Dream Reality Interactive has one goal: make VR and AR games awesome. Technically that's two goals, but when you're in VR counting isn't necessary. Recently they put out Arca's Path, a neat little mash up of VR platforming and Marble Madness. However, they've also worked on games like Orbu and Hold the World. I got a chance to talk with their CEO Dave Ranyard about how the studio came to be, his time as CEO of Sony London Studios, and the development process behind each game.
TechRaptor: Hello Dave!
Dave Ranyard: Hi.
TechRaptor: Dream Reality Interactive. You set it up after leaving Sony London Studios. Well... I guess, for starters, why?
Dave: Why leave a nice cozy job with a big firm to do some crazy indie stuff in an unstable emerging market?
Dave: [Laughter.] Well I guess... I mean I've been at Sony for 17 years. I started out as a programmer writing the menus for a football game, soccer game, called This is Football, and then worked my way up through the ranks and ended up, these last four years, I was running that studio. I kind of moved from coding into production, a bit of audio, and other stuff as well. So I guess, why did I leave... I mean I really enjoyed my time at Sony but I have sort of had other business in the past. I was in a band and we were signed to a label, so that's a bit like running your own business. Actually, when I was 17, I had a vintage clothes shop in the north of England selling, you know, weird old clothes and unsynced radios and things.
So I guess I've had a bit of experience running something much smaller, more defined as your own, and I wanted to do that really. I wanted to make my own studio and run it and be more agile with decision making and things like that. I saw that VR and AR were immersive, this sort of immersive entertainment space was emerging and there were a lot of new grounds to cover. So I wanted to take advantage of that, and I figured that if I didn't do it soon then I'd never do it. In the end I thought it was better to do it than not do it.
So here I am! I left in January 2016, so its been basically-- I must have made the decision about three years ago like today or tomorrow or something like that. Went back to work after Christmas, told everybody I wanted to leave, and then, you know, negotiated exit time and etcetera. I think of Dream Reality opening on the first of September of 2016, because that was the day we actually got some office space and permanent full-time employees. We did a little bit of bits and bolts and all that, just sort of talking to people, talk to investors and so on, but really day one was the first of September. So that's just under two and a half years ago and yeah. Now, most recently, what we've done is we've launched Arca's Path.
TechRaptor: Okay, wait, there were some amazing sentences in there!
TechRaptor: You were in a band and you ran a vintage clothes shop?
Dave: Okay, fine. So in chronological order my life. I actually left school when I was 16 and disillusioned with education. So you can see a pattern. I was living in this place called Sheffield, which is in the north of England, and which was pretty grim at the time. You know what it was like. So I played in a couple of bands there, neither of which really did anything, they were the classic sort of local band. While I was doing that I then opened this vintage clothes shop. The lady I did it with is actually still in that kind of business, but I then went back to school and then went to university and got through university when I was 21. By then I was much more keen and sort of working under my own steam. So that was all that. I did computer science, and then I did a PhD in artificial intelligence. So I kind of went from "oh I'm sick of this" to "oh I'm going to get as educated as I possibly can." I'm a bit all or nothing I suppose, as a person.
Then, actually as I was doing this PhD, I was in a band called SuperCharger, Supersonic in the states, and we played around in California in... I'm trying to think. 1998? 1998 I think that was. Quite a long time ago. We did two albums for a label called China Records, which was owned by Warner Brothers. The label got fully bought by Warners and we could sort of see the writing on the wall, that we weren't making mega hits and they were probably going to streamline their acquisition. So I then went and actually did some video game making. So I think that was my... as a sort of technical and creative person, actually making video games was probably the best place for me to be. So then I sort of just got really into that and I've just been into video games ever since.
TechRaptor: That's a pretty awesome story.
Dave: Well, thanks. I mean, it's just taking... I think what it probably tells you about me now is that I probably will make those risky decisions, that I'd go do something that seems exciting and interesting.
TechRaptor: If it helps, I think it would make a great movie starring Benedict Cumberbatch.
Dave: [Laughter.] Well, you know, funnily enough Benedict Cumberbatch went to school very near where I live.
TechRaptor: Oh, that is funny.
Dave: Yeah. I live in this place called Harrow, which is just northwest of London, which is a fairly ordinary suburb, but part of it is called Harrow on the Hill which is one of the top three schools in the country. It's a boarding school, a private boarding school, and he went there. So probably about fifteen years ago he lived about half a mile from this room I'm in. Although I've never saw him.
TechRaptor: Well you'll just have to get him in one of your games.
Dave: Yeah, we just have to do that instead.
TechRaptor: Alright, before we get to far off subject... So you formed Dream Reality Interactive and got to work on your first game, which was Orbu I believe?
Dave: Yes. So we released that just over a year ago, like a year and a week ago or something, and that was really pretty interesting to see something in AR on phones. I do see that AR is a big value to tech companies. I mean, if you look at Apple, Google, Microsoft, they've all got some form of AR. Whether it's in the phone or headset, and I think for the mobile companies, so Google and Apple really, it's a bit of a stepping stone to what could be next, which could be some kind of wearable AR. Exactly where that's going to land, I don't know. Although, we're getting closer and closer to 2020 and I do think that for somebody in marketing, "2020 vision" they must be all over that phrase.
Dave: Just "we need to release this in 2020 because it's so good for marketing!" We'll see. But yeah, we did Orbu, that was a lot of fun, it was... I guess for us it was really a bit of a calling card. You know it was, here's some things, it's nice quality, it's easy for us to show to people because we can send them a code on the phone, etcetera. It was good fun, and just trying to bring to life the actual original creative idea of that was "wouldn't it be cool to be in a Japanese garden doing something like feeding fish?" Then we coupled that we a classic slingshot mechanic and made what I suppose is sort of a mini-golfesque game. Although we have made some additions to it last year, and there's more coming next year. So there's a little painting game in there now, and a few other things like that. Really experimenting with a sort of AR kit. It's a functionality that has come along.
TechRaptor: So why did you guys decide to work on AR instead of just making a traditional game?
Dave: Well we set ourselves up to be an AR and VR studio, and that's kind of how we've raised investment in that vein. So I mean we could pivot and do traditional games, but I think for us we wanted to experiment with this new medium and kind of forge a path through that. So when we started, and I actually mean inside Sony, the studio I was leading, we did a lot of AR games, and I did this thing, well I was the executive producer of this thing, called Wonderbook which was an AR book that we did with J.K. Rowling. So we've had quite a lot of experience, but that was AR when it was like you were seeing stuff on the TV screen. So AR progresses from there.
So we've kind of already had a lot of experience from there, and we've kind of done four years of VR, working on all the PlayStation VR Worlds content, so I think we saw that as really interesting not just because it was emerging, because it was emerging it was exciting and it also meant there was traction in terms of investment, but also it was, from a creative and technical point of view, we understood and understand more about how you put those things together. So, not exclusively but like you're much more involved in the game as a player in a VR game or an AR game. It's more about being part of that scene or system or something. So we just wanted to use those strengths to set us apart from other teams I guess.
TechRaptor: I actually remember Wonderbook. By chance, did you meet J.K. Rowling?
Dave: Yeah I did meet her. Yeah, it was really good working with her, and she's kind of a walking encyclopedia of that world, the world of Harry Potter and so on. So it was really interesting working with a lot of new material for that, actually, and, you know, I would love one day to get that out again, you know? The stuff that she wrote and other things in a big world class IP. It isn't always easy to do.
TechRaptor: Awesome. Alright, so, you guys out Orbu, and then after that was it Hold the World?
Dave: Yeah that, actually, so Hold the World was actually with a bunch of other companies. There was Sky TV, which is a UK based media company, funded it. A developer called Factory 42 produced it. London's Natural History Museum gave all the specimens and the curator's notes and that sort of stuff, and the rights to the interior, exterior, etc. Yeah, but we actually finished Hold the World on the same day, which is the 15th of December 2017. One of them at about five-o-clock and the other about a quarter to midnight. Which was, you know, a challenge to finish two things on the same day, and maybe slightly foolish on our part.
But yeah, Hold the World came out a few months later because we finished the first versions and then polished the versions that came afterwords. We actually worked on Hold the World from April, I think, 2017 through to that December, then a bit more work earlier this year. That was an amazing project to be on actually, very interesting. I got to meet David Attenborough. We had to fly with him to Seattle to do the hologram capture. So I had dinner with him like six nights in a row, which is amazing really. He's an amazing character.
TechRaptor: That's pretty cool.
Dave: Yeah it was, he's such a nice guy. I mean he's like... it's just like your favorite professor, you know? He's really intelligent, but really animated and interested in stuff. Always kind of thinking about something. He also has a really good sense of humor, which you don't always get from the TV, but we always just laughed at stuff. So it's lovely to spend time with him.
TechRaptor: So a large part of Hold the World is that you get to kind of, I guess, hold the world. But you get to pick up all these historical items, kind of look at them closer and from a bunch of different angles. How much work goes into recreating those?
Dave: Well, uh... they were scans, I think in the game, they were scans from the Natural History Museum, and there's quite a lot that goes on under the hood. It's a bit like... I don't know if you've really come across this, but if you do, if you're making something interactive like a game or a VR experience from a movie, sets for the movie will be done on a render farm and never actually run in real time on a single PC. But often you have to get things and they have to be retopologized. Basically it's like a difference in distribution. One is you can just have as many computers as you want to draw it, and the other is that it has to be acceptable on a minimum spec. So there's quite a bit of work behind the scenes to get things to run and work and also be signed off by the museum for being accurate. The was quite a bit of work involved in that.
Also, we were pulling quite a lot of new technologies, so that holographic stuff was pretty new. Then you had the scans of things, you had the photogrammetry of the environment. So putting it all together was quite challenging. Then we actually delivered it all in about... I can't remember how many, but maybe four or five different headsets? So, you know, multiplatform in VR, the controllers are slightly different. It was quite a bit of a challenge. There's quite a lot of technical challenge involved in that, as well as, you know, you got Attenborough, you got the National History Museum, you got Sky, the producers, etc. So this big ol' gang of us working on it.
TechRaptor: Was the challenge with the controllers what inspired Arca's Path to use no controllers at all?
Dave: [Laughter.] Well, I mean actually that came, funnily enough, of all the games and projects that we've done, and I think Arca's Path is actually our tenth project because some are not released, some are signed but we're working on them in secret, and some haven't gone anywhere.
But, actually, Arca's Path was really the first thing that we did, and the brief to the team was "what can we do that would run on any headset?" That was like, because at the time and, to be honest, even now it's a fairly fractured market so it was a commercial ambition. It was... look, if we make something that runs on every headset that as the same core mechanic, then we have a decent sized market to go after rather than X hundred thousand of platform Y and Y hundred thousand of platform Z. You know, the Gear VR and the Oculus Go and the Vive Focus and all those that are coming. So it was sort of a commercial decision, and then also I guess Artemus, who is our first employee, was a coder who worked on PlayStation VR Worlds actually, she did most of the work on Danger Ball if you played that. We kind of had this joke that Artemus always makes games with balls, and then it became "so why don't we try a ball" because everyone knows how a ball works.
So then the next thing we did, which was prototyping, we just spent quite a long time prototyping, maybe a good three months. So we didn't just pick the first or second mechanic that came along. We really worked on what the mechanic could be, and eventually we got to this thing about having a cursor that the ball was attracted to, and we all really liked that. So we just worked and worked and polished it. You know the ball has been bigger, smaller, do you know what I mean? At one point all the levels were very angular, and then we changed it to be smoother because that helps with comfort. So we did a lot of work constantly just to make it that one simple interaction as good as possible, then we built everything around it. The challenge was in the environment rather than adding more functionality to the ball, then we put the story on top. But actually the way it works is that we did all this prototyping and we got that to this point where it was in a good sort of state, that we had a good prototype and a good pitch.
Then we worked on Hold the World mainly while we talked to different publishers, platforms, companies, etc., about partnering to put Arca's Path out. So we took some time while we were working on Hold the World to talk to people and eventually met up with Rebellion, which I've got a very good friend there that I used to work with at Sony and they loved the concept. Then we agreed to work with them on it, and actually we pretty much started January this year , even though we started work on it September 2016, kind of worked on it up to that Christmas, then we started work on Hold the World, did that for most of that year, then came back to Arca's Path.
TechRaptor: Well, moving onto Arca's Path, since it's the most recent game you guys put out, why don't you really quickly, just for people who don't know about it, just give me the quick elevator pitch on it?
Dave: It's a game with a very simple but intuitive mechanic where you're just looking around to control a ball in a platform environment, a bit like Marble Madness. You got a bunch of levels to play through, and there's a story that layers on top which is about a girl down on her luck living on a trash heap, and this strange woman comes to try and lure her away, but she's not all that she seems. It's basically a sci-fi fairy tale about a girl meeting a witch. It's got great music by a guy called Raffertie, who's signed to Ninja Tunes, and beautiful pictures with style. At times it's absolutely gorgeous pink and green, and then at other times it's a bit more decrepit and rusting as things go wrong in the story.
TechRaptor: Since you guys just shipped this game, how does it feel now that it's finally out?
Dave: Oh it's great. I mean, we're really happy. The reception has been wonderful, I have to say. Really pleased a lot of people, they enjoy it, and I think... I mean, one of the things we did want to do, you know? As well as the simpleness to it and the sort of commercial decision of "can we go for all headsets?" But the other thing we wanted to do was do something that was new, you know? I think, when we started-- The other thing, we did look at doing some sort of wave based shooter stuff. By the time we had a prototype of that, I think everybody else had a prototype of a wave based shooter, and so we were kind of pleased actually. That's what we did after, we got Arca's Path into a good state, we were pitching that out there, and then we worked on a shooter while we were gearing up for the Hold the World stuff.
I do think we've successfully come up with a new mechanic that nobody's tried, and hopefully that gives people a reason to buy it and try it, but also it just means that we stand out. To be honest it's nice to do a VR game that isn't, like... they've kind of split up into a few genres. It's nice to bring something out that's a new experience, and I think it has challenge for those that want challenge but it also has that immediacy for somebody who this is their first VR game.
TechRaptor: So like you said before, you focused a lot on comfort and basically making the game feel right. About how difficult would you say it is to get that perfect level of comfort where people aren't getting VR sick and they can play the game naturally?
Dave: I think its definitely easier now than it was a few years ago. My very first VR experience, I was sick for about eight hours afterwords. It was a prototype, it was 30 frames per second, you had nobody who had put any of that thought into it. It was like "oh yeah, some people feel sick when they play this." I think now, if you look at the hardware, I mean all the hardware can run at at least 60 frames per second, so that part of it is gone. The latency has improved significantly, so again, anything that's out there now, the latency is there. So it's really in the hands of the developers to do two things.
One is to manage the frame rate, which you do have to do a lot more of. I can remember making games years ago where you wouldn't deal with the frame rate until near the end, because you'd optimize the best places to optimize, and you can't really do that here. You can do a little bit, you really have to keep on top of it. Otherwise you get a mismatch, you don't know whether your design is causing sickness or the frame rate and latency.
Then the other thing is just design is improving all the time. We're learning about what works and what doesn't and there's many more sort of standard navigation techniques. So like Skyrim's navigation techniques is pretty good, people seem to be using that as a blueprint for a good traditional first person game navigation. Then teleport works for people if that's what they want. So I feel like the design part is getting a lot better. Then, you know just looking at comfort, I mean... we could have easily made an Arca's Path that was uncomfortable or made you feel a bit sick, and we did do a lot of work in term of how the camera moves, how the ball rolls, what the shape of those tracks are like, and so on.
Once we've kind of learned the "rules" then we were able to put it into practice across all the levels. So I think its like anything really, it's just a design challenge. In this case it's a design challenge which can, if you don't get it right, can make you feel a bit sick. I mean, ironically, its the same in cars, you know? I used to have a car where it had two seats in the very back, and the kids always used to feel sick in those seats. Then I read about the newer version and how they realigned those seats so people don't feel sick in them. So it's actually a design thing that's out there in the world with different things in it.
TechRaptor: When you guys went about making Arca's Path's story, its told in this graphic novel style and there's no words, no text, none of that. How would you say you go about writing something like that?
Dave: We did a bit of work with, actually, an old friend of mine. So funnily enough the singer of one of the bands I was in when I was 16 is now a comic writer called Si Spencer, and so we did some work with him and we gave him some ideas about a sort of future dystopia and he wrote tons of stuff. The thing with Si, he just writes loads and loads. We've used some of that and kind of honed in on it and honed in on it, and then Albert, who's the creative lead, wrote quite a bit of the story.
It was a conscious choice not to have speech and text, because we thought it would be nice to just tell the story and have more interpretation for the player, and just be in there. We really kind of had these three pillars, which actually I got when I worked on Wipeout 3 a long time ago, and that had three core pillars, which was "simple meaningful mechanic", "a really cool art style", and "a great soundtrack". So we wanted to use those three for this game, and even though it's a different type of game it's a sort of newish platformer is a good way to go. So the way I think of it is those three form a triangle and then the story runs through that triangle, a bit like a reference to the key art as well.
But yeah, it wasn't... once we've built the universe, then it was about how to... I mean it went through loads of iterations, all kinds of different things happened, but actually we ended up with something that was quite simple. The first scene really is actually inspired by Slumdog Millionaire if you've seen that movie.
TechRaptor: I have!
Dave: There's these two kids on this sort of trash heap in India and somebody comes over with this ice cold bottle of Coke and gives it to them. But you know they actually got a quite sinister reason for doing it, so that was a bit of an inspiration for the opening scene.
TechRaptor: Well since we've talked about the other parts of the triangle with the gameplay, the story, and the art, why don't we get to the soundtrack? What went into planning that?
Dave: A good friend of mine works for Ninja Tunes. I used to run this game called SingStar, it was a singing game in the mid-aughties. Or late aughties. The guy did all the music licensing, that was a guy called Sergio and we're good friends. He now works for Ninja Tunes, so I was like "Serge, we're doing this cool indie game, we'd love to work with a Ninja artist, do you got anyone you can recommend" and he chose a few people.
We heard Raffertie's stuff and was like "that's it." It's got this kind of organic vibe with some kind of glitches, and that's what we wanted for the feel of the game, and he was really good to work with. Quick turn around, totally on brief, and wrote some really interesting music. It was exactly what we wanted for this slightly abstract world, slightly abstract music, this weird glitching. I've always been a big fan of Ninja Tunes, I worked with them on The Getaway: Black Monday as well, way back when in the early aughties. So, you know, it's just great to get that.
For me, having been a signed musician for some time, it's always important to me, the soundtrack. So it was really... but then he's sort of a rising star, Raffertie, too. Big TV stuff now as well. But he's a really charming guy, he'd come in the studio and sit and play the game and he's a very grounded down to Earth guy and it was great to work with him. The atmosphere it creates is really interesting. You got this sort of floating platforms and this weird soundtrack and some of its... it just sort of builds this atmosphere. The game itself, we want it to be sort of beautiful, but not all the time. We didn't just want to make a beautiful place, we kind of wanted it to have this beautiful start and then it kind of goes a bit wrong so you're trying to get back to that beautiful place. He just matched that really well.
TechRaptor: By chance, did you consider putting your own band's songs into the game?
Dave: [Laughter.] I don't think it would have quite been on message. In the prototype, I wrote the music for the prototype, and then we got Raffertie and it was so much better. I think my days of writing music are gone now. I'm a little bit older. Let my kids start writing music, that's what I think.
TechRaptor: You said earlier that you guys were working on a bunch of prototypes, well you worked on a bunch of prototypes, at least 10 or so. What else have you guys worked on?
Dave: Well we've done... let me think. We did some prototypes, we've done some work for other companies, so broadly we are VR entertainment but we are doing bits of work for other businesses where it's a positive social impact. Prototyping how to use VR to help people with mental health problems. We've also done some work on a game that was for a charity to help children going through bereavement. Which is out now on iOS called A Part of Me. So that was just a fairly small piece of work. So we've done a few different things.
We've also done something for Lenovo. So Lenovo had made an AR headset where you put a mobile phone in and it uses a mirror to mirror it down onto some glasses, and we made a little pet game for that called Neon Pup, which is only out in China. So we've done some sort of little projects like that as well. I guess it's sort of experimental, and also as a company it gives us a new outlet and gives us a new opportunity to try something.
[at this point the internet cut for a few seconds and I lost a few lines here. Dave was mentioning a new employee the team hired.] --she worked on Diggs Nightcrawler, which is another of the Wonderbook products, and she also did EyePet, which was an AR pet game on PlayStation 3. A lady called Masami Kochi. She came working with us, now she's working on some new projects with us. So we did the thing with Lenovo, it was really a great chance for Masami to stretch her wings a bit in a new space, because she hadn't worked for a few years.
She just came back in. She did all the EyeToy stuff, you remember EyeToy? She was the art director on that. Then she did EyePet. She actually came up with the idea of Wonderbook as well, and I worked with her on that project she did on Wonderbook. You know, our hopes and dreams for Wonderbook were based on the camera being in the box for PlayStation 4. You remember the big kind of Kinect was in the box and it was making Xbox One expensive and so Sony took the camera out of the box? Our hopes and dreams of Wonderbook being a big thing on the Ps4 kind of slowed down a bit. On Ps2 and Ps3 doing camera games was great and we were pretty successful, but you were always limited to how many people bought cameras. So when we thought on Ps4 there'd be a camera in every box, we were like "yes!" It wasn't quite it.
But the one she did was really interesting, it was called Diggs Nightcrawler with a company called Moonbot Studios, which is founded by someone quite famous... William Joyce! That's it. So they did it just after he won an Oscar. They came to visit us from L.A with the Oscar.
So we've just done a few different things like that, really. Nothing major. I'm trying to think of any others... One of them was the wave based shooter, but that ones the only thing that didn't really do anything. I'd say it's parked. Although, you know, if somebody wants to partner with us, it'd be a great location based thing because you were basically on top of all these buildings in New York or Hong Kong skyline shooting space invaders. Seems kinda cool. Then yeah, we've got another project at the moment which is a secret, which is kind of exciting as well.
TechRaptor: Is that next project going to be your next game?
Dave: It is a game. It's sort of a game.
TechRaptor: Is it, by chance, Arca's Path 2?
Dave: I can't tell you what it is.
TechRaptor: Alright. Worth trying.
Dave: We're doing a bit more to Orbu, so sometime in 2019, the first half of 2019, we'll be updating that with interesting new stuff, and I'll note it more in the first couple of weeks when we go back and make a plan.
TechRaptor: Alright Dave, I've mostly hit everything I've wanted to. Before we wrap this up, is there any last things you'd like to say?
Dave: I guess just, you know, if anyone is not sure of Arca's Path, please try it. Because we had a lot of fun making it and we think it's a really interesting experience for people in VR. So, you know, please spread the word and try it and show it to your friends and so on.
TechRaptor: Alright, well Dave I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk to me, this was really interesting, I learned a lot of very interesting things, and I'm super glad that you did.
Dave: Oh, well, thanks for taking the time to talk to us. It's very much appreciated. Well, Happy New Year!
TechRaptor: Well Happy New Year and good luck with your next project.
We'd like to once again thank Dave for taking the time to talk with us.