Schell Games is an independent games studio located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and has worked on other virtual reality games such as I Expect You to Die and HoloLab Champions. At PAX West 2019, OnlySP had the opportunity to speak with Jesse Schell, the CEO of Schell Games, about the studio’s new virtual reality title, Until You Fall, his career in the games industry, and his teaching role at Carnegie Mellon University.
OnlySP: Schell Games has worked on previous VR games, such as I Expect You to Die and HoloLab Champions. Until You Fall definitely has a different setting and tone compared to those previous games. Can you tell me what was the inspiration behind Until You Fall?
Schell: One of the things that we feel about virtual reality in general that manipulating things with your hands feel really powerful. Sword fighting is such a common fantasy we see in so many games, medieval combat is just something that people love. We saw that it hadn’t been executed well in VR so we thought that this would be a great opportunity to dive in and be able to make something that really lets you live out the sword fighting fantasy.
OnlySP: In another interview, you mentioned how you managed to get the weight and feel of different kinds of weapons, such as axes and daggers. Can you describe to me in more detail about what that process was like?
Schell: It involves a lot of experimentation. Obviously, in virtual reality, we can’t easily convey actual weight of objects since you’re just holding a controller. However, we found that there are ways we can kind of trick your brain into the feeling of weight. One of the ways we do that is by having different weapons have some sort of lag. If I move a heavy object, it doesn’t line up perfectly with my hand, it lags a bit behind. Which of course, to your brain, “that must be a heavy object because heavy objects do that in the real world”.
However, if you get that wrong, everything feels springy and bad. But if you get it right, you get this sense of weight and heft. It’s important that it happens in certain directions and not others. Using that as one of the balance factors between axes, daggers, swords, and greatswords, it went a long way to make weapons feel like they’re weighty.
OnlySP: Can you discuss the kinds of lessons you learned from making I Expect You to Die and how that affected the development of Until You Fall?
Schell: Absolutely! Making I Expect You to Die was a great experience and has been very well received and we really liked that. But the thing that we realized that was a problem, that as a puzzle game, it’s hard for a community to form around it. There’s not much to talk about other than giving out spoilers. With an action game that has a lot of different strategies, there’s a lot more to talk about. The two big changes for Until You Fall, was first having lots of ways to play, something replayable so there’s a lot for our community to talk about. Secondly, another problem with I Expect You to Die that it was slow to make content for. Making puzzles take a long time, whereas we designed Until You Fall something that could be quickly modular. We can drop in new weapons, powers, skills, and monsters on a very fast basis. The plan is to have new content every six weeks.
OnlySP: One thing I noticed when playing the demo, was that I didn’t feel any motion sickness at all when playing the game. I have experience playing virtual reality games and games where you move a lot like first person shooters. So I’m not sure if it was just me, but what kind of steps did you take to try and minimize motion sickness?
Schell: I’ve been working in VR for a long time—probably around 25 years—and motion sickness is a serious problem that VR can have. But with the right games, it can be eliminated. So we took many steps to eliminate motion sickness. First of all, making sure you have a rock solid 90 hertz frame rate. Beyond that, we have some very special systems in the game that surround the way motion works. There are a lot of trade offs to be made about how motion works in VR. In this game you have two ways to move: you can use the left thumbstick to move smoothly through the world and you can use the right thumbstick for quick dashes. For both, we have different mitigating factors.
The main system we use is the vignetting system where we give you tunnel vision with a grid in the background while you’re moving, because it’s the edges of your vision that trigger motion sickness. The grid in the background is locked not to the virtual world, but to your actual reality. When you do that, it makes your brain lock in on reality and overrides the motion sickness circuit. This is very effective for most people, but some would rather not see it, especially streamers. They’ll go “this looks weird on a video.” It doesn’t look weird when you’re in there [virtual reality] but it is easy to turn down or off and most people find it very effective and distracting at all.
OnlySP: Were there any other games that you looked at while developing Until You Fall? Because the teleportation mechanic to get from place to place reminds me of DOOM VFR.
Schell: We looked at and studied dozens of games. Some of them were VR games. Onward was one that we looked at very closely because it’s a combat game that involves motion. Eagle’s Flight was one of the first games to really feature vignetting and we studied their techniques to see how different it was to the vignetting we wanted to do. In terms of game structure, we looked at games like Slay the Spire and Dead Cells. Really, there were so many different games that were involved in the development of Until You Fall.
OnlySP: It looks like Schell Games is very invested in developing virtual reality games. What do you think about the potential of virtual games and why Is Schell Games really taking that initiative to develop for this kind of technology?
Schell: I love virtual reality and have been working on it for decades. I think it’s a wonderful technology because it allows you to bring your body into the world of the game in a way that flat games simply can never do. For me, it’s very exciting that this new technology is here and experiment with it and find new things. I personally believe in the long term, virtual reality will grow to be a meaningful part of the game industry. I don’t think it will take over, but I anticipate it being about 15% of the game industry. The idea of being able to be a pioneer, especially for an independent studio, is very exciting. The possibility for us to be one of the early folks to establish excellence, may allow us to be a powerful force in the future of VR games.
OnlySP: I wanted to ask about your background. You started your game design career at Disney in 1995 in the company’s virtual reality division. So you’ve been around virtual reality for a while. Can you tell me some of the biggest changes you’ve seen in virtual reality since you started at Disney, to now as the CEO of Schell Games?
Schell: The funny thing is that when I look back at the systems that we had for VR in 1995 was that they’re not that different from what we have now. The main difference is cost. They cost literally 1000th times less. The original system that we worked on was a $500,000 VR system and now you can get something with roughly the same power for about $500. Some things have changed in that it’s hard to talk about because little things have gone a long way with VR. The use of fast refresh OLED displays actually goes a long way to reduce motion sickness because of the way your brain actually refreshes visuals in your eyeball. It’s kind of a subtle thing that’s made a huge difference in VR.
The ability to render at 90 frames per second as opposed to 30 or 60 like we used to also crosses a threshold that makes things much more doable. The biggest threshold of all, though, I think, is tracking. In the old days we used to have to use magnetic systems for tracking. They have a lot of inherent challenges, problems, and difficulties. Now, we can use optical systems. I remember when I first started working, I was so frustrated with the magnetic systems sometimes. I asked my boss, “why don’t we just use cameras to do this optically?” He’s like “yeah, maybe in 20 years, but not NOW!” He was right! 20 years later you can totally do it! To be able to put your hands in the world and track your hands really well have definitely been the biggest game changers for VR.
OnlySP: You also teach at Carnegie Mellon University as faculty in the Entertainment Technology Center, and one of your previous students, Neil Druckmann, now famously works at Naughty Dog. So you started teaching first in 2002, and then you founded Schell Games in 2004. What has kept you wanting to teach, in addition to running a game studio?
Schell: For me, the combination of running a studio and teaching at the same time is a really nice synergy. It means that at the university, I’m able to stay relevant. It’s really hard to teach about game development at a university because it changes so fast. A genre appears and all of a sudden makes a billion dollars! There are new genres, technologies, business models. For example, battle royale has a long history, but to suddenly become popular was unexpected and surprising. It’s one thing to view that from a distance, but it’s another thing to have your fingers in it to actually be able to be doing it on a daily basis. So the fact that I can be in there and do it makes me a more relevant instructor.
But at the same time, at the school, we can do things we would never do in industry. We can try experiments with technologies that wouldn’t work. We can do VR smell systems. We can put sensors on our feet and knees. What if that was the only sensor I had to make a game all about kicking? You would never do that industry because nobody has those things. In the academic environment we can try all kinds of experiments so that helps me as a creator because when new technologies come along, I can go “we tried that five years ago! Let me tell you everything we learned from it!” For me, it’s a great combination and takes a lot of time and energy. I’ve liked it a lot.
One of my heroes in this regard is Amar Bose. He started the Bose speaker company in 1968, and never quit his job teaching at MIT and kept the company running to great success throughout his whole career.
And my last question, so Until You Fall is coming to Oculus and Vive. Are there any other platforms that you’re currently looking at? I’m personally interested to know if there’s any plans for PlayStation VR.
Schell: You have to be cautious about what platforms you go to because each platform is a lot of work and effort. The approach we’ve taken for Until You Fall is basically, let’s get it out on PC first, on Vive and Rift, and let’s see if we can make that work. If it’s working, then let’s take resources to bring it to other platforms. For I Expect you to Die, we did exactly that. It started on Vive and Rift. It came to PlayStation VR and Quest. We want to have the same path here. If we’re getting good traction with Until You Fall, we very much want to bring it to other platforms. So we’re figuring that timeline out as we speak.
Part of that is going to be what is the audience excited about? Even though it’s a simple question, which one should we go to first? Should we go to Quest first? Or go to PlayStation VR first? My hope is to have both of those platforms added in 2020 but we don’t really have a date set yet.
OnlySP had the opportunity to play Until You Fall at PAX West 2019. The game’s first-person perspective fuels a high octane experience when players are swinging their arms to fight enemies and truly makes the player feel like a swordfighter.