Back at the tail end of a 17 year stint working at Sony, Dave Ranyard and his team were experimenting with something then known as Project Morpheus. The blocky, metal-clad headset would become PlayStation VR, establishing him as a leading voice in the virtual reality community.
Now Ranyard has established his own team, Dream Reality Interactive, in the same city. Unsurprisingly, it is VR that is to be the outfit’s specialty.
For six months, a fledgling band of developers has quietly been fleshing out a range of VR prototypes.
The journey of a veteran of a large outfit breaking away to go it alone with a new team is almost a defining story of the modern games industry, but Ranyard has long been compelled to follow a self-sufficient path. From running a shop at 17 to his role in the band Supercharger, which thrived in the 90s UK big beat scene, Ranyard’s endeavours have often placed him in small, spirited operations.
"Thinking on your feet, independence and even the stresses of running your own thing has always been really attractive to me. Being in the band really gave me a taste for all that.
“The agility of a smaller studio appealed to me,” the founder muses, pondering why now was the right time. “Then there’s the fact that VR is nascent; that was a big part of doing this. That’s exciting, you know. And that made me think about multiplatform. It's nice being a aligned with a platform, but there are lots of different things happening out there today that we want to be involved in.
"I’ve just been writing a talk for Goldsmiths [University]. An MBA student suggested this to me, actually. If you look at early cars, they were all different shapes and sizes and so on. If you look at that, there’s parallels you can draw with VR today.”
I don’t know how far we’re pushing that envelope, but we’re trying to do things differently
Dave Ranyard, Dream Reality Interactive
Dream Reality isn’t rushing to place its flag in any one gaming form. “Maybe we’ll get to do something with eye-tracking,” Ranyard suggests. "Maybe we'll do something with mobile VR. We're afforded that opportunity by being able to be multiplatform."
That approach has afforded Ranyard’s band of creatives a chance to focus their efforts on what can be done to debut new mechanics in the VR space, freeing them from the pressure of serving a fixed game idea.
“We are trying a few different avenues. There’s an arcadey game we’re working on that does have some shooting. There’s another game which doesn’t at all; it has very minimal, simple mechanics. And then we’re very interested with interacting with characters within VR, and what gameplay that can bring about.”
There’s no pretence within Dream Reality that a grand, complete idea is ready and waiting to be realised in code, or even that the studio has a meticulous plan for the future. Rather, Ranyard and his colleagues are casting an eye across the emerging opportunities VR presents, exploring prototypes, and considering where there is space to make distinct titles that help forge the emerging rulebook of virtual reality game design.
“I’m sure we’ll hone in and narrow in on something over the next year or two,” says Ranyard. “But for now we’re very open to what the best way to go is.”
The core focus is guided by three founding pillars Ranyard has set out. Firstly, his outfit is devoted to building ‘believable worlds’. Believability is particularly important and complicated for VR, and as such a principal concern for the team.
The next pillar is ‘pursuing natural interactions’, though Ranyard’s vision there goes far beyond the likes of hand gesture control. A ‘never say never’ attitude does permeate the tone at Dream Reality, and as quickly as talk turns to a gamepad’s lack of suitability for VR, Ranyard points out nothing should be discounted if your devotion is to quality of interaction.
But it is AI that he feels could bring a revolutionary form of meaningful natural interaction. “In terms of our looking at interacting, and interacting with characters, I’m definitely drawing back on my PHD in AI, which I did 20 years ago. My joke is that it’s been useless for 19 years,” Ranyard says with a laugh.
“But I do believe there will be a big convergence of VR/AR and AI. AI is a more natural form of computer interaction. It’s less about button pressing and stuff. I think the learning aspect of that will be interesting in VR. Perhaps in five years we will see more natural interaction through something like that.”
The third and final pillar is ‘shared experiences’. Ranyard happily admits they have a way to go down that path, but he is convinced it will be vital to the studio’s future.
For now, Dream Reality is largely investigating mechanics over themes, largely resisting the distraction of building narratives, aesthetic style guides and swathes of assets.
“What we’ve tried to do is work on prototypes first, to get the mechanics themselves as good as possible,” Ranyard clarifies. “We’re then working out how to dress those experiences once the mechanics are established. That’s rather than deciding on the setting and theme, and then working the mechanics into that.
“I don’t know how far we’re pushing that envelope,” he adds. “But we’re trying to do things differently, as much as we can.”
That’s not to say Dream Reality is completely ignoring the benefits of tentative world building. Si Spenser, a comic writer on titles like Hellblazer, also happens to be a former band mate of Ranyards. As such, Spenser – also a stalwart of 2000AD’s output – has already contributed a wealth of background writing to Dream Reality.
“With Si, we’ve fed him some ideas and stuff, and he’s written us loads of back story, and it will probably never be printed,” Ranyard reveals. “But we can use it. What I’ve discovered is how much that process helps us. I’ve done it in the past, where you almost build up that universe as a database of information. As you put something together it might only reference a few little bits from that. But because there’s a natural consistency and credibility, it helps us with those believable worlds, and guide us.”
Motivated to run a studio where he knew everybody by name – a testing task within Sony – Ranyard has currently built a team of eight, including himself. Expansion isn’t off the cards, but for now Dream Reality is keeping it understated.
“Of course I’ve gone for talent, but it’s also about people getting on,” says Ranyard. “One of my things is that great teams make great games. I do obviously want to hire the most skilled and talented people, but it’s also so important that they work as a unit. I believe nobody is perfect, so within a group, the best thing is to know what you’re good at, and know what you’re not good at, and not make it an issue if you’re not good at stuff. My art is pretty awful, but that’s OK. We’ve got Isabelle,” Ranyard adds, with an arm gesture to his artist. “She is really good at that.”
The atmosphere within the studio walls is certainly playful, and even self-deprecating at times. But that jovial spirit doesn’t mean Dream Reality aren’t taking their work very seriously. Get any team member talking about a prototype, or how an emerging technology presents an opportunity for new gameplay conventions, and it’s clear this is a place devoted to its potential.
Exactly what that work will be, however, remains somewhat shrouded in mystery. A bounty of output is currently being kept from view, but much of what Dream Reality Interactive will become is yet to be
set in stone. And that’s the way Ranyard likes it.