All signs point to Paul Bettner doing something right.
He co-created Words With Friends, a powerhouse mobile game that hit a sweet spot on phones connecting friends with the classic word-making of Scrabble. Eventually he sold the company that made the game, but Words With Friends is still played on many phones today. Around five years ago he started Playful, a game studio that made its first title as an exclusive for the new Oculus VR platform. When the Rift debuted last year, Lucky’s Tale was there to greet people as the first Facebook exclusive.
Playful nevertheless retained the intellectual property underpinning the game. Lucky, the lovable main character, is still Playful’s. At E3 last week we got to see the sequel for the first time. Super Lucky’s Tale complements Microsoft’s portfolio of shooters and sports games with a family-friendly adventure and it arrives Nov. 7 for around $30. Everything Playful learned about platformers with Lucky’s Tale will be coming to Microsoft’s Xbox and Windows PCs, and millions of gamers will be introduced to Lucky for the first time in a fully developed sequel.
In addition, the studio revealed Star Child for Sony’s PlayStation VR. The mysterious side-scrolling platformer is still early in development but it will be coming to traditional TVs too. The studio also recently launched Creativerse, a block-building game that currently has a “very positive” rating on Steam.
There is much more in development at this groundbreaking studio, including a research playground called Wonderland where the company explores hand interaction and room-scale VR concepts. With three announced titles in development, 55 people working there and first-to-market knowledge about VR, as well as deals in place with some of the gaming industry’s biggest companies, Bettner is someone from which other developers and entrepreneurs could probably find some valuable insights.
I sat down with Bettner last week at E3 and tried to understand how Playful has gotten where it is. Below is an edited version of our conversation.
What did you learn in VR that informed a flat screen experience?
Bettner: There is a design space for platformers where you can have a feeling of open world exploration but yet not have to allow this free orbiting camera that’s more of a 360 kind of experience. It’s not like we can do anything with our level design obviously, and we had these constraints when we did it in VR because the camera was always behind Lucky. So we had to pay attention to this place where the camera moved and didn’t clip into geometry. All that stuff we had to worry about translates directly to the camera design that we’re working on for Super Lucky’s Tale. I’ll go as far as to say we are continuing to design [Super Lucky’s Tale] in a VR-friendly way. It is VR friendly but we actually didn’t do it for that reason. We did it because it allows for the gamer to take their finger off the other stick and not have to worry about massaging the camera.
Platformers tend to fall in one of two camps. So you’ve got something like Crash Bandicoot that’s kind of linear and then you have something like Mario Odyssey that’s like a sandbox kind of platformer and you have to use the camera all the time and rotate it around and stuff. With Lucky’s Tale 1 we saw the beginning of us kind of in this place in between those two where it had a sense of exploration but it also had a clear sense of direction and also didn’t require you to mess with the camera, which keeps the game at a certain level of simplicity where my kids can play it. I have a 9-year-old and a 7-year-old and they get lost if they have to control the camera too.
Was there a eureka moment with the camera on Lucky’s Tale 1?
Bettner: When we shrunk everything down. All our experiments were just 1:1 camera scale which is the normal thing you would do. But then the world was enormous. Lucky was huge. He was man-sized. None of that worked because the motion was too fast. It was terrible actually. Not good. We had to break Oculus’ API because they didn’t support this, but we found this place where we can hack into it and change the IPD ourselves. And so we did it. We tried these huge numbers that shouldn’t work and it worked and it made everything really tiny. And that was like ‘oh wow this works’. I think Lucky’s Tale 1 shipped with an IPD multiplier of 13. So we take [the space] between your eyes and we multiply it by 13. And so you’re actually a giant like your head is this giant thing. Lucky’s still man-sized, but because you’re so huge he looks like this little thing. Star Child uses the same technique. I don’t think the numbers is 13. I think it’s a little bit different because that character in VR isn’t quite as small as Lucky.
You’ve partnered with Oculus, Sony and Microsoft, but there’s so much excitement for room-scale VR and you’re not there yet. Can you explain that thinking?
Bettner: Entrepreneurship is a matter of timing as much as it is anything. There’s a million things I’d love to work on but choosing the things that the time has come for them is an important part of how I navigate. The time will come for those experiences that you’re dreaming of and that I’ve been dreaming of since I first got my hands on the VR headset that Palmer [Luckey] had duct-taped together. As an industry we have to work our way there. The companies that are working on this technology — they want to overcome some more of the hurdles [like] price, form factor, wires. You heard Microsoft talking about wireless headsets being an important thing, which I agree with. It’s a different experience that’s much more freeing. This stuff has never been a question of if, just a question of when. Because when you experience what room-scale VR can do it’s like, yeah everybody is going to want that.
What we first saw in Lucky’s Tale was this opportunity to create an entry point for people encountering this phenomenal new hardware and yet to play something familiar and comfortable. And I loved those two things coming together and so did Oculus. That’s why I think it ended up being that kind of front running game for them.
We hoped that VR and the work with Oculus would end up being kind of the tip of the spear and get us into the hearts and minds and get Lucky into the hearts and minds of our players, and then allow us to grow that. But it’s only because we chose to work on a third person title in this way that was presented in this format that now allows us to bring that game to a wider audience on a TV. There were certainly opportunities back then to work on things that would have had to stay in VR. I didn’t think that was the right time to do that type of work yet, but probably in the future there will be those opportunities.
There’s no solid concrete answer about how is input going to work in the next generation of VR and AR headsets. That’s one of the hardest things for a game developer because there’s nothing more fundamental to the design of the game than how you control it. If you put an Xbox controller in my hand I want to play a game like Lucky’s Tale. That’s what I love when I have a thumbstick and buttons. But if you give me hands, I want to make different things. I’m drawn to different ideas — if that ends up being the predominant way of controlling. We’re just going to have to see how that shapes up over time.
When do you see the audience becoming significant for VR?
Bettner: Optics, form factor, wireless transmission technology needs to get cheaper and easier. Everybody’s working on these problems now, pouring tons of money into them. You just have to imagine if there was a wireless consumer, lightweight, inexpensive, high-end — would have to be at least as good as an Oculus Rift is right now — a headset that hits the market in the next couple of years. That feels to me like it would be the break-out moment.
How long was Super Lucky’s Tale part of Playful’s plan?
Bettner: We had always hoped to have Lucky show up on other platforms. There was a version of Lucky’s Tale 1 that runs on a flat screen — it’s very convenient for development — but also just because we felt like this was ultimately what we wanted to do. There’s no reason why this intellectual property (IP) and why the gameplay that we’ve built can’t work across all these different platforms. And when we showed that to Microsoft initially they just kind of fell in love with the IP and they fell in love with the potential there. And we built this vision together of launching it as an Xbox debut title to launch a new Xbox.
Do you have a five year plan at Playful, or do you just do what feels right? Some entrepreneurs may be focusing on the wrong things with VR — so how do you make the decisions?
Bettner: We do have a five year plan, but the five year plan changes every five minutes.
You talk about entrepreneurs, we bend reality right? But you can’t bend it till it breaks. You can bend it, but if you break it then you go out of business. I see exactly what you’re talking about. I see the version that’s just over the edge where it is like, ‘I really want this to be true and I don’t care if the world doesn’t because I really want it to be true.’ Our job as creators is to want new things to be true that haven’t been true before. We’re supposed to will things into existence that didn’t exist before and bring these things to life. But if we go too far with that then we’re in a room by ourselves.
We need to have that empathy for our players and for our partners. We might want something to be true, desperately. I want room-scale to be here now now! But just because I want that to be true, and I’m trying to bend reality to make that true, doesn’t mean that it is necessarily going to come true on my timeline. And so I need to be willing to also listen closely.
We we have this saying at Playful — ‘you need to listen closely to what the game is telling you it wants to be.’ This applies at all levels. We’ll have an idea. We’ll start making it. And we’ll start play testing it and it will be like — that’s not fun. But it’s not supposed to necessarily be fun the first time we work on it. Ok, we’ll spend some more time on it. Then maybe it’ll get to be fun. Sometimes that’s successful, but sometimes as we’re going and we’re just banging our head into it, and it’s not turning out to be fun. But something else that was completely unexpected is turning out to be fun. If we do our jobs well we let that other thing rest for awhile and we pick up the unexpected thing and we make the game about that instead. And I think that navigating a company is the same type of thing.
This plan where we’ve ended up now with our partners — that wasn’t the five year plan even two years ago or three years ago — but that has become the plan because it just flowed with what’s been happening in the industry. Taking stuff we were working on and turn them into new opportunities. A good word for that would be agility….even if your timing is wrong — maybe you can take something that you were doing and map it to something else and turn that failure into success. We have tons of that. We fail all the time, but we salvage a lot from those things and use those things to find new success.
The structure of a gaming company requires you to work with programmers and artists — these people that want to build what they want to build. How do you get a team aligned?
Bettner: We do that by coming up with the ideas together. I can’t get excited about an idea if I don’t have a room full of people that are getting excited with me. So the ideas for the games that we’ve come up with…didn’t come from my head. They came from us getting together and saying what do you want to do? And when we do that and we do it well, it doesn’t mean that it’s like a consensus-driven thing, but things spark. We put the kindling there, we blow on it and it catches flame and then I get really excited about it, other people get really excited about it. OK, we’re doing that. And if we do that well, then that question answers itself automatically. By the time we’re at the point where we’re debuting something or working on it at scale, we all feel this ownership with that thing, and we all feel like it was our idea.
The director of Star Child [Kynan Pearson] has this saying, he says if you take any game development team and replace a single person on a team…you will get a different game. That changes the way you look at it. You don’t look at the game as a singular thing that exists independent of who is working on it. It’s in fact a creation of the people that are making it that turns it into whatever it becomes.
Do you have situations where people don’t want to sacrifice their vision?
Bettner: That’s at the heart of Playful’s development culture is the balance between vision and execution. So vision is this thing that keeps us on track and keeps the heart and soul of the game intact. But the realities of execution and our agility of responding to what’s [turning out] to be fun or not fun, that’s constantly pushing against that and the vision has to be adaptable to those things. The real struggle is those two forces. What we say at the studio is, rather than getting fatigued with that struggle we should embrace that that’s why we do what we do. That’s why this is a hard job, not an easy one, but why we love doing it, is because that struggle is what bears the fruit.