A Seattle supergroup of developers is trying to crack VR's trickiest problems

How to be architects of your own fate ... and help birth an art form.

"Are you Ben?"

I was a bit taken back by the question, or at least who was asking it. I was face to face with Marty O'Donnell, the famed composer responsible for the music in the Halo series, among other games. The last time I had seen him, we were at the Bungie offices, where he was playing selections from Destiny's music for a few members of the press and discussing what it was like working with Paul McCartney.

I was here to see Golem, an upcoming PlayStation VR exclusive from Highwire Games, and being let into the building by O'Donnell wasn't the last time I would be surprised by the talent that makes up the studio. Jaime Griesemer had invited me, via Twitter, to check out the studio's first game. We had first met each other at Sucker Punch, where he worked as a game designer on Infamous: Second Son.

The two men have known each other for years, and shared a history at Bungie, where O'Donnell originally helped Griesemer get employed in Chicago. Griesemer left Sucker Punch suddenly, and O'Donnell was relieved of his duties on Destiny, a situation that led to litigation.

The two quickly decided to work on something new. "Jaime saw me right away and knew I was going to be in a little bit of shock but he said, 'Come on, let's do something,'" O'Donnell said. They linked up with Jared Noftle, who co-founded Airtight Games and founded Red Lens Games, among other companies. "Which means he has startup experience we sorely needed," Griesemer said.

Now they just needed some direction.

"Your vestibular system is so easy to fool." -Marty O'Donnell
Marty O'Donnell

"When we looked at what we liked doing in the past, it was defining a new platform." Griesemer said. Halo became one of the iconic games of the Xbox platform, and Second Son was a showcase for the PlayStation 4. It's something they knew how to do, and they built the studio with other talent that worked on those two series, among other games.

"I like working with new hardware that no one has touched before, and defining new problems and then solving them," Griesemer continued. "One of the reasons I never worked great at Sucker Punch is they thought they knew how to do everything, and I was constantly looking for new ways to do things, and that's not always compatible. I just need to work on something where no one thinks they know what's going on."

So where is that going on right now? "Well, at the center of that is VR," Griesemer said.

The three founders of the company agreed to split everything three ways and, according to O'Donnell, "No one can fire anyone else by surprise."


"We're old dogs, but these are new tricks," Griesemer said. We were sitting in an environment meant to simulate what most people will have at home: a seat in front of a television, with couches on the side. There was space, but not so much as to be unrealistic. The team wanted a virtual reality experience that anyone could play in an environment set up for gaming, not the sort of room-scale VR Valve shows to the press and developers.

"PlayStation VR is definitely the platform for us. It hits the audience we want to hit: people who aren't investing an entire room in their house," Griesemer said. "They're hardcore gamers. They're gamers more than they're technofetishists."

The team also didn't want to rely on a teleportation mechanic for their core movement, something that many VR developers were using to make sure the player could explore the environment without getting sick. And you couldn't be locked in one location. Highwire wanted you to be able to walk around and explore the entire environment.

"It has to be super intuitive because at least with the controller you can say, 'Press the A button to jump,' and you look down and there's an A button on the controller," Griesemer said. "But for us you can't see your hands. We don't even have a language to express, 'Look at the left and slightly tilt your head.' We don't have the tutorial knowledge. You just have to put the thing on and it works. It has to be comfortable and safe."

Many people said movement in VR was nearly uncrackable; it's something Highwire was used to hearing from past projects. "Just so you know, when we moved Halo to the Xbox back in 2000 and we went from keyboard and mouselook [to a controller]? I was one of the people who said it would never work on a controller with two thumbsticks, just for the record," O'Donnell said with a laugh.

There are a few amazing bits in that statement, but one of the things that stood out to me was that the average age of the individuals working on Golem was ... advanced. Game development tends to be a young person's field, and Highwire is made of people with extensive experience in gaming.

There is a play area in the corner of the room so developers can bring their kids in to work, and memorabilia from the Halo and Infamous franchises litters the large, open space. There is a combination of standing and sitting desks with plenty of large monitors and virtual reality kits scattered about.

The senior animator on the team is Nathan Hernandez. "He's responsible for the look of the animation in the Scribblenauts games," Griesemer said. "It sounds like an odd fit for us, but we knew he was a workhorse. Plus we needed someone under 30."

In an industry that often values youth over experience, Highwire went in the opposite direction to tackle the issues of virtual reality with a team that has spent a very large number of collective years working in traditional games. "The first time Marty and Adrian [Perez, gameplay and rendering programmer on Golem] worked together they made the Halo loading screen, which is my answer to 'Are games art?'" Griesemer wrote me in an email. "I drug [Perez] to Sucker Punch while I was there and then I drug him to Highwire as soon as I could."

Travis Brady, the character art director on Golem, was working at Valve near the turn of the century and I was told he built the original versions of Dog and Alyx from Half-Life 2 before spending years working on the Halo and Destiny series. There are others with just as much time on these franchises who decided to take a shot at defining virtual reality. Vic Deleon, who is now the world art director on Golem, left 343 Industries to join the team.

So these were some old dogs, to put it lightly. Sitting next to me on a side table was the PlayStation VR headset. It was time to test out their new tricks.

Entering the world

"In Golem, you play as an adventurous kid who has been seriously injured," the game's official website states. "You are stuck at home in your bed, dreaming of exploring the outside world. You gradually develop the power to create and control stone creatures known as golems. You see through their eyes, direct their movements, and use them to explore beyond the confines of your room. At first, you can only build small doll-sized golems to send around your room ... but eventually your powers will grow, until you can send enormous 15-foot tall giants to explore an ancient abandoned city."

And that's the secret of movement. The game's lead character is sitting up in bed, just like you're sitting in your chair. You can look around the room and you can move by leaning the top half of your body.

Virtual reality can make people sick, and that sickness can come from a few different places. The latency has to be low and the frame rate high so the motion of your head matches what you experience in the game world, but also your eyes and brain may think you're moving while your inner ear is saying you're staying still. Golem's approach, which is achieved by using the sensors in the PlayStation VR headset to track when you lean in any direction even a tiny bit, means your body moves along with the character in the game.

"Did you notice as you were sitting in your chair, that you were able to go completely forward and then turn around without turning around in your chair?" O'Donnell asked. It's a neat trick; there's a tiny bit of a dead zone in your view where, as you look around, you're just looking around. Go outside of that circle, and movement becomes a bit more pronounced and your character turns. You don't notice it when you're in virtual reality; it simply feels natural. But you can virtually "walk" anywhere in your environment and even turn around a full 360 degrees merely by subtly moving the top half of your body and looking around.

"Your ears are OK at telling you you're accelerating, but they're shit sensors ... by the time you're about 4, you're mostly getting your balance information from your eyes ... as long as you're in the ballpark you can feed the eyes anything," Griesemer said. "We make it so that when you're in the headset sitting, and you turn around so you're looking behind you, you're only looking around 90 degrees."

"Your vestibular system is so easy to fool," O'Donnell said.

And the hell of it? It works. I found myself leaning just a tiny bit to walk around, and the act of turning by looking and tilting my body was comfortable and enjoyable. It only took me a few minutes to get used to how it all worked, and I found myself moving less and less to get the desired response from the game. "When you see someone who has been playing for a while, they're only moving a tiny bit," O'Donnell said. "It's new people who exaggerate a lot."

I also played a bit of the demo where I had to move my virtual sword to block attacks from another golem and swing back, and that aspect of the game was a bit rougher. It took a small amount of practice to learn where to move my sword for each attack to be blocked, and judging distances in the game so my own attacks connected to the flashing lights that indicated when and where to attack took a bit of time. It's not natural — we expect resistance when we hit something with a melee weapon in real life — but once you learn how it all works and get used to the lack of tactile feedback, the mixture of canned timing and attacks with the full movement that the PlayStation Move controller offers is interesting.

"I like working with new hardware that no one has touched before, and defining new problems and then solving them." -Jaime Griesemer

It's also a beautiful game, which is a bit shocking considering the demands of VR and the relative age of the PlayStation 4 hardware. The ability to heavily optimize for one console is key.

"Everybody has the exact same console, the exact same booster box, the exact same screen on their eyeballs," Griesemer said. "So a lot of the messiness and lack of optimization that you have to have on the PC so it will run on everything? We just can get that right here. Also, Unreal Engine is awesome." The Highwire team has been in contact with Epic Seattle on a special VR rendering mode that helps with optimization, and it has Alex Dracott, who worked on Infamous: First Light, Second Son and PlanetSide 2, "hand writing and shaders and hand-keying the lights." It's not enough to make sure the team has a beautiful game. It has to make sure the game runs at a constant 90 frames per second in both eyes.

I caught up with Nick Whiting from Epic Seattle, who talked a bit about Golem.

"With VR development still so new for everyone in the industry, we've taken a very hands-on approach with teams using Unreal Engine 4," Whiting said. "With Highwire, they were one of the first PSVR projects on UE4 that we were able to take this approach with, thanks to them being located very close to our Epic Seattle offices. We'd send them early builds and improvements for PSVR as soon as we'd finish them, and they'd try them out in their project, and let us know how they worked. From there, we'd iterate back-and-forth a little bit, and in the end, both our product and theirs were mutually improved."

Being in Seattle is good for more than just the coffee, it seems.

Golem is an interesting game with an effective way to handle movement in virtual reality, and it looks amazing. This is what having a team of veterans gets you: people who are realistic about the problems they face and are pragmatic about the work it will take to fix them, and who have the expertise to know how to deliver. Sony may be offering funding for the game, but Golem will be self-published; Highwire is serious about remaining independent.

"I was let go from Sucker Punch Productions," Griesemer said when I pressed him for details. It's a subject he's never really addressed head on.

"I wasn't happy with how they handled creative decisions and they are notoriously quick-draw on 'fixing' HR problems. I found out later I was supposed to be part of the massive layoff that happened after First Light shipped, but they decided to string those people along an extra few months," he said. I don't want to throw them under the bus, because I did like working there and have lots of friends there, but it was pretty brutal."

This is where O'Donnell's "joke" about suddenly firing someone comes from. Highwire wants to live or die by its work, not its politics. "One of the big motivations behind starting an independent studio is that I was tired of my job security being the result of political or budgetary concerns outside of my control," Griesemer said.

"Money is always tight at an indie, but at least this way if we do a good job, make a good game and see some success, we'll be rewarded; not demoted or fired or stripped of our stock or sucker-punched by management."

The pun may or may not have been intended.

The team is cagey about Golem's release date, since Sony hasn't said much about when to expect the PlayStation VR, but Highwire is getting a chance to crack these problems before there's much in the way of best practices and known ways of tackling even simple things such as movement.

"The best I can do is say that one of the things Highwire wants to do is help define VR as a gaming platform, and you can't do that if you are late to the party," said Griesemer.Babykayak