‘Rick and Morty’ Co-Creator Justin Roiland Launches New VR Game Studio, Squanchtendo
When you read the headline for this story and saw the featured graphic, your mind probably jumped to some very specific conclusions. For starters, you probably assume the interview we did with Justin Roiland, co-creator of Rick and Morty, was full of hilarity and jokes. That I was only able to ask “real” questions occasionally, between the belly laughs, snorting, and of course, burping. You probably also assume we just dropped a bunch of references to his iconic animated series without regard for being professionals.
While most of those things did happen from time to time I can say that this company Roiland is building with the help of former Epic Games Executive Producer, Tanya Watson, is in fact a real, professional, and potentially fantastic VR game studio. They’re making original content — not Rick and Morty spin-offs — that aim to not only take full advantage of VR as a medium, but deliver robust and engaging stories with likeable characters.
That’s not to say they don’t want to make comedic games, but rather that this is being approached with a clear mind and enticing vision. In other words, with Squanchtendo, they want to make actually complete games in VR.
Making More Than Tech Demos
“This all started with my absolute obsession with video games,” Roland said during a phone interview. “And specifically, with VR as a platform.”
It’s no secret that Roiland is a gamer. You can see and feel the influence that gaming and nerd culture has had on him both personally and professionally just by watching Rick and Morty or glancing at his Twitter feed. VR is no different.
Dating back to almost exactly one year ago today, far before this latest endeavor with Squanchtendo or even Owlchemy’s Rick and Morty VR game were ever officially announced, Roiland teased his interest in pursuing VR game development:
— Justin Roiland (@JustinRoiland) August 30, 2015
“I had the opportunity to go to Valve’s office just after GDC 2015, shortly after the Vive announcement, and it was pretty insane,” Roiland elaborated. “Prior to that, I was one of the first Oculus Rift DK1 backers and an early DK2 adopter for tinkering. I’ve just been super into VR for a while now. As the months rolled on after seeing the Vive, I began filling sketchbooks with game design ideas and characters for things you could do in VR that you couldn’t do in other games.”
As great as VR already is, one of the biggest gripes many of its early adopters have had in the past year is that for the insane breadth of content we’ve seen already, there is a profound lack of polished, robust experiences that offer more than a short gameplay loop and gimmick. Granted, there are some exceptions, but for the most part if you look on Steam or even Oculus Home, you’ll either find games that offer very little in terms of content, or games that are adapted to VR and not made for it.
“There are very few VR games with really strong characters and voice acting,” Roiland said. “The goal for us to do with Squanchtendo is to approach all of our projects with a goal of adding interesting characters, personality, and a story to interact with in-game. Every game we make will be built from the ground up for whatever hardware it will launch on.”
It’s not going to be easy to do, existing developers haven’t just suddenly decided to make shallow games. Deeply engaging stories take time to craft and, as a new studio, Squanchtendo have only really just begun working on their projects in a real way very recently.
“The biggest thing you can do in VR that you can’t really do in non-VR games, is a huge focus on exploration and interaction,” Roiland said. “Putting the player inside of an experience and letting them stumble upon characters of all sizes. We want to craft narratives with a solid, macro, broad goal that feels powerful. Story-based VR isn’t very prevalent right now.”
A New Studio for a New Medium
Throughout my conversation with Roiland and Watson, I kept returning to a single thought: why VR? They’ve both been lifelong gamers, Watson has a background in AAA game development on franchises like Gears of War and Bulletstorm, and Roiland is already collaborating on a VR game with another development company. So why VR? Why not 2D gaming or something else?
“I had just left Epic and my mind was spinning after being at the company for 10 years,” said Watson. “I knew I really wanted to make something in VR. I just didn’t know right away how to do something totally new on that platform, and that’s when I met Justin.”
While Epic is involved in VR, such as with the Unreal Engine VR editor, Bullet Train, and other projects, that just wasn’t the type of stuff that interested Watson. Big companies like that make it hard to build a team and really focus on passion projects.
Stylistically, it can initially seem a bit incompatible. Watson’s work on serious, realistically-designed, shooter games like Gears of War isn’t exactly the same genre or tone as something like Rick and Morty. They’re on pretty opposite ends of the spectrum.
“Ultimately, we want to make the types of experiences that we want to play as gamers,” Roiland said. “Tonally, the stuff I want to do in VR will of course always have a comedic backbone and be a bit absurdist and colorful with really interesting and bizarre characters, but supported by really strong gameplay mechanics.”
The passion and excitement is there, but the pair was unwilling to divulge too many details at this time regarding specifics about their projects. They hinted at a comedic action-RPG of sorts, but wouldn’t tell me anything beyond they were looking to build out a team for the project. But that didn’t stop the duo from gushing about the potential of creating something new and unique inside of a VR headset.
“Since we’re making stuff in VR, we have to ask ourselves: What is the same and what’s different compared to traditional gaming? How does that impact what you build? I really liked that, when looking for a partner on this, Justin doesn’t come with all of those trappings of years in game development and a mindset of ‘This is how we do it,’ or anything. He is totally fresh and our frames of reference blend well together.”
Designing Games for VR
Not having to teach an old dog new tricks is a big benefit for any co-founder and it allows Watson and Roiland to approach the VR industry with fresh eyes. VR is the fire that has inspired experienced and new game designers alike, rife with potential and opportunity.
“Just the interaction design in and of itself, such as picking up something and bringing it to your face, it’s so natural and joyful,” Watson explained.
It’s a sentiment that both she and Roiland had trouble communicating without lightly laughing while talking. The excitement in their voices was palpable.
“I think the days of text menus are dead in VR,” Roiland proclaimed. “The best UI is the kind that is integrated into the environment. I love the way Budget Cuts handles swapping from the locomotion to the pickup objects gun. It’s a great example of forward-thinking UI.”
Roiland’s enthusiasm is much more than lip-service. He mentions Double Fine, the legendary studio helmed by Tim Schafer, who worked on projects like Psychonauts, Grim Fandango, Day of the Tentacle, Brutal Legend, and several others. He also mentions modern indie games like The Stanley Parable and Octodad, which both make sense if you know his sense of humor.
In terms of VR experiences, he has done plenty of his homework. Roiland said he checks Steam every week for new VR games and essentially buys all of them.
“I own every experience you can buy on the Vive,” Roiland said. “I study them, I see what works, what doesn’t work, and I adapt my designs that way.”
Beyond Rick and Morty
If you’re a fan of Rick and Morty, the insanely popular animated show that Roiland co-created, you’re probably still a bit confused. Firstly, why isn’t he making a Rick and Morty VR game? Is this related to the already announced Rick and Morty VR game? And if not, why is the name of the company a reference to the show?
“This is all original IP right now,” Roiland said. “Rick and Morty is not necessarily off the table down the road, but we want to establish some new universes, new characters, and new worlds.”
The Owlchemy game, similarly, is also not involved with Squanchtendo. Other than the fact that Roiland is involved/consulting on their project, simply as the show’s co-creator, it doesn’t have much connection. Sort of just a case of fortuitous, and slightly intentional, timing.
“It’s sort of like an even more sci-fi Job Simulator in a way.” Roiland explained. “Owlchemy has really done a great job of pushing their core mechanic forward. That’s honestly pretty close to what I want to do at Squanchtendo. Putting the player in a space with characters and interacting with them.”
Then why Squanchtendo? You might remember a character from Season 1 of Rick and Morty named Squanchy. To quote the wiki here, Squanchy is a “cat-like anthropomorphic creature” that, spoiler-alert, engages in “auto-erotic asphyxiation” while pleasuring himself. He calls it “squanching,” naturally.
As it turns out, it looks like little more than a funny reference. Squanchtendo’s mascot, as you can see in the comic strip above, is named Little Splzooshly. He’s more of an anthropomorphic blob than a cat.
Just the Beginning
Squanchtendo is a tiny company right now. When I asked who all was on the team, they both stammered as they tried to figure out who to actually include in that list and what their titles would be.
“I guess we have a concept artist too, for sure,” Watson laughed, explaining that they don’t really know how to list out or define everyone at the moment. What they do know, however, is that if you’re interested and capable of working on VR games, they absolutely want to hear from you.
When asked what they thought Nintendo would think about the company name ending in -tendo, they didn’t really know what to say, other than a well-timed joke referencing the theme of the popular animated show.
“Multiple reality theory says there are all kinds of -tendos out there,” Roiland said.
“Especially in Japan,” Watson added.
I’m sure it’ll be fine.
If you’re interested in working with Justin Roiland and Tanya Watson at Squanchtendo with regards to investment or job opportunities, they encourage you to reach out. You can email them using: [email protected].