Camouflaj, a relatively unknown studio based in Seattle, Washington, has been beavering away at a huge PlayStation VR title. Marvel's Iron Man VR is the biggest game heading to the platform in quite some time, and it's looking very promising indeed. With the game's development now complete, we sat down to talk with the director, and founder of Camouflaj, Ryan Payton. In the following interview, we go over how the game came to be, balancing action with story, and what Tony Stark himself would think of his very own video game. Enjoy.
Push Square: Camouflaj is a relatively young studio, having only released République and République VR so far. Marvel's Iron Man VR is only your third game, and it's quite the leap forward. How did the project come about?
Ryan Payton: It's funny because Camouflaj has been around for almost nine years now, and it was born out of me leaving my previous job, which was on a massive project of a massive scale. My goal with creating Camouflaj from the very beginning was not to be an indie studio. It was to create the next greatest independent game developer working on large games like Iron Man VR. So for me, it's been this nine-year journey to get to this place where we're on the cusp of releasing a really great game with our partners at PlayStation. As I look into the future, all I want us to do is to continue making big games like this, or even go bigger.
But to answer your question, the short version of the story is that, we had just shipped République on PS4, and I was approached by Marvel at E3 2016. I was introduced by one of my best friends, Bryan Intihar, who was the creative director on Marvel's Spider-Man. Jay Ong [senior vice president of Marvel Games] was familiar with our work, received a really great recommendation from Bryan, and that just led to a really fun conversation about -- what if Camouflaj went head first into VR development, and what if we paired it with, in my opinion, the best Marvel superhero for VR? And did it in a way that wasn't an experimental demo, but a full-fledged, extremely ambitious, high quality, and story-driven VR game that is worthy of that amazing Iron Man IP.
Iron Man is a very popular superhero these days thanks to the Marvel movies. Did you and the team feel any pressure to live up to fan expectations, given he's so beloved? What's the balance between taking inspiration from what's already established and putting your own spin on the character?
It's impossible not to be inspired by the incredible films, but one thing that was really interesting working with the Marvel Games group, as you can see with their other titles, they are creating their own world -- not necessarily interlinked -- but their own take on these amazing superheroes specifically for games. I really love that challenge, because it gave us a lot more creative freedom to interpret this classic character in a way that's fresh for the audience, but also aligns really well with game development and what we want to do from a mechanics perspective, or the things we want to do for VR. It was really fun to sit down with Bill Rosemann [vice president of Marvel Games] and the team to come up with the story and concept for the game.
One of the things we wanted to do early on -- and because we're not related to the films, we were able to do this -- is that we didn't want this to be an origin story. We wanted to have Marvel's Iron Man VR be a game where people can just jump in and not have to explain who Iron Man is, which allows players to get immediately into the action. But, we also tell a story that goes really deep into Tony Stark. He's a character that, in so many ways, is his own worst enemy, and we use that really fun aspect of Tony to actually dive back into his past and a little bit into his origins. The way that Marvel and Camouflaj have been able to work together on this has allowed for the ultimate amount of creative freedom while also being able to leverage this incredible property to make a great VR game.
As you said, Iron Man seems like a great fit for VR. Was this always a VR game, or was there ever a discussion about making this a traditional, flat-screen adventure?
No, from the very beginning, when we were approached by Marvel Games, they wanted us to make a VR game that could only be a VR game. We at Camouflaj had a meeting about this opportunity to work with Marvel, and it was really fun, because the team almost instantly came back to me and said, 'Well there's only one superhero we should beg to work with'. It should be Iron Man, because he's perfect for VR. You've got his helmet, which pairs with the VR headset. You've got his repulsors, which pair with the motion controllers. You can ground pound, rocket punch, see the HUD in the helmet...
One of the things I instilled in the team very early on was that, we're not making a hybrid game of flat screen and VR. We're making the ultimate VR game, and we're using the ultimate superhero for that. And I think because we committed to it, it allowed us to do so many things that we normally couldn't do if this was just a flat screen game. VR affords so many different ways of playing and experiencing things.
We've played the demo, and one thing that stood out is how straightforward the controls are, which is great. How have you made sure to strike a balance between making the player feel powerful as Iron Man while also keeping it as accessible as possible?
It's a big challenge. One of the reasons we are working on Marvel's Iron Man VR is because, within the first weeks of development, we created a prototype. We were just messing around, imagining like, 'What would Iron Man be like in real life'. So we utilised the VR equipment that we had to test that out. Within a week, we were flying around like Iron Man, with the motion controls, and it felt great. We knew that we had something special there.
We knew early on that, even though the control scheme is very intuitive, it is something that is easy to pick up but difficult to master. You mentioned the demo -- the amount of content that we put into the demo was very intentional. The controls for our game really reminded me of my first experience playing Tony Hawk's Pro Skater on PS1, in that the controls are very unique, and easy to play but hard to master. I wanted to give players enough content to get to that level of mastery even in the demo. Once you get to that point where you can bank, thrust, ground pound, rocket punch, twist around, and do all these amazing Iron Man actions in the game, you get to a certain level of flow that I believe is really unique and special to our game.
We wanted to remind players through social media that not only does the demo include those two missions you play, but we also unlock these really difficult flight and combat challenges. We put those in there and made them really hard to make sure that we give players incentive to continue to build their skills so that they can overcome those challenges before the full game is out.
Even when you finish the flight tutorial, there's a best time set by Camouflaj, and it's pretty tough!
[Laughs] Yes, it's tough, and it's very much aligned with that goal of giving players incentive to play and build their skills. The more you master the controls, the more fun you get out of the full game.
Were there many challenges in taking a character with such a complex moveset and turning it into a smooth experience in VR?
How long is this interview, a few hours? [Laughs] As with any game development, we've had our fair share of challenges, but I look at that as one of my favourite aspects of the process of game making. I'm not afraid of challenges, and the team at Camouflaj really love embracing the challenge and overcoming things.
One example was ensuring that we're not only building an Iron Man VR simulator with just action... Not only are you playing as Iron Man, but you're playing as Tony Stark, and we want to tell a really great story. That's a big aspect of what Marvel is, it's this great action, but it's also these great character driven stories. So I think striking that delicate balance between having great, cinematic, VR-powered action with an intimate and personal story where you play as Tony Stark facing some of his own demons has been one of the greater challenges we had to take on.
Another one -- one of my favourite aspects of VR development is that there is no road map. There is no manual to refer to, other than just playing all the great content that's been released so far. We knew from the very beginning that we didn't want Marvel's Iron Man VR to feel like an experimental demo, or "experience". It needs to feel like a full, meaty, fully featured VR game, that's what everybody wants. So what we've had to do is forge so many new paths through tireless iteration, getting the game to the point where it feels triple-A. It feels good. When you're not looking at so many other examples of how to do a flying superhero in VR, we have no map, we're just exploring. Thankfully our partners at PlayStation have afforded us the time to make the game really great.
You brought up the story, and how it's character driven, and you want to put players into the shoes of Tony Stark as much as Iron Man. Can you talk much more about the story, and some of the characters we might meet? We know Ghost is the main adversary, right?
Yeah, it's fair to say Ghost is the main villain, but we do have other villains that we have yet to reveal. One of the things we decided early on was -- VR really shines when there's a very intimate story with intimate moments. Which I find ironic, because the game's environments and action are quite big. The two areas in the demo are two of our smallest environments. So through the action, we allow big cinematic set pieces. But for the story, we want to tell a very intimate story about Tony Stark where players can really experience what it's like to be him and battle with his own personal demons. So, instead of having dozens of villains to make cameos through the game, we decided to focus on a smaller set of villains. We can really go deep to expose the good and bad of who Tony Stark is.
It allows players to not only gain a better appreciation for this incredible character, but also to learn more about themselves. At the end of the day, they're embodying Tony. We didn't want to just tell a story about Tony Stark, we wanted players to experience a story where they might learn a little about themselves throughout the game.
You said you're friends with Bryan Intihar over at Insomniac Games, who obviously made Marvel's Spider-Man a couple of years ago. Were there ever conversations between studios about bringing the games together? Did you take any inspiration from what that team did with Spider-Man?
They're not linked, but the great thing about Bryan and Insomniac is that they've been incredible supporters of us, and we have a very casual relationship. I've called up Bryan in my darkest hours, and we just relay stories about how difficult and challenging but also what an honour it is to be able to work on big Marvel properties. He's been my mentor in a lot of ways through the last few years. If it wasn't for him, I don't think this game would exist, so all credit goes to my friend Bryan.
As someone who's been working with VR for a while now, what do you envision for the future of the platform?
Generally speaking, I couldn't be more excited about the future of VR. I'm obsessed with VR, I have been for the last five years. It's been fascinating watching the ebb and flow of not only the technology, but also the public perception of VR. I think it hit its zenith in terms of buzz and anticipation a number of years ago, and now what we're seeing is that developers have had enough time to wrap their heads around how to fully utilise VR technology in a way that offers players really unique and special game experiences that are simply just not afforded on flat screens.
That's not to say VR gaming is better necessarily, but as a game developer and a consumer, I'm just so enamoured by what VR can offer. I get really excited about how we can all build on the current building blocks. As I start to imagine what future hardware is going to look like too, I think the future of VR is extremely bright.
Finally, what would Iron Man think of your game? What would Tony Stark say if he played Marvel's Iron Man VR?
That's a really great question! I'd imagine that Tony Stark would react to our game in a very similar way to how the PlayStation VR community has reacted to our demo. They're so passionate and so smart when it comes to what they want out of a VR experience. In a lot of ways, I think Tony would be like the community, in that they're excited and encouraged about what we've shown with the demo, but that they wanna make a few tweaks, right? They want us to make some tweaks, which we are, based on the reaction we've seen from the demo. Tony's a tinkerer in his garage, right? Obviously he'd have a lot of opinions on the game. I think he'd be excited just like the community will be excited when they play the full game, because not only is it so much more than what we've shown, but again, we've been listening to feedback and making small changes under the hood to make sure it's that ultimate VR experience they all really want.
This interview has been lightly edited for readability. A huge thanks to Ryan Payton for taking the time to answer our questions about Marvel's Iron Man VR, and to PlayStation for making it happen. The game has gone gold, and is scheduled for release on 3rd July 2020. Will you be taking to the skies as the armoured avenger this summer? Soar into the comments section below.