Exploring VR with Jonathon Hawkins- Episode 166
Jonathan Hawkins, one of the founders of White Elk Studios (a VR studio in LA) formerly of God of War fame takes some time to walk us through starting his own independent VR game studio. We talk about what he’s learned, worked on and helped produce as in VR today and also his opinions on the VR landscape as a whole. To kick things right off, we started immediately asking about his transition out of the AAA game space, and specifically how and why he decided to go indie when he did…
“So I was working, at sony pretty much ever since I got out of USC, started out as an intern, was doing sound and music implementation on God of War 1. I was then able to convince David Jaffe to get one of my puzzles in there, and that kind of started off my level design career. So we did God of War 1, 2, with Cory Barlog, 3 with Stig Asmussen and then Stig, and myself, Ken Feldman and Adam Poole went off to start the next big IP for Sony and we worked on that for several years and that ultimately got cancelled. Then I was kind of burnt out on the GOW series after working on it for so long, and I just figured go get another job or go try and start my own studio and see the entrepreneur indie life, see what it’s like. AND I’M STILL HERE after 4 years of hustling, and it’s been a long road and we’ve made some pretty good games so far. Our first game eclipse edge of light came out 2017 in april and we won 3 VR game of the year awards for that. We just launched our next game Covert today (11/15/2018) on Oculus Go & Gear VR.”
So was there a specific indie game or team that really inspired you to make the move or, I’m sure especially veterans always try to be cautions when they make the jump, so what kind of preparations did you have to finally pull the trigger?
I don’t know if it was preparation or finally getting kicked out of the nest. The game was done and I was like well what am I gonna do? I was super bummed out to work on something for years and years just to be gone… I mean it’s not the first time I had a level cut, but it was the first time I had the game cut. So, that was definitely a tough one for sure. It was like losing your baby. So when you put your entire heart and soul into making these things, it’s very very tough. But in the end it turned into a blessing in disguise. I always wanted to have my own studio and try and figure that stuff out. I went and read some startup books before, and “how to do business” and yada yada ya, but you don’t actually know anything until you go out there. I often joke around about my street MBA.
Well with your first game being a success, getting 3 awards, you know not everyone has that start so I’m going to challenge you and see if you had the same start. Was that first game your actual first game, first shot, or did you have multiple prior games / prototypes you went through first?
Yeah I mean it was my first shot, but not the entire time was 100% dedicated to it. You know I had to pick up contracts, I worked at Section Studios you know with Cecil, Cecil’s awesome, I worked on a couple projects with them for different stints, but it was still my primary focus. You know to find a course to get funding, to get started. But once I had my vision for the game and a primary demo, I just kept going. Yeah I got told no 1,000 times but I kept going.
Who was your 1,001th person then?
Haha, Google! Google hooked it up.
Did you do any early recruiting? You know when you start thinking of going on this path and wanting to start a company you may want to start with a friend. It’s always hard to convince someone to take the dive with you. Was there any recruiting on your part to get this going?
Yeah I mean I reached out to Cecil Kim at Section Studios and had a very rough deck, and really on paper a high level idea for eclipse. I pitched him the idea and Cecil is a visual genius. He was able to take my shitty drawings and high level ideas and he was able to manifest it into something incredible. I was able to take the initial idea in the initial phase, and I hired another programmer friend who was in there for a month or so and then he said “oh this isn’t gonna work” and kind of bounced. You know how that goes. When you’re starting a company it’s important to find other founders who are in it for the long haul, but most aren't. It’s really hard to survive that long or have money to save and you know live cheaply to keep going. You’re not, unless your super lucky and get an offer on the first bat and land a deal in 3 months, you know it’s very rare.
Alright… so, I know you’ve used the regular Oculus, but how do you compare the experience of the Quest, as far as graphics and visual fidelity, but also the tracking and ease of use to the old Oculus wired setup?
Well for me, I’m not really that big into the “it has to be amazing, like Crysis” benchmark. If you look at the success of the Wi, it was like magic… You could bowl, you could get your grandma to bowl. No one really gave a shit about the graphics, so to me obviously they're not going to be able to pack a 2080 into the hardware and if you get someone like Cecil’s who really knows art direction, it really doesn’t matter. You can still make something cool even with old school hardware. And the hardware now is getting like a Playstation 2 is graduating up from Dreamcast. God of war 1 and 2 looked super good back in the day, but they still hold up visually because there’s really good art direction and visuals and all the rest of the parts of the package to make a fantastic game. Some people get stuck up, or say it “has to look like this or have the most amazing 4k graphics” but you know, you can get stuck on that but you’re not really opening your eyes to the potential. So you’re probably not really going to get a pc quality experience on a mobile device, and it’s going to take time to get to that level.
Obviously you talked to Google, Oculus, a grant is a good way to get started in terms of capital. But if you could, what was your process to approach these guys when you’re like “Hey I have something and you might be interested”. It seems like the money is definitely with hardware guys who want to find good content to ship with…
I guess early on in the VR scene if you will, you know it’s super small, and still pretty small I really showed my products off at VRLA and showed off our demo. That kind of helped to generate some hype and buzz. I got into this excellerator and I was thinking about doing it, and they wanted me to move up to San Francisco and move super fast, so I said no to that. I started reaching out to my contacts in the game industry, also I’m a founder of the Game Dev Drinkup so I met a lot of people through that. I worked more of the traditional route instead of more the VC route so I just kept hustling. Early on again, no one really wanted to invest in VR from a publisher point because the business model was to not sustain so much risk and back then it was too risky. So Google had come out with their hardware platform the Daydream, and it was a great headset, it worked with your phone and they wanted to build up a great library. I think I pitched them just randomly at an indiecade, they happened to be there and I was kind of like “YO!, you do you want to try this”. At that time Daydream hadn’t been announced yet, and they said “we’re not really doing this right now but when we do we will keep you in mind”. And one day that door re-opened and it all worked out. It’s like that quote, I forgot who said this but 90% of it is just showing up, and just being there, saying hello, smiling, don’t be a dick”.
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