Interview: Raw Data's Mike McTyre on pushing the limits of VR

Raw Data is one of the early smash hits of the consumer VR era, and was the first-ever VR-exclusive game to make its presence felt on Steam's best seller charts. In development by the team at Survios, based out of Los Angeles, the game is currently in Early Access but already offers one of the most complete shooting experiences available in virtual reality. It offers (and requires) a degree of physicality that few other games expect, and really takes advantage of the room-scale experience provided by the HTC Vive. 

In Raw Data players take on the role of sci-fi action heroes battling against an evil corporation and legions of robots in an attempt to recover data on the misdeeds of the all-powerful "Eden Corporation." The story is a lot less important that the action, though, as players teleport and dodge around maps blasting and slicing through waves of robots and drones. The game currently includes a handful of missions and two characters to choose from—one wielding a pistol and another with telekinetic powers and a devastating katana—and has been regularly releasing updates adding new content to the experience. 

I recently had the chance to take a trip to Survios HQ to play the latest build of Raw Data and speak to Mike McTyre, the game's Design Director. Mike took me through the origin and development history of Raw Data, the unique challenges of designing a VR game, and how the team works to deliver a polished, action-packed experience without motion sickness. 

GameCrate: What are the design inspirations for Raw Data? It felt a little like a MOBA to meis that intentional?

MM: No and yes. There are a lot of different factors that came into evolving Raw Data into what it is today. And honestly it evolved even before I joined the team about eight or nine months ago. The team was evolving it, and they made a project a long time ago, this bullet-time Apex project, and they built a lot of the tech that Raw Data is based upon back then. And then from that they made kind of this holdout shooter experience.

I joined the team they said "Okay two months from now we're going to show this to the world," and I was like "Oh my god! There's so much we have to do, and not enough time to do it in." So what we were showing off at VRLA and E3 earlier this year was a version of that. 

We're not an enormous team. I've been in the industry for twelve or thirteen years or so now, I've got a pretty good sense of what the team can accomplish with the resources that we have. The focus at first wasn't really about the gameplay or the direction of the game, the focus at first was playing the game, and there's this cool pistol, this cool shotgun, and those were cool weapons, and that's awesome...but that's not good enough. I'm not playing VR to shoot a bow, I'm not playing VR to shoot a pistol. I'm playing VR because I want to be that badass hero character.

I was talking to the guys all those months ago, and that's what we've been building towards today, what's foremost on our minds is: we want people to feel like superheroes when they're playing this game. So our focus wasn't on switching between weapons, but giving you all these powers so you can feel like those sci-fi heroes from all those movies and everything we're so used to.

So that's kind of where the core of the game originated, and then beyond that it was, we wanted to make sure that the game could be expanded. We really believe VR is going to be a very big thing—that's why we're all here working on this. But it's going to take time. There's only so many hardware units out there right now. There's multiple platforms. Competition is very high. Cost is a bit high. So we're kind of thinking of this in the long run, how can we build a project that hopefully we can make something really awesome, and then easily expand it in the future as the market grows? 

That really kind of dictated things in terms of making sure our missions had a lot of replay value, making sure that everything from the get-go supported multiplayer. Co-op was in it from the beginning. Most people we expect in 2016 will play it single-player, but we believe that will shift by the end of this year, 2016 and 2017, more people will be able to enjoy multiplayer. In fact we're already blown away by how many people have been it multiplayer, way higher than we thought it would be, which is fantastic.

So that was really our design inspiration was we wanted you to feel like a superhero, we wanted to make you enjoy those sci-fi movie moments and experiences in VR, and based upon that the rest of the game kind of flowed from that. How can we make a game with a lot of replay value, something we can really expand and we can keep adding heroes and missions or powers and weapons and abilities. And there certainly is some overlap there, but all of those things really factored into that decision. 

GC: How do you think you're doing in this current, Early Access state, how are you doing with that "replay value" factor?

MM: Actually we're doing way better than we thought we were going to be doing. That was the thing, we were actually debating about that when we were first releasing. Okay, we've got two heroes, and there is an unlock system, I don't know if you saw that or not, but we made it so that you beat a mission and you unlock something right away. There's zero grind in the current state of the game. Because eventually we're going to have to reset it when we're ready to release the final game, so we made sure there's no grind at all, whatsoever, right now. And we had four missions.

So we said, alright, how much time do we think people will spend with this game? A new player, playing from the beginning, the intros and tutorials, maybe we think an hour and a half to two hours? Right? They play through it once, and we don't know if people are going to keep playing over and over. And we've just been astounded by the number of hours people are already putting into Raw Data. In fact we've seen people with over 30 hours, with just these four missions, which is so awesome.

People are replaying missions not because they didn't beat the missions, and there's no leaderboards yet, there's no score yet, there are no challenges yet, the unlock system isn't fully in place yet, and people are already having so much fun they're playing for hours and hours and hours on end, which is fantastic. We couldn't have hoped for a better result. 

GC: So you said you've been in the industry for a while, what was your experience prior to working in VR? 

MM: Before this I was previously on WildStar, I was the lead designer in charge of converting it from subscription to free-to-play. It was about a year there, and before that it was about a year on Star Trek Online, working on that, the Delta Rising expansion, so I did a lot of systems and combat mechanics for that. Before Star Trek Online I was at Spark, I was the Lead Combat Designer on Yaiba - Ninja Gaiden Z, so all the enemies, the boss fights, the systems and controls and mechanics, that was all me.

That was a couple years, and before that I was at THQ, in the same group that before that was Midway, so this was the team that worked on TNA and WWE All Stars, so that was when I really got into design, making characters, I made about seven characters for that game. And then we started working on UFC. Before that it was High Moon Studios working on The Bourne Conspiracy project and Darkwatch 2, and before that it was StarCraft Ghost

GC: What are the challenges of working in virtual reality, compared to traditional game design? 

MM: I've been doing this for over a decade now, lots of different projects and different examples. And with game design in particular, whatever game you're working on, combat game, shooting game, fighting game, puzzle game, whatever it is, there's usually 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 other examples of products you can reference. "This doesn't feel right, let's go look at some other good examples from quality products." But that's not true for VR. 

For instance, we all know what good shooting feels like in a shooting game, but you don't shoot on a controller like you do in VR. We all know, we think, what good melee is, in traditional console games, but that's totally different in VR. So it's figuring out all those controls and interfaces that we don't have references for. And we're finding that a lot of people are really learning off each other right now.

One of the things we're really proud of, and we're still improving, is our tele-shift mechanic, the way you move around the map. And the community has been very favorable, giving us great feedback on that, saying they are definitely noticing the different between us and other products, which use more of a blink system, and the path we've been going. And that's been a lot of fun. Like, I know how this is supposed to feel, I know how this is supposed to work, but how are we going to get this to work in VR? And that is actually kind of fun because we don't know the answer right away. And we have to figure it out, we're treading new territory which is very exciting. 

GC: I wanted to talk about that tele-shifting. Playing VR games these days you'll experience a million different ways to move around. What do you think makes yours the right answer for this game and, as you said, better than what other games are doing? 

MM: Well we've certainly had a lot of people post that, and we really appreciate that feedback. We spent a lot of time on that. The earlier version of the game from all those months ago didn't have that. You were stuck in place. And the number one thing for us was we wanted to make sure we had a really high quality bar. We wanted a huge immersion factor. But at the same time nausea was not an option. It was never an option for us, no matter what, no one can ever get sick in our game. I mean there's always a couple of exceptions, the first time you play it that might make sense, but for the most part we just wanted a high quality experience with no nausea.

And that actually has been a little more challenging, because we're not making a product like Starseed or something that's much slower-paced. We're trying to push the boundaries. How active, physically, can we make you in our game? Most people are drenched in sweat, they're dripping, and they can only play a couple of missions and then they have to take a break. They're exhausted. Which is great. That's what we're trying to do. How physical can we get you to be in VR? It's something that's never been done before.

So that is actually kind of the challenge. We knew from the beginning that being stuck in one place wasn't going to cut it. This is not going to work, it's not an option. And it's been very challenging, it's been a lot of iteration to get to this point. It was actually kind of nice, because when we started working on this, a lot of the other Early Access demos weren't out yet. So we were just kind of guessing at it, and then they started coming out and we got to see how other people were handling it, and there are some other really cool solutions out there, some clever solutions we think are done really well, but it wasn't going to work for us.

Speed was the important thing. You have to move around fast. You have to dodge, you have to be able to be super active. Some of the big things, if users really get into it and notice it, is that you don't get the sense of "I'm teleporting from this point to this point." You have the sense that you're moving to it. And we're not actually moving you, it's actually a camera trick, we're not actually moving your avatar around. We are actually working on more iterations on this, but it's actually that the camera moves in a way to give you a sense that you are moving towards that location. We also realized very quickly that speed and velocity are not the same thing, and time and velocity are critical. With a lot of the motions -- did you fight an Exploder at all? Did you get knocked back ever?

GC: I didn't get knocked back. 

MM: That does happen. We weren't sure about this. There's this rulebook, there's this unspoken rulebook that says "You can't do this in VR, you can't do that in VR, you're going to make people sick." And a lot of us were saying, "Bullshit. Let's see if that's true." And for a lot of things we found that, you're right, if you implement it this way, that is true. But there's a lot of other ways to implement it that totally get around that. Like everyone was saying, "You can't do hit reactions, you can't knock the player back at all." And we actually have people flying back 30 feet with no problem at all, and it was all just finding ways to do that.

We even have the Levitation Smash, in which you fly into the air and then slam back down, and through experimentation we realized that the velocity was a big part of that. You have to move very very fast, with no ramp-up and no ramp-down, it has to be very rapid motions with constant velocity. It also has to be very very fast. In fact, I don't know if you noticed, but with our tele-shift, it doesn't matter if you tele-shift one foot or tele-shift 20 feet, you arrive there in the same amount of time. It's .2 of a second. 

Those two things, and we've been using them with other movement mechanics, are the big key factor to not feeling sick. And another part of that too is the camera, to give you that sense of direction. So it's not just that I'm traveling from point A to point B, I know the direction I'm going. And for tele-shifting it's not just the camera that's selling it, it's the effects that are selling it too, and the direction that you're going. And we found that with all these pieces put together—and we have other versions in the works we aren't showing yet—you can teleport forward, sideways, backwards, you don't even need to look, you just point your hand and you can teleport in any direction. And the vast majority of players experience no nausea whatsoever. 

GC: And do you expect other developers to copy what you've done with movement? 

MM: Well I wouldn't say they would be "copying." You know the game industry is a very open industry. There are a lot of games that have influenced us. I've played thousands and thousands of games in my lifetime, and those influence me and my designs, and my ideas about what's good and what's not good. And there's a lot of other VR products out there we've played and we're like, yeah, there's some really good stuff there. And if our game inspires other products to do similar systems to us, then that's fantastic. 

GC: The levels I've seen so far have been sort of arena spaces, or tower defense maps. Have you guys experimented with levels where you traverse towards an end point? 

MM: You've played two of the missions, and those are the beginning missions, for new players. We've got to ramp players up. It's not that necessarily the game is complex, it's having to do all these actions physically for the first time ever, it's a lot to take in. The concept of: swing your arm, aim your gun, pull the trigger. With these motions, there's a steep learning curve. It's not that players can't do these things, it's that they've never done them before in a game. So we really ease people into the experience.

The maps start to get a lot bigger, a lot more complex, more lanes, more stuff. We're definitely talking about wanting to do other modes, we want to do other modes, but the focus of our twelve missions that we promised consumers the full version of the product is going to include, is primarily going to focused on defending the data core, yes. But there's going to be a lot of mechanical twists you haven't seen yet. 

GC: Can you give me an example of something you tried and realized didn't work in VR? 

MM: Sure, there are several things we've tried that haven't worked out. One good example—and this is technically in the game, but we realized it doesn't work well—and that's where, we have our Crawler enemies, I don't know if you had one of those jump on you, but they terrify people a lot. In early brainstorming sessions, going back to the physicality, we wanted to get people to move, get people to be active, we think that's really the true success of VR, or at least that's the big appeal to us.

And so with that we were coming up with different ways: How do we get you to duck? How do we get you to dodge? And one of them was, could we get you to shake? And with the Crawlers, when they jump on you, you can hit them off, you can shoot them off, you can slice them off, but you can actually just shake your arms. If you shake your arms you fling them off. The other thing that's actually in the game right now that we realized totally doesn't work, is you can actually shake your head. You actually can just shake your head and they will fly off. Unfortunately, with the headset, that doesn't feel very good. In fact it feels quite terrible. 

GC: What's your favorite VR game or experience that you're not involved in? 

MM: There's so many out there. I won't say I have a favorite. There's a lot of ones I really enjoy. Starseed really impressed me. It definitely brought me back to the old Myst days. It's a slower experience but it's a lot of fun, I loved exploring that environment. I also thought the Brookhaven guys did a great job, they've got a lot of cool scary environments and enemies. Out of Ammo also, I just really love that, and it's really frickin' hard, you get to a certain point in that game where the tanks just come down and it all falls apart. That's been really fun as well. We're playing all the games that come out, when we're not crunching or working on getting new features in, we try as much as possible to play the other stuff out there.

In fact for me personally, one of the things out there that I really enjoy that's not actually a game at all is the Apollo mission. It's an educational experience, but it made me say "Wow, I'm not going to watch the History Channel anymore," because I had so much fun in that. 

GC: What do you think about the adoption rate for VR, and how many headsets are out there? Is it what you were expecting, or has it surprised you? 

MM: It's about what we expected. We've been talking about this for a long time, even before I got to the team, "What is the adoption rate going to be?" And that's what we were expecting. We don't have the exact numbers of what's out there, but we have a good sense of them, and it's about right on track. And that's why, for this project and others, we aren't working on a game that'll take two years to develop, because that's not really viable with the current product.

And you mentioned earlier the influence of MOBAs, there are definitely some touches of MOBAs in Raw Data, but we knew from the market that a free-to-play product with microtransactions didn't seem to be viable at this point, because there just aren't enough users out there. You need to have so many users out there in order to at least stay afloat, and reach profitability. That definitely influenced some of our decisions. 

The thing we don't know is, there's so many awesome pieces of hardware out there, who's going to succeed, who's going to rise ahead? Your guess is as good as ours on that.

GC: Any teasers for what we can expect for upcoming characters or weapons in Raw Data? 

MM: There was a shotgun in the earlier build, and there was a bow as well. Those were very early versions. And just as we had the pistol before, but now you have the pistol with all kinds of powers and abilities, you can expect to see that with the shotgun and bow with the other characters. 

For more information and to purchase Raw Data, visit the game's page on Steam

To pick up the Vive or other hardware you'll need to play Raw Data, visit Newegg VR Central