If it weren’t for Magic Leap you might be playing a new version of Team Fortress 2 created by the Weta Workshop special effects artists behind the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Weta Gameshop’s Greg Broadmore tells Glixel that after creating Dr. Grordbort's, a universe that was initially outlined by physical retro-futuristic ray guns sold as collectible items, he started trying to figure out how he could create a game for his new world.
“From the start, I was a gamer and was always looking at, ‘How can we make games?’,” Broadmore says. “So for a little while we partnered up with Valve and did some stuff with Team Fortress 2. I was looking at where that relationship might go and actually I was very close to doing something where we might make a Dr. Grordbort's mod of Team Fortress 2 with Valve or in partnership with them to some degree.”
But then Rony Abovitz, founder of Magic Leap, approached Broadmore.
“Rony came to us with the idea of, ‘Would you like to make a game on a completely new platform where the characters can literally be in your home and around you?’” Broadmore says. “And I was like, ‘Yes, I want to do that. Also, that sounds crazy. How the hell are you going to do it?’.”
Dr. Grordbort's came about, in part, because Weta Workshop co-founder Richard Taylor had started selling collectibles based on props the studio made for big movies.
“We started making collectibles off the back of Lord of the Rings because, you know, working in the film industry, especially back in those early days, it was just feast and famine,” Broadmore says. “You're getting a huge job and the company scales up and then the jobs goes away, and you're like, ‘What's the next thing? What's the next thing?’ You're looking for something as juicy and big as Lord of the Rings. You know? And so we spun up collectibles as a way of trying to even things out and give us something to do in the meantime.”
After wrapping up work on King Kong, Richard asked the team at Weta if anyone had any ideas for original concepts that could be used to sell new collectibles, Broadmore says.
“I said, ‘I do. I've been doing these ray guns. How about we make these ray guns a real thing?,’” Broadmore says. “And Richard and I just spitballed on that, the idea that we would make them in metal, put them in a case, this sort of thing that I wanted, I wanted something your grandfather could bring down and open and say, ‘I fought in the Martian Wars.”
What started as an idea for physical, real-world weathered retro ray guns, quickly took on a life of its own. Broadmore wanted to tell a backstory to match the guns, a story that explained who was using the guns and why.
“So I built a sort of satirical universe poking fun at sort of anything I could think of really that I find amusing,” Broadmore says. “So it's all about colonization in space, it's rocket ships going to Venus and human culture going to those planets and supplanting traditional culture.”
Broadmore says what it isn’t a story of heroes.
“It's actually a story of bad guys, as much as anything,” he says. “I don't write heroic stories. I kind of like making fun and doing satirical stuff. I wanted to write it in the world of Flash Gordon and Buck Rodgers in that 1920s era. So, yeah, it started with those ray guns and then it just grew layer by layer from there and we dabbled in all kinds of things.”
Among those things, games and that offer from Abovitz expanded the universe of Dr. Grordbort's to not new real-world technologies as well.
Abovitz already had a relationship with Weta when he sprang the idea of a Dr. Grordbort's game for Magic Leap on Broadmore. The Florida founder of Magic Leap had gone to Weta to get their help in building a new fantasy world.
“He saw what I was doing in Dr. Grordbort's, as an opportunity to create a game that could help to define what the [Magic Leap] platform is,” Broadmore says.
For more than five years Broadmore and a growing team of Weta employees worked on bringing Dr. Grordbort's to the Magic Leap and its mixed reality technology.
As the work progressed and the team grew, Weta Workshop realized they were going to need to expand to support this new video game initiative. This week, Magic Leap’s Andy Lanning and Weta’s Broadmore and Hayley Gray traveled to the annual DICE Summit to announce Weta’s new studio, the Weta Gameshop.
“We've been in the far corner of Weta Workshop for a long time, for actually like five years, coming up six years working with Magic Leap, but we finally crystallized that into a new division of Weta Workshop, which is called Weta Gameshop,” Broadmore says. “We're bursting at the seams; we've grown a lot over that time to about 50 people, so we've just opened a new facility that is purpose-built for Weta Gameshop for making gaming experiences with Magic Leap.”
The studio has two functions, Broadmore says. “One is to make a mixed reality game on Magic Leap, but the other is to actually help to define the platform in the first place, and we've been part of that feedback loops since the start.”
Broadmore describes the team as a mix of gaming veterans, people who have shipped on all kinds of platforms across the years, as well as a “bunch of fresh people.” The studio, he says, is purpose-built for creating mixed reality experiences for the Magic Leap’s recently announced Lightwear.
Gray says that because Weta Gameshop’s singular purpose is to make content for Magic Leap, it has been able to work on the evolving tech from the very beginning.
“We started to dive into it where there was no hardware that existed at that point, so we really have been on that bleeding edge and working in parallel, creating a game while the platform is being developed,” Gray says. “And we've had the opportunity to be developing on the platform for the longest time out of all the other developing partners that are working with Magic Leap at the moment.”
Currently the entire staff of Weta Gameshop is dedicated to their work on Dr. Grordbort's Invaders.
The game is a sort of the first-person shooter set in the off-kilter tongue-in-cheek world of Dr. Grordbort. In the fiction of the game, a planet of robots have figured out a way to fashion portals to earth and are set on invading the planet. The player has to stop them from coming through the portals and wreaking destruction using the system’s controller, which looks like one of the good doctor’s ray guns while playing.
“Over the past five years, there has been the one product, Dr. Grordbort's Invaders, that we've been working towards, but largely we've been in an R&D phase,” Gray says. “We've got a very integrated relationship with Magic Leap and there's been a strong feedback loop. We've been helping to prove our key hardware, software features, and so the R&D was actually just testing out what this platform was even capable of doing and it's only been in the last couple years that we've really, you know, started to define what the game experience is for Invaders and started focusing on that.”
While the Weta folks won’t tell me much about the upcoming game, they did say the plan is to release the game alongside the release of Magic Leap’s Lightwear sometime this year. While the game seems to be focused on surviving hordes of enemies, there will be a lot of “character stuff” in it as well, Broadmore says. Among those characters is Gimble, a floating little robot seen in Magic Leap videos which is voiced by Rhys Darby. “A suite of characters that can actually live in your world space is a major part of the game,” he says.
Broadmore declined to say how long the gaming experience will be because that number could change. “I would say that it’s not a demo. It's much more substantial than that.” And length for mixed reality games is also a bit of an open question, he adds. “That's all a question we asked to some degree and we're having a good stab at what we think it is. But I can say that it's not a demo, it's substantial. You'll be playing it over, over days and weeks in the way you would play many other more substantial games.”
The team is also working to support the world of Dr. Grordbort's in other media. “We're going to support the whole thing with things like a comic book series that will come out,” Broadmore says.
“So there is, there is quite literally a universe that goes along with Dr. Grordbort and it's very well thought out, very real,” Lanning says.
Broadmore says that the comics will provide the backstory that will lead into the game and that there will also be a motion comic version coming to Madefire.
Leap of Faith
Running through all of this, Weta’s decision to build an entire game studio, is a sort of trust in the idea of yet-to-be-released technology. Magic Leap’s Lightwear remains mostly undisclosed (I spent a day at the company test it out myself, but I was the exception.)
I asked Broadmore if building an entire studio for unreleased technology and bringing his carefully crafted universe to it in the form of a game worries him.
“No, it doesn't stress me out,” he says. “That's the challenge. That's why we signed up, right?”
Gray says that it was also about the opportunity. “Because we get to be that example for other developers of things that we've learned throughout that time, challenges that we've come across and then overcome to deliver and share with other developers that they can learn and then see what they end up coming up with that we can learn back from them. I think that's the exciting part.”
Lanning says it has been an adventure. Broadmore agreed.
“I would say everyone that signed up for Magic Leap signed up for a ridiculous challenge,” Broadmore says. “We didn't do it because it was going to be easy, we did it literally because it was going to be hard.
“We could have certainly done a million easier things, like we could have gone down a pathway of a traditional medium and that would have been fun too, not that those things are easy, they're not. They're freaking hard, but doing it in a totally new paradigm, that's, that's truly exciting.”