'Raw Data': An Oral History

“Oh my god this is crazy! Can you imagine creating your own fantasy world to run around in?”

Nate Burba prepares to demo Project Holodeck Credit: Survios

The history of Survios mirrors the history of virtual reality gaming. A group of friends met in college and discovered their shared, audacious passion for a brand new way to play video games. After years of dreaming and prototyping, they emerged with a mind-blowing tech demo, and suddenly found themselves rich with venture capitalist money. Sometimes revolution in the games industry requires multinational collaboration across dozens of studios, sometimes all it takes is three college kids who are absolutely in love with a crazy idea.

Raw Data, Survios’ first game as a studio, is officially out on all major consumer VR platforms in the U.S. and UK this week. In the days before release we called up each of the founding members of the company and asked them to tell us their story - from lusting over VR as a kid, to creating VR as an adult. This is what they told us.

Alex Silkin, James Iliff, and Nate Burba grew up in the ‘90s, in a moment where virtual reality was either a broken promise or a Tron punchline. Despite that, they still imagined a world where they could create the games they do today.

James: When I was about five years old I did laser tag with some friends at the mall. They had a very old VR system there. Really low-res graphics, really high-latency. That’s where I had my first virtual reality experience. My little brain was exploding. I remember thinking like “Oh my god this is crazy! Can you imagine creating your own fantasy world to run around in?” I still have some of my old journals from when I was a kid. I used to spend my time either building LEGO metropolises or writing in my journal. I can find still find entries where I was writing about virtual reality and different games I could make. This was back in 1996.

Nate: The earliest experience that gave me the impression of what VR could be was Nick Arcade — a video game-themed game show. They would green screen the set onto a three-level platform, kind of like a Mario Brothers game, that you’d have to run around and do stuff. To my 8-year old brain that was the coolest thing in the world.

Alex: I always wanted to spend money to have the most advanced gaming experience. I was excited about motion controls and 3D screens — I loved to play Playstation games by strapping a Move controller to your gun with 3D goggles. It wasn’t VR, but I thought it was pretty cool.

James: I got into filmmaking and game development in high school. I was really excited by mapping and modding communities around the source engine in Half Life. When Half Life came out they released this map editor, and I was building lots of maps. I was taking real world locations like cities and specific skyscrapers that I liked and making these cool environments just to be in. Sometimes I even get nostalgic for these virtual places, even though they’re not real. That just seals the deal for the value of virtual reality to me.

Alex, James and Burba meet each other in USC’s Mixed Reality Lab in 2012 - a place that was shortly to become known as the ground zero for the entertainment industry’s most recent virtual reality revolution. By piecing together consumer tech like the Microsoft Kinect, Playstation Move, and Razer Hydra motion controllers, they stumble into a brand new way to play video games.

Alex: I met Nate and James at USC while I was figuring out what I wanted to do in my final year. Their project was definitely the craziest. I didn’t care if it was going to hurt my grades, I was looking for a challenge. Other students were pitching games, but ultimately, they were just doing evolutions of existing IPs out there. Nate and James wanted to make full motion virtual reality — which at that time that was something that didn’t exist. I said to Nate, “Hey, this is crazy, but I want to do this. This sounds like a fun thing to do in my last year. Even if it horribly fails, I’ll probably learn a bit.”

James: I remember when I went off to college in 2008 and 2009 thinking, “I love virtual reality. It doesn’t exist right now, but my goal in life is to figure out how to have a job in this nonexistent industry. I want to do virtual reality, I want to make virtual reality, I don’t know how it’s going to happen but that’s what I want.” I went to four different schools, I had three different majors. I did architecture, structural engineering, psychology, and I finally landed on interactive entertainment in USC. The first thing I did at USC was say, “Where’s virtual reality?” I talked to Scott Fisher, who was the head of interactive entertainment there. He did virtual reality in the ‘80s for NASA. I think he was surprised that some kid had a laser focus on VR.

Nate: VR is kind of like a drug. There have been people who have been in it for a long time and claim that they know everything about it. None of them had the foresight that some college kid like Palmer [Luckey, founder of Oculus] could actually achieve something like he did.

James: Luckey was a technician at the USC Mixed Reality Lab. I remember walking in and seeing this guy in the back sorting wires. I went over to him and just said, “Hey, this is really cool! Can you tell me how all this stuff works?” Right away I got this huge brain dump, and I was just reeling from the excitement. Just, “Wow, there is something here.” Finally the planets were aligning, and everything I had done in the past was the right path.

Nate: In my opinion, the reason USC has been such an important place for VR is the capability to have interdisciplinary stuff going on — videogames, TV, film, military research, aerospace. So for Palmer to be able to create [Oculus,] he had to take a bunch of parts off the shelf and ask for a couple million dollars to build this random thing. It was cool but very confusing, like having a bunch of kids in an intergalactic junkyard sitting down toying with things, and one makes something that is really fucking cool — before it was only a junkyard.

James: The goal was to get virtual reality out of the lab and purchasable on a shelf — to get it in the hands of actual players. We started playing around with the Kinect. We had four Kinects hooked up together — it didn’t work because they conflicted with each other, but it was a start. We were going to cobble together the tech into a Frankenstein monster. We ended up calling our project Project Holodeck. We wanted a Holodeck in our living room, and we wanted it to be affordable. Palmer had five-or-so prototypes before the Oculus, and we ended up using one that was just like the Rift but without the goggles design. Nate and I ended up going to a sporting goods store and bought some ski masks, and glued the headsets into them. That’s how we got our visual aspect. This was early 2012, we got a really strong head start. We were the first to do motion-tracked hands in a virtual environment. That had not existed at all.

Alex: We had all this tech around us that could do these things, but nobody was using it to get what we wanted. My first VR experience was actually something we made ourselves, when we were testing one of the games we made. We were working on the hardware and the software at the same time, and finally, in Nate’s living room, we had both of those things ready. We were playing multiplayer in this steampunk environment with these pirate ships flying through the sky. We had these pirates holding onto these gliders, and they were circling around you. I was pumping the shotgun and shooting these gliders, and that’s when I realized I just created the most fun gameplay experience I’ve ever played.

James: We had a fully wireless system. We called it a “backtop” — a combination backpack and laptop. It attached to a piece of headgear. There was a Playstation camera that would track the position and orientation of your head, and then we’d track the position and orientation of your hands with the Razer Hydra motion controllers. It was a crazy concoction, but it worked. And we had two of them. It kinda blows my mind that we were able to get the thing to function.

Nate: Most of all my really good ideas came to me all at once, for example, how the tracking system would work and what the controllers would look like. I had these conversations with Palmer on controller design way before the Touch was even conceived. It always had, like, a “palm button,” because, as I did Kinect research, I realized that the lack of a digital input made it so I couldn’t really interact with the world how I wanted. Everything was just gestural, and that made me feel like I was flailing with some points. So we added the digital input that you can always rely on, similar to what a mouse gives you. A lot of these ideas hit me like a bolt of lightning.

James: The feeling at USC was electric. Absolutely electric. We just knew that this was huge. We knew it was going somewhere. Human beings have a natural intuition — almost a premonition — when something big is around the corner. I’m sure people felt that when the first computer was coming out, or when movies were being made in the 1890s. There are rare moments in history where you can just feel it. Survios was the right mix of personalities, the right minds, and the right collaboration. But it was also the right place at the right time. All the pieces were on the table waiting to be put together, and anyone with a moderate consumer electronics knowledge could’ve done it. It was a fortune-favors-the-bold situation. It’s a combination of luck and foresight.

After college, Nate, James, and Alex took off to San Francisco to raise funds for Survios, all while developing Raw Data — which was based on a zombie shooter called Zombies in the Holodeck they built at USC. Along the way they recruited Mike McTyre, a games industry veteran who was the first pure designer they brought on staff.

Nate: James and I would rent out an apartment for three months and we would pitch and go to parties, hustling the entire time. We said, “If we’re up here, we’re not leaving without the money that we’re here to get.” It worked out well.

Alex: Our first office was this tiny space. I drive by it all the time, it was right next to this bagel place. We were locked into this room. It was awesome because we were out of school and we were finally unshackled, and we were able to finally do the things we wanted.

James: We had a common mantra: demo first, ask questions later. The reason we did that is that investors would come in and say, “What’s your product vision? What’s your financials? Let’s get to it.” And we’d say, “Alright, alright, hold on, relax, we’re stoked to talk about that, but first let’s put this thing on your head.” We would draw a hard line. We wouldn’t go to any investor’s office and pitch it there. We were very strict, we said you come to us, or we’re not gonna talk. Because we knew the only way we were really going to sell this idea is if we showed them.

Nate: Zombies in the Holodeck was an incredibly scary game. I remember the first time one of our investors played it the world was so immersive that he had to take the headset off. He was so terrified. The second time he played it he had been drinking a little bit, and I wanna say he was doing that to shore up his courage.

Alex: We did zombies because they were the easiest thing to do, because zombies are already kinda broken. Nobody questions how zombies walk. We wanted to create really great feedback for the user. When you pull the trigger you’ve got the muzzle of the gun flashing, the bullet leaving the gun, the way the zombie gets shot - each one of those things might’ve been janky individually, but they all came together.

Nate: We did things that would amp up the reaction in our earlier demos. We’d bring someone into the room when there were lights on in the room, and once they got into VR, we’d turn the lights off. What we found out is, if the person in the headset was wireless, they’d lose track of where north was. So they’d come out and their sense of direction would be lost. It was like they’d just woken up from a dream.

James: People would turn into kids. They’d be giggling like schoolchildren, they’d be screaming and laughing. It opens you up. “Oh my god! What did I just experience? This is like the Holodeck, you guys weren’t kidding! I thought maybe my colleagues were playing a joke on me.” When their eyes are all googley, and their brain has turned to mush, that’s when we’d say, “Okay, let’s talk about finances.”

Nate: Whenever you raise funding you feel relieved, but there’s also the tension of having new business partners. Raising money is like getting married. It’s like being a polygamist. The first time you raise money you get married, and the next time there’s another entity in the marriage.

Alex: Once we got the funding, we wanted to take Zombies in the Holodeck to the next step - to deliver on the promise of VR and create a linear, story-driven game. We decided, “Okay, we did zombies, let’s do robots because they’re a little bit smarter.” We’re all huge sci-fi nerds - that’s why we love VR - so we wanted to build something with a cyberpunk theme. That’s why the Raw Data world formed the way it did.

Mike: I’ve been at Survios for two years now. I was finishing my latest project and beginning to ask myself, “What’s next?” I was told about this VR startup and I was really skeptical at first. But then I saw Raw Data, and after 30 minutes of playing I was convinced. I was just blown away. It’s one of those things - until you try it you don’t know. You can describe a rollercoaster perfectly, but you need to have people get on the rollercoaster to really understand. That was my experience with VR. I played for 30 minutes and said,“I need to work here.”

James: When we met Mike for the first time it was a breath of fresh air. I remember asking him, “I know you’re a veteran, I want you to tell me exactly what you thought about the demo.” I wanted to cut to the chase. And he let loose.

Mike: They didn’t have any game designers at the time. I came in and sat down with them for over an hour and told them everything that was wrong. I basically tore the game apart.

James: Mike said, “That’s not working, that’s a piece of shit,” and I thought it was great. I was taking notes, I was like, “This is exactly what we need.” It was really exciting.

Mike: The excitement to me wasn’t about the startup, it was about VR. The chance to develop a game I don’t have the answers to. That’s fun!

James: There was no ego getting in the way, we were both just sharing our expertise. We were able to take the heat and just listen. We had all the tech down, we had all the themes and the world-building, but he was able to say, “Okay, here’s the design.” He’s responsible for what we know as Raw Data today.

Mike: Eighty percent of traditional game development is still applicable to VR. I came in and they showed me all of this incredible VR stuff, but the tuning of things - like reload speeds - needed to be polished. There are thousands of VR products out there, and they’re a lot of fun. That being said, a lot of them are not made by game developers or professionals, they’re made by very talented VR enthusiasts. The market wants quality content, and these enthusiasts are doing a great job dipping their toe in the water, but they’re not funded and don’t have the experience.

Nate: Locomotion has been an issue from the start. When you play a normal video game, everything that doesn’t work in the way it works in real life, you just abstract out. Anywhere you’re not acting with agency as the character, you’re just watching them do it on screen. In VR, all of the parts where you’re like, “Hey, we’ll just watch it on screen,” just don’t work.

Mike: There are limitations in a lot of early VR products that are preventing certain traditional game genres. It’s not because those limitations are real, it’s because we haven’t figured it out yet. When I showed up, you couldn’t teleport in Raw Data. You couldn’t move around. I can’t make a game where you’re stuck in the center of the room the whole time. We implemented teleportation, and that helped, but it still has its limits.

Nate: It was really important that teleportation could exist in Raw Data, which is why a lot of our games have a futuristic or sci-fi angle. That’s the pixie dust that allows us to do certain things in the game that we couldn’t do otherwise. Teleportation was our life raft. It was how we turned Raw Data into something you could recognize as a real game.

Mike: We had to figure out how to implement things without getting the player nauseous. In Raw Data we had six-foot tall robots and 10-foot tall robots, and when they punched you, the player didn’t move. That was so limiting from a game design aspect and an immersion aspect. So we were like, “This is BS, we’re going to solve this. When that mech punches you, I want you to fly back 20 feet.” When we first implemented it, I almost threw up. I saw down for several hours to tune it, so you could get punched by that robot and not get nauseous. These are the challenges that fall into the 15 percent of stuff that’s very VR specific, and that you can’t find in traditional games.

James: We had the opportunity to make something that was really active. I had seen a lot of stuff in VR that was just sitting at a desk with a headset on, and I thought that was a missed opportunity. It’s not true VR. VR is about moving around your whole body. I was focusing on the action verbs: run, jump, shoot, and climb. We wanted to have a really primal, instinctual experience.

Raw Data hit the HTC Vive via Early Access on Steam in July 2016 and by September it became the first consumer VR game to reach $1 million in sales in a month with 20 percent of Vive owners buying the title. The game released on Oculus this March alongside news that it would be heading to VR arcades. Last week, Raw Data also was named game of the year at the AMD VR Awards. Two days later the game landed on the PlayStation VR, making it now available on all major VR consumer headsets. To wrap things up, I asked Mike, James, Nate, and Alex about their thoughts on the future of the VR industry, and their reflections on the journey they’ve been on so far.

James: I think the biggest barrier is that other VR developers don’t know what they don’t know. A lot of early groups getting into VR might not be from a game studio. They might not know that it’s important to have a designer, or a narrative guy, or a lead artist. They might just say, “We have all these tools here, we’ve got some programming experience, let’s put some cool stuff together and throw some animations in there.” That doesn’t move the needle anymore. The initial “wow” factor of VR is fading.

Mike: We’re lucky at Survios, we don’t have a publisher telling us what to do, which means we can create our own thesis for each of our games. And one of our criterias is that we want to move VR forward with each and every game. We just want VR to succeed. Period. We’re here because we believe that this technology will play a big part of the future.

James: We need to build an experience, we need to think about how we want the player to feel on a very deep level. You want to be in something that you feel is really there. That’s what it comes down to. If you’re not invested in it, and you’re not believing in it, then what’s the point?

Alex: I’m still excited to come into work everyday. We’ve been at it for a long time, but it still feels like we’re at the beginning. We’ve only had one of year of commercial headsets being out there, and the differences between the generations are still so massive. I’ve already tried these prototypes for next-gen hardware, and things are already on the cusp of changing again.

Mike: Everyone thought they knew all the rules of VR, and they were all wrong. When I first showed up, everyone kept telling me no. You can’t move the player, you can’t jump in the air, you can’t show their forearms. This wasn’t just internally, it was everywhere. They were wrong on a lot of different things. I’m so lucky to be at Survios with Alex, or James, or anyone else at our team who’s willing put in the effort and say, “Alright, I hear you, you’re telling me it’s wrong, but I’m going to try it anyway.” We’re not afraid of VR challenges anymore, we’re actively seeking to solve them.

Nate: I see VR as a very long-term play. I used to go to LAN parties. A great LAN party, with 30 people on their computers at the same time, is a nice feeling. There’s a harmony to it. To me, a good VR experience creates that harmony. It creates an agency. Virtual reality is the progression of allowing more and more people to feel that harmony, just like how cellphones have allowed people feel the internet, but it’ll take much longer for the world to embrace it. I see VR as more of a slow burn. To eventually get people into technology that makes them feel more human.