Is there a more universally accepted measure of “Damn, that was fun” than the high-five? For players of the virtual reality game “Rec Room,” there doesn’t appear to be.
Seattle VR startup Against Gravity has measured more than a million high-fives among players of its signature game over the last several months. Judging by the popularity of the game, the enthusiasm of the small team that keeps improving on it, and my own joy after playing recently, millions more high-fives are on the way.
It’s also translating into millions of dollars in funding. The company recently raised $5 million from the likes of Sequoia, First Round, Acequia, Vulcan, Maveron, Anorak, Betaworks, The Venture Reality Fund, and a host of angel investors to finance its unique and popular take on interactive gaming.
With brick walls and exposed beams, the company’s offices in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood look as if they were ripped from a Startup Starter Guide. The 15-person team at Against Gravity moves around and communicates like work is indeed all play.
The leader of the pack is co-founder and CEO Nick Fajt, who is guiding the 10-month-old company after spending several years at Microsoft, including as a producer and program manager on HoloLens.
“Many of us had been working in the AR/VR field for a while,” Fajt said. “Our belief was that social was really going to be the killer app, but it would take a lot of iteration and experimentation to get there. So that was kind of the approach that we took: Can we ship really fast? Can we iterate really quickly? Can we get feedback from people? Can we use that to shape and craft the experience moving forward?”
As the signature product, Rec Room serves as a “VR social club” where users get to play active games with people from all over the world. Picture walking into an animated — nowhere near hyper-realistic — locker room, changing into your outfit of choice and then choosing a game to play (ping pong, darts, paintball, disc golf, 3D charades, etc.) and friends to play it with.
An ‘internet-sized opportunity’
Fajt, a young guy who looks like he just walked out of a real gym, is a firm believer in VR being the next computing platform, and he calls it an “internet-sized opportunity” that won’t come this year, but certainly over the next decade.
“What we wanted to do was be there early and use that time to learn as much as possible,” Fajt said. “We think social is going to change shape — it’s not going to be the way it works on mobile or the web.”
He theorizes that social on the web is very “asynchronous” with timelines and likes and retweets, but it’s not very real time. On mobile, everything is moving to a very photo/video “ephemeral state.” But VR and AR social, Fajt said, has the potential to circle back and involve more real-time interaction.
The proof, as simple as it may seem, is in those million high-fives exchanged in Rec Room. Fajt said it’s notable because there is no game-play consequence to the action.
“It does nothing,” Fajt said about the hand slapping. “It’s just normal humans being normal humans, and I think that’s the kind of thing you don’t see in a traditional console game. That’s the kind of thing you don’t see on multiplayer shooters. It just feels very different. It feels like you’re actually standing in the room with somebody else.”
Fajt is taken aback by the quick progress Against Gravity has made with Rec Room in its short lifespan: a 98 percent rating on Steam; one in three HTC Vive users have played the game; over 100,000 people played in 2016.
The ‘magic’ of social VR
He repeatedly uses the words “magic” and “magical” to describe his work and VR in general.
“Social VR is very magical, it really does feel different than playing multiplayer games,” Fajt said. “We’ve also found that there is an opportunity to create an app where people can make friends. This isn’t like a traditional social network app where you’re making connections with people you already know. A lot of what we’re trying to do is take people who are really interested in VR, introduce them to other people who are really interested in VR and hopefully make lasting connections there.”
Fajt said Rec Room drew a good amount of inspiration from Wii Sports, which he credits for showing how active gaming could appeal to a very wide audience, from small children to grandparents. But the Vive as a device and VR as a platform are a whole other opportunity and Against Gravity is seizing on making it all feel unique.
“The way to extract the maximum amount of magic out of this is to focus on things that can only be done in VR,” Fajt said. “So, not focusing on things that are kind of 2D in nature; not focusing on things that are ports of old content. We’ve really tried to build things from the ground up that are meant for VR.”
Fajt credits his time at Microsoft and HoloLens with shining a light on what was possible with new technology — and what he believes is still to come.
“Working at Microsoft was an awesome and amazing experience. Working at HoloLens was an especially amazing experience,” Fajt said. “As a technological achievement, it’s really incredible what they’ve been able to do with that. For us, just working on it for many years we felt like, ‘We’ve seen the future.’ These sort of technologies are going to be ubiquitous and these sort of technologies are going to be mainstream consumer technologies. It’ll probably take a number of years but I very firmly believe that. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
He also thinks that Seattle’s big gaming ecosystem, coupled with larger companies like Microsoft and Valve that are deeply involved in the VR and AR space, rubs off on the city’s smaller collective of companies. And combined it’s all helped to position Seattle as “one of the poles of VR.”
Where VR attracts tool makers which work on stuff that helps people build things, and cinematically minded companies which view the platform as the future of movies, Against Gravity is intently focused on interactive gaming.
“I think the trick for VR and AR is that there are very few best practices in place,” Fajt said. “You’re kind of inventing everything. Everyone’s just stumbling forward figuring out the best way to do these things.”
What it’s like to play Rec Room
I spent nearly an hour inside Rec Room being shown around by Fajt. Within five minutes of “getting dressed” in the locker room, I dismissed my previous reservations about the game’s rather simple and playful design aesthetic. I just wanted to play.
I shot some hoops and threw darts and played 3D charades with a can of spray paint. I played a couple holes of disc golf and fired multiple rounds on the paintball course.
I spun around, jumped, tried to pick stuff up, drink water, drop stuff and get lost.
I even attempted to high-five with Fajt.
“By keeping the art style very simple, it makes us able to do a lot of things really quickly,” Fajt said. “I think when people were starting to dive into VR, a lot of people thought that the only way you could execute on the magic was to make photo-realistic avatars, photo-realistic environments. I think the thing that you see is that your brain just accepts it, like, ‘I’m here. We’re outside.’ It doesn’t need to look like a super-realistic tree. It can look kind of like that cartoony tree and you’re just, ‘Yup, I’m here. I believe it.'”
I did, and I didn’t want to leave.
Fajt and I also teamed up to play Against Gravity’s newest release in Rec Room, called Quest. The game involves a more fantastical idea than, say, tennis, as users wield a sword or bow and arrow and work together against monsters in a “dungeon.” But even that dungeon is approachable and fun as it’s set to look like a play put on by the school theater department, as players roam the hallways.
There’s also something entertaining about being outside the game, in reality, and being in a workplace where any number of people are interacting on a much different level thanks to the devices on their heads and in their hands.
Fajt again can’t avoid noting how special it is to be constantly inspired to create and iterate.
“I think there’s something really magical about being in a space where you’re not pushing the rope, the rope’s pulling you,” Fajt said. “And I think that’s happening for us, in terms of the number of ideas we have every day — ‘Wouldn’t it be cool if we did this or that or this or that?'”
As I was putting on the Vive headset for my demo, I noticed it was raining hard against the windows of the brick office building. But inside the brightly lit game, the weather was quite different. I threw a Frisbee around a sunny course with green grass, trees and a mountain backdrop.
When I was done some time later, I removed the headset and the afternoon Seattle skies were still dark with rain clouds. I couldn’t help but remark on the contrast in weather reality vs. virtual reality.
“It’s always sunny in Rec Room,” joked one of the Against Gravity employees.