Sometimes all virtual reality needs to do to blow your mind is put you in a well-polished sandbox and let you screw around. Owlchemy Labs has mastered this art, with the upcoming title Job Simulator that will launch later this year alongside the Oculus Touch controllers, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR. We sat down with CEO Alex Schwartz and CTO Devin Reimer to chat about the game's origins and striking a balance between progression and free-for-all mayhem.
Job Simulator is one of the only games we've played on both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, and it's been among the early demo highlights of both systems. Using each platform's "hands" controllers, it lets you reach, grab, smash, throw ... well, basically imagine everything you wouldn't do in real life, and that's a pretty good starting list of what you will be able to do in Job Simulator.
Ahead of the game's April launch alongside the Vive (it will then come to PS VR in the first half of 2016 and the Rift in the second half of 2016), we talked to the studio's top execs about the wacky, absurdist, tongue-in-cheek experience that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.
Gizmag (Will Shanklin): So Job Simulator is set in the future, where robot overlords are showing us what work was like in the good old days.
Alex Schwartz (CEO, Owlchemy Labs): [... only] the robots got it all wrong. They kinda get [it], but it's just very off.
So making a cake involves throwing a bunch of shit into a microwave, hitting the button. Because the microwave was the top-tier chef, you know. And then [when] you get the cake it just comes out magically as a full cake with a candle lit.
Gizmag: It's all very tongue in cheek.
Schwartz: Yeah, yeah.
Gizmag: Other developers I talk to, VR is this brand new thing and it was just trial and error. Like "we tried a bunch of shit that didn't work and this was one thing that worked." Is that the same with you guys or did you have this idea already?
Schwartz: We got together for this crazy game jam where it was "we'll figure something out now. It's gonna happen." And that was in the early days when we knew that hands and motion, being able to locomote yourself [would be coming eventually]. Because with the [Oculus Rift] DK1 you couldn't move, and you had no input, right?
But we saw it coming down the pipe: we're gonna have motion controls. And you're gonna be able to move around. What could we do to take advantage of this entirely new paradigm, right? And so we did a bunch of ... I think we just started making pickup-able items. That was our first thing is we had boxes ... and little cubes and spheres that you pick up.
Devin Reimer (CTO, Owlchemy Labs): The very first thing was just a big shelf and there were boxes and I was just stacking them, just to see if I could get that to work, and then I realized – "Hahaha! This is kinda fun!"
Schwartz: Yeah, and we made a Jenga game out of our own ... it's all squares and we're like playing around by pulling things out and the whole thing topples and everyone's watching someone play around in this ... just a colorless box world. And we're having so much fun playing with physics items. And then I was holding five or six items, and I'm like "Oh I'm a chef!" or "Oh, I'm busing a table!" Like "Ah, I gotta hold these things" and ... the idea of "what if all the things that we do in this, let's just make a collection of little mini games." That was the first idea. Like WarioWare for VR. But WarioWare, it excels because you're in there for 10 seconds and you have to figure out what it is, and do it, and then it's over.
Whereas in VR, ten seconds is ... you've barely acclimated to where you are. We realized you want depth. And we also want variety. And all these things kinda came together, and all the fun we were having with picking up items. And I think we were joking about, like, all these seem like professions. Let's just make a simulator of jobs.
And we laughed and made a temp name for the game called Job Simulator. And it stuck. And it's, you know, that's how it went.
Gizmag: It's hard to describe to people because it sounds like the most ridiculous thing in the world. But when you get the hands, and you're in this world, it's literally a sandbox. I can screw around, I can do all the things I can't do in real life because it would hurt people. And I would be put in an institution. It's great fun.
Does anybody actually play the game seriously? Is there a goal?
Schwartz: Oh yeah.
Reimer: There are people that will follow what they've [been tasked with] ... we have a job board that floats and it gives you suggestions of what the next task is. Like drink some coffee, eat a donut, right? Things like that. And then some people will just be like "Okay, that it was I'm doing." And then they'll knock something on the floor and then they'll pick that up and they'll put it back on the shelf. And just like very, very straightforward, keeping everything clean.
And that's one personality type, and the other personality type is like "Blaaaaaah!"
Gizmag: Yeah, that's mine.
Schwartz: We could see, even [in] a recording of the gameplay, all you have is two hands and a head, right? You could tell [from] these gestures, you can tell how humans move around. A lot of people do this thing where they pick up an item and they're like, "screw it." It's throwing a thing over your shoulder behind you. People are like "yes, I've never been able to do that and not care." And so they're like "screw that, screw this, throw the stapler at my co-worker." Boss comes over, throw something at his face. And that's really fun to do.
Gizmag: On a 2D screen this would be horrible.
Schwartz: The recording of that is just someone in this weird cartoon thing maniacally laughing. Like "why are you so happy? I don't understand!" And then you put the headset on and you're like "Oh..."
And yeah, the flat representation of a VR game really is terrible. And that's a big challenge for everyone building VR, is like what do you put on YouTube? What does this look like and how do people who haven't tried it ... how are they gonna understand what's good, what's not, what's fun? You just have to try it.
Gizmag: Subjective accounts of first-hand experiences are almost the best way to communicate VR ... really the best way is to do it, but that's the second best way. A video doesn't do it, a still picture doesn't do it, you almost have to be like "okay, I'm gonna describe this as well as I can, I'm gonna use metaphors, I'm gonna use analogies, and that's the best you can do."
Schwartz: And it's funny, because my first really good VR experience, I was blown away, like, almost religious experience, right? And people, press, have that experience and then they write that. And people who have never touched VR, they read it and they're like "Pfff! They're just blowing smoke up each other's asses. How could you have possibly transcended to a new level of experience?"
They think, like, people are being paid to write over-the-top and then they try it and they're like ... "Oooooh."
Gizmag: "I get it."
Schwartz: "Sorry I was an ass."
Gizmag: I think we're in this place where people who don't try it, it just sounds like a buzzword. It's like 3D TV or ... some buzzword that people won't stop talking about. But this next year, I think is gonna be when a lot of people actually start using it.
You guys have anything else you're working on, or is it all Job Simulator?
Reimer: We are 100 percent laser focused on Job Simulator.
Schwartz: And it's a deep game. It's really hard, because we show these five-minute demos and we have to make it start and end within that frame. And so, either you're just going nuts and wanting to stay in longer, but we cut you out. Or we'll limit it ... for people who are going task by task, we limit it to, like, five things you do and then it's over.
But in the real game, there's this whole progression of content that comes along and you get to build a PowerPoint presentation in the office coming soon (spoilers!). But there's all these crazy things that happen.
Gizmag: PowerPoint presentation, okay ...
Schwartz: It gets crazier and crazier.
Gizmag: Throw the projector, smash it ... okay, I can see this.
Schwartz: We just go down that rabbit hole deeper and deeper. And drawing from all our pop culture, uh, jokes. Simpsons and Office Space and everything that exists and just, how far could we [go]? And it was pretty much us joking in a room going "what would I love to do in this office? Let's make it so that someone has a birthday party and you have to deal with that." And it just keeps coming at you more and more and more.
And so we've had people play the office for an hour. With content coming at them, new stuff, the whole time.
Gizmag: Oh, okay. So how's that work? In the same space, in just the office?
Schwartz: Yeah, yeah. So things are changing. There's that cart that comes in with the donuts.
Gizmag: It brings you stuff, yeah.
Schwartz: New things come in, boss comes over and they're like "Oh you're gonna have to, blah blah blah!"
Gizmag: I puked the other day, that was a nice touch. I ate the moldy donuts in the trash and I puked. It was awesome.
And of course I'm sitting here with the headset going [pantomimes eating donut with hand to mouth]. As if that really meant anything.
Schwartz: Everyone does that.
Reimer: Everyone does the chewing. If they vomit they all open their mouths really big. It's just this psychological thing.
Gizmag: Yeah, I was in the Vive demo for that one and I was doing that and I heard somebody walk by and say "Ah, it's the donut."
So how many different environments are there in Job Simulator?
Schwartz: Five jobs will be shipping. And it's hard to say a length that each one is, because it's kinda like the way the tasks work, it's like [Grand Theft Auto]. If you did one of the missions in GTA, you could drive around the city and run people over for hours until you then pick up the phone again. And then do the next thing. So that's kinda how our tasks work.
Some people go in, they don't read the board, they just do a bunch of stuff and they're having a lot of fun. Then they look over and it's like "oh, I'm supposed to what?" And then when they do that it's like, it completes whatever they were supposed to do. And then a new set of content comes in. Or someone comes over and [says] "yeah, we gotta let some people go." And the story keeps going.
Gizmag: So each environment isn't just the demo that we see [at press events], there's more to do.
Schwartz: Yeah, our five minute conference demos made people think it was very sandbox. Just drop them in and, like, when you're bored, you leave. But it actually has voiceover and content and story that goes through it.
Gizmag: I guess you can't say anything about pricing yet.
Schwartz: No, haven't announced anything yet.
Actually I think the market doesn't really know where software pricing is gonna land, so we're in an interesting spot where, with a new market we're just gonna have to figure out [...] the hardware pricing, we take that into account with the software.
Gizmag: I just hope it doesn't go freemium like mobile.
Schwartz: Right, that's the thing. I guess the answer to that is, not a dollar because that would ruin the entire ecosystem.
Gizmag: "Wait, stop having fun! You've gotta play $2 to continue and load up your gems to get a knife. Want a knife? Pay $3."
Schwartz: As a developer, I'm excited about a new platform starting from the ground-up. Because we don't have that whole race to the bottom to contend with. We can start with a new, fresh set of curated, high-quality content.
Gizmag: It's like the wild west, there's no structure in place where everybody's like "this is the way it is!" and you can't deviate out of that.
When did you start working on Job Simulator? Did you start on one platform or another or was it just ...?
Schwartz: We build in Unity and ... every game we've done so far we built almost platform agnostic. And then, Unity lets us port and push to various platforms. So yeah, we originally were ... the first piece of hardware we had we were building for the Oculus, back in the DK1 days.
Gizmag: And this was before Oculus Touch.
Schwartz: Yeah. So we were building AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! at first. It was a skydiving, base-jumping game called AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! We called it AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaCULUS!!! and so that was the VR Version of skydiving off buildings.
Gizmag: Yeah, it's fun.
Schwartz: You get fear of heights, it feels real that you're jumping off this building. And so that was where we started in the ecosystem of VR. And then Valve brought us in to try their room demo, with all the track markers on the wall, that thing. And it was just ... you know, mind blown. And then from there, Job Simulator was originally, like, we're gonna have hands with the Vive, let's build for that. And then the Touch, it's like "okay, let's build for that." And then PlayStation VR ... let's build for that.
And so we want to build for everywhere that'll let you move around and have hands.
Gizmag: So you knew about the Vive before you started.
Schwartz: Yeah, because at GDC of 2015, that [was] the bombshell announcement on the Vive. "We're making a headset" and "try these games" ... and Job Simulator was ... we had the kitchen demo ready for that. So we were like having to ... hide in the shadows and work on this stuff with really early prototype hardware. And then get that kitchen demo ready. So we did that between January and February. So we [...] did a week-long game jam where we came up with Job Simulator. And then had to show it at GDC.
Gizmag: So it was a week old when you showed it?
Schwartz: It was ...
Reimer: The primary content for that was built in a week, and then we just polished for, like, a month up to [GDC].
Schwartz: But it was fast and crazy. And it all came together at the last second. And then it got shown to hundreds and hundreds of people.
Gizmag: And everybody loved it.
Schwartz: It was just ... unanimously an amazing experience.
Big thanks to Alex and Devin for taking the time to chat with us. The incredibly quirky and incredibly fun Job Simulator will first be available this April for the HTC Vive, followed by PlayStation VR in Q2 2016 and Oculus Rift/Touch in the second half of 2016.