The best part about creating virtual worlds at vTime might be the reality. Within the brick-lined walls of their offices above the Baltic Social in Liverpool, there is enough talent, ambition and technology to build anything they want to build, go anywhere they want to go, as fast as they want to get there.
Where Clemens Wangerin and Martin Kenwright want to be is Liverpool, and the Baltic Triangle, because they’ve been here a long time and it’s been a ticket to a lifetime, spent making computer generated vistas and experiences that have shifted the world’s perceptions.
When we visited vTime we only saw Martin briefly. On vTime’s lower floor Martin’s desk is adrift like a raft on open waters, where Martin floated, deep into an intense phone call. When he saw us he made for dry land and privacy; then returned with a warm greeting and a self-deprecating claim that we were wise for not interviewing him, vTime’s CEO, before he left us to talk to Clemens, the MD.
Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca
Bouncing between Martin and Clemens, shaking hands with then across tables that, like the walls, are covered with gold and platinum discs and images of jet fighters and Formula 1 cars, we experienced a very Liverpool feeling of being starstruck while meeting very down to earth people. But in this case you’re only starstruck if you know. And even if you know their work, you might not know these people, or others here; it’s the nature of the computer games industry to hide creators behind avatars. But Martin and Clemens and their team at vTime have a track record of creating the popular best that should make them stars.
Martin founded Digital Image Design in 1989, releasing cutting edge 3D flight simulations and games like F-22, EF2000 and Wargasm. After DID was sold, Martin co-founded Evolution Software, whose multi-million selling hit Motorstorm helped to define the Sony Playstation PS3; that studio was bought by Sony in 2007. Martin left the studio, and as part of the deal Sony insisted he stay out of the games industry for five years.
Clemens came to Liverpool from Belgium to work for Psygnosis, the publishers responsible for Lemmings, at the point when Psygnosis were exploring the possibilities of the Sony Playstation, a gaming platform that didn’t exist yet. It arrived in Liverpool in a big beige box called a PS-X, with instructions in Japanese, while the only workstations that could communicate with this future were dusty in the backroom of a Sony store in Basingstoke. Once Psygnosis devised a way to communicate with and develop software for the mysterious new box, they started making games; and they made Wipeout.
“Liverpool’s links to the games industry go back all the way to the eighties,” says Clemens. “Manic Miner was developed just over the water on the Wirral, a game that many people who are familiar with very retro gaming libraries will be familiar with.
“A little bit later Psygnosis was formed, probably the first company to say they were only making games for 16-bit home computers, at a time when the 8-bit Commodore 64 European market was very big. They were the first to say no, for what we do, we need power to do graphically impressive things; and to start this whole push towards amazing games like Shadow of the Beast, Barbarian, so many titles that are synonymous with the early days of the Amiga.”
Psygnosis, and publishers like Ocean in Manchester, were attempting bigger and bolder games as the industry grew from sole coders in bedrooms, tape duplication, jiffy bags and stamps, to movie tie-ins, franchises, mass markets and large teams.
“At that point, knowing a few of the guys who still live in Liverpool that worked there, they were like, this is a job? What?
“They were enthusiasts, and there weren’t really any companies around that were bringing together these bright young talents and directing them in a way that led to commercial products you could sell. Before that, people were still copying tapes at home and sending them directly to people who ordered. Then all of a sudden things started scaling up.”
The scale truly changed when Psygnosis published Lemmings, by DMA Design, in 1991. Like Pong, Space Invaders or Tetris, Lemmings was a truly new concept in games, and a new level in terms of sales, spin-offs, sequels and status: fifteen million Lemmings games have been sold worldwide, and Sony — seeking a European development base as they prepared to launch the first PlayStation — bought Psygnosis, for a reported £15m, in 1993.
“That really meant that Psygnosis, and Liverpool by extension, became ground zero for PlayStation development in Europe,” says Clemens. “All the guys who ten years earlier had been these bright young things at Psygnosis, engineers who had found themselves in a dream job, were now helping shape how PlayStation hardware was going to be used to create software experiences. So things like Wipeout happened, Colony Wars, G-Police, and eventually Formula 1, not developed directly by Psygnosis but by Bizarre Creations, who went on to also play a big role in the Liverpool development scene.
“It meant that money was really starting to flow into the city. Wages were getting better, studios were getting better, and Psygnosis were prolific at signing external developers so they not only invested heavily in internal resources and studios in Liverpool, Manchester, Stroud, Leeds and London, but in hiring external developers to do their own projects. Around the north-west there was a whole cluster of independent developers making PC and Amiga titles, that brought other companies doing really well.
“Rage came on the scene, had a big title called Incoming, then went public on the stock market and created their own success story; Bizarre became a close partner of Microsoft and did a lot of great things on Xbox, then were acquired by Activision, all the while growing in stature.”
Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca
Clemens joined Psygnosis in 1995 and stayed through its metamorphosis into Studio Liverpool, as part of Sony Computer Entertainment Europe, until 2009; working for a lot of that time as Studio Liverpool’s development director, essentially running the 120 person development studio as it continued producing the massive Wipeout and F1 series. By the time Studio Liverpool was closed by Sony in 2012, digital publishing had changed the market, the risk, the budgets and the internal studio model, leading to more independent developers and, in Liverpool, a population of experienced, world class software developers.
“It was quite a young workforce in the eighties and nineties,” says Clemens. “But by the 2000s it was guys and girls in their thirties, in a relationship, possibly with a family and kids in school; so the lure of moving abroad to work in California, that had been the dream in the nineties, or Australia, or Canada that is still a big draw, that wasn’t so attractive.
“And of course everybody had attained quite a high degree of seniority, after being involved in multi-million pound projects, working on titles that had sold millions of copies around the world. It’s hard to pinpoint an exact moment, but certainly towards 2008-09 there was a real resurgence in Liverpool of companies in our sector, that was a direct result of changes in the industry.
“By the time we started vTime, it was a point when a few of these companies had tried what they wanted to do, released their own app; and when Martin came with a clear purpose, and a sense of direction of really doing something that could potentially change the world, the response was phenomenal.
“We were in some way the right place right time, but I think the key thing was we had the time, money and resources to actually make it happen.”
“Once we got a couple of really high level guys in, I would do the interviews and talk to the guys downstairs in the bar, and get them excited about the product,” says vTime’s Design Director, Mike Humphrey, in a video on their YouTube channel. “Then as soon as I brought them upstairs and they saw who else was in the room, people they knew are world class, it made it a no-brainer.”
That was one aspect that made what vTime were building in Liverpool so appealing, and meant the new company could start up and grow, fast.
“We knew what we wanted to do was create a development studio that was capable of some extraordinary things,” says Clemens. “And really seize the moment and assemble a team of high quality people.
“We wanted to attend CES [Consumer Electronics Show] in Las Vegas in 2014, and take demos of all these different ideas that we had, and that meant a four month period of really insane activity. We went from four people to 25, who form the nucleus of the vTime company today, so that we have a core team of programmers, designers, artists and producers who between them have shipped hundreds of games.”
The other aspect was that Clemens and Martin were determined vTime would not do anything any of them had done before; and intended to do things that nobody had done before.
“What we were quite clear on,” says Clemens, “And what really attracted people to the company, is that we didn’t want to make games. We were already clear that we didn’t just want to do what we’d done before. We knew that wasn’t the blueprint.
“What we wanted was to take all that knowledge and experience and knowhow from creating these triple-A successful franchises and experiences, and direct them at markets where people are just not used to that. It’s this whole notion of building jet engines when everybody else is flying with propellers.”
In the late-eighties Psygnosis had separated itself from the market by going where the power was, concentrating on the potential of 16-bit computers to produce graphically stunning games that would attract people to new platforms. vTime did the same, creating an intense and advanced graphics engine that would produce stunning visuals on mobile devices, ready for the future advance of virtual reality.
“We bet early on mobile, which is a massive market,” says Clemens. “But from a developer point of view we knew we wanted strong technology in the mobile space, where we could differentiate ourselves with high-end 3D graphics, with high frame rate and high product values.
“When mobile virtual reality came along it was a perfect moment for us. Our mobile tech was so strong we could create a very high-end mobile VR experience with high frame rate and low latency, and that really put us in a rarefied atmosphere because, at that point, most other developers were just looking at mobile VR at the hobbyist level. Nobody, in terms of any sizeable developer, was committing any meaningful resources to shipping products.
“We used that as a moment to say we believe in mobile VR, on the back of our own content and our own software, but also in terms of the reactions we were getting, and to quickly hone in on what we wanted to do with virtual reality that was different, and would differentiate us further. vTime was the result of that.”
It feels like an absurd and enormous expression of millennial privilege to talk about something like virtual reality and say that, so far, it’s boring. When we’re already feeling that we’re over immersive computer generated experiences that have artistic and emotional possibilities that could potentially outstrip cinema, we feel like we probably need to find our 21st century ennui button and hit reset.
But the problem with virtual reality so far is that it remains potential and possible, and the actually available is only a very slim gesture at those possibilities. We’ve spent some time, shoving our mobile phone into a cardboard headset and strapping it to our face, trying to understand what VR has to offer; we’ve seen the Eiffel Tower, and we’ve shot down biplanes just by looking at them, and we’ve ridden on rollercoasters and felt, reassuringly, a bit sick, just like we would on a real rollercoaster. So we know it works.
Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca
Obviously in the research and development departments of hardware multinationals in Silicon Valley and the Far East, the more advanced technology at their disposal means they can create, and have, experiences that perhaps really do push VR towards the kind of cinematic or televisual paradigm shifts it promises. But for most of us, sticking a cardboard box with a phone in it to our face is going to be our first involvement with these new worlds, and so far, they’ve felt passive, no more engrossing than a decent video game. They’re all virtual, but can’t touch reality.
vTime sets out to change that, by concentrating on the social aspects that make reality, as we experience it everyday, great. With your eyes covered by a computer display, whether you’re on a rollercoaster or gazing at one of the seven wonders of the world, VR is isolating, slanting your experiences towards the aspect of reality that the advancement of technology has often threatened us with: loneliness.
Without headphones, your VR experience will be punctuated by whoever you’re with, asking, ‘What can you see?’ With headphones, the immersion is fuller, but that friend is pushed further away.
The twist in vTime is that, when you create an avatar and enter one of its virtual experiences, you’ll find some of your friends there with you, or some new friends you haven’t met yet. The whole point is that you’re somewhere completely unhooked from your reality — space, under the ocean, on the Orient Express — but you’re there with other people, experiencing it together, which makes that virtual reality incredibly real.
“It’s a virtual world, somewhere you go and create an avatar for yourself, a virtual representation of how you want to appear,” says Clemens. “vTime has tens of thousands of active users in over 190 countries, and you can connect with them, meet them, share and socialise with them in a very different and unique way, in virtual reality.
“It’s different and unique because what happens when you put on a head mounted display is that you become fully immersed in a computer generated world, and due to the stereoscopic effect the software creates a sense of presence. It’s your mind tricking you into believing you are somewhere else to where you physically are. And this term ‘presence’ is an effect that is very powerful, and very convincing because of the quality of the experience in vTime, and it’s an effect that opens up a whole new world of possibilities.
“Most VR apps today are one- or two-use case, short-lived experiences; something visually very impressive, but within an hour you’ve exhausted all the content that’s available. vTime, being a communication tool, allows you to connect with people and therefore have a different experience every time.
“For us the communication aspect of vTime is very important. We always say audio is 50% of the VR experience, so we make sure there is proper 360 degree audio in the environment you’re in, so when a bird flies past you the sound changes with its position. And that extends to where we sit in relation to each other in the virtual space, so if you’re sat to my left, I will hear your voice come from the left.
“We spend on a lot of time and effort on the voice communication, which is a proprietary piece of technology we have developed where we want the quality to be as high as possible, so that it should sound as good as when you’re physically together. That’s ultimately the goal.”
That recognition of the primacy of voice is one of the factors that push vTime beyond any other VR experience to date. The graphics are at their own high level of quality, but what happens in the virtual world is driven by the voices of the participants, through interactions with the world in which they meet, and by causing realistic gestures in the avatars. Motion tracking moves the avatar’s heads, so they turn to each other to talk; voice tracking controls their arms, so they make motions as they speak.
“It’s different to other virtual worlds,” says Clemens. “Before VR, you were looking at a window into another world, seeing the other players represented as 3D characters, but still looking at a window. With vTime and VR, we are in this world together, and the fact that it’s your voice, not a distorted voice or anything that’s changed, means that there is a greater sense of being in the presence of somebody else.
“It grounds you in that virtual world, and gives you that sense of presence. You believe you’re somewhere else, and you believe you’re there together.”
Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca
vTime really is unlike anything else, and you sense that Clemens and co know it; when we ask about the future, a half-smile crosses his face, the expression of someone who knows what is ahead, but also knows that he can’t tell you; and knows that in this office in the Baltic Triangle, a few floors above a bar, are the people who form the legacy of powerful technological leaps forward from times past, who are the right people to make things happen that have never happened before. Again.
“The development of vTime has been a massive team effort, as you would expect,” says Clemens. “And we’re very much, in terms of our own background and history, driven by wanting to be at the forefront, shaping things, breaking new ground. That means we can have a pretty clear roadmap for the next few months, and a very compelling long term vision.
“That’s a very important part of this journey in virtual reality, because VR is so powerful as a medium, it can be so many things to so many different people, we need to chart a good course through that so we make progress, and move forward. We have the team to keep pushing the envelope in terms of what users are able to do in vTime, and in VR by extension.
“Part of why we set out on this journey was we felt we had a vision and a way of differentiating ourselves from others out there. vTime, as we see it, is the first app truly designed for virtual reality. We didn’t have any legacy hangups, we’re not trying to take an existing business into virtual reality, we’re not trying to create radio for the television.
“We had no preconceived notions of what we wanted to do, so we really embraced the format in the same way we always have; starting with a blank sheet of paper and writing to the format, creating something that we know we couldn’t have made without VR.
“That puts us in a position where we find it easier to see a point in time that we want to get to. Obviously the market is going to evolve. A lot of big bets are being placed by big international companies, Samsung, Facebook, Oculus, Google; so many are really committed to building this ecosystem of formats and platforms. What we’ve seen is a real shift, so that where we’ve come from is the information age, when companies like Google got big on the back of data and indexing; and where we’re going now is the experience age.
“We think the experience age brings with it an entirely different way of presenting and allowing users to interact with data, to search for information and to connect with others. And what you see in the vTime app today is a very small glimpse of the first step in that journey.”
Clemens smiles again, with the confidence of someone who has the best journey guides in the world on the upper floor of vTime’s offices, coding an adventure we won’t believe. There are reputations in this building, that mean something for what vTime build, on a code level, and what Liverpool is home to, on a cultural level.
“In the market we’re in — VR, technology, entertainment software — what you’re looking at is a global market, and from a business point of view that means its incredibly important for us to be in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, all hotspots as far as many parts of the VR ecosystem are concerned. So this year I have been in L.A. and San Francisco a lot more than in London.
“When you talk to people on the West Coast of America, it is a surprise to them when you’re not part of the London ecosystem. But of course when you say you come from Liverpool there’s a great recall factor there, whether it’s from a cultural point of view because of music, history, sport; but also sometimes because of the role it’s played in the industry. Certainly in our industry many of the companies and titles that were produced here are household names for anybody that knows how the technology industry has evolved over the last twenty years.”
Those are the people who stand to push the technology industry’s evolution over the next twenty years, starting now.
Photograph by Giuseppe De Luca
“We’re really happy vTime is so strong on mobile VR because we think that’s going to be the first touch point for many people, particularly once Google’s VR play, Daydream, is out. We think by the time we reach 2018 we’re going to be at a point of wider adoption, when tech and software will have matured to the extent that the average person on the street won’t class VR as a novelty, which probably right now some people still do, but can put on a headset and just think, I need this in my life.
“I’ve been involved in the industry for twenty-five years, and I’ve seen a few technology cycles. From the first time I saw the PlayStation and saw we could have Ridge Racer at home, on my TV, that looked as good as in the arcade; to the birth of the internet; to when Facebook really started turning heads with social gaming; to the first iPhone and how apps changed our relationship with the phone.
“I think the same is now happening with mobile VR, that it can fundamentally change how you use your phone, and open up a whole different world of use cases, that go beyond tapping on your screen in solitary.”