Survios CTO Alex Silkin shares the journey he’s been on since first co-founding the company in 2013.
Silkin and his team at Survios are near-famous around the VR gaming industry for having developed four of VR’s most well-funded titles to date: Raw Data, Sprint Vector, Electronauts, and Creed: Rise to Glory. Their growth was rapidly accelerated via multiple rounds of seed funding; a handful of which remain undisclosed, but publicly add up to $54 million (thus far). Last month, I sat down for a chat with Silkin over a VOIP conference call with the intention of learning how both the popular games and the venerable indie developer came to be.
The story begins in 2012, in a college lab at USC, where Silkin met co-founders Nathan Burba, Graham Matuszewski, and James Iliff. “They were working at the MxR Lab where they met Palmer Luckey, who of course went on to found Oculus later on,” Silkin told me as we began our hour-long call together.
“Palmer was already prototyping these headsets—the codename for that was ‘The Socket’. It was basically a 3D-printed box with two lenses on it and a screen.”
“As far as I remember, we were going to some early VR event. They started discussing the fact that we already had the technologies available back then to make some kind of full-motion free roamer in a room scale VR system. Palmer was already prototyping these headsets—the codename for that was ‘The Socket’. It was basically a 3D-printed box with two lenses on it and a screen, with a special shader that could warp the scene with two cameras.”
Silkin described to me how the young developers could throw two cameras on the prototype HMD and render a special mesh, through Unity, that created barrel distortion. “Initially, the plan was to use mobile phones and have four Kinects in four different corners of the room to track the data and combine it that way. But we realized that was just more limited. The Kinect can be really noisy, especially with four Kinects, and we wanted to make it a social multiplayer experience.”
He then told me about his frustration with the major gaming industry hardware manufacturers (Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft) appearing to have settled on gamepads as the premier method of playing video games. “My first console was the Sega Genesis, and with every console generation back then, starting with the NES, the controllers changed so drastically with the form factor—adding additional buttons,” Silkin explained. “I thought it was kind of silly that we just settled there. I was excited about the PlayStation 3 controller. The [Sixasis], before they made the [DualShock 3], was really cool because they finally added the gyroscope. But it was strange they didn’t really use it that much.”
“If we could track where your head is, all we needed was the Hydra.”
One year prior to the Survios founders’ first convergence at USC, Razer Hydra PC motion controllers had begun appearing in stores. This excited Silkin, who saw them as a breath of fresh air in the PC gaming space. “We had ‘The Socket’, so we had a prototype way of rendering things to your head and your eyes,” he told me. “We just needed to track the head, and if we could track where your head is, all we needed was the Hydra.”
Of course, the Razer Hydra’s tracking range was pretty short; it was designed to be used at the desk, not with room-scale setups that many PCVR players enjoy today. “We needed to bolt that thing to your head essentially, so we got a bike helmet and bolted the Razer Hydra tracking station to your head,” Silkin recounted after I asked him about the photo (shown above) that I’d previously seen Road to VR founder Ben Lang share on Twitter.
“Then to track where a playspace was in a room, we took a PlayStation Move and attached that to your head. At the time, that was a pretty decent way of tracking where you were in a decently sized room. From the beginning, we wanted this to be a social multiplayer experience. Out of the box, I think the PlayStation Move tracking allowed up to four Move controllers in a room. We just wanted to hit [two players] so that was perfect for us.”
“We just took a laptop with an i5 or an i7, running everything off of the integrated chip since we wanted things to not get too hot, then we threw it in a backpack.”
However, all optical tracking systems have a major issue: occlusion. You may already have familiarity with issues caused by occlusion where, if the camera can’t see the tracking signal, then your device(s) aren’t getting tracked.
“So to get around that, we took the camera, put it on a tripod with a gigantic stick, and put the camera up high so that the chance of you getting occluded was pretty low.
“Obviously you needed to run the game on something,” Silkin continued. “So this initial prototype—this was still in school, so we didn’t really have any resources for making any hardware—we just took a laptop with an i5 or an i7, running everything off of the integrated chip since we wanted things to not get too hot, then we threw it in a backpack.
“We called it the Project Holodeck. That was like the team’s name, essentially.”
“The helmet had all this stuff strapped to it, if you moved, you had all of this inertia that would whip around and carry you; almost to the point where it felt like it was trying to rip your head off.”
Before going on to develop the collection of VR titles that now exist on current-gen headsets, the Survios team put together two games for their own proprietary Holodeck device. “We developed a zombie game which was set in the ’40s or something,” Silkin told me. “It was basically a wave shooter called ‘Zombies on the Holodeck’. That was a side-project we ended up developing in addition to ‘Wild Skies’, and it’s funny because the two ended up bleeding into one another because we were really sharing a lot of the same tech.”
But as much fun as the early Holodeck prototype looks, according to Silkin it was not a comfortable experience to be inside of. “Because the helmet had all this stuff strapped to it, if you moved, you had all of this inertia that would whip around and carry you; almost to the point where it felt like it was trying to rip your head off. You’d be walking around very cautiously, and it’d impede on the gameplay.”
Granted, a lack of comfort did not stop Silkin and others interested in his team’s invention from enjoying the entirely fresh style of gameplay introduced by (previously unheard of) room-scale interaction.
“We paid ourselves minimum wage and basically lived off of bagels for a year. But this also allowed us to buy some 3D printers and actually iterate a little more on the hardware front.”
His most memorable experience of the Holodeck was in Wild Skies, where he had just introduced a shotgun and a type of flying enemy. “I remember how hectic it was, and then I added the dismemberment that I’d implemented for the zombies, so it’d just kind of bled into this game that’d started off as this Disney-esque, colorful, happy game,” Silkin reminisced. “That’s when it clicked for me that I knew that VR was the next step. It was the most fun experience that I’d ever played, and it was something I’d made, and it was janky, but I knew that with more resources we could achieve really great things.”
After graduating from school, the four co-founders decided that they wanted to continue working on their vision. And that’s when Survios was officially born.
“This is when we actually found some seed investment and we opened up a little office. We paid ourselves minimum wage and basically lived off of bagels for a year. But this also allowed us to buy some 3D printers and actually iterate a little more on the hardware front.”
With 3D printers, the team at Survios was finally able to miniaturize their headset design. They printed it in a box, inserted a small motherboard, and threw everything into a contained unit that was tighter than a backpack. And, at this point, the team had already gotten their hands on the Oculus Rift DK1.
“We took apart the Razer Hydra and we 3D-printed a little mount, and we put the little magnetic ball from the Razer Hydra into this mount,” Silkin explained. “We were able to miniaturize it and basically make it a much more tetherless experience at that point. Because it was light, you were really easily able to duck and cover and move around. We also threw away the Move and re-implemented [the tracking system] ourselves by just buying a ping pong ball and throwing a little LED light in there, using a camera to track it.”
“When we started working on this new stage of hardware, right after we’d raised some money, and before we’d started really working on Orion, Unreal Engine 4 came out publicly and made this huge splash.”
The new hardware became known as the ‘Survios Prime’, which the company showcased alongside the zombie experience. “With that tight little demo, we were able to raise more money which allowed us to move into a bigger office and hire an even more dedicated hardware team.”
And with that, Survios had begun development on yet another new system that they called ‘Orion’.
“When we started working on this new stage of hardware, right after we’d raised some money, and before we’d started really working on Orion, Unreal Engine 4 came out publicly and made this huge splash where they finally lowered their licensing fees to royalties,” Silkin continued. “While I’d been doing Unity for years, and I became quite an expert on it, doing VR and especially back then was kind of—Unity was just not designed for VR. You’d hit these roadblocks where you were doing something that Unity was never really designed for because VR wasn’t really a thing. You couldn’t really optimize things beyond what was given to you. So when Unreal Engine 4 came out, I was really excited about the opportunity. It was affordable, and on top of that, all of the [source code] was there.”
As the team switched over to Unreal Engine 4, the game that eventually became Raw Data started taking form. For the first few months, Survios converted core tech that it’d built in Unity so that it would work inside of the Unreal Engine. This included interaction systems, embodiment systems, weapon systems, et al.
“The nice thing about robots, like zombies, is that they’re not humanoid? So you can get away with things potentially not being quite as realistic.”
“Initially we were trying to make a PVP shooter—we knew we were going to do a campaign later on, but this [PVP shooter] was just a fun way to play with all of these mechanics.”
The ‘Orion’ hardware developed over the course of a year, including at least six months spent using the Oculus Rift DK1 and Razer Hydra for prototyping and development. Meanwhile, Silkin remembers early experiments where he’d play 3v3 and 4v4 with the other team members where they’d run around shooting each other. “That was really fun; those were some of the best memories.”
“[The game] was originally called Bullettime Apex,” Silkin told me as I inquired more about the earliest prototype of what is now Raw Data. “We wanted to try something a little new, but not stray too far. The nice thing about robots, like zombies, is that they’re not humanoid? So you can get away with things potentially not being quite as realistic.”
“Right before we sent this off to another round of seed funding, GDC happened in San Francisco and Valve announced the HTC Vive for the first time [in 2015],” Silkin continued. “We realized that as cool as what we’d developed was, the Vive just sort of blew everything out of the water back then.”
Silkin knew that Valve was going to release the Vive soon after, but at the same time, he was still intent on continuing his own team’s hardware. So he and the other Survios co-founders approached Valve and presented what they’d made. “We were trying to figure out if we were able to get into a partnership with them, and they handed off their dev kits to us.
“This was finally an opportunity for us to release something and have people experience all of the work we’d been doing. Which was really exciting for us, because at the end of the day, all four of us were just huge fans of video games and we all really wanted to be part of this evolution.”
“The very first level of Raw Data, and technically the second level (called Hardpoint) were mirrored after one single room from what was technically the second map of Bullettime Apex.”
Unfortunately, the vertical slice of Bullettime Apex included structural problems that caused locomotion sickness among testers. At the time, locomotion in VR games was a total rarity; developers either didn’t have any locomotion at all, or they relied on simple teleportation. Survios, on the other hand, wanted to hit the ground running as soon as possible.
“This was basically when Raw Data was born,” Silkin told me. “Essentially, we needed to take a small chunk of what worked from Bullettime Apex and turn it into another game. The very first level of Raw Data, and technically the second level (called Hardpoint) were mirrored after one single room from what was technically the second map of Bullettime Apex.”
“From the beginning, we’ve always made our games physically active,” Silkin continued. “In all our games, we’re always focused on motion-driven mechanics, all the way back to the Unity days where even in the zombie games you’d be trying to dodge the zombie attacks and physically swing your ax.”
Silkin also cites that, in the act of resolving the locomotion issues that struck early versions of Raw Data, he ended up with what then worked its way into Sprint Vector and Creed: Rise to Glory.
“It was really just our tech stack, which we continued iterating upon,” Silkin explained.
“[With Sprint Vector] we wanted to make something that was good and responsive; as good as you’d expect to see when you’re watching somebody play a traditional FPS. It’s not just stop-go-stop-go, it’s a pleasant experience for other people watching it as well,” Silkin continued. “We were thinking about ‘How can we smoothen this experience out?’, so you were running in a straight line and turning how you’d expect.
“With Sprint Vector, we proved that you could make a smooth traveling system, but it was focused on locomotion, so it was definitely pretty advanced. It required a lot of button presses and correct timing.”
The advanced locomotion system was a great success for Sprint Vector, which allows players to fly, glide, sprint and run along ‘gripstreams’ that Silkin invented for the purpose of letting players keep their momentum while climbing. But Silkin wanted to create something simpler for Creed: Rise to Glory. The team immediately ripped out the button presses that would normally make your foot land in Sprint Vector. Instead, the new system would allow you to pump your arms back and forth.
“In Creed, it wasn’t too big of a deal because we basically kind of knew where you wanted to go anyway. If we’re not talking about PVP, the most places where people are going to use locomotion is to approach the opponent,” Silkin said as I probed deeper into how the technology moved forward from Sprint Vector to Creed: Rise to Glory. “We call it ‘fluid locomotion’, and there’s really going to be many flavors of this tech depending on the needs of the game.”
“In Creed, at certain points, we were considering putting in a joystick to let you move around. I think some players really wanted that, but I think it’s a controversial opinion; it would have made [Creed] much less physical.”
In Creed, the majority of your energy goes toward physically ducking and throwing punches, much like other VR boxing games. Silkin states that Survios specifically sought to avoid letting players locomote artificially during fights; this way, they wouldn’t have an unfair advantage where they could artificially move out of the way of punches by using a thumbstick or trackpad.
“In Creed, at certain points, we were considering putting in a joystick to let you move around. I think some players really wanted that, but I think it’s a controversial opinion; it would have made [Creed] much less physical because people would just end up flying around the ring.”
Coming hot off of developing Raw Data, Sprint Vector, and Electronauts, Survios took a step back to figure out exactly what they wanted to get right in Creed: Rise to Glory. Having played both The Thrill of the Fight and Knockout League for inspiration, it ended up being the melee combat mechanic in Creed, which is legally trademarked under the name ‘Phantom Melee Technology’, that Silkin first felt a need to perfect.
“Any time that any of these big events happen, that’s when you will hear about new things from us.”
“In Raw Data you could run up and punch a robot in the head, and the head would fly off,” Silkin explained. “But honestly we didn’t really iterate that much on it; the focus was shooting and we just ran out of time. [With Creed] we wanted to focus more on improving how it feels to punch somebody, but also the effect of getting punched.
“With the knockout in the original way that I proposed it, it’d be that you’d actually fall down through this tunnel, and you’d look up and you’re looking through the eye of the character—Michael B. Jordan or whoever you’re playing—and you’d see the referee counting down. Like this giant referee through this pinhole, and then you’d have to climb up the ladder through the eye, and then once you reached the eye you’d stand up.”
I felt a bit cheated of an opportunity to climb out of Michael B. Jordan’s face in VR, but at this point, our allotted hour was coming to a close. Knowing that I’d kick myself later if I didn’t, I interjected to ask about upcoming projects from Survios. Regarding details on any new titles or even new content for existing titles, Silkin kept completely mum.
“It pains me to work on really awesome stuff and not be able to talk about it, but hopefully very soon the marketing shackles will fall and we’ll be able to show it to the world,” Silkin told me as we moved to end the call. “Any time that any of these big events [like E3] happen, that’s when you will hear about new things from us—if we are ready to show those things off.”
“I’m just humbled that I managed to make these games that people enjoy so much. When I started out, it was just us experimenting with stuff in the garage, hoping that we can finally evolve video games. And I’m so happy that I got a chance to be part of that.”
What’s your favorite title from Survios? Let us know in the comments.