Tommy Palm was sitting a couple of feet away from me on my right in a hotel suite a few blocks down from the Moscone Center in San Francisco during GDC week. He and the other folks at Resolution Games invited me here to chat about their upcoming Gear VR title, Bait!, and the future of VR gaming.
You might not recognize Tommy Palm by name, but I can guarantee that if you haven’t played the biggest game he has worked on, you’ve at least heard of it. These two words will light your eyes up with images of gumdrops and happiness or fill your heart with disdain for the filthy casual mobile landscape, but either way you’re familiar with Candy Crush.
After working at King as the Games Guru on titles like Candy Crush for over 3 years, Palm moved on to found a company with a childhood friend that was focused specifically on VR games. They released a simple solitaire experience to get their name out there called Solitaire Jester, and now, their second game, is a fishing adventure game called Bait!, both of which are available on the Gear VR.
Naturally, my first question was: Why fishing?
“Well, almost everyone on the team fishes, actually,” said Palm. “It’s extremely relaxing and fun, which is perfect for this medium. When you’re making something accessible for VR you typically don’t want the player to move around much, since that can create cyber sickness. Fishing is a very specific occasion where you’re typically being still, but it’s still very exciting.”
For Bait!, the majority of your time is spent standing at the water’s edge as you reel in various fish at different digital locales. You use your gaze to locate an area that looks ripe for casting your line and you tap the touchpad to fling out your bait. When a fish bites, you tap the pad to lure it in, being careful not to bust the meter that pops up showing the stress levels on your rod.
“The strength of VR is on presence and that you’re inside of an experience,” explained Palm.
And that’s absolutely something they’ve nailed with Bait! Despite the bright and colorful visual style and lack of positional tracking, it’s actually quite striking how believable the setting is. It’s far from realistic by design, but it’s one of the most gorgeous games on Gear VR without a doubt. “My background is traditionally specializing in flat, 2D puzzle games which typically have much more simplistic art styles and VR is heavily reliant on graphical quality, more so than traditional mobile gaming is at least,” Palm said.
At first, it seems like such a dramatic shift. Going from traditional PC game or console game development into VR seems like a natural transition and evolution, but to go from making simple match-3 mobile games to making VR experiences is something else entirely. That’s where the Gear VR comes in.
“I’ve actually always been very excited about VR,” said Palm. “I’m surprised it’s taken us this long to have VR actually become something big. I was still at King at the end of 2014 when I tested the Samsung Gear VR for the first time and I just thought, ‘Wow. This is something that I could make a great game for.’ I had been making mobile games since the late 90s, so the Gear VR was very appealing.”
Just like the Gear VR is a great entry point for new VR consumers, it’s a great entry point for new VR developers as well. “The combination of not being tethered down by a cord, the price point, and the mobile development background really made a lot of sense,” explained Palm.
Palm and the rest of the team at Resolution Games may be 100% focused on making VR experiences, but they’re not limiting themselves strictly to mobile VR. Palm is especially excited about the possibility of hand-tracking and motion controllers.
“I think it’s natural to reach out and try to interact with the world when you’re in VR,” Palm said. “When we feel like we’re in a new place, we want to touch things around us.”
Unfortunately, there isn’t an affordable or widely available way of doing that on mobile VR just yet.
One of the other big differences between traditional mobile gaming and VR gaming is what Palm referred to as the “activation energy” required to go from not playing to playing a game. With something like Candy Crush, I can pull my phone out of my pocket, unlock it, and tap an icon, then immediately be playing within a few seconds. For VR, even though the Gear VR is much more accessible, it still requires me to follow all of the above steps, in addition to clicking my phone into the headset, strapping it on, and navigating to my intended app. I’ll also need to fumble with earbuds or headphones as well for an optimal experience.
What mobile VR – and VR in general, for that matter – is still desperately looking for is something that’s “sticky” and worth returning to consistently. “Software is what ultimately sells hardware so we really need engaging titles,” reiterated Palm. “We need stuff that’s more than just a novelty. For this game, we created a story for players to follow so they’d want to come back and see what happens next and we’ve also put in some collection elements with things like achievements for catching all of the fish.”
Whether that’s enough remains to be seen, but Resolution Games has the right mindset and has the experience to take VR gaming to new territories. Until then, we’re still patiently waiting for that “killer app” or the Candy Crush of VR, if you will.