When Ben Throop went to the Boston VR hackathon in June 2014, he didn’t know that Valve was going to be showing off some prototype VR hardware that had positional tracking. At this point the Oculus DK2 had not shipped yet, and so he was able to build a VR game using his soccer experience to head soccer balls into a goal. He wanted to see how it felt, and was surprised that it was actually a lot of fun. He decided to continue working on it, and last year the game was first announced at E3 as a PlayStation VR launch title. Frame Interactive will be back again this year at E3 showing off Headmaster at PlayStation VR’s booth at E3.
I had a chance to catch up with Ben at Sony’s GDC press event where I talked to him about the game design principles behind Headmaster, why even non-gamers love to play it, and why the physics of things flying at your face are some compelling in VR.
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[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast. My name is Kent Bye, and welcome to The Voices of VR Podcast. On today's episode, I have Ben Troop of Frame Interactive, and he's got a PlayStation VR launch title called Headmaster. So Headmaster is essentially this soccer game where you're heading soccer balls into a net. It seems fairly simple on the outside, but they've got a lot of different, really interesting game mechanics. It's surprisingly immersive and fun, and so we'll be talking to Ben about how this project came about, going all the way back to Valve's prototype hardware that they showed back in Boston in June of 2014, before the DK2 even launched. And so we'll talk about some of the game design principles that he had in creating this, and where he's going from here. So Ben's also this week going to be showing Headmaster at E3 on the floor at the PlayStation VR booth. So that's what we'll be covering on today's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. But first, a quick word from our sponsor. Today's episode is brought to you by Unity. Unity has kickstarted this virtual reality revolution by making these easy tools set available for content creators to be able to take their dreams and make them into reality. There's no better way to learn about virtual reality than by getting started today by creating your own experiences. And it's easy with Unity. To learn more information, check out unity at unity3d.com. And so this interview with Ben Troop was recorded at GDC this year at PlayStation VR's event that they had in March. So with that, let's go ahead and dive right in.
[00:01:47.155] Ben Throop: I'm Ben Troop. I'm the founder of Frame Interactive, and we're making Headmaster for PlayStation VR.
[00:01:52.901] Kent Bye: Great. So tell me a bit about what is Headmaster?
[00:01:55.784] Ben Throop: So Headmaster is a game about heading virtual soccer balls with your actual head. You actually do the motion and physically hit the balls, even though they're not there. But it actually has a story to it, where you're a professional soccer player, and you had a bad year. So you got sent by your club to the Football Improvement Center, which is not a prison.
[00:02:16.420] Kent Bye: OK, so tell me a bit about how this project came about.
[00:02:20.123] Ben Throop: So I used to work for Activision, and in mid-2014, I left. I was a game director there. And I went to a game jam in Boston called the Boston VR Bender. And Valve brought their prototype desktop hardware there. We didn't even know, like Alex Schwartz and Devin from Alchemy set this thing up and then we showed up and it's like, wow, this awesome hardware's here. So the challenge of the jam was to make something that used positional tracking as a game mechanic. And so, I don't know, I just, I play soccer and I was just immediately like, I want to head soccer balls. And so, you know, just got busy and a couple hours later had a little prototype that, you know, we were playing with those guys and it was fun. But then, you know, I go home and I don't have any hardware that can do that. So I had to kind of wait until the Oculus DK2 came out. And when it did, I got it and I just started seeing what kind of game I could wrap around that mechanic. And yeah, it was like super organic. I just kept trying stuff, trying to make it like a real video game. And so I kind of shut the lights out and made it at night. And then it turned out it was really cool to look at the stars. So, okay, I'll make this a nighttime game. And then I was like, oh, I want to have different challenges. I want to change them. So then I just started shutting the lights off. And then that was like super cool to be in complete darkness. And then all of a sudden I was like, I got to talk to the player. I got to figure out how the player is going to know what's going on. So I started piping voice over this loud speaker. And yeah, before I knew it, it was this like really dark, odd world of like soccer re-education. And yeah, so it just was really interesting that it kind of took on a vibe that was really like me as a video game player and designer. I like that kind of dark humor and that you'd never expect to play a game about soccer and have it be in that setting. So it kind of takes people off guard and gives it a kind of a unique thing to offer.
[00:04:15.036] Kent Bye: Yeah, I had a chance to first play this back at the XOXO festival, and I'd say it was a little deceptively fun, and I didn't necessarily think I was going to be interested in it, but once I got in there, I think there is a little bit of the game mechanic of things flying at your face in VR actually are really super compelling, because as they're getting closer and closer to your face, your depth perception, it actually takes a lot of skill to be able to know exactly where to be and how to actually time it and everything and so Having played a lot of different sports in high school It felt like catching a fly ball or catching a football as a wide receiver And so for me, it's something that from the outside I wouldn't expect it to be really as fun as it is but actually it's I think one of the the real strengths of VR using that mechanic
[00:05:03.828] Ben Throop: Mm-hmm. Yeah, I I mean when I decided to try it out, I was just trying it out But then once we tried it we were like wow, this is it's like you're right when you play sports You're kind of judging a object like a ball coming at you. You're not thinking about it It's like you're watching it come at you and there's an arc to it and your brain is not making calculations You're just doing it and that's the kind of thing like where the ball is comes at your head and you just instinctively do it in this. So that doesn't mean we haven't like put in stuff to help you learn because I mean if in real life I just was like hey Kent go over there I'm gonna throw soccer balls at your head like you wouldn't magically do proper soccer heading form. So we have stuff that properly gets you to run through a tutorial and do it the right way and and that's good because then you start to feel like really skillful with it but I added, somebody asked me earlier, like, do you think there's a ceiling to the skill level in this? And I was like, I kind of don't. I mean, it's sort of like there's not really a ceiling to how accurate you could throw a baseball or whatever. It's the same thing. So we could easily make a challenge that only the top 1% of headmaster players could accomplish. And maybe they'll want to like stream that. So, yeah.
[00:06:15.080] Kent Bye: I think there's definitely a learning curve and it took me a couple of times after playing it once and getting the basic gist of how the mechanic worked. Playing it the second time I was able to do better which to me is a good sign that says that this is a skill that's not just completely random but it's something that you can kind of grow and cultivate over time.
[00:06:32.922] Ben Throop: Yeah, well one of the interesting things since you played it, and that was several months ago, we realized that removing randomness from the serve of the ball and the spin of the ball works really well. Because your head itself in VR is pretty random, you're not going to be able to just be in exactly the same position. So, it sounds strange, but when we serve the ball to you, it's exactly the same arc, it's exactly the same point, you know, like, for a given scenario. But that makes it really learnable. And so, as you try and get closer to, like, you know, hit that target over there, you just can think of moving it a little differently instead of having it be random every time, you know, even just a little. Like, because in video games, pretty much everything we do, we add a little bit of randomness to it to make it look more realistic. And this is just a case where, no, if you're in VR and you're doing motion controls and you want the player to be able to learn it, you might want to think about taking that back a little bit.
[00:07:27.912] Kent Bye: Yeah, and I've found with a lot of VR games that are emulating sports is that there's a little bit of a translation there between making it simple enough for people who are not expert soccer players to be able to do it, but yet people who are really good at soccer should theoretically be able to step into an experience like this and do a lot better. And have you found that?
[00:07:46.715] Ben Throop: I have found that people that have played soccer can step in and do better. But if you've ever played soccer, you know that heading an actual soccer ball is, soccer balls don't weigh nothing and they go real fast. And so when they teach you how to have a soccer ball and I play, you need to brace all your muscles and you need to really like You're not going to do that 300 times a day. So in a game like this, we want to kind of give you something that feels like you're doing that, but it's not fatiguing. So the motion that we teach is like, it's kind of like rocking from the hips. You don't really move your neck at all. And it's the kind of thing that I, you know, I could play all day without getting fatigued, but you wouldn't think you had to do that starting out this game. You're just like, oh, it's easy, but no, it's like one of the learnings of kind of a new game mechanic.
[00:08:32.855] Kent Bye: Have you gotten a lot better at heading soccer ball since you started developing this game?
[00:08:38.221] Ben Throop: That's a good question. I'm sure, I'm sure I have. I've honestly been so busy making the game that I haven't played that much. That's the truth, yeah. I think I last played in like September. So I'm kind of looking forward to getting back to it.
[00:08:54.081] Kent Bye: And so you have a ball, you have a goal that seems like pretty simple from the outside, but yet you're adding a lot of different levels and skills and challenges. So talk a bit about like your strategy for designing a number of different experiences that make this feel like you can keep on doing it over and over again.
[00:09:11.390] Ben Throop: Sure. Well, the thing that's fun about this idea is that soccer is a bridge into this world. So when we start the game out, we pretty much are like, hey, it's soccer. And that gets you comfortable. That gets you thinking, OK, I'm going to do soccer challenges. I'm going to hit that little target over there. Well then, once you're comfortable with that, then we start to kind of tweak things a little bit. Maybe there's a beach ball that comes at you that you weren't expecting. Or maybe the next ball has dynamite strapped to it and it explodes a whole bunch of boxes. The game is really about continually throwing stuff at you that's surprising that you just wouldn't expect to be in a game about having soccer balls. So yeah.
[00:09:53.332] Kent Bye: And so, you know, one of the things that you have here is your head and it has a certain shape and geometry. Is the collider that you're using in the shape of a head or is it like a sphere or what's the kind of the shape of it?
[00:10:04.098] Ben Throop: Oh, that's like asking to go inside the sausage factory, right? No, it's, um, I tried a real head and it was really imprecise. The ball went all over the place. Yeah, I mean, when I very first built the prototype, even I just did a sphere and that worked well. And then at a certain point I was like, you know, I'm going to really do this right. And I'm going to go build a real head model and put that in there and then that's going to feel better. And it didn't. I think maybe got into some like head presence issue, some head replication issues or something there. All I knew was that it felt pretty good before and I tried out the real head and it totally did not feel good. But went back to Sphere and yeah, I mean I have no complaints about how it feels and it's probably a little bit more forgiving than an actual skull model at this point.
[00:10:49.883] Kent Bye: What have been some of your favorite stories of people playing the game?
[00:10:53.815] Ben Throop: I mean, probably one of my favorites is that I heard one time that when you make a game, if you can make it for one person, then you'll find that you'll get a lot of consistency out of that. And when I decided to leave my job at Activision in 2014, we had just had a baby and I was at home. And so it was me, my wife, baby, and my son, who was five at the time. And so I was basically just like caveman game maker guy, you know? So I started working on this and, you know, we were all holed up in the house and I just started asking my wife to give me feedback as I would get further. And it really has turned out that I put it to my wife regularly and see what she thinks. And you might think that that sounds odd being that it's a real video game. But the story I was going to say that was most interesting to me was one time she had some friends over and they were all like, let's play Headmaster. And they had been like drinking wine and stuff. And I was like, sweet. OK, let's go in the back room. We'll play some Headmaster. And so they started playing, and none of them were gamers. They were all just like, oh, this is Ben's game, and let's go see what it's like. So they were playing and they had the best time. And I was just like, I was really kind of shocked because I wasn't expecting it. I thought they were just being nice. So they had a really good time. And I asked one of the women after, I was like, why was this so fun? Like you guys were having a really good time. And she's like, it doesn't use a controller and controllers are pretty intimidating. And I was like, I don't know how you are so insightful, but that was really insightful. And being in the video game industry for years, I never thought about how the controller was a barrier for people and that we just take it for granted that, oh, it's X, Y, X, Y, A, B, A, B. But for people that aren't well-versed in it, they're like, I don't want to mess with that. So this turned out to be a game that people felt really comfortable with that didn't play games. And so I'm hoping that'll continue.
[00:12:47.499] Kent Bye: Interesting and yeah, I find that for myself as well as I you know played in high school the super NES days and took 20 years off from playing video games and then you know the thing that I've been started to tell people is that I actually feel like more of like an athlete than a gamer and VR allows me to use my athletic abilities more than my gaming abilities sure and
[00:13:09.443] Ben Throop: Well, and also the competitive side of being an athlete is kind of replicated in Headmaster. That feeling of if you've ever sat across the room and tried to throw wadded up piece of paper in the garbage can, you know, it's got that same kind of thing where you're like, I just want to hit that one target. I just want to hit that one target. And you're doing it intuitively. You're doing it by doing this motion that is fairly athletic, not like strenuous, but you're using those same parts of your brain. Yeah, so I think that for somebody like you that maybe identifies more as athlete than gamer, there's something for the game there.
[00:13:41.251] Kent Bye: Awesome. And finally, what do you see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?
[00:13:49.705] Ben Throop: Oh, man. I mean, I actually don't dream about it that much. I'm thinking one step at a time. I like to think we don't know because I didn't know so many things when I started working on this. And I think that every developer that I know guesses what's going to be fun and they don't necessarily know and then they try it and they're surprised in one way or another. So it's really difficult to make those big predictions about the impact that it's going to have. But I will say that I hope that it makes people more empathic. That's probably my number one thing, is that you can walk in somebody else's shoes, you can be somewhere else and see what they saw, feel what they felt, to a much greater degree than you can with any other medium. And so, yeah, I like the idea of the good it can do that way. And I think we could honestly use a vehicle of getting people to understand things more objectively and more clearly. So I'm hopeful it'll do that.
[00:14:49.756] Kent Bye: Awesome. Well, thanks a lot.
[00:14:51.097] Ben Throop: Yeah, it was fun. Thanks, Ken.
[00:14:52.718] Kent Bye: So that was Ben Troop of Frame Interactive. And Headmaster is going to be a PlayStation VR launch title and is also going to be showing on the floor at E3 this week. So a couple takeaways from this is that first of all this game from the outside watching it doesn't seem like it's all that compelling but when you're actually in there it's actually a lot of fun and I think that there's some interesting VR principles about presence that I just want to call out here specifically. In my concept, there's different types of presence, whether it's active presence, or embodied presence, or social presence, or emotional presence. And so in this experience, it's actually really emphasizing two of the different types of presence. One is the active presence, when you get so immersed in the activity that you forget that you're in VR. And there's also a certain amount of embodied presence, because you are moving your upper body in a way that It actually gives you the sense of actually being in the experience, even though you're not actually feeling the haptic feedback in your head. That's the only thing that's really connecting all of the dots in terms of tricking your body into really believing that you're heading a soccer ball into a goal. But the overall experience of having the soccer ball fly through the air and you hitting them into the goal actually is, it's a lot of fun and it's actually pretty hard. Like Ben said, they are not randomizing the arc and position of the ball. It's just basically you have to deal with your own randomness of movement. And because of that, then you can actually improve and get a lot better at this mechanic. Also, the thing that Headmaster really emphasizes is that physics within a VR experience is super compelling. And most people think about physics of shooting things, like in the Valve, the lab, they have this slingshot where you're actually shooting things. from your first person out into the world and yet headmaster has an object that's flying at your face and it makes sense because your head being soccer balls but from a vr design perspective i think that paul bettner and dan heard in their talk at oculus connect one they talk about how they were having things flying at your face and you're trying to catch it with a spoon that you had in your mouth and the reason why they found that that was more compelling was because the stereoscopic effects are getting more increased as things are coming at your face rather than away from your face and so smash hit is another game on the gear vr where you're flying and things are hitting in the face and they're exploding out and so there's just something a lot more compelling when things are flying at your face than away from your face so just from a physics standpoint this is a case where things are flying at your face but you have to use physics in order to really determine how to hit the ball which for anyone who's played sports you have to be able to do that type of physics calculation to predict where the ball is going to land and then when you actually are there to actually catch the fly ball or catch the football, then it gives you this sense of satisfaction that you're able to kind of peer into the future by using the mechanism of physics. So because of that, I think the Headmaster has got this interesting mechanic that I think is going to be super compelling for people, even if from the outside it doesn't look like it may be that interesting of a game. This week is also E3, and so there's been a number of different announcements that are coming out in terms of VR titles and games. Already on Sunday there are some announcements from Bethesda about Fallout 4, as well as Doom. There's announcements about EA's Battlefront being able to fly an X-Wing fighter in VR. And today there's going to be a number of different announcements from Microsoft and Oculus at the PC Gaming Show, as well as Ubisoft and Sony. Today is going to be a big day in terms of announcing these big AAA titles that are coming to VR either this year or next. And so I'll be probably doing a little roundup of all the different press conferences in my episode on tomorrow's episode of the Voices of VR podcast. And so this week I am actually going to be meeting up on Wednesday at 7 p.m. Pacific Time on Altspace for the Voices of VR. So if you want to get more information and details of that, please do go to VoicesofVR.com and sign up to the email list. There's now a link in the upper right-hand corner where you can sign up to the newsletter as well as the events. get on the email list. We're going to start to have social gatherings in VR and try to meet regularly and be able to, for me to connect to you as my audience, but also for the audience members to be able to connect to each other more importantly. So we'll be kicking that off this week as well. So if you do enjoy the Voices of VR podcast, then please do spread the word. Follow me on Twitter at Kent Bye, also on Snapchat at Kent Bye, as well as consider becoming a contributor to my Patreon at patreon.com slash Voices of VR.