Interview: I Expect You To Die dev Jesse Schell talks future of VR

The future is bright.

With a new decade upon us, many are thinking about just where the gaming industry is going to go. With the rise of virtual reality last decade, we spoke to developer Jesse Schell (I Expect You To Die and Until You Fall) to get his expert opinion on things like Half-Life: Alyx, the creative restrictions/freedom of the medium, and the longevity of virtual reality.

You can read the full interview below.

With the announcement of a huge title like Half-Life: Alyx, is there an expectation that Valve could potentially make some groundbreaking changes to virtual reality game development? They’re known for really pushing the envelope with this series and now with VR in the mix, it seems like it could really make huge strides for this side of the medium.

Presently, there are a lot of gamers who don’t take Virtual Reality seriously, because to them, big franchises are what constitute “real gaming.” The release of Half-Life: Alyx should do a lot to persuade mainstream PC gamers to give VR a more serious look. Whether the game breaks any new ground remains to be seen, but I hope it does!

Have you experimented with Valve Index? If so, how has it impacted how you approach developing virtual reality games?

Yes, we’ve done experiments with it. We spent some time on a prototype of a bartending game using the index, for example. So far, it hasn’t changed our approach much. Seeing your fingers wiggle in VR is cool, but so far we haven’t seen it enable new kinds of gameplay. 

Half-Life: Alyx, Valve's flagship VR title
Half-Life: Alyx, Valve’s flagship VR title

Is it scary to be building experiences in a medium like Virtual Reality that’s still very much in its infancy?

It’s exciting! I know some developers don’t like to innovate, and just prefer to do minor tweaks on old ideas, but we love doing things that are wildly new and exciting, and virtual reality is just that.

Do you find it’s very freeing or restrictive working with Virtual Reality? It seems like you have a lot of potential to do incredible things but due to both the space a player allots themselves at home and the technology, it could also be more limited than a traditional video game.

Every medium has freedoms and limitations. Console, PC, mobile, and VR gaming each enable different kinds of gameplay, and restrict others. The biggest limits of VR have to do with locomotion: free movement tends to result in motion sickness. As a result, locomotion in the world needs to be limited and handled carefully, or many players will become nauseous. In exchange, though, players get an incredible sense of bodily presence, and the ability to manipulate things directly with their hands. As a result, VR games tend to be less about running around, and more about manipulating things. This is a change, but it also opens up whole new genres of gameplay.

How do you personally plan on creating standout experiences in the virtual reality space?

In creating games like I Expect You To Die and Until You Fall, we focused on creating experiences that feel amazing in VR. I Expect You To Die puts you in exciting spy deathtraps, and Until You Fall lets players engage in intense sword combat. For both games, our strategy was to create rich, highly polished, deeply immersive experiences. It takes a lot of time and effort, but working to preserve the feeling of immersive presence is the key to powerful VR. 

VR title I Expect You To Die
I Expect You To Die

Do you expect to see Virtual Reality gaming on PC/console grow in popularity to the point that it’s as common as gaming with a standard controller?

To be clear, I think virtual reality on PC and Console is a temporary phenomenon. Those systems were never designed for VR. Long term, VR wants to be its own independent system, like the Oculus Quest is. That said, I predict that by 2025, the number of people playing VR daily will be in the tens of millions. The split in worldwide gaming revenue by that time will probably be 50% mobile gaming, 35% PC and Console, and 15% VR. So, VR won’t be the dominant mode of gaming, but it will be a force to be reckoned with. 

How important do you feel that things like VR arcades are to both the longevity and popularity of VR? 

While I think location-based virtual reality experiences are cool (I helped create some for DisneyQuest back in the 90’s), the dominant force in Virtual Reality longevity and popularity will be self-contained systems for personal use. Home systems are going to get so good so fast that VR arcades are going to have a hard time staying ahead, and rule number one of location-based entertainment is this: Give ‘em something they can’t get at home.

Finally, do you see Sony continuing to double down on vritual reality with PlayStation 5 out of the gate or is console VR gaming not as lucrative as we all may hope?

This is quite a question. Presently, PSVR is the most successful VR system in the world, with five million units sold. However, cordless systems like the Oculus Quest are well-positioned to take over that number one spot. What I hope Sony does is to create a VR system that is like a cross between the Nintendo Switch and the Oculus Quest  — a portable VR system that stands on its own, but when connected to the PS5, it becomes even more powerful. Time will tell!

I Expect You To Die is out now on PS4 and PC, Until You Fall is out now on PC. Half-Life: Alyx will release on PC this March.