Palmer Luckey Takes After 'Sword Art Online'

Palmer Luckey Takes After 'Sword Art Online'
June 6, 2017

Having recently departed Oculus after founding the company in 2012, Palmer Luckey has assured the world that he’s still very interested in virtual reality and has hinted at some of the things he’s pursuing for future projects. Taking a cue from Sword Art Online, an anime where players get trapped in a virtual reality game, Luckey says he’s interested in the idea of a virtual game with serious real life consequences.


Speaking recently to Japanese VR publication Mogura VR in a series of interviews (translated for Road to VR into english), Luckey, among other things, spoke of his interest in the anime Sword Art Online (2012) and its dark premise.

In the show, characters wear futuristic VR headsets that intercept their brainwaves and translates them into the game. Eventually they learn that they are stuck in the game and removing their headsets would cause them to die in real life. For those curious, the show’s trailer is a good teaser.


Sword Art Online (also known as SAO) is far from the first anime to employ the ‘stuck in virtual reality’ premise, but it’s a recent and well executed addition to the genre. The show was also airing new episodes during the Oculus Rift Kickstarter, which made it a timely point of discussion among VR enthusiasts. Luckey recalls the interplay:


The week we launched the Kickstarter [in 2012] was actually the week when the third episode of SAO aired. The timing overlapped perfectly. I think that SAO made Oculus the focus of attention. At the same time Oculus might have made SAO even more popular by a small amount. Many people said that SAO seemed more realistic to them because of the existence of Oculus. Because Oculus’ existence VR didn’t feel like it was 20 or 30 years away. Many people thought that VR is going to become real in the near future.


During the Kickstarter I got hundreds of emails like: ‘Have you heard about the anime Sword Art Online?’, I still have people asking me that to this day [laughs]. I think over a thousand people have asked me about SAO so far.


When asked what he liked most about the show, Luckey says it was the stakes.


The setting of [Sword Art Online] was ‘If you die in-game you also die in the real world’. This setting became obvious right after the launch of SAO. This is a very extreme result. If a player makes the wrong decision he will have the result of his death. This is different to a normal game where you just shoot stuff, and it does not matter when you die because you can just respawn countless times.


Right after hearing the concept of SAO I was drawn to it. Even now after several years I am thinking about the concept of a game in which you have the same serious results in the real world as in the game world. It is going to cause a ‘real result’ which makes the game ‘real’. It is a game in which no mistake is allowed, you have to seriously think about everything.


“This concept of ‘serious results’ is part of one of the projects I am working on,” he said in the interview.


The game ‘Lose/Lose’ not only deletes itself from your computer when you lose, but also deletes random files on your computer each time you kill an enemy.


There are some examples of hyper-niche games which do have relatively serious consequences, like Lose/Lose which not only deletes itself from your computer when you lose, but also deletes random files on your computer each time you kill an enemy. There’s also some hardcore ‘permadeath’ MMO players who are sworn to delete their characters if they die in the game, which could mean hundreds if not thousands of hours of their lives going to waste if they follow through with the promise.


None of these examples are as high stakes as Luckey is thinking though, as he says that a ‘serious result’ is “something no one has done so far in the real world,” and I have confirmed that he’s well aware of permadeath MMO players. He of course says he doesn’t want to make a game where the outcome for losing would be death, but says that the consequences would have to be “something between current games and SAO,” in order for such a game to become popular.


The interviewer asks Luckey if he wants to be like Kayaba Akihiko, the villain in Sword Art Online who traps the characters in the virtual world and manufactures the consequence of death.


“Just a little, just a tiny bit,” Luckey says. “I can understand what he was thinking. Kayaba created a game with a ‘serious result’ and wanted to see what would come of it.”


As to why he’s interested in serious consequences for a virtual reality game, Luckey expounds:


In the real world everyone is making careful judgments. Because you do not want to die in a car crash you drive your car carefully. No one would drive a car in such a way in a game. But what if there were a game in which when you would make a mistake within, it would have a big gameplay impact. This factor would change the way you play the game a lot and would make it feel a lot closer to reality.


I think human beings want to live in a society that is careful. You would not want to live in a world without careful people. It would be a free but crazy world. In the movie The Matrix agent Smith says ‘The machine is trying to build the perfect world for humans.’ This Line is based on the idea that human beings need conflict and cannot obtain happiness without experiencing pain. Thus in the movie the machines create a world that continues to let humans experience pain.


I am not as insane as Smith [laughs], but I do think those words contain a bit of truth. I don’t think I want to live in a world in which humans control everything, without any serious results.


As for when we might see this ‘serious result’ project that he’s working on, Luckey offers no hints, “it’s still is very early, so I can’t tell you any details, but it certainly will be exciting.”

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