The inside story of Lucky's Tale, the Super Mario Bros. of virtual reality

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Gizmag interviews Playful Corp. founder/CEO Paul Bettner, creator of Oculus Rift launch title Lucky's Tale(Credit: Will Shanklin/Gizmag)

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You may not have yet heard of Lucky's Tale, but if you're going to be testing the waters of virtual reality anytime soon, there's a good chance you will. We sat down with the mastermind behind VR's answer to Super Mario Bros., to talk about the making of the Oculus Rift launch title, the challenges that went along with it and the potential parallels between early VR and early Walt Disney.

Having played demos of Lucky's Tale on the Oculus Rift at several events now, we were struck by the highly unexpected appropriateness of the game. A third-person platformer sounds like a terrible fit for VR, but playing the game has a way of opening people's eyes to virtual reality being much more than first-person simulators.

From the first time we played it, Lucky's Tale felt instantly iconic, a game that could help define this upcoming first generation of virtual reality.

So, without further ado, the story of Oculus Rift launch title Lucky's Tale, straight from the horse's mouth: Paul Bettner, founder and CEO of Playful Corp.

Gizmag (Will Shanklin): When I play Lucky's Tale, in a lot of ways the Rift reminds me of today's equivalent of the NES (Nintendo Entertainment System). Decades from now we could look back on this and say "this is the one that was bundled with the Rift; it's the one everybody had and loved."

Paul Bettner, Founder/CEO of Playful Corp: There's historical context for that, right? You know, Sonic on the Genesis or Mario on the Super Nintendo. Yeah, we'll see. That would be the best possible outcome.

Gizmag: When people talked about VR in science fiction, before this VR craze happened in the last few years, we always pictured these first-person experiences. So what led to making this third-person platform game?

Bettner: We started out having the exact same sort-of sci-fi fantasies in our head, right? So when we started working on this stuff, and we were one of the first developers to pair up with Oculus. So we started working with them three years ago, and we came into it with the same expectations in our head, like "What's gonna be awesome is flying on the back of a dragon or driving in a race car or whatever." And so of course we started trying to build some of these things and we did all these rapid prototypes with Oculus, and built like 40 games in that first year that we were working with them.

Gizmag: Little mini-games, like demos?

Bettner: I mean, they were experiences that were trying different things and we just, we were shocked to see what worked and what didn't. And we tried things that we thought were gonna be awesome and they just weren't, and then some things emerged – and Lucky's Tale was one of those – that we completely didn't expect.

But we were willing to let go of those expectations because we just felt, especially when we started working on it: this is such a new platform; what worked on games we've been making for 20-30 years on TVs and computer monitors and even mobile, has no bearing necessarily on what's going to be great in VR. And even our own thoughts about what we think is gonna be awesome in VR, really doesn't have any bearing on it.

So one of those prototypes that emerged from that was this third-person [game] ... and when Oculus came to us in that process and said "you know what, it's time for us to start thinking about building an actual game. Let's move out of this prototyping phase and let's build something that could be a launch title." We looked across all that work and we said, "you know, the thing that has really stood out to us here was that third-person prototype we did." Because that first moment we looked at, and Lucky was initially this capsule that had a Mario texture painted on it, when we looked at that and he was in this world of colored cubes ... and I just remember looking up and looking across the level, and [having] that moment of ... I'm in the level with this character.

Our mockup of what it feels like playing Lucky's Tale

One of the fantasies of VR is "I see a place, I want to go there. I want to explore, I want to adventure through a world, right?" And the wall we've all run head-first into is, actually locomotion is not so good in VR. You can't just hit a thumbstick and start going. That doesn't work, it makes people sick.

Well, that prototype that we built, that third-person prototype, one of the incredible eye-opening things to us was, actually moving this way, where I have my eyes on this character that I'm driving around doesn't make me sick in the way that first-person does. And even though I am being able to see a mountain in the distance and be like "let's go there!" and run the character over there.

Gizmag: So a lot of avoiding motion sickness is the fact that you're focusing on this moving character?

Bettner: That's a big part of it. I think the other thing for Lucky's Tale is, we shrink the whole world down. When we first built it, the character was huge because that's just how you build a video game. So he was like this meter-and-a-half tall thing, and it was super creepy.

We just built him using default world units. So first of all, you were like 15 feet away from the character, floating in the air and he's this huge thing. And everything felt super far away. And technically it was "correct" ... in a video game when we're building it in the engine, we scale things by these world units. So I said, a character is a meter and a half tall, a tree is actually the size of a tree, all that kind of stuff.

So we built this environment out, we put ourselves in it and it was like "this is not, in my head, what I imagined it would be like to be inside Mario's world or Sonic's world." I didn't expect the tree to actually be the size of a tree, and it's this weird mental thing that, apparently we're all carrying around in our heads playing these platforming games on the TV, that we didn't realize. But apparently our expectation, and what feels a lot more natural and comfortable for everybody, is that a character in a game like this would actually only be about 10 inches tall, almost like a little stuffed animal. That's what felt right.

But once we did get that though, then now when the character moves around, because everything is shrunk down, you're actually moving really slowly in real world units. You're just kinda drifting along, and that really helps to be comfortable too.

Gizmag: The name Lucky, is that a little tip of the hat to Palmer Luckey (founder of Oculus)?

Bettner: No, it's just a complete coincidence. I mean, I'm sure we're all influenced by [it], you know, subconsciously. But it's a happy coincidence.

Gizmag: At what point did you know Lucky's Tale would be a) an Oculus Rift launch game, and b) bundled with the Rift?

Bettner: We [Playful and Oculus] made that decision together just recently, so it's only been the last couple months that we ... you know, we were kinda building towards it and we did have this hope that that's what was gonna happen, but frankly we were all saying "well, this is the goal, let's see how good we can make this game, and whether we can get it to the point where it deserves to be."

Because it is a big deal to have it packed in like that and have Oculus now pushing it as the experience that every first-time buyer of a Rift is gonna have. And Brendan [Iribe, CEO of Oculus] and we were holding it to this really high bar of comfort and AAA quality. And we finally got it there at the end of last year.

You guys have played the build that they have here, it's like six months old, but the latest stuff ... we set out this challenge of saying "we don't want to be just a first-generation style bundled game." You've seen some of those ...

Gizmag: Some of them, you look back and think "that wasn't very good."

Bettner: Yeah, exactly. There are games out there, you're like "technically they had to have something in the box" and that's what they had ...

Gizmag: But Super Mario Bros. ...

Bettner: That was a defining game.

Gizmag: It's still fun today.

Bettner: Exactly.

And so we said "we're just not gonna be happy unless we can hit that bar." And so that's what we've been working on since then. And I think the game is gonna be shorter, just to help set people's expectations. VR just hasn't been a thing long enough for us to go build a 30-40-50 hour game. Especially a content-rich experience like Lucky's Tale. So it's a shorter game.

But I think most things you're gonna play in VR, initially, are gonna be shorter.

Gizmag: Any estimate on hours of gameplay?

Bettner: I think we're kind of in the Portal 1 realm.

Gizmag: That's still a good length.

Bettner: I don't actually know yet, because we've been working on these other modes for the game that are kinda like Mario Galaxy or Mario 64, where you can revisit a level and it gets different ...

Gizmag: Collect the red coins.

Bettner: Yeah, that kind of stuff. And those things are helping to create more gameplay.

And actually, that sounds gimmicky, but in a game like Mario 64 it worked really well. And I think Lucky's Tale is like that too, because the levels are so rich that you do really want to keep going back into them and find the secrets.

Gizmag: I think a lot of it's the sense that there's an infinite amount of secrets, and if I keep looking ...

Bettner: Yeah, and just playing through it linearly once doesn't feel like enough. I want to go back in there, that was a beautiful world. So I think we can do more of that, but we're working on it now.

Gizmag: So have you been working with the Oculus team from the very beginning?

Bettner: Yeah, I just dug up an email, because when that blog post went out from Oculus saying that we were bundled with [the Rift], they put this picture on the bottom of our first visit to the Oculus headquarters, and that was ... it was a funny thing, because I showed up there because I had sent an email to John Carmack six months before that, before I knew Oculus existed or any of this stuff, and it was when we had worked on Words With Friends and we had sold that to Zynga and I had been at Zynga for a few years and I was saying "it's time to do something else." And I was just thinking "what do I want to work on next?"

Paul Bettner and the Playful team visiting Oculus headquarters in 2012(Credit: Oculus)

And it was so much fun to work on mobile when it was a cutting-edge thing, with Words with Friends at the very beginning. And I was like, what's that next thing? What could it be? And so I sent this email to John [saying] "I really think VR could be a thing. What do you think?"

And as we were looking for that photo, we went and found that email, and it was like "look at this, this was seven months before Oculus was even incorporated, and we were already talking about it."

Gizmag: And you guys were big [Oculus Rift] Kickstarter backers.

Bettner: Yeah, I was at the US$5,000 level. And the funny story is, when I showed up that first time, Brendan [Iribe] thought I was there as a Kickstarter backer and they were doing their obligated [tour] ... because the thing I got at the $5,000 level was some free visit.

Gizmag: He thinks you're just some benefactor guy.

Bettner: Yeah, so he just thought I was this benefactor, and he gives this whole presentation. And talks to us for like an hour and half about the future of VR and everything. And at the end, we're starting to ask these questions about what we're excited about and he's like ... "wait a minute, what?"

Gizmag: "You make games?"

Bettner: "You're the other guys that are visiting? I thought you were the Kickstarter backers." And I'm like, "actually we're both guys."

We got to see that early stuff. That was right when the Kickstarter was running, and they had this thing on the wall, this big countdown thing and it's showing how many [Rift DK1 kits] they were selling ... and it was really cool. And that was the duct tape, the early thing showing running Doom.

Gizmag: So what journalists played of Lucky's Tale at E3, Oculus Connect and CES, that initial demo level ... is that the first level of the game?

Bettner: No, that's one of the middle levels from the game. The first level is in Lucky's home, and I hope there's somewhere where we showcase that, because that opening sequence is very important. It's where you meet Lucky, where he comes out of his house and waves at you. "Come here, let's go!"

Gizmag: I think that's in the trailer.

Bettner: Yeah, and we've tried to do even more of those moments. Because that connection you feel.

So the analogy that has come to me as we've worked on this is, obviously inspired by the fact that Lucky is a classic character. He looks like a Mickey Mouse or a Mario or whatever. And we've really aimed for that type of feel. Well, when Walt Disney actually debuted Mickey Mouse, it was on this cutting-edge, unproven technology of motion pictures, the silver screen. Nobody had ever ...

Gizmag: That sounds silly today, but there was uncertainty surrounding it back then.

Bettner: At the time [...] And I think what he saw was that by putting his character on this new technology, he could create a connection to an audience that wasn't possible before. Because of the technology.

That's the same thing I see when we experience Lucky in the Rift. It's not like I'm seeing him and it's this detached thing. It's like he's right there and he's looking at me, and he acknowledges me, and I'm with him.

And of course in Disney's case, that launched an entire entertainment empire. And, you know, we'll see what happens this time. But that's the dream we have, because Lucky and the debut on VR could really be that moment for a new character that way. We'll see.

Gizmag: He has that iconic look and it feels iconic playing it.

Bettner: That was important to us. VR is this new thing, so could we create something that was really comfortable and familiar for people, but experienced in a brand new way.

Gizmag: Does the game differ much from what the press has seen in that demo?

Bettner: There are some pretty significant new things.

One of the things that we haven't told anybody about yet, but I'll be happy to mention to you: you know in platform games where there are often these side areas where you can visit? Like going down the pipe [in Mario games]? So we have this thing now in the game called Foxholes. And Lucky will find one in the level and he'll jump into it and go down underground. And you get this very different perspective on the game, so it's more like [...] you're looking from the side, and it's even more miniaturized, so it feels like this little doll house that you're running Lucky around.

It's this moment where you solve this little puzzle, you go through this little area and then you pop back up into the level. And it really breaks up the gameplay and provides these delightful moments. That's what we've been trying to do, because my favorite platformers are the ones that surprise and delight you every five minutes. "I can't believe it, now I'm flying! Now I'm underground!" And we're trying to get as much of that as possible.

My least favorite is when games repeat themselves too much. Especially in a platformer.

So there's just a tremendous amount of polish in the game. Lucky has a new voice, we went and found the perfect person to embody who Lucky is. She's amazing, she sounds like exactly what I was hoping for: a little 7-8 year old little fox. Or whatever age he is.

Lots of effects in the environment are amped up, and we're really trying to get it to that quality level that you'd expect from a second or third generation game, instead of a first-generation game.

Gizmag: It's looked very polished in the parts I played.

Bettner: Yeah, it's way beyond that now. We've shown the game to, really, only several hundred people, right? At trade shows, that's it. And it's about to be several hundred thousand, and ... it gets back to the first question you asked, like I just can't wait to see if it does become that moment where people are like "this is a defining moment."

And the one thing that suggests it could be, is when we do come to these trade shows. When we show not just press, but ... we went to PAX and we had a booth and we showed just gamers, because it's just fans and stuff there ... and people would independently, without saying anything [...] they would take [the Rift] off and they would say "do you know that's like the first time that I've played Mario 64? It's the same feeling!"

And I've heard that independently from lots of different sources, and that indicates that that could be the reaction people have. And that would just be the most exciting thing.

Gizmag: It's interesting you found that through a process of trial and error. I was almost expecting something like, "oh we had this vision from the very beginning for a platformer ..." No, that was just what worked.

... so what was some of the stuff that didn't work?

Bettner: Frankly, a lot of the first-person experiences didn't work. We tried.

Gizmag: Mostly because of nausea?

Bettner: Yeah ... we tried .. there are a lot of experiences where things are at a distance, so we did try that dragon flying simulator. And the problem is, you maybe have seen this in VR, when things get beyond a certain distance, they start feeling real flat. And more like a matte painting, not like you're really inside the environment.

And there's this sort of sweet spot in VR that's sort of right around you. I was talking to Gabe Newell about this at GDC last year, and he called it the "little people effect." There's just something about seeing these little miniaturized things, that are right next to [you], it's just compelling in VR.

Gizmag: Maybe it's because you feel really powerful, there's this tiny little world surrounding me ...

Bettner: I don't really know what it is, I don't think there's an analogy in real life, other than like doll houses or train sets or something like that.

Gizmag: It's like a living dollhouse.

Bettner: There's something that tickles your brain about it.

But anyway we tried these experiences that [...] put you in a real, scaled environment, and it just doesn't ... you don't get the same sense of immediacy and joyful "oh, it's right here with me!"

We expected [those other things] to be awesome, we expected like "oh, if you're flying on an eagle, soaring 1,000 feet above the earth, that's going to feel amazing!" But actually it was like, "that just looks really far away. The eagle is cool right here, he's really close to me, I can see the eagle, that's cool." But the rest of the stuff feels like it's way out there.

Gizmag: How big is positional tracking? I found it's really cool you can lean in and help time Lucky's jumps a little easier.

Bettner: The primary thing for positional tracking is just the comfort that it adds. I think. I mean we have some, like you said, we have a red coin [type of] thing you can do in Lucky's Tale where you're searching for secrets, and it plays a big factor there because you're looking underneath stuff and you have to look behind things to find ... and that's really fun. You have to stop Lucky and be like "where are the coins?"

In general gameplay you don't think about [positional tracking] too much, and it's more just ... something that provides general comfort. Any time you shift around, or if you want to just take a different perspective on Lucky, you know the world doesn't come with you.

Gizmag: That's one way the Gear VR doesn't keep up. It's very close in other ways.

I know talking to the Oculus team, they say in a few years the Gear VR could be where the Rift is now.

Bettner: I think so.

Gizmag: Is there a chance we'll ever see Lucky's Tale ported to Gear VR? Once the hardware catches up?

Bettner: We actually had a version of Lucky's Tale running on the Gear VR early on, and some folks reported on it, because I think we showed it at one trade show. And we backed away from it only because to deliver the full extent of the experience we wanted ... it was like overheating the device in like 10 seconds. But it did run.

Gizmag: Especially the early Innovator Editions [which were notorious for overheating].

Bettner: Yeah. So we just said "look, it's gonna defocus us too much if we try to do both of these things." But it looks to me, from the way the technology is progressing, that easily in 18 months, 24 months, you would be able to have a Lucky's Tale experience on mobile. This stuff is just moving so fast.

Gizmag: So it wouldn't necessarily be the same game, maybe like a mobile-ified version?

Bettner: Well, we'll see. Again it depends on what the technology makes available to us. But I think it would be a wonderful place for the game to show up.

Gizmag: Right now the lack of positional tracking would make it a little weird, but that could eventually make its way to the Gear VR.

Bettner: It's mostly just a power and performance thing. But that stuff is doubling every eight months or whatever. So it seems like most of the experiences you're getting in the Rift today, you will be able to get in mobile VR in the next two years.

Gizmag: I think it's a good balance having Lucky's Tale and Eve: Valkyrie bundled. Some people are gonna want the first-person shooting stuff, and then you have a third-person experience, this works too. And of course they're both good with the Xbox One controller, which is the only controller you'll have at the beginning.

Bettner: I'm really happy how that worked out with those two games, because ... and I'm really happy about stories that [the media writes] about the bundles. If you go read the comments on these stories, I was really anxious, I was really biting my nails, because I knew that Oculus was gonna announce the bundle and I'm [wondering] "are people gonna be like, 'Well that sucks! why would I want a platformer?'"

But actually the reaction, one of the more common reactions I see is "Sweet! That just saved me the $40-50 I would have had to spend."

Gizmag: This was gonna be the first game I was gonna buy anyway, so it's one less thing.

Bettner: Exactly. So I was like "Yes! People actually want a platformer again, that's great!"

Gizmag: What's next? Where do you see this going?

Bettner: I've seen there's this thing happening in VR. There are these three paths that have happened in VR:

You have stand-up, room-scale VR, and there's that. You've got first-person experiences, seated first-person experiences, things like Eve: Valkyrie. And then you have this third-person thing, and the feeling you get in each of these experiences is very different.

And particularly the difference between a first-person game and the third-person game ... you know, these first-person games like Eve: Valkyrie, they're games, they feel like games but they ... there's something about them that feels more like a real experience. Like you're almost going to go on a ride or something.

But a game like Lucky's Tale or AirMech, or one of these third-person experiences, what they feel like is the natural evolution of gaming for a gamer. Like you said, they feel game-like in a way that you don't get in a first-person VR experience. We are very excited to keep going in that direction. So Playful's vision ... it's kinda the Walt Disney thing. If we can use this technology to take our characters, our stories, our worlds, and bring them to more people in a new way ... that just explodes in people's consciousness, that would be the best.

But [...] we will continue to double down on that. To create these characters that are these things that are beloved by all ages, men and women, boys and girls. And just trying to be that company that people recognize as the one that creates experiences like that.

A good example is Rare. Rare was that kind of company for a while, that people could expected those type of ... and of course Nintendo.

Gizmag: And going back, like you said, Walt Disney. In a different medium.

Bettner: Yeah, and it's not easy, really, to build experiences like that that appeal to ... I mean the Lucky character for instance, it looks so obvious when you see him now. "Oh yeah, he just looks like Disney made it or whatever." But it took us forever to get that classic look and feel.

I wouldn't have thought [that]. I would have thought, "look, just make it like Mickey Mouse, it'll be fine." But it really, that's a very involved process to get something that people [say] "Oh, he's so cute!"

But anyway we're gonna keep forging. Even [with] the name of our company you can get the sense that we're focused on these bright, beautiful, beloved, delightful experiences. And we hope to make that the recognizable thing for us in VR for our customers.

Big thanks to Paul for taking the time to chat with us. Playful's Lucky's Tale ships with all Oculus Rift purchases, which you can can pre-order now for $599.

You can check out the trailer for Lucky's Tale below.

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