VRguy podcast Episode 18: Shaun Williams, CEO of MAG Studios

My guest today is Shaun Williams, CEO of MAG games, creators of CDF Starfighter. This episode was recorded on July 5th, 2016.

Shaun and I talk about what it takes to design and create a game for VR, controls and gameplay in VR, exclusivity and much more.

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Interview transcript

Yuval Boger (VRguy):     Hello, Shaun, and welcome to the program.

Shaun Williams:             Hello, Yuval, and thanks for having me.

VRguy:  My pleasure. Who are you and what do you do?

Shaun:  My name is Shaun Williams. I’m the director of MAG Studios. We’re a very small, independent VR games developer. We’ve done two games up to now that have been released on Steam, called Ghostship and Ghostship Aftermath. Our current game we’ve been working on for a while is called CDF Starfighter, which is VR-only. It’s just made for VR from the ground up. It’s a space combat simulator, and it’s good fun.

VRguy:  I read that for a long while you were doing this solo. Is this still the case, or is the team a little bit larger now?

Shaun:  The team is starting to expand now. I’m still doing a lot of the groundwork by myself, but we have got a few people helping now, whereas before it was just myself doing every single thing basically, but we’ve got a load of good voice actors on board now, who all deserve a good mention. There’s Moblyn, who’s always worked on the music. He’s done a good job. We’ve also got Allie onboard to help on the AI now, and we’ve got Mark who’s helping on Radar code and some GUI, and we’ve got Victor who’s helping out on animation and motion capture. We’ve also just took Chris on, who’s helping on textures and portraits for characters and character faces. We’ve quite a few people now.

VRguy:  Absolutely. In your estimation, how many man years does it take to bring a high quality game to market?

Shaun:  It all depends on the type of game and the content of it. Some games can be quite quick to produce. More quirky games, mini-games. With the case of our game, where it’s a lot more AAA style game, there’s a lot more in it and it’s a story-driven sort of game, so it does take a lot longer for the story side of the games as well. They always vary. I’ve been working on CDF Starfighter. I’ve spent the last ten years modelling the ships, basically, and then my last year-and-a-half in the Unreal 4 engine, actually starting to put it all together. It’s about a year-and-a-half in full development, and we’ve still got another six to eight months left.

VRguy:  In your opinion, what’s the difference between a made-for-VR game, and a translated game or ported game, where it was not originally made for VR and now there’s a VR version?

Shaun:  There’s a few games out there which you can tell if they’re made for VR. You can tell if they’re not made for VR. The main focus, if you make a game for VR, you’re literally designing every aspect of that game for VR for the comfort side, for the GUI and the menu side. For all of it, basically. Whereas if you’re designing it for both, then you’re not putting all the effort into that side of it. For Starfighter, we’ve decided to go VR with it, because it’s based on the old 90s style space combat sims. Graphically, it’s modern-day graphics, but the older style gameplay. To make it more immersive it’s ideal for VR, so we’ve concentrated solely on the VR version, but we are also doing a non-VR version which we’re hoping to release towards the end of the year.

              It’s a different campaign. There’s a bit of different content, but it’s designed for a 2D screen, so we’re not limited with that. It has full cinematics, for example. It’ll have a different GUI system, different menu system. The actual content is geared for a 2D screen.

VRguy:  I had a guest on the program a couple of weeks ago and we were talking about VR games versus non-VR games, and I asked him if he could think of the best racing game on VR, and the best racing game on non-VR, which would he prefer to play? I think his answer was, racing he thought that non-VR would be the best, but actually, flight sim or something like a game that you’re doing would be best in VR. Do you also agree with that? That if this was a car racing, you’d prefer a non-VR version?

Shaun:  You’ll find everyone has got a lot of different opinions. I disagree with that, to an extent. Especially, you mentioned car racing. If you play a game called Project Cars, for example. I’ve played that on a 2D screen first and thought that was quite a good racing game, but then I come to play it in VR and it’s a totally different game in VR. If I come to play it again, I’d play the VR version. I wouldn’t like to play the 2D version again. To me, it’s a bit different because a lot of games, certain games, racing is one of them, it’s a simulation-type game. Games like that which are simulated really do come across a lot more in VR, and they’re a lot more immersive.

              For a lot of people, I would say, it will have that appeal. You’ll play a game, and you’ll play it normally, and then you’ll play it in VR and then you probably won’t go back to the non-VR. There’s certain games that you’ll probably always prefer to play in 2D, like a strategy game for example.

VRguy:  Okay, I understand. Let’s talk a little about the economics of VR. The market is fairly small, right? There’s a couple hundred thousand devices out there right now.

Shaun:  Yeah.

VRguy:  I guess you’re in it because you see the potential, right? It must not be a whole lot of money at the moment.

Shaun:  Well that’s it. The focus has never really been about the money, it’s more about the game itself. The technology is great. That’s a really big step in visual entertainment for us, the way we look at it. Ideally, when it comes to design a game like that, using the latest technology. That’s the way you design the whole game and the aspects of the game.

VRguy:  There’s been some press in recent weeks about exclusivity. Some hardware vendors trying to secure exclusive games for their content. How do you feel about that? Do you think that’s good for the market? Do you think that’s good for the game publishers? How do you feel about exclusivity?

Shaun:  I’m mixed, to be honest. As a developer, it might be good for some developers to get exclusivity for funds or for marketing purposes. At the same time, it’s the end-user who really wants to play that game, but they can’t play it because you haven’t got the right headset for it. I’m 50/50 on that side of it. With Starfighter, if you’ve got a VR headset, no matter what it is, I want people to be able to play Starfighter, so we make Starfighter compatible with everything, whether it’s OSVR, Oculus, VIVE. PSVR a bit further down the road.

VRguy:  What controllers do you use today? You have the headset on, and then is it a game controller? Is it something else that you use to control the game?

Shaun:  For Starfighter, you just use the game controller. Starfighter is one of the few titles out there that’s actually got gameplay in it. A lot of gameplay in it, there’s a lot of content in there. With a bridge, you’ve got VR which is really good for the immersion side of it, and everything else, but using a gamepad, it’s been designed for the gamepad because it’s an easy, accessible piece of hardware to a lot of people and it’s easy to use. People are comfortable using a gamepad. It’s ideal for our game, because it’s a sat-down game. You are in a gamepad.

              For our game, it’s just gamepad, but if you’ve got the HTC VIVE for example, you can actually walk around some of the menus. Some of the menus are really nice looking environments. You can actually walk around them a bit with the room scale in the VIVE, which is good. After using the controllers for the VIVE, they are a really good bit of kit and we are looking to use those for some more content a little further down the line.

VRguy:  The gamepad is used today because everyone’s got it?

Shaun:  Yeah it’s for convenience. Our game is designed to be an easy pick-up-and-play type of game. I could compare it to Elite: Dangerous, where you’ve got loads of different controls and buttons and different stuff to do, where ours, it’s just a very simple space combat simulator. It’s a lot simpler to play. A lot of people do play games using a controller, for example console people, and you get a lot of gamers on PC now using controllers, or wanting to use a PlayStation or Xbox controller on the PC.

VRguy:  You’ve put the game out on Steam and started getting user feedback. What was the most surprising feedback you received?

Shaun:  I couldn’t really say “surprising” feedback. I’ve already put a game through Early Access, so it’s good experience really, already having took a game through Early Access. There wasn’t really so much surprise, there. I’m probably surprised most of all about the amount of people who’s got the VIVE compared to the Oculus on Steam. There’s a lot of people out there with Oculus, but a lot of them don’t seem to use Steam that much.

VRguy:  Most of the majority of your users were VIVE users?

Shaun:  Yeah. I would say most of our users are VIVE users. Ours was a VIVE launch title originally, on the 5th of April, but we’ve been partners with Oculus as well for the past two, three years, so it’s been designed for the Oculus. We did expect some more people on the Oculus. There’s still a lot of people using DK2, as well. There’s a few people who’ve been on there using the old DK2. It’s quite a mixture. We expected a lot of people mainly to be using Oculus, but there’s a good wealth of VIVE users out there now.

VRguy:  If you could control the work plan for Sensics, or for other people that make the underlying technology, whether it’s hardware or software APIs for VR, what would you have us work on for the next 12-18 months?

Shaun:  The main thing with any sort of VR is ease of use. Your main side of that is the software is both the runtime- A lot of resources and effort should be put into the runtime to make it easy to use, just like a one-click .exe or something that automatically runs when you start up your computer. Apart from that, there’s an API, like the Vulkan API, which seems to be used a lot more on mobiles at the minute. That will be a great use, especially for VR and getting more power out of your games, tuned for your game, for VR, which will really help because it’s all about performance now.

VRguy:  Making it easier for the end-users to start, plug-in and play, and then squeeze some extra performance out of the current hardware?

Shaun:  Yeah, basically. Your ease of use is your most important one, because you might get some people getting it, and if it’s a lot of work to set up they’re not going to recommend it. For me personally, I’ve used both of the VR headsets from Oculus, from VIVE, and from OSVR. They all are quite different. It’s all down to your user experience and the ease of use, which is the most important thing, I would say.

VRguy:  Have you put some thought into eye tracking? What would you do if a headset had widespread, good quality eye tracking built into it?

Shaun:  Yeah, I’ve been looking at eye tracking over the last year and it’s come along quite a way. Probably another year down the line, we’re probably going to get that in some headsets. It’s really good, eye tracking, because when you do put on your headset and you do move your eyes and look around at the screen. You can make good use out of that as a developer, both to see what the player’s looking at, to create events. If it’s a horror game, you know what they’re looking at all the time so you can make something else appear at the side of him, or behind him, and stuff like that. There is loads of good uses for eye tracking, and I think a year’s time we’ll be seeing those in headsets.

VRguy:  Absolutely. Shaun, where could people get in touch with you to learn more about your company and about the work that you’re doing?

Shaun:  Our company has got a website MAGStudios.co.uk. We’ve got an individual website for our Starfighter game, which is CDFStarfighter.com, and that’s got most of the information on. Steam is our current active community place at the moment, so that’s the best place to go and get some real-time feedback on the game, or give some feedback on the game. It’s in Early Access and it’s crucial to both the people playing the game, because they’ve got a bit of say into where that game’s going, so we really encourage that.

VRguy:  Excellent. Shaun, it’s been a pleasure to have you on the program. Thanks very much.

Shaun:  It’s been great to be here, Yuval. Thanks for having me.


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