Feature Article

Iron Man VR's Biggest Influence, And What Might Surprise You In The Full Game

Camouflaj's Ryan Payton talks about how Iron Man VR came together ahead of its July release.

Ryan Payton has heroic ambitions. After forming his own studio Camoflaj and developing the indie game Republique--which then became a VR title--Payton has been focusing his efforts as creative director for Iron Man VR. The upcoming PlayStation VR exclusive leverages one of the most popular superheroes in the world, and Payton wants the scale of the game to match. As the game goes gold and prepares for its PS4 launch, GameSpot spoke with him about how he met up with Marvel, the game's comic book influences, and how he hopes it's more than a mere popcorn blockbuster.

Everyone's working from home now due to coronavirus. How has that impacted the workflow and the environment at Camouflaj?

Yeah, it's made development of Marvel's Iron Man VR a little extra challenging--having already been a really ambitious and challenging project to begin with, right? But I think the team at Camouflaj has done a great job of adjusting to this new reality that we're all facing. Everybody is safe and healthy right now and has been, and that's something I'm really, really thankful for.

What was especially a challenge for us is being in the Seattle area. Obviously we were one of the first areas to get impacted, but the team moved very quickly to embrace this new remote working world that we all live in, and are coming up with a lot of creative solutions to finish working on not just a game, but a VR game, which makes it even extra challenging when it comes to remote work.

What makes VR work-from-home different from other struggles that a lot of studios are dealing with?

One of the things that is essential, or at least I thought when it comes to VR development, is constantly going in and out of the headset as the team is working on elements that you want to go and test. Also, having play-testers come into the office and play the game and give us feedback is also an essential part of development. So we've had to get creative in terms of how we give players access to the game. And we've also had to get creative in terms of how we're sharing what we're working on with our team members, without being able to hand them a VR headset to put on their heads.

So, again, we're utilizing a lot of new tools and technology and ideas that we're just coming up with on the fly, because we don't have time to think about this too much. We have to ship a great game in time for July 3rd, which we have full confidence that we're going to do. Right now, we're in the final bug fixing and polish phase of the project, which is my favorite time of being a game developer.

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Speaking of coronavirus impacting your workflow, the release date got shuffled around. You're now sitting between these two big AAA releases, Ghost of Tsushima and The Last of Us 2. So how do you feel about where you've landed on the calendar?

We make the most of it. We're obviously really sad about our previous release date and we were racing towards it. But I believe all parties involved made the right decision, because work did stop for a while while we allowed the team to take care of their families and made sure that everybody was safe and healthy. And the release date that we have right now, I think it's great. I think the game's going to be hitting at a time where people really want to be Iron Man.

And everyone's used to wearing masks.

Yeah, exactly. And also we understand it's a really important game for the PlayStation VR community. There's millions of PlayStation 4 consumers out there that have the headsets at home. I'm one of them, and I'm one of those people that want something that goes beyond just a short experience, but it's a full-fledged game with high production values. And that's what we set out to build many years ago when we started development of Marvel's Iron Man VR, and I'm really excited about delivering that for this community that's been wanting more and more of those types of titles.

What drew you to VR for Republique, and what made you want to keep pursuing it?

We've always been interested in VR from the moment that we got [an Oculus Rift development kit] in the office and we hooked up Republique to it and it was a wild experience. And so we've been enthralled by VR for probably six or seven years as a studio. And then as we wrapped up our work on our first game, Republique, we were exploring different types of games and exploring different partnerships.

And on a fateful night, I was with one of my best friends, Bryan Intihar, the director of the Spider-Man game with Sony at Insomniac. And he convinced me to go join him to go out to [an E3 gathering] in downtown Los Angeles at E3 2016, where a lot of business takes place.

And I think he was there when he introduced me to Jay Ong, who runs Marvel Games, and Jay was familiar with us, he was familiar with our first game Republique. And he basically said, "Hey, look, I'm on the prowl for a developer that could do something really big and meaningful and important in VR and go all-in. Is that something that Camouflaj would be interested in doing as their next game?" And I took that idea back to the team and everybody almost instantly said, "Look, if we're going to do a partnership with Marvel and we're going to go all in on VR, then there's only one Marvel superhero that we would want to do that with. And it has to be Iron Man."

Because there's no more perfect pairing for VR than Iron Man. If you think about the headset pairing with his helmet and going inside the helmet and seeing that 360 degree HUD, pairing the PlayStation Move controllers with the thrusters and the repulsors and being able to rocket punch and ground pound--it just designed itself, we felt it was perfect. We took that idea down to Marvel and they basically said, "Hey, prove it to us." And so we created the best prototype we've ever created, flying around the city as Iron Man at 250 miles an hour. And that was what was needed to convince Marvel that we were the best developers to deliver on this game. And that's around the time that we really did go all-in on VR.

It sounds like Marvel was looking specifically for a VR experience.

It's a really interesting challenge, because back in 2016, there weren't a countless number of VR industry studios in the world, right? It's all still very new technology to a lot of game developers and we feel like we're still learning a lot. And we also feel like there's so much uncharted territory and undiscovered country when it comes to VR development. Things we could do, things we shouldn't do, all these learnings we're just taking along with us.

And so when Marvel approached us, I felt like it was the perfect time for us as a studio. Even though Republique has a reputation of being an indie game, when I started Camouflaj back in 2011, it wasn't because I wanted to create the next great indie studio. I wanted to create the next great big independent AAA game development studio. And Jay is an ambitious person. I think he respects and appreciates my level of ambition. And then thankfully, the team working on the game is also extremely ambitious. And so it's been a really great pairing, not only between Camouflaj and Marvel, but then when Sony got involved, everything just started to click.

Do you have any Easter eggs or nods to Spider-Man PS4 or any other Marvel properties?

We thought about it, but at the end of the day, one of the core tenants of Marvel games is that we're creating an original Iron Man VR game, an original Iron Man VR story, and we want to give developers the flexibility and the freedom to craft their stories in a world that's unique to theirs that is unrelated to the films or the comics or even other games. And so that's the way that we've been crafting the game from the very beginning. So it is not related to any other game, Bryan's game or otherwise.

So at least from your perspective, Marvel wasn't pushing you in a particular direction. You were free to do your own thing.

We spent the first year really understanding how to work together, which was a really interesting process, because we learned very early on that Marvel is very particular and they care deeply about their characters and the worlds that they've created. And it's our job to make sure that we're bringing our game content up to the level of quality that they expect and that their fans expect. So it was a pretty big shocker for me that one year into designing the game, what ended up becoming the Impulse armor became the unique suit for Iron Man in our game. The level of detail that we had to go into with Marvel was just unprecedented in terms of what I had to do in the past. That showed me that this is serious business and we've got to make sure that we're hitting that level of quality that Marvel expects.

But that's a juxtaposition between the two other aspects of the game, where they were really encouraging us to just own it outright. What's the best story that we could tell with this character, with allowing players to become Tony Stark, to have a story campaign that explores what it's like to be somebody who's his own worst enemy and how we can tell the story in a way that leverages our expertise in VR? That was an area where they were really, really supportive and we didn't have to go into minute detail and approvals.

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What's it like doing story research, and how did you decide what to draw from translating it to the VR experience?

Growing up, I was a big Iron Man fan, so that helped a lot. I was very familiar with the character, very familiar with the films. And so jumping at first into Marvel's Iron Man VR on the creative level was relatively simple not only for me, but a lot of guys on the team. But from that point on, I knew that what fans are going to be expecting is not just a cursory exploration of this character, but they would want us to go really deep. And so that's exactly what we did. And so for months, every night I would go home, and I would just read from, I think I started from 1970 all the way to modern day, all the Iron Man comic books and circled things that we could pull into the game for inspiration or Easter eggs, or what have you, and what characters that we would like to highlight in the game.

And that was a long process for us to work, not only with our team, but with Marvel to figure out how deep do we want to go with the game. So at a high level though, we understand that Iron Man and Tony Stark are really at their best when we're exploring Tony being his own worst enemy, so we had that be the central theme of the game, and then we built from there. And the biggest source of inspiration for us has been the 1979 series, Demon in a Bottle.

That story really touches on Tony's alcoholism. Is that something that you explore in the game?

Yeah, when it comes to the inspiration of Demon in a Bottle, it was less from the literal sense and more about how Tony does have an addictive personality and oftentimes gets himself into trouble. So we decided not to take it as literal, and also not to have it be a reinterpretation of an already told story. But really try to understand that in spirit and then interject that in all various parts of the game.

You personally have worked with some really big franchises, very established characters. You had a hand in Metal Gear and then Halo and now Iron Man. So what's it like taking on these characters and worlds that already have a huge amount of cache and fandom built around them?

Yeah, for me, I loved working on an original IP and creating the world of Republique. It was a really fun and interesting challenge. But once we were granted this really incredible opportunity to work on Marvel's Iron Man VR, in a lot of ways, not only myself, but my colleagues, I think they felt back at home in terms of working in larger and more established worlds. And so, having the opportunity to work in an IP that people absolutely adore, that has incredible international recognition, is something that I look at as an incredible privilege. But it's also, like you said, it's a space that I feel fairly comfortable in. And one of the things that I think is important when you do work in these spaces is that you don't get too constrained by what's been done in the past, but that you do take on some pretty brave endeavors and try to push the boundaries of where these characters haven't been up until this point.

Because I don't think the fans of these franchises and Iron Man in particular necessarily want to be told the same old story over and over again. Which is why I think it's really cool that Marvel encouraged us to not tell an origin story of Iron Man, but to tell an original story where we start with Tony Stark about two or three years into his career as Iron Man. And so that afforded us a lot of freedom to say, "Okay, now what kind of new things do we want to do?"

What do you hope surprises people when they play the game for the first time?

Well, now that the demo is out and we're seeing such incredible response to the way that the game looks and feels, especially from the controls and combat perspective, I think that is usually the initial surprise and delight that players have when they get their hands on the game. So I think that's already taken care of, and we're really happy to have the demo out there. And it is really important for VR as well, to not only talk about how fun the game is, but also be able to experience it for themselves. That's important for VR.

The thing that I think is going to surprise people the most when they play the full game on July 3rd is that Marvel's Iron Man VR is not just an Iron Man action simulator. It pairs that with a lot of important and intimate moments where you play as Tony Stark, and that there's a full end-to-end ambitious campaign story that's attached to the game.

And I think that a lot of players are going to come out of the experience saying, "Wow, I've never played action gameplay in VR like I've done in this game." I think a lot of people are going to walk away from the game saying, "Wow, I didn't know that you could tell a story as Tony Stark the way you did." And I hope that for some people it's a story that touches them in a way that helps them understand more about themselves. And that's really my ultimate goal when it comes to the meaningful nature of a game, is that we tell a story that's not just good for the popcorn summer movie blockbuster experience, but that it's a story that's important and that could touch players on a deeper level.

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