Playful Studios Is More Than Lucky: A Fireside Chat With CEO Paul Bettner

We first tried an early version of Playful’s Lucky’s Tale three years ago on an early Oculus Rift dev kit at E3. (Has it really been that long?) It was clear this was going to be a real game, and a platformer at that, which made it markedly different from anything we'd tried so far. Eventually it would ship as part of the original Oculus Rift bundle, putting its install base at exactly the number of Rifts shipped.

Fast forward to E3 2017 last week, where Playful announced Super Lucky’s Tale for Xbox and Star Child for PlayStation VR, both of which should be available later this year. Survival as an independent and relatively small developer in the embryonic stage of a platform’s life is a feel-good story we’d be hard-pressed to headline any differently than by using the name of this studio’s signature title.

In speaking with Playful CEO Paul Bettner, with whom we also spoke at E3 in 2014, it’s clear that luck has only played a minor role. It takes more than that to transition from a small spot in the E3 Oculus booth in 2014 to featured roles in both Microsoft’s and Sony’s big tent extravaganzas three years later.

Where some exciting new VR games announced during E3 are recast versions of PC or console games (Doom VFR, Mario Kart VR, Fallout 4 VR, Skyrim VR), Super Lucky’s Tale goes from VR to console. Meanwhile, Star Child is Playful’s first foray onto Sony’s platform. There was plenty to discuss around these efforts, but we also talked about what Playful has learned about VR since those early days and what else it has in store, including taking the Lucky character to other entertainment mediums. We also debated the future of VR, the dearth of VR games at E3, and whether we’re on the cusp of VR 2.0, as well as what future mixed reality versions might look like. Finally, we discussed some of the challenges of fragmentation in VR input schemes and tracking.

The Next Lucky’s Tale: The Playground Platformer

Tom’s Hardware: What’s new about Lucky’s Tale?

Bettner: It’s a full-blown sequel. It is a way bigger game, more rich, more of what people want in a platformer. Lucky’s Tale 1 was the first platformer game we ever made. And it was a pretty short title, and kind of lightweight honestly, but made amazing by VR. With Super Lucky’s Tale, especially since we were making it for everyone to enjoy on TVs, not in VR, it really needed to step up in terms of being a platformer that people expect when they get a mascot level platforming game on a new piece of hardware.

Tom’s Hardware: Why do you think platformers haven’t been as popular in the last several years?

Bettner: Somebody said “it’s the 15-year rule.” Something’s popular and then it needs some time to rest, and then you see a resurgence. And it’s not just us. You’ve seen the debut of a new Mario game this year, you’ve got a Crash Bandicoot reboot, you’ve got Bubsy -- that’s a lesser known IP, but even those games are starting to come back, and it seems like this is going to be the year of the platformer.

Tom’s Hardware: What do you mean by a more full game? More levels? More Characters?

Bettner: In Lucky’s Tale 1, we had a signature move with his tail swipe, but it was not really everything I love to see in a platformer in terms of the variety and the depth of the controls of the character, the variety of the different types of worlds. Lucky’s Tale 1 was mostly traditional: In every one of the levels . . . you start at the beginning, you get to the end, you’re done.

We’re calling Super Lucky’s Tale a “playground platformer.” My favorite way to look at this genre is it’s a place where we get to do anything. You can play a traditional level, and if the next level is a crazy mini game where you’re flying through the air or you’re riding on a giant mech, that’s ok. This genre of platforming gets to draw from lots of different genres and mix them together. So there’s a lot more of that variety in Super Lucky’s Tale.

Building More Characters

Tom’s Hardware: What are the things people will be delighted by? I always found in the original Lucky’s Tale I was constantly being delighted by something.

Bettner: We have all the things that Lucky’s Tale had: we had super vibrant environments, a really cute character. One of the things that we’re carrying forward that was very relevant in VR but surprisingly works well even on the TV is Lucky notices you. He’s aware of you as the player. We kind of described it as this "Calvin and Hobbes" kind of relationship, and you’re like his imaginary friend. In VR that made a lot of sense, because he’d look up at you and he’d wave. But we kept that alive in this version we’ve built for the Xbox, and it still works.

But one of the things we’re building on for Super Lucky’s Tale is this diverse cast of characters and the story part of that. In Lucky’s Tale 1 you encountered a little of the story in the beginning, like when you’re in Lucky’s house and Piggy gets stolen . . . and you don’t really get any story again, honestly, until the end, but really in between it’s all platforming.

I love platformer games from the 90s, like the Rare games [Donkey Kong, Banjo-Kazooie], for instance, that would introduce characters you would meet along the way as you’re doing all your coin collecting and you’re finding secrets, but you’re also encountering these characters that have these little stories, and there’s a lot of that in Super Lucky’s Tale. Even the demo we have here has a whole little story where you’re meeting one of the bad guys -- his name is Master Mittens -- and he’s trying to foil you along the way, but he’s also teaching you a little bit.

Tom’s Hardware: Do you think that’s something you can build more on in the future?

Bettner: That’s inherent to our mission. When I look at my favorite other game companies, whether it’s Nintendo, or even Blizzard with the things they’ve done recently -- Overwatch is a good example: It took a genre, the first-person shooter, and I’m not sure that people would have said that a first-person shooter really needs characters! You’re literally in the eyes of the characters; you never even see who you are necessarily. But Blizzard understood that the most enduring, beloved brands in our industry are driven by characters people fall in love with and cosplay and create these long term relationships with.

Tom’s Hardware: A lot of these character-based games have also produced movies, television . . . is that something you think about too?

Bettner: A lot. We’re having some really interesting discussions about that now, because some of the folks that work in other industries, like film or TV, they see what we’re doing, like with Lucky . . . we’re talking to this — I won’t name them — big TV network recently, and they were looking at Lucky and saying we don’t see something like this come along that often where it’s not pandering to children, it’s just a genuine family friendly thing ... like the really classic things like the Mickey Mouses of the world. I would love to see our franchises and our IP go to different categories. We talk about ourselves more as an entertainment company rather than a game studio.

The Challenge Of Going from VR To 3D Gaming

Tom’s Hardware: Now developing for non-VR platforms, what are some of the major differences? It always seemed to me having to take into account latency, some sort of interaction, all of that created an extra burden on the development process. I would naively think it would be easier . . .

Bettner: Well it would be if we had just stuck with what we were doing then. There are things we did then that we discovered makes our job easier now. One of the examples of that is that in Lucky’s Tale 1, you don’t ever have to touch the other thumbstick on the controller, because your head is that other thumbstick. You don’t have to think about the camera, because you can look wherever you want. Your head is the camera. Bringing the game to the TV, that’s not true any more, necessarily, but we didn’t want to bring that thumbstick into play, because we love the fact that you can just play Lucky’s Tale by moving the character around and jumping.

So can we take the lessons that we were learning about how to build a platforming environment -- like literally having to design the levels where you’re always facing north and still make that work on a TV, and when you play the demo you can see that we’ve put a lot of effort into trying to get to that middle ground where the world still feels like an open explorable world. It’s really our work in VR that’s allowed us to get to the point where we knew how to do that. 

One other example on the technical side: Oculus had a min spec that they told us close to when they were close to shipping it. ‘Here’s the min spec. You guys need to run 90Hz on this.’ So we put all this work to get the game engine, which runs on top of Unity, to support that. Well then coming into our relationship with Microsoft, we already had an engine that was very optimized to render twice, at 90Hz, and when we got our Xbox One X dev kits, it wasn’t a trivial thing because Microsoft said ‘but you have to run at 4K now.’ So it was twice as many pixels as we were having to worry about before, but we were already having to render twice in a VR headset, so taking that and making it run at 4K 60Hz, we were already 85% or 90% of the way there.

Tom’s Hardware: And the target platform is always going to be known. Even though Oculus said here are the min specs, you still didn’t know if people were going to try to run it below that . . .

Bettner: Of course they always will . . .

Tom’s Hardware: . . . here you have a very predictable set of hardware . . .

Bettner: We do on Xbox, but Super Lucky’s Tale is actually what Microsoft is calling a Play Anywhere title, which means you can buy the digital copy on either Xbox One S, Xbox One X, or even Windows, and you can play across all your family of devices, including your PC. And in that place, we don’t even have a min spec defined yet. I’m sure we will have one. We’re going to be running on the Xbox One S, so I think probably our min spec is going to be similar to that category of hardware when we finally ship later this year.

Note: Super Lucky's Tale will be available for Xbox One X on Nov. 7, 2017, for $29.99.

Star Child

Tom’s Hardware: Switching to Star Child . . .

Bettner: It’s debuting with Sony, and we’re showing it off here running on the Sony PSVR, which is our first title we’ve ever done for that platform.

Tom’s Hardware: Before we get into the details of building that, let’s talk about that game. What were you trying to achieve, what’s the story?

Bettner: Star Child is what we’re calling a 'cinematic platformer,' which is the same phrase another great game that debuted at this show -- The Last Night [from an Indie studio called Odd Tales, it was the subject of some controversy, because its creator tweeted something that indicates the game will take on the Gamergate movement], a cyberpunk game that Microsoft showed off -- and they’re also using that term (cinematic platformer) which is like Inside [Playdead], which draws its roots to older games like Out Of This World [Delphine SW] or Flashback [Delphine SW] or even Oddworld: Abe’s Exodus [Oddworld Inhabitants] . . . these 2-1/2D sidescrolling games that still have a rich story and are presented in a cinematic format. We set out with this game with that challenge.

With Lucky’s Tale 1, it was 'can you make a third-person, character-action platformer work in VR?' And with this game, very early on with the prototypes we’re like ‘can you actually make a sidescroller work in VR?’ And can you get this specific cinematic stage presentation in VR to work, because it works great on TVs for games like Inside, but there’s actually all these challenges inherent to making it work in virtual reality, specifically around the fact that you could just look anywhere. A lot of those games are all about keeping your attention focused right here, and having the story happen right in front of you. Really getting that game off the ground has been all about figuring that problem out.

Some of it is the same stuff we did for Lucky’s Tale. There’s this very intentional shrinking of the scale of the world. If you remember from Lucky’s Tale, our approach to VR generally is to treat the experience like it’s a stage in front of you, rather than you’re in the eyes of the character. The techniques we used are a lot like Disney does in their parks, with things like forced perspective and tricks we do with scale.

We also do this vignetting at the outside of the experience. If you look too far to the left and right, it just blends out into the horizon and into a kind of solid color. It works really well for trying to keep your attention here.

Tom’s Hardware: Were there any particular differences in developing for Sony’s PSVR vs other VR platforms?

Bettner: There are a significant number of differences. PlayStation is just a different type of hardware, [particularly] the underlying architecture of the CPU and GPU in that device. But also the way that PSVR handles rendering frames and handling what on Rift they call asynchronous time warp -- the ability to always run the camera at a certain frame rate, and in Sony’s case this is 120Hz, even if the engine isn’t always outputting at that frame rate. There are parts of Star Child where the frame rate is variable, but you never perceive it because Sony’s hardware masks that.

The other thing that’s compelling about Sony’s PSVR is their approach to the way they handle the controller. I remember the first time I tried a PSVR two years ago at E3, and the fact that you can see the controller in there I think is a really great solution. Wireless VR isn’t really a thing, except on the mobile end, so playing to those strengths instead of asking a player to stand up and turn around and wave their hands everywhere is the kind of stuff that in a living room environment can be challenging, at least right now.

Note: There is no release date or price for Star Child.

State of VR: Fragmentation? VR 2.0?

Tom’s Hardware: You brought up controllers, and you developed Lucky’s Tale before there were the Oculus Touch controllers.

Bettner: We’ve created some little joyful interactions where if you’re just playing and your hands come down to your lap you’ll just see them as controllers. If you reach far enough out, they turn into hands, and you can play around with Lucky a little bit, and pet him.

As an aside, we’ve done further experiments with that. We’ve done prototypes where you could reach into the world and scoop up coins. It’s really fun stuff, but we kind of pulled a little bit back from that because I’m not ready to commit full hand-tracked motion control for the games we’re making, because the input landscape is too fragmented still. I’ve just got to imagine that in a couple of years, that’ll get consolidated and a lot cleaner to address from a developer standpoint, especially if we all just agree that it’s either a controller or a hand.

Tom’s Hardware: Clearly we have a better idea now of the size of today’s market. Sony with PSVR changed that. There will be things that will change it further still. Time will change it. But a year and a half ago, we didn’t know. So company’s like Playful that were doing things a year and a half before that were taking a big risk. But now you’re seeing more of the big publishing houses jump in, transform games, or creating new ones.

Bettner: But you’re still also seeing, and what I’ve been hearing here at the show, where is VR? There was an expectation that this would be the biggest E3 for VR yet, and it’s not, really. Sony had some exciting new games to show off. Microsoft didn’t mention VR during their press conference. People take assumptions from mobile especially of this annual hardware refresh cycle. Version 1 of VR launched last year, and people came into this year saying, alright, v2 this year’s going to be amazing. That’s not how the industry, and the companies that are investing heavily in this technology are looking at it, I don’t think. v2 will be next year. Maybe even 2019.

Some gamers can look at that and say I guess VR’s not a thing anymore. But the other conclusion you could draw is that this is really just a preparatory year. Companies are kind of inhaling, because they’ve been investing and this stuff takes time, and when v2 does show up, the second generation of VR and AR and mixed reality, that it’s gonna be even more advanced than what people are expecting, because these companies are taking their time.

Tom’s Hardware: I think we’re on the verge of v2 on the hardware side. You’re seeing these self-contained HMDs, you’re seeing WiFi added to the HMDs.

Bettner: Perhaps companies are looking at things they could have released this year, and saying no, let’s do a little bit more, let’s wait to see these other technologies come online like wireless, like inside-out tracking, better input controls using your hands, and they want to see more of those things get to maturity, and then release a better product.

When we were working with Oculus we saw this very much first hand, because Oculus’ initial plan was to actually ship the Rift a year before they shipped it, but the tracking just wasn’t there yet, so they held off, and even then people still give them a hard time and say they should have held off a little bit longer and bundled the Touch controllers.

Tom’s Hardware: We talked about the Touch controllers, but there was also room-scale -- that might have part of the original plan, but we didn’t see that for a while. Then there’s different input controls on the horizon, eye tracking, potentially inside-out tracking, and combining that with a self-contained HMD, that creates a whole other place you can go, and then add world scale. At some point as a developer creating something new you have to draw a line somewhere and say something like, well, I’m not going to be on world scale for a couple more years.

Bettner: That’s a great example because we drew that line with Lucky’s Tale originally at the controller. We knew Oculus was working on this more advanced, room scale, touch-based sort of stuff, but I’m glad that we did because we ended up with a game that now works best with an Xbox with a controller on the couch. Every time we design a new game we have to decide where are we going to draw the line for this title, and the hardest thing is honestly input. The headsets, the visual experience, and now that you can imagine every headset is going to have six DOF tracking, and it’s probably going to even have room-scale style tracking and potentially world-scale tracking -- and I can know that and know pretty much what to target in the future. But when it comes to input, that’s just not the case. And it’s even not the case with the R&D that’s happening across the companies. They don’t know yet, and they’re trying lots of things.

There’s this split opinion about whether all the future things are just going to be hand based, and motion controlled based, or there are a lot of people in the industry who say that the controller as a fundamental thing is already an evolved device for this abstract mapping of small motion of your fingers into this great degree of freedom you have in a game, and that’s not going anywhere, because that’s a great thing.

Tom’s Hardware: I loved at IDF last year watching as you could take physical objects and bring them into the physical world. And you could go on, say, a scavenger hunt in virtual reality and have to find things, and then show them in VR, and it opens up all sorts of possibilities. It’s why something like Toybox (Oculus’ demonstration tool for what was possible with Touch controllers in VR) was so engrossing, because it wasn’t a thing, it was just a demonstration sandbox of things you could do. We need more of those.

Bettner: When it comes to mixed reality and augmented reality, there’s an entirely new category of games people haven’t even begun to dream about. A friend of mine, Graeme Devine, who heads up games at Magic Leap, has this game he talked about at Dice. I just call it the Haunted House game, and you imagine that you’re in a world where everyone is wearing augmented reality and mixed reality headsets. So however many years in the future you think that’ll be. You’ll be sitting at your table eating breakfast and right behind you there’s this ghost there, but she’s not really that scary, she’s a little bit creepy but also a little bit friendly, and she says ‘I need you to help me; there was a murder that happened in this house before you moved in here, and I need you to help resolve it because I’m trapped here.’ And she leads you to your own kitchen and there’s a chalk outline on the floor. And this game progresses over the span of several weeks, of her showing up at various times, giving you clues, like go to your medicine cabinet and there’s something there . . . and she’s telling you this story about your own house, and you’re living this adventure.

I hear that dream he has, and I think that’s a whole new way of thinking about games and entertainment that doesn’t even exist right now. I like to think about ambient entertainment. It’s not something you’ll even go to a device to play, you won’t necessarily sit down to play it, it will just be there in your life.

Fritz Nelson
Fritz Nelson is Editor-at-Large of Tom's Hardware US.
  • TheSnowShadow
    "because its creator tweeted something that indicates the game will take on the Gamergate movement" umm you want the reverse of that, the creator was a supporter of gamer gate and was attacked for it.