the power of creation, and making and seeing things that have never existed before, so if you’re looking into getting into VR, I highly recommend that’s how you think about it. 

I don’t know if you’re interested in this side of VR at all, but Cosmo(Scharf) at the keynote was talking about the relationship between linguistics and virtual reality, seeing as how they’re both arbitrary frames of reference for interacting with reality.  You were just talking about being having the powers of a god and creating things, so how do you feel about being, let’s say, an author of reality?

It’s a lot of responsibility.  To Hunter’s point about The Wake, about how people got scared and ran away…before the game even came to be, we started thinking about whether it could possibly give people post-traumatic stress disorder.  You can not understand what it’s like having something that threatening running towards you until it starts ripping your face off.  So we did some really interesting experiments which I could ramble on about.  But needless to say we found a lot of ways to make people uncomfortable and scared in VR.  However, taking a step outside of that, we decided we wanted to help people have fun in VR.  So much of our later experiments involve finding mechanics that people could pick up almost instantaneously, and you know, not have them run away screaming.

The sniper rifle, I’ve written a blog about the sniper rifle, well we learned that using scopes solved one of the main issues we have in VR right now: locomotion.  We keep you in a fixed position, but we let you see distant enemies from up close.  So that was a UX decision that arose from a happy accident, where we found that we could get players close to the action while keeping their distance.

We have another game where we won’t be talking about until it gets further along, but it’s called Natural 20 and it’s our take on Dungeons & Dragons dice mechanics.  Everyone who’s seen it so far has really liked it.  So we brought the fun to that straight up, it’s a super casual game, focused around bashing dice in a D&D setting.  This actually was what we were working on before The Nest, actually.

So how did The Nest come to fruition?

So Invrse was working exclusively on The Wake, and we’d made a ton of art content, we had motion capture coming in, we spent a lot of money, we realized it would take too long, the space was getting pretty occupied by great games like The Brookhaven Experiment.  We felt like our game was too…mature to be marketed at places like GameStop, and wouldn’t be an inviting choice as the first demo someone plays.  

So I made the difficult decision right after GDC 2016, we wanted to find something that we could get out very very quickly, by the end of the year, and just have a lot of fun with.  And that’s where Natural 20 came from!  The red-headed step-child of Invrse.  So we spent like six weeks working on Natural 20, and it’s very close to being content-complete.  But there was a game jam… there was a VR hackathon dot com in Seattle.  Victor and I attended, we crushed it, we didn’t get a single minute of sleep.  36 hours straight.  And when we were done, The Nest was born.  We had a title, and we even had a prop weapon we built!

You still have that same one?

We still have the same one!  It’s held together, it’s still made out of cardboard, a two by four, and wrapped in duct tape.  Um, but you don’t see that when you’re in VR, you just see a really cool sniper rifle.  But yeah, at the hackathon, we did the first experiments with a rifle on the Friday, and by the Sunday during judging, we had a fully functional, properly smoothed tracked rifle.  Which was fundamentally SO awesome that we just kept working on it.  We actually released The Nest on Early Access six weeks after the game jam.

So from zero to release in six weeks?

Zero to release in six weeks.  Zero to prototype in 36 hours, and then zero to release in 36 days.

Just to tie you guys back to the greater history of video games, it seems like being stationary in The Nest with your gun solved a lot of problems that you’d found in other titles like The Wake.  Reminds me a lot of Duck Hunt.

Yeah, since 3D games came out, you don’t stay in one place.  There are too many things to do, too many things to explore.  That’s what 3D is about.  But back to 2D games, back before you would side-scroll, or you would move top-down, and almost every arcade game was a fixed screen where they could move pixels around mathematically.  So we’ve heard from some retro enthusiasts that VR is tapping into the arcade feel, tapping into game modes with progression, where you just keep playing until you die.  There have not been a lot of 3D games that have used those mechanics in the last 20 years!  So old-school game designers can jump into VR, kids who’ve played games since they were born can definitely do it.  But traditional game designers, people who’ve been in the industry for a decade or more, they seem to have the hardest time transitioning into VR.  They’ve learned a particular visual language, they’ve learned an iconography, you know, the players of those games know what to expect.  So staying within those constraints doesn’t let you discover things like “what if you hold a sniper rifle and give the player variable zoom?”  I mean, some sniper games don’t even have variable zoom.  But without variable zoom, really, you only have a window.  The variable zoom is a locomotion mechanic within itself.

Looking through the scope in The Nest

Looking through the scope in The Nest

As the Creative Director, are there any art assets you’d like people to know about?

OF COURSE there are!  I just spent four days working on the SolidWorks model of the gun that we’re using here at VRLA.  I’ve got an AutoCAD model that’s not designed to be rendered in Unreal. 

So are people going to be able to use the VRsenal VR-15 exactly as it is inside the retail release of The Nest?  The same model in-game as it is in real life?

We…will let VRsenal talk about that.  I think that might happen.  It(referring to the reference model provided to them to use in-engine) isn’t as clean as I need it to be, but having different rifles is suddenly a feature everyone is asking about.  Originally, we were going to keep the same rifle and swap out scopes, but since the scope is the most important part of the game, we might stick with the same scope and swap out the rifles!  In terms of different art assets, we’ve been working with a variety of contractors on different levels, day/night cycles, and others.  We also have some REALLY cool new robots coming.  I’m an animator, so getting to go back and work with animations is exciting to me.  Working with robots is super cool, I’ve usually done organic stuff.  You know, there’s going to be airborne vehicles….well, I don’t want to say “vehicles” because then you’ll expect to fly around in it.  The CRAZIEST thing we have coming is multiplayer.

VRsenal VR-15 Rifle

VRsenal VR-15 Rifle

I want to go into the technical side of the multiplayer with Victor, but in terms of art, what should people expecting from the visuals of the multiplayer?  I did hear that the multiplayer will not be taking place in the original level in The Nest.

That is totally true.  The first level of The Nest, turns out, is a short distance for a sniper rifle.  I like to tell people that in the multiplayer map, I got a one point two kilometer headshot, which doesn’t sound impressive when you look at the current version of The Nest and the ray-traced bullets it has.  Instead, we added physics to our bullets in multiplayer.  So you actually have to compensate for the gravity affecting the bullet over time.  You can see the bullet flying at 3200 feet per second through the scope as it flies out of the rifle.  It looks really weird, I don’t think you can see bullets that way in real life.  But you know, this one glows and everything.  We also have a totally, totally custom map(they didn’t use anyone elses assets, everything in their game is created completely in-house).  But I can’t give away too much, because I don’t want to give away our secret sauce!

And I won’t give away that secret sauce either!

Thank you!

But I’m really excited for it.

You’ve seen the very beginnings of it, but…we have SO much work to do!

As the art designer, what have been your inspirations for the visuals in the game?

A…certain intellectual property…that may or may not be owned by Disney, which I don’t like talking about.  I LOVE Star Wars.  I think everyone loves Star Wars.  I think it’s been a struggle NOT to go full Star Wars with the art.  Our planet MAYBE looks like Tattooine, but it is NOT.  

The robots look a bit like the Trade Federation battle droids they sent to Naboo…

But they’re not!  Because that would be wrong!  But of course there’s a resemblance.  The legs are totally different, they have recurved legs that don’t resemble any notable sci-fi robots.  It’s at least sixty percent different!  But we went with a visual language people could relate to, and be instantly immersed in.  You want people to have some familiarity.  The rifle looks like an old, dusty, rusted, barely-held together rifle that you can relate too.  It’s not a complicated, confusing sci-fi rifle that you wouldn’t intuitively know how to use.  So you know how to hold it, you know how to aim it.  The enemies…I guess they look hostile, people always shoot at them even when they’re just pacing, before they’ve shown hostility.  It’s like, they didn’t shoot at you, why are you shooting them?  But people do it, so I guess they look mean.

Did you model the in-game view of the gun after another rifle?  Or is it totally a creation from your mind?

It’s a totally custom work.  We looked at a bunch of different references before going with this.  We had an amazing artist on our hackathon team named Andy Romine, and he spent the entire weekend making the coolest rifle I’ve ever seen.  I had to do all the other art.  Some of the stuff in the hackathon version was stuff from the Unreal asset store, but to be fair, a lot of it was stuff I contributed to the Unreal asset store.  So without those resources, no one would be able to make anything in a game jam.  Art in games is hard to do in a lot of ways.  When we originally made the robot for the asset store, we wanted something that people partially recognized, but is unique enough that it’s something you don’t see, it doesn’t look like something that’s used everywhere.  But the custom stuff we’re making now, I’m really excited about.

One final question, what were you involved in before Invrse?

I have been involved in VR longer than the average VR/AR professional.  Which means I’ve been in it for a whole three and a half years.  I did a game jam for a company called CastAR, which makes augmented reality glasses.  They had a funding bump through a Kickstarter, and they hired me on for startup wages.  And I got to work on technologies that TO THIS DAY is still sort of classified.  I was part of a two-man demo team, which I feel I excel at.  It’s usually me as an entire art team, and a programmer that makes all of the rest of the stuff.  Altogether, I think we made four or five demos while I was there, before the company moved to Silicon Valley to move on to greener pastures.  But that got me started with room-scale.  You can move around the room space, it has inside-out tracking, it had tracked wand controllers, pre-dating the Vive.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the CastAR and the Vive came out of the same hardware research lab at Valve.  If you know about Jeri Ellsworth and her work with the Valve hardware lab can see her fingerprints on a lot of stuff.  So CastAR got me into the community.  Then, man, in 2015 I worked with almost a dozen different VR companies.  As a consultant, as an artist.  It was weird, I had more experience than everyone else, but just by the tiniest bit!  So yeah, I knew what I was talking about.  So starting my own thing was the next logical step.

A prototype of the CastAR glasses and wand

A prototype of the CastAR glasses and wand

So, you are the founder of Invrse?  Hunter joined as CEO after you founded the company?

Yes, I can say that, I started the company just a couple months before we brought on Hunter.  I was gonna just stick with consulting, because, you know, people pay you a lot of money to contract you out if you know what you’re doing.  Once I met Victor though, and I got a second Vive from the great folks at Valve, then it was like “this is what we need to start a studio.”

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

The final part of this 3-part interview series featuring the lead developer, Victor, will be released closer to the release of the multiplayer version of The Nest.