Seattle-based Drifter Entertainment recently raised $2.25 million in seed funding to develop virtual reality eSports games. The company was co-founded by former Epic Games, Microsoft and Oculus VR creatives Ray Davis, Kenneth Scott and Brian Murphy. While there have been experiments in virtual reality eSports from companies like Colopl Ni, it’s still a brand new frontier. So, Drifter Entertainment is meeting the challenge by bringing a team with experience in developing blockbuster franchises like Gears of War and Halo to the virtual reality ecosystem.
Davis, who previously served as general manager of Unreal Engine 4 at Epic Games, explains why his company believes in VR eSports in this exclusive interview.
How did your work with Epic Games help with this new venture?
First off, Epic is a fantastic place to work, full of really smart people. My time heading up the Unreal Engine 4 team gave me a great perspective on the evolution of the games development market, and I was also able to stay very close to the emerging VR technologies thanks to our close relationships with Valve and Oculus. Our work in building the Bullet Train VR demo for Oculus Touch was a huge influence in my decision to start a VR game development studio. It proved to me that VR truly had great potential to deliver the next generation of games.
What were your goals heading into this new company?
It’s safe to say we have two core focuses with Drifter. More than anything, we believe in building a great team with people who share our passion for chasing creativity, and we want to build a company that recognizes the value that really talented people bring to any project. We also believe simply in making things that excite us; things that we can show to each other and say, “holy s**t, that’s awesome!” It’s not always just about chasing after whatever will sell the most copies—it’s about creating works that you’re excited about, showing the world, and then building a community of fans who want to support you in making even more.
What do your partners’ diverse backgrounds bring to the table?
It’s a double-win that all of us have had the opportunity to work with AR/VR firsthand, in addition to having long track records in games development. We’re really able to hit the ground running when it comes to building VR content. Working with AR/VR in the earliest days has equipped us with a pragmatic approach: We understand that VR is going to rapidly evolve over the next few years, so it’s more important for us to ship early and often, versus falling into a traditional multi-year development cycle.
Why did you decide to focus on VR eSports?
In some ways, it’s a little less to do with VR, and far more to do with motion controls. We’re smitten with incorporating your physical movements into our game, which means players are now conveying a tremendous amount of information in a multiplayer environment. This opens the door for players to not only express themselves through their natural body language, but to also bring a new element of style to how they play the game. We believe this notion of incorporating physicality into the game experience makes for far more compelling eSports content. It’s no longer just how well you can master the rules of the game, but now your physical ability and character can play a key role. For pros, this gives a way for them to stand out among their competitors while creating far more engaging content for the spectators to view. In many ways, it brings the eSports experience even closer to traditional, physical sports.
Creatively, what has VR opened up for you as a game development studio?
Personally, making a new experience for VR has been exactly what I was craving as a game programmer after years of getting burned out on traditional AAA development cycles. So many things that you’ve taken for granted in making games just flat out doesn’t work in VR (i.e. player locomotion), so you’re immediately presented with some really hard challenges to overcome. That process (creatively smacking your head against a wall, and eventually finding an elegant solution) is incredibly rewarding, and is a big reason many developers will tell you that the act of making games is far more satisfying than actually playing them. Additionally, once you dive into VR, you quickly realize that there are many qualities the technology gives you “for free,” which help you craft experiences that are much more immersive and believable—qualities that every game developer has been chasing for the last 20+ years.
What VR platforms are you currently targeting?
Anything with reasonably good motion controls, which means Vive, Touch, and PSVR at some point. We love all VR, but if I can’t at least have my hands in the experience, then it just doesn’t cut if for us.
We’re seeing eSports selling out sports stadiums and 360 video being used to bring users into those stadiums. What do VR games open up from a “being on the playing field” perspective?
Active spectating in VR experiences is something I believe we’ll see a lot of development in over the next few years. Right now, we primarily watch our favorite pros superimposed over a video capture of the game. While that can be compelling, it rarely shares that same feeling as being physically courtside at your favorite ball game. With VR spectating, there’s no reason you can’t be toe-to-toe in that same situation, and get an experience that exceeds what you’d be able to experience in reality. Beyond that, there are a lot of interesting opportunities to involve active VR spectators into the match as well, much like how services like Twitch are offering more and more ways for fans to engage with their favorite players.
How are you allocating this initial $2.25 million funding?
This round of funding was exclusively focused on helping us build out the team, helping us grow from the founding crew of three to a team of around 15 developers across engineering, art and design.
When will gamers be able to start playing your titles?
Optimistically, we’re looking to make our first game available sometime in mid-to-late 2017. Game development, of course, is a highly creative process entailing a tremendous amount of iteration along the way, so it’s a safe bet we’ll dramatically shift our target dates every month from here on out.
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