Paul Bettner had a good time at the Electronic Entertainment Expo (E3), the big game trade show in Los Angeles last week. His McKinney, Texas-based Playful studio debuted two games at E3, Super Lucky’s Tale for the Xbox One and Star Child for Sony’s PlayStation VR.
Those games show that Bettner is striding the line between traditional platform games and virtual reality. Bettner believes that VR will be a big market, but it is taking off more slowly than he and everyone else had hoped. His team has created new intellectual properties that can be used for both VR games and traditional console and PC titles.
Lucky’s Tale debuted on the Oculus Rift in 2016, but that platform has been slow to take off. In the meantime, Playful took the world and characters of Lucky and created a deeper platform game for the console. That’s definitely a smart way to keep the money coming in and the faith in VR. It’s also a good way to keep game developers excited about working on innovative titles on an emerging platform.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Image Credit: Playful
Paul Bettner: We’ve been busy. This is the first time I’ve debuted two games at E3 at the same time.
GamesBeat: How large a team does that involve?
Bettner: We have about 60 people at Playful now, just there in McKinney, Texas. Then we have 30 or 40 folks around the country we also work with.
GamesBeat: Super Lucky’s Tale seemed like a good idea. Were you planning that from the start?
Bettner: We had the idea to bring Lucky to other platforms. I would say—in the very beginning of Lucky, we were just looking for amazing things that would work in VR. We came upon this third-person thing and it worked. But then once we started building it, we realized—in development, it’s too much of a pain to go in and out of VR all the time. We kept this version of the game running that you could play on the monitor while developing on the PC. Pretty soon we realized, “This actually just works as a flat screen game. It’s a traditional platformer. Someday we could bring this to multiple platforms and let it work outside of VR.”
I worked at Microsoft for a while, because we sold Ensemble Studios to them back in 2000-something. I have a lot of friends at Microsoft. They got a chance to see Lucky early on in development. They started to make up this story in their head. What if Lucky was a mascot character, an Xbox mascot? Of course we fell in love with that idea, because that was the biggest way for us to get Lucky to as many gamers as possible. Here we are today.
GamesBeat: It’s rare when your secondary platforms are actually your biggest market.
Bettner: True. It’s usually the other way around. It’s almost like Lucky came to life, and now he gets to realize his full potential.
GamesBeat: Did you think of this as a cross-platform title, possibly, or do you feel like the exclusivity is better for it?
Bettner: In the case of what we’re doing with Super Lucky’s Tale, we think the real opportunity is to forge this tight partnership with Microsoft. Honestly, I was a bit apprehensive about this coming into the show. But what we were hoping is that this wouldn’t just be a game, necessarily, for families and kids to play. Of course it is that, but it could also be something Xbox gamers would want. It could be this thing they don’t get a lot. There aren’t many games like this on Xbox. This could be welcomed by that community. E3 is the big place to test that hypothesis.
GamesBeat: The only other way they can get something like this is to wait for another Conker game.
Bettner: [laughs] The great thing was, Microsoft had faith in it. They were willing to put it at the heart of their press briefing and all this other stuff and say, “Okay, gamers, what do you think?” It was on us to deliver something that was inviting enough, even to hardcore gamers. For a platform, I think the key to that is—it has to have enough depth, enough challenge. It wasn’t until people got their hands on the game, the day after the briefing. The press and YouTubers started to see that this isn’t just a cute game. It’s actually a good platformer. It controls well, plays well. It seems like we proved the hypothesis out. Xbox gamers and hardcore gamers are saying, “Yeah, I’d buy that.”
GamesBeat: Like you say, Microsoft is missing that. Sony has Crash and a lot of other characters. Nintendo has Mario. They’ve always looked for what their mascot could be. I thought they’d given up on it.
Bettner: Maybe they thought so too. But apparently not now. Some folks within Microsoft never gave up on that dream, and they helped us get this deal done. Now it’s the best outcome we could have hoped for. We wanted this to be true. We wanted people to fall in love with Lucky. Now we can do this. It can be even bigger than we hoped.
GamesBeat: I don’t know how you look back on the VR decision. Maybe you would have made more money sooner going this route first?
Bettner: We launched another game here at E3, Starchild. Starchild is actually not just a VR game. It’ll be what we call a flat screen game, a traditional game, as well, for consoles and PC. But we debuted it as a PSVR title here. It’s the same thing that happened with Lucky. VR is a great place for us to show people our IP first, because they can experience it in a way they haven’t seen before. It gets that IP a certain amount of attention and interest that might be harder if we were just debuting it initially as a flat screen game.
That’s what happened with Lucky. Back when we debuted that game a couple of years ago at E3, we got way more attention than we otherwise would have because it was something people hadn’t seen before. That helped us get to the place we’re at right now with Microsoft.
GamesBeat: Ubisoft has said the same thing. They always go aggressively onto new platforms with new IP, because that’s the best time to debut something. You get that extra attention. Even if it doesn’t make financial sense, you can establish the name and make money on the IP in later years.
Bettner: Right. It’s very similar to the way we look at this stuff. It’s also just super fun and cool to be making stuff for new platforms, though. Whether it’s the new Nintendo hardware or VR or mobile games, it’s the frontier. We get to figure out crazy stuff. None of the rules are written.
GamesBeat: Your people get more motivated.
Bettner: It’s a great hiring thing. We’ve been able to recruit folks to Playful because they’re interested in working on platforms like VR.
GamesBeat: It could be a model that nobody else is doing yet. I can’t think of another company that’s been able to do something like this.
Bettner: There’s another version of that….
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