Gnomes and Goblins may offer audiences a lush world of fantasy. But its creatures — conjured by none other than Hollywood director Jon Favreau — won’t be appearing in a multiplex. Instead, Favreau has teamed up with tech startup Wevr to create an exclusive virtual reality experience for the HTC Vive.
The game’s development will be dictated, in part, by feedback from players’ exploration of the Goblin Forest, the first level of the adventure. Favreau expects the full release of the interactive experience to launch in late 2017.
We caught up with the indie-darling-turned-blockbuster-director (busy in pre-production for the live action version of The Lion King) to delve into why he’s branched into virtual reality in this exclusive interview.
Innovation & Tech Today: How does virtual reality borrow from other mediums?Jon Favreau
Jon Favreau: You can certainly embellish the gaming experience or film experience by setting it in a 360-degree world, but the interactivity and….presence that you have and the connection you feel to your environment feels like it dictates that you use a different set of rules. There’s a simulation aspect to it. There’s a lucid dreaming aspect to it. There’s an interactive role-playing aspect to it, much like when I was growing up playing Dungeons & Dragons. There’s a curated experience that feels like it’s a completely open world with agency, but in fact you are being led through a set of experiences [where], even though you’re exercising free will, you’re being looked after by the storyteller.
I&T Today: How did your own experience playing video games (say, Legend of Zelda, or even recent entries like Minecraft or Animal Crossing) help you navigate VR when it came to that interactivity?
JF: It was a comfort level and a curiosity that was sparked by those games with exploring an open world — and the idea that you existed as an avatar within those worlds. And then, in the case of VR, you’re actually occupying that space. You’re not looking at a proxy on a screen; you’re actually immersed in that environment. I think that the satisfaction that comes from a lot of those games is not necessarily geared towards shooting things or solving puzzles, but instead having citizenship within those worlds. The notions of crafting, citizenship, and interacting with AIs, or even other players, feels like a compelling aspect to explore in this new medium.
I&T Today: You mentioned Dungeons & Dragons. Do you look at yourself as more of a Dungeon Master than a director when it comes to VR?
JF: That’s fair to say because you’re creating a world, but you’re trying to anticipate what areas people would explore because you can’t plan for every combination of actions…And so you put a lot more brain power into the aspects that you think the user is going to be most curious about, and in the case of Gnomes and Goblins it was the A.I. and the behavior of the goblins.
I&T Today: And would that also open up more of a traditional episodic storytelling type of experience where different pieces of the world are unveiled over time?
JF: Yeah, I think so. You want to constantly build the world out like layers of an onion, and reward people for exploring it. And give them the opportunity to explore through their taste of what type of experiences they want within that world, how they interact with the citizens of that world, and how that impacts their experience. Once we do the full build on this you could take two different people and drop them into each of their worlds and they’ll feel completely different [in] the way the characters interact with you. And even what you see around you will be affected by the decisions and choices that you’ve made.
I&T Today: What’s nice about VR is that you have so many talented people building these amazing 3D CGI creations. Sometimes in a movie they’re on screen for a few minutes, but in VR you can explore them for extended periods of time.
JF: It takes work to make it so that you can interact with it, but at least the underlying assets are available for you to use as a starting point. And, of course, if you can do anything and look anywhere and touch anything, it takes a lot of work to anticipate all of the possible outcomes. Whereas, in a film, you’re rendering and designing where you know the audience is going to be looking.
I&T Today: As amazing as this VR technology is, a lot of the early content companies in VR today are indie studios. Are there similarities to making Chef or earlier indie films as you explore this new medium?
JF: In the case of VR, what’s nice here is you have a lot of labs that are part of the startup culture and the tech culture. So the R&D is being financed by a business model that’s geared more towards exploring these technologies and getting into how to push the technology without necessarily having a clear idea about what the future might hold and how those investments might offer the opportunity to monetize.
People are betting on [the fact that] if they do a great job and interesting things happen, then eventually the market will evolve around it — if the content is strong and the hardware becomes a little more ubiquitous. There’s a confidence that if you have good experiences that this technology is ultimately going to become pervasive. But it’s not as incumbent upon those studios and those labs to figure out and convince people that there’s a future in it or that they’re going to be getting their money back immediately. So it’s a longer horizon when it comes to the way people are investing in this new technology compared to the independent film world.
By John Gaudiosi
Portrait photo by Eva Rinaldi.