20Q with Jed Ashforth, from Sony’s Project Morpheus team

Posted October 8, 2014 by David in 20 Q

Welcome to our weekly feature where we ask some of the industry’s leading developers and personalities 20 questions.

This week we feature Jed Ashfort Senior Game Designer for Project Morpheus.

Jed Ashforth

Jed Ashforth

State Your Name:

Hi, I’m Jed Ashforth, from Sony’s Project Morpheus team.

What is your current Job / Role?

I’m the Senior Game Designer for Project Morpheus – it’s probably weird for people to think that a hardware R&D project needs a resident game designer, but early on when the engineers here were prototyping VR, it became very obvious that the human factors side of this would be hugely significant, and that things would need to work very differently to what we’re used to, both in terms of the end-to-end user experience, and in terms of the content for the device and how it would need to be designed.

They realised that getting a game designer on the project earlier meant someone could start thinking about this stuff far in advance of us putting kits into the hands of the developers, and that we could give them a real head start if we were ready with a lot of solutions to the common questions they’ll encounter and started blazing good trails for them to follow.

Project Morpheus

Project Morpheus

So my day-to-day job covers all sorts of aspects. I play a lot of VR demos and games, I document everything interesting I find. I’ve been using this to build a picture of what works well in VR, what’s more of a challenge, how this differs from the traditional development pipeline our teams will be familiar with, and then working with the development teams to try and answer any and all content questions they may have.

All of the stuff I’ve learned has worked its way into our Gameplay Best Practices documentation – there’s so much of it, and it’s fascinating stuff for designers and coders coming new to the medium. Starting out in VR is tough, there’s a lot of early learning we all have to do. Hopefully the work I’m doing can help our development teams leapfrog a lot of that early stuff and hit the ground running.

A lot of these findings and approaches I get to share with the wider VR community at events and conferences – this year’s been a wonderfully busy year for me on that front, and I love doing that stuff.

What are you most famous for?

I guess if anybody knows me, it’s probably because of my work on Project Morpheus. Before that I worked on loads of games of course, including all the MotorStorm titles for PS3. Every now and again somebody comes and shakes my hand for those games – especially MotorStorm Pacific Rift, which seems to be the one that lots of people have a lot of love for. That’s always so rewarding!

Minecraft Steve

Minecraft Steve

What is currently on the desk in front of you?

I’m writing this from my den at home so there’s my laptop, a mug of coffee (black), the obligatory big pile of games I haven’t got round to playing yet, and a big street full of Lego houses, shops, restaurants etc. that I’ve built up over the last 5 years or so. My son, Logan, loves coming and playing with it while I’m at work, so there’s always a surprise or two waiting for me when I get back!

Today I can see we’ve got King Kong attacking the town hall with Fay Wray in one hand and a giant banana in the other, Minecraft Steve and the Creeper are moving in at number 3, and there’s a legally dubious crossover moment where Pepper Potts and Lois Lane are on a shopping expedition together watching all the Marvel and DC minifigures kicking off against each other outside in the street.

He’s very creative but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t understand what ‘canon’ means yet!

Dactyl Nightmare

Dactyl Nightmare

What was your first VR experience?

I tried Dactyl Nightmare back in the early 90’s at the Trocadero in London – it absolutely blew my mind! I also remember trying the brilliant ‘Aladdin’ VR experience and ‘Ride the Comix’ at Disney Quest when that opened. But then that was pretty much it for me until a couple of years ago. My first taste of modern VR was some in-house stuff that we had at Sony when I came on board the project. What a difference 15 years makes!

Did you feel any sim sickness or do you ever feel any sim sickness?

Very rarely, to be honest. These days, developers understand a lot more about how to avoid triggering Simulator Sickness and so it’s pretty unusual for me to have any kind of adverse reaction. I find I have more of an issue with content things in VR like Vertigo to be honest – it can fool my brain a little too effectively sometimes!

What’s the longest amount of time you have spent in VR in one play session?

I’ve spent a couple of hours at a time playing VR on many occasions. My main problem is really that my work day is pretty busy with phone calls, meetings, emails coming in – it’s hard to get even 15 minutes uninterrupted some days!

Pixel Rift

Pixel Rift

What’s the strangest experience you have had with VR?

I’ve tried some really weird and wonderful demos and experiences, some really creative stuff that people have crafted, but one of the absolute maddest things I’ve tried was Ana Ribeiro’s ‘Pixel Rift’. Ana’s got a unique perspective on VR!

So much creativity in that demo, so many great ideas and surprises, and it just wouldn’t work in any other medium. I loved that demo!

What’s the funniest experience you have had with VR?

There’s one experience that really makes me smile. The first time I took a DK1 home to show my family, we had my son playing that original Unreal Roller Coaster demo. I was aware that the camera stayed locked to the horizon even though the track twists and turns, so my wife and I held

Rift Coaster

Rift Coaster

him in a lying position across our arms and basically acted as a simulator platform, mirroring the twists and turns of the coaster.

He was giggling for lap after lap and it was pretty infectious, we were all in hysterics by the end – he didn’t want to get off the ride! He’s probably one of only a few people in the world that have got to ride that with any kind of motion platform! He calls VR ‘those games where you put your eyes in the world’, which is both pretty accurate, and pretty adorable!

What game or hardware device are you currently working on?

Project Morpheus, of course!

Do you have a release date in mind for your project?

We’re not talking about release dates at the moment. Sorry!

What is the biggest surprise you have had since you started to work in VR?

The emotional resonance of VR – it’s incredible how much easier it is to evoke emotional involvement from players with VR, compared to traditional 2D screen-based gaming.

We’ve spent the last 30-odd years trying to learn how to get people emotionally involved with video games, and while there’s been a lot of successes over that time, it never feels like we’ve cracked it in the same way that Hollywood understands how to engage with their audience at that level.

There’s a few games we’ve cried at, a few games where we’ve had some good jump scares, but overall it’s been a difficult challenge.

Straight away with VR we can see how much more powerful it is for players to feel like they’re inside the game rather than standing on the other side of a TV screen, safely removed from proceedings.It constantly surprises me how strong emotions can be conjured up in VR – I think we’ll make a lot of advancements on this side of Game Design with VR, the types of emotional resonance that we dreamed about being able to do in traditional games is likely to be much easier to evoke. The interesting thing will be how developers start to use that.

Zen Pinball

Zen Pinball

If you could only choose one game from your childhood to be remade for VR what would it be?

My childhood was a long time ago now (!) and I was playing Pacman, Space Invaders and Donkey Kong, and to be honest I don’t think they’d be particularly improved by bringing them to VR!

But what I did play a lot of in those days (and still love to do when I can) is Pinball – I was a huge Pinball nut, and it seems to me that Pinball would be a tremendous fit for VR because it’s all about understanding the intricate table layout in front of you, judging shot angles and keeping the ball under control, and that’s all going to be much easier to appreciate and understand in VR.

Plus, it’s a game you can play seated or standing and there’s not a lot of movement needed, a couple of buttons and some motion input is the only controls, so it’s a nice fit for VR! I’m secretly hoping one of the great video pinball developers out there like Farsight or Zen Studios will make something like that soon!

Patrick Watson 360 Video

360 Video

Besides games what do you think will be the most useful application for VR?

I think we haven’t even seen a shadow of the clever things that people will come up with over the next few years as we find our way into this medium, but I do think that ‘Virtual Tourism’ is going to be a huge thing that resonates with a lot of people and gets extended in all sorts of directions.

Everybody loves to experience standing on the moon, or a tropical island, or visiting far away exotic locations they’ve never been able to go to in real life, but it goes beyond this of course.

Some of the recent stuff we’ve seen with 360 videos in this vein, like the Patrick Watson video ‘Strangers’ that won Best Live Action at the Proto awards a couple of weeks ago – that was quite a unique experience, sitting in a place I would never have expected to find myself, watching some very intimate moments of creativity, and that was very involving for the viewer and you could easily imagine successfully extending that idea to sitting in the middle of a soap opera or a drama – the appeal of that is very, very broad and it’s going to get steadily easier to make that type of content as those guys learn in that space – so much so that I think it will become a fairly commonplace part of VR with lots of variety of experiences available.

What advice would you give to people on how to get into VR development?

Do it! We’re at the very start of something huge here. Consumer VR seems to us like it’s been on the way for ages, but for real people out in the world, they haven’t experienced it yet, and I think when they do, that’s when it’s going to shake things up significantly.

I always ask the same question every time somebody tries VR for the first time – “do you think there’s something valuable in that experience, or do you think it’s going to be a gimmick that people forget in a few years?”, because at the end of the day any new medium like this is going to have to give something unique to users that they haven’t had before and that they can’t get anywhere else, otherwise it won’t make an impact.

I’ve yet to hear anybody answer that they think it will be a gimmick. So that says to me that right now this is ground floor of something that’s going to make an impact, and going to keep growing and flourishing and  rising to new heights. I suspect there’s going to be a huge land rush in VR in the coming years as people wake up to the potential of the medium.

So anyone interested now is getting in at the front of the queue, and that means there’s the potential to find yourself sitting in one of the best seats in the house in the future. Plus, there are lots of advancements every day, VR development is getting easier all the time, so this really is the ideal time to start getting involved.

Strange Days

Strange Days

What is your favorite VR related movie?

Kathryn Bigelow’s ‘Strange Days’. Such an incredible movie, so far ahead of its time. It makes perfect sense to me that if you can stimulate all the senses and replicate all the sensations of an event perfectly without suffering ill-effects yourself, some people are always going to be interested in trying some pretty dark and disturbing stuff.

The timing of that movie (its set in 1999) is probably wrong by 25-30 years, but it seems inevitable there’ll be seedier uses for the Holodecks of the future, whatever form they take. To me that’s more plausible than thinking people will just use it to make an Irish theme pub, like they do on Star Trek.

If you had a crystal ball and could see 10 years into the future what developments in VR do you think will have happened?

I think 10 years will be a long time in VR. If I look at where we were with gaming 10 years ago, I don’t think I could have imagined today’s world back then with any kind of accuracy. The changes that have made the biggest differences have come from all sorts of unexpected tangents – touch screens, motion controls, portable computing, cloud processing – I guess the developments in VR that will make the biggest differences and cause the most change are going to be things that we either can’t imagine yet, or that we’re aware of but are currently flying low on everyone’s radar.

Marvel Omnibus

Marvel Omnibus

Outside of VR what do you do to relax?

I have a passion for collecting graphic novels, I like to treat myself to a Marvel Omnibus (big heavy hardback collections) every couple of months and I’ve been collecting comics for about 40 years now, so I have a lovely collection now that I get a lot of pleasure from. I’m also a major board game fan, I have hundreds and hundreds of board games and I love to play them with friends. In a lot of ways board games are the purest form of multiplayer – the rule sets are simple and elegant and everyone understands them, so you cut straight to that psychological battle between players that’s at the heart of competitive play.

Trying to predict what your opponents are going to do is much more immediate and satisfying when there are a limited set of choices in play and you’ve got time to strategize and analyze between turns. It’s a great thing to share with your family as well!

Titans of Space

Titans of Space

What’s your current favorite VR experience that you have not developed yourself?

I do get to play a lot of VR demos in my line of work, and I’ve got a huge list of VR experiences that I really like. I share these internally with the VR enthusiasts at Sony, and there’s a kind of informal Top 10 that I curate so that people coming to VR development can catch up on the very best experiences. I’m always the one at conferences and shows popping over to see devs and telling them how much I enjoyed their demo or their game and I like to let them know when a game has made it into my top 10, because I think that personal feedback is the best way to thank someone when they’ve let you inside their own personal creations.

I think it’s a privilege to be able to experience these things; people are sharing some really great, really clever cutting-edge VR experiences, often for free, so shaking a hand or two and sharing your appreciation for what they’ve achieved is something I think we should encourage while the community is still so small and friendly.

One demo I did this with the very first time I tried it was ‘Titans of Space’, which just blew my mind! I mailed Drash straight away to tell him how awesome I thought it was! To this day I still show it to everyone, it’s still an absolutely incredible experience, he just does everything so perfectly.

I’ve run that demo for myself maybe 25 times now and it still has the same effect on me it did that very first time. That experience really made a huge impact on me! So yeah, in terms of Oculus demos, I’d say that still stands out to me as my favorite. On the Morpheus side, there’s a lot of extremely cool, super-secret stuff that I’ve tried and that I’d love to be able to tell you about, but we’re not at the point where we’re ready to share them yet.

Sum up how you feel about Virtual Reality in 6 words or less?

It’s going to change everything.

 

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About the Author

David

David Whelan a professional web developer has been a serial early adopter of the latest technology. From an early age playing on a C64 he always dreamt of entering virtual worlds and exploring the endless possibilities that could be offered up by the platform.

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