A big story in the virtual reality market is the upcoming Oculus Quest, an all-in-one portable headset that lets users enjoy VR games without requiring a wired connection to another device. Like the Oculus Go, it’s a standalone product; unlike the Go, the Quest is specifically designed for a gaming audience, combining the Go’s portability with enough onboard horsepower to run games from the Oculus Rift’s library of titles. It’s planned for release in spring of this year.
In London on Tuesday morning, journalists got their first chance to go hands-on with many of the debut titles for the Oculus Quest, including a ported version of Epic Games’s Robo Recall. Recall, one of the top VR shooters of 2017, is being brought to the Quest by Seattle’s Drifter VR.
Drifter VR is a small team of video game industry veterans, including CEO Ray Davis, who worked on the first two Gears of War games as their lead programmer. Their projects include 2017’s award-winning Gunheart and last year’s Rise of the Gunters, a VR shooter made as a tie-in product for Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One. The company raised a $2.25 million seed round in 2016 from investors including Initialized Capital, Presence Capital, The VR Fund, Pathbreaker Ventures, and Anorak Ventures.
GeekWire interviewed Davis about Drifter VR, its output in virtual reality, and the Oculus Quest.
(Interview edited for brevity and clarity)
GeekWire: Thanks for speaking with us, Ray. Can you first talk about Drifter’s founding story?
Ray Davis: I started Drifter with two co-founders in the summer of 2016. Kenneth Scott, our art director, was actually at Oculus at the time, where he was doing a lot of first-party content. He got started back at id Software, so he was the art director for Doom 3, Rage, Quake, all these classic games. He was also at 343 Industries when Bungie split off, and Microsoft put him on Halo. The other co-founder, Brian Murphy, was at Microsoft for many years, working on the Kinect at launch and on top secret stuff.
With both of those guys, there was this moment where we said, “Wow, there’s some really cool technology ahead of us. We don’t know how far out this is, before it becomes viable, but creatively, this is absolutely where we wanna be.”
The three of us brought that combined experience together. We love making AAA games, we’ve done all kinds of games, and the opportunity to pool that expertise and build a VR development studio was too good for us to pass up. That’s when we all jumped ship, and the rest is history, so to speak.
GW: Why’d you go for virtual reality, as opposed to anything else?
Davis: I really enjoyed my time making Gears of War. There were a couple of cover-based shooters before that, but not necessarily the way that we’d envisioned it in Gears of War. I like to think that Gears helped set a new standard. If you’re going to make this kind of game, as a developer, you’re pushing what’s possible.
For us, I think all the excitement was around virtual reality being sort of the last frontier. There are a lot of things in game development that you’ve understood for many years, that we’ve gotten really good at, and when it comes to VR, all kinds of things are different, like, “Hey, developers no longer have control of the camera.” That’s such a powerful tool for building experiences. How are we going to work around that, and what other new things can we find inside of virtual reality?
For me personally, one of the things I really love about making VR games is taking away the plastic controller in your hands, taking away that you’re looking at a screen in front of you, so that players are totally immersed and lost in the experience. VR gives us so many more tools to accomplish that. Once you dive into that, you think, “Man, I don’t know if I could ever make a game that isn’t virtual reality at this point.”
GW: How did you guys end up working on the Robo Recall port?
Davis: It’s actually an interesting story. Before we started Drifter, my last job was as the general manager on Unreal Engine 4 at Epic Games. One of my responsibilities was shepherding all the early VR incubation efforts. A lot of the work we did was in partnership with Oculus back in the day, like on Bullet Train.
To come back around, last summer, Epic Games and Oculus were having a conversation. “Hey, Robo Recall is one of people’s favorite games to play on the Rift. We think it’d be fantastic on the Quest. How do we make this happen?”
And my friend was like, “How about Drifter?” Because obviously, we had that relationship with Epic. We ended up on that project for about five-and-a-half months. Working on the Quest was just fantastic. We were able to preserve the core gameplay that makes Robo Recall so fun, and we had a good time figuring out just what the hardware is capable of, and still maximizing the visual fidelity and what you can squeeze out of it.
GW: Can you talk about the challenges of porting it from the Rift to the Quest?
Davis: The Quest is based on a mobile chipset, so when you compare it to a desktop GPU, there’s an order of magnitude less of raw power that you’re dealing with. You have to take into account the power requirements of common techniques, like visual effects.
What we spend a lot of time doing is running the device and then working backward. How can we change some of the content, and keep true to the visual style, while reaching our performance target? It involves modifying the content, the environments, bringing down poly counts, sort of the usual process across the board.
Also, there’s a lot of great new technology for performance that Oculus and Epic have been doing research on. A lot of it’s just that we can do more with the hardware we already have, given that everyone is much more educated on VR and the opportunities there.