Nate Burba is CEO and Co-Founder of Survios, one of the forerunners in VR gaming today. His company’s immersive experiences taking gaming to the next level. His successes resulted in AAA hits like Raw Data, a co-op first-person shooter proclaimed as VR’s first hit game. Additionally, the company is creating groundbreaking gaming technology (cue, Sprint Vector) which is making gameplay more fluid and lifelike than ever.
Hayim Pinson: When I started digging into your company’s capital and its background, I was surprised to learn that Survios didn’t mention VR in its name — even though you are a business that specializes in VR games.
When creating a brand, you want it to have some dexterity. We decided on the name Survios because it represents an idea and a purpose. Plus, we wanted to keep the company open to more avenues than just VR.
What was the environment like in the U.S. video game industry when the Oculus Kickstarter campaign began?
NB: The biggest win for Oculus was being able to get John Carmack and Gabe Newell in the Kickstarter video. They’re basically the patron saints of game development. Once they were onboard, Palmer became the bright young person developing something that the whole world had been dreaming about.
With Oculus, VR had a tremendous amount of buzz. People were bored of the the gaming industry because it had remained relatively stagnant for the last 15 years.
Even though they were developing better graphics, more triangles…
NB: Exactly. Games had developed better graphics and internet connectivity, but the controllers were basically the same. In the past, the gaming industry had turned the world upside-down again and again, but at time we were saying, “Hey! Where’s our revolutions?” To see another potential revolution on the horizon was really exciting. Everyone was pushing for it.
The gaming industry is unique because it’s not entirely motivated by the market. Technology companies, software developers and game developers are always looking for (and investing in) the next best thing. Due to this, the line between producer and consumer starts to blur. I believe that we’ll start to see more of this in the next 50–100 years.
I think the [Oculus] Kickstarter campaign was a watershed moment that pushed new life into the gaming industry. Behind the scenes, companies like Valve and Sony were trying to figure out what the VR medium would look like and began to get products into the hands of developers.
Individual gamemakers took notice, too — but large corporate entities, like Blizzard, didn’t didn’t start developing VR games right away. The company took slight interest, but it due to a personal interest from a handful of developers at Blizzard that people started developing games for VR. It wasn’t like the company took the idea to the boardroom and said “Yes! Let’s make some money now.”
Right, I guess corporations can’t rely on some of these nascent technology to increase profit.
NB: Here’s the best metaphor I can use to describe a corporation: it’s a giant robot made out of people. Some people have to make up the head of the robot; some the arms and legs. And in order to move forward, they all have to agree. Corporations can’t do anything on a whim because — as you know — a giant robot is quite unwieldy.
OK, that was the best metaphor I’ve ever heard. It only took few years for Valve come into the picture, so I guess they saw something in those early stages.
NB: Yeah, at the end of the day, it’s a bunch of nerds working on stuff that they wanted people to like. I think you can really see it the growth of VR gaming as a collaborative effort between Oculus, Valve and any of the other companies out there.
So let’s go back to Survios. I think it was 2013 when it was funded?
NB: Right. We’ve gone through multiple rounds of funding. In 2013 we raised our seed round funding which was about $250K. Then in 2014 we raised a series A round, which amounted in about $4.2M. As of last year, we announced a total of $50M raised.
What was that like getting your initial funds back in 2013? Nowadays it feel like just about any company can slap VR into their name and receive funding. But I know things were different then.
NB: In 2013, Los Angeles was a smaller ecosystem. Our savvy seed investors were actually friends and family. The father and uncle of our composer, Jeremy Tisser were primary investors early on. They saw potential in us young people who were doing something new and interesting.
So, James and I put together a business plan — I think it was a 100 pages long. We put a lot of work in there to really show that our pan was possible. We also worked with USC Stevens Institute to help start the business. It was very fertile ground to get us going. We raised a small amount of money to be able to rent out an office where we built our first wireless prototype.
This was a big a-ha! moment that lead us to the work we do today. Having a wireless device meant you could really get lost in virtual reality. You can forget about the world because there’s not some leash pulling you back. It wasn’t exactly like the products we have today, but we designed an experience specifically for that prototype so that people could get a taste for what the world would be like in the future. It was an incredible experience.
What was it like for you on the learning curve side of things because I’m sure there’s been a shitload of challenges.
NB: You just learn something new every day. Sorry for the clichés, but it’s hard to sum up. I have an innate and kind of boundless curiosity. Normally this is a curse, due to the fact I can’t really get anything done because I’m constantly looking up stuff on Wikipedia. But when you’re the CEO, it’s actually perfect. When everything is interesting and every person is interesting, you work with anyone. Normally people have different limits.
What I’m starting to learn is that if you want to be able to grow a company, then you yourself can’t be limited in your thinking. You can’t have some rigid way of doing things that only works when your company has 20 people but totally breaks down when your company has 50 people. I’m learning that you can let your management style effect the company or you can change yourself.
I imagine that involves putting ego aside a lot in order to grow.
NB: Yeah it’s a weird paradox. When you put your ego aside, you’ll grow — but then when you grow, your ego says “Wow, look at me I’m even better now.” It just goes to show that if you’re in a leadership position, you have to constantly keep your ego in check for your company to get better.
But, let’s go to Raw Data. What was creating Raw Data like? What was the reception like and — in hindsight — what are your thoughts on it?
NB: Raw Data started when we wanted to switch to Unreal Engine. We were making Zombies in Holodeck when Unreal first came out. We were like “Oh, my god it’s free and it’s so pretty.” We also switched to an architecture where we weren’t developing for a mobile chipset. With these changes we had a lot more power and decided to develop a new title. Something that had a broader appeal than Zombies in the Holodeck — which played a harder note.
In contrast Raw Data can play this hard note (especially in level 2), but it also plays the action movie note and the humor notes. It’s a broad-ranging piece of IP. But it started off as just us tinkering around in Unreal — seeing what was fun and trying out some of our mechanics and systems.
Initially it was called “Bullet Time Apex.” That the code name we called it as we were developing several different systems. At that time were created a lot of the AI, weapon , and multiplayer systems you see today. The game however was more like a linear campaign with a more traditional locomotion. Unfortunately, we found that this locomotion made some people nauseous. The game didn’t have much of a tight direction.
In late 2015, Raw Data evolved as we developed a gameplay based on the tower defense premise — like the kind you see in Orcs Must Die! 2 and Payday 2. We wanted a game that could be played for hours, but only needed a small amount of assets to create.
So, a game that’s constantly changing without doing too much work.
NB: Yeah. We added some systems in the game that allow for different types of play.
I’ve seen a lot of similar patterns, like on Rainbow Six Siege.
NB: Yes. The goal of any game developer is to create an experience that can be different every time you play. But there’s also a cost-benefit analysis that we have to take into consideration. So inevitably we ended up developing something that was more like Nexus’ Tower Defense; where you have to defend a point, play multiplayer and progress through different levels.
It was also important to us to have a nice story mechanism. So we had to standardize all the characters in the game. What they’re talking about, where they’re located — there’s a method to the storytelling end of the medium as well.
It all came together in early 2016. We presented an early version of Raw Data at the VRLA Expo. It began as a hold-out shooter, but then once we added teleporting, we realized we could create something much larger. That’s where the tower defense element came in. After that, the whole project took off.
We released an early-access version in July. Right now, we’re building up to the version 1 release with a longer extended early access period. In the future we don’t want the early access to be this long because it makes the project a little bit more difficult. Right now we’re going through some growing pains as we learn how to develop things.
One thing I realized is that a lot of my favorite games are the second version. Game developers need to build over an extended period of time. That’s why I’m a big fan of Payday 2 over Payday 1 or Orcs Must Die! 2 instead of Orcs Must Die! 1. Even the original Metal Gear Solid was actually a remake of Metal Gear 2.
You’re always building on the foundations. So as good as a game Raw Data is now, we want to make games that are a lot better. We’re looking to create games with larger levels, better look motion, better game play — and honestly something that costs the company less money, too. Luckily, we’re getting more efficient as we go.
I can imagine your efficiency could triple from what you’ve learned from creating Raw Data. The next one will be a lot smoother. Speaking of fluidity, what are your thoughts on fluid locomotion?
NB: Well, fluid locomotion is a key new piece of technology that we’re developing. To quote Henry Jenkins, a professor at UGC, “the most fundamental thing to being a human being is to be able to move through space from point A to point B” — I think this is the more fundamental thing in games, too.
As human beings, we have grown and evolved to operate in 3D space. So that’s the #1 thing to simulate in a VR video-game. It’s pretty difficult to create, but VR is doing that reasonably well today, though most games are not really moving through space that much.
Why is moving through space in VR so difficult?
NB: That’s a good question. VR disconnects your vestibular system (the audio-visual sensory system in your body). Normally this system works in tandem with every other function in your body. Your internal systems are constantly reading what’s going on in the words around you, so that you know to do the right things at the right time.
If you compare it to a game engine, it’d be like you were in a fixed update cycle. You’re reading all that muscle data, weight data, and gravity data as you move around. We just don’t have that kind of system in VR yet.
You have to effectively simulate that system to get rid of the nausea some players experience. A great example is climbing. If you look at a Sprint Vector — you grab something that’s a fixed object in the real world and you see your hand close around it. You pull yourself up and your body foes up. Because of that assumed outcome, you won’t get nauseous.
Now if no one’s ever climbed up something before they might get nauseous. If you’re 8-years-old and you haven’t climbed the monkey bars yet, you will get nauseous. Since most people have experienced climbing in real life, we take that feeling of motion and we start building off the concept.
We look at other subtle ways that people move around the world using just their head or their hands. When we can understanding the kind of expected outcomes around these movements, we start to develop systems for movement [in the game].
One example is gaining momentum by pushing off things with your arms. That’s why we added the notion of pumping your arms to move forward in Sprint Vector. It’s all about details and making sure the whole system feels really, really good. We want the sensation to feel smooth. Plus, there’s some other secret sauce and tricks in there that I can’t talk about which make sure you don’t get nauseous.
That’s really incredible and do you foresee implementing these tactics these new strategies into titles in the future? And do you think it’ll be adopted by others?
NB: Yeah, I think we’re definitely going to have [Sprint Vector] in many of our titles. It’s going to be a signature technology for us moving forward.
I think we’ll have some companies that we will work with adopt the system. I’m not going to say we’re going to license technology, but we’ll probably work with some companies or license holders to develop more titles that way.
I’m sure there will be developments in the industry that will have some similarity. I think this kind of system is necessary to make a [VR] game where you can move around without getting nauseous. And let’s face it, most games you need to move around.
What are your expectations for the rest of 2017? What excites you?
NB: To be honest, I’m very internal-facing. I focus on the people here [at Survios] and how well they’re working. We’re excited about Raw Data, and about Sprint Vector and some of the other projects we’re working on.
I’m kind of the worst person to ask sometimes, because every time I play another game outside of the company I get excited, too. It’s a double-edged sword that reminds me of a story about Christopher Nolan watching the Matrix, cursing because the filmmaker did the thing we wanted to do. That’s how I feel about some of the things I encounter. I think we’re going to see a consistent drip of new content in VR. I expect to see where motion VR on multiple platforms crosses over with controller VR on multiple platforms. And, of course, where non-VR on multiple platforms comes into the mix.
I’m also excited to see some popular video games like Grand Theft Auto or Pokemon be the best games in VR. It may take several years to make, but I’m excited to see what some of those things are going to be like when those larger companies dive into [VR] and spend larger amounts of money.
What are your thoughts on a PlayStation VR and their success?
NB: I think PlayStation allows the industry to reach users they wouldn’t normally. To set something up on a PC, you kind of have to be married to the idea. You have to install a driver — and other nitty-gritty nerdy things. It we lived in a world, where everyone was gaming on a PC, then it’s much easier for us to do our thing. But that world’s going to take us a while to get to.
Well they’re not quite triple-A, but they’re definitely a lot closer triple-A than the majority of Oculus and Steam VR publishers.
NB: There’s no room for shovelware in Sony, right. I am sure there’s going to be more shovelware. I think there’s less and less shovelware in Oculus because they’re creating better content now. When Oculus first started it was all shovelware. This was because a bunch of developers were just throwing games together and throwing them up. There was a whole Oculus share, but now you have the proper Oculus platform which has a lot better content.
But Sony? Sony is a little more fundamentally stringent than Steam. I think that it’s not just about the quality, because there are fun games on Steam and fun games on Oculus — but they’re super indie games. They don’t have the development of that high concept stuff like character creation, marketing, world building and graphics — so they’re perceived in a different light. That’s one thing Sony helps us out with, it’s a bit more of a prestigious platform to be on.
How can fan’s keep in touch with the latest updates at Survios?
NB: Sure so you can follow us on Survios.com also our Facebook page Survios VR that we’re on Twitter or on Instagram and you can follow me @Nathanburba on Twitter and if you want to send me an email it’s [email protected]