Justin Roiland is the co-creator and executive producer of Rick and Morty, one of the funniest and most inventive animated shows on the air. Tanya Watson spent close to a decade at Epic Games working on games like Gears of War, Bulletstorm and Fortnite.
They’ve come together as co-founders of a game development studio called Squanchtendo that’s focusing on "triple-A" VR experiences. Watson’s headshot is shown above. You can see Roiland’s promotional image if your stomach is up to it. There's a bit of a contrast between the two.
The first game they’re working on is a comedic action-RPG. Something with a story, that’s a bit longer form than most of what’s available on the VR platforms.
"I’ve been dabbling and fairly obsessed with VR across the different platforms," Roiland told Polygon. "I’ve been filling notebooks with ideas and of course talking to a bunch of different developers and exchanging notes about what works and what doesn’t work in VR."
Roiland is already working with Owlchemy Labs (Job Simulator) on the Rick and Morty VR game, in fact. Squanchtendo is his chance to branch out and try new ideas, and he wanted a co-founder who knew the ins and outs of game development.
Watson had likewise been blown away by her demo of the HTC Vive, and was looking for her next project.
"It couldn’t have been better timing. I was right in the middle of evaluating all my options," Watson explained. She had bumped into Justin’s agent at E3, and a long series of conversations about what was possible convinced the two they needed to work together. Cliff Bleszinski, another veteran of Epic Games and a fan of both VR and Rick and Morty, also reached out to Roiland to recommend he and Watson work together.
The goal now is to continue raising money for production and hiring talent to create triple-A VR titles. But what does that even mean?
The hole in the VR landscape
Most VR games released in the current market are short, often arcade-oriented experiences. Squanchtendo wants to create games that are longer, and offer a more polished experiences.
"We really want to develop spaces people want to hang out in," Watson explained.
"We hear triple-A and we think big publishers," Roiland said. "That struggle to dominate in the marketplace, but VR by its very nature is redefining things." He lists games he thinks already offers a triple-A experience, including Lucky’s Tale, Job Simulator and Chronos. These games may have come from relatively small teams, but they each offer a complete, highly polished experience that takes advantage of what VR can do.
"That’s kind of the goal for whatever we do at the studio," Roiland said. "Make sure our content is narratively engaging, meets a sort of baseline criteria for the dos and don’t of VR and making sure people don’t sick in our game," Roiland said. "Of course I’m pretty entrenched with a comedy background, everything we’re working on has comedy built into it."
Watson, for her part, corrected me a bit when I pointed out that triple-A development is often a bit conservative, especially compared with the early days of VR development.
"Hopefully in triple-A game development, that early seed of game development, at least where I come from at Epic, it shouldn’t be overly conservative," she said. It should be joyful, it should be experimental, it should be collaborative and less afraid to take risks. Once you get to the point of getting into production and you’re really growing the team, the big difference between triple-A and maybe the early stages of indie development is that we know what does well in the marketplace, so we know we need to hit a feature set that achieves that to remain competitive with other games."
So once you’re a part of a big studio and your idea goes into full production with the budget that goes along with it, there are certain things you know you have to include to reach the widest possible audience. The scary part with developing for VR — or the exciting part if you’re fearless — is that no one knows just how to reach the widest possible audience with that technology yet. The rules have yet to be written.
"In VR, it’s a whole new space we get to explore, there are a lot of good lessons about quality and how to make sure the platform is being done justice and the innovative that happens there," Watson continued. "But it doesn’t necessarily have that scope or expectation of that huge feature set just yet. I’m sure it will get there, but a lot of that discipline that comes from triple-A is applicable and will make awesome games, especially as we see more people moving from the triple-A space."
The only thing they would say about the games they’re working on is that one is the aforementioned comedic action-RPG, but I did want to know what they thought of each platform. They had nice things to say about the Gear VR, Vive and Rift, but PlayStation VR may offer the best bet in terms of mainstream success in the short term.
"That being the cheapest path to VR ... that’s going to be the path of least resistance," Roiland said. "Just by the nature of that, just economics, the PlayStation VR is going to be pretty widely distributed in the fall. What are we focusing on? I’ve been designing for all of them."