Remember that the game is not for yourself. When you develop a game, you must develop it for a target audience that you decide beforehand. The game will be designed by the game designer for that audience, and if you’re not part of that audience, this means that you won’t like the game. I’ve had some arguments with Max Ariani when developing the game HitMotion because I didn’t like some mechanics of the game, and he always answered me “You choose: either we make the game for you, or we make it for our audience”. Needless to say, he was right and I chose the second option.
As a part of our series about what’s around the corner for the toy, game, and video game industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Antony Vitillo.
Antony Vitillo (aka “Skarredghost”) is an AR/VR consultant, developer, and blogger. His blog The Ghost Howls has been awarded many times as one of the “Top 50 virtual reality websites” and he has held talks in important conferences like AWE, View Conference, and WCVRI. His works include innovative projects like a system to provide full-body virtual reality without wearing sensors; a mixed reality fitness game called HitMotion: Reloaded, developed with his team New Technology Walkers and the support of HTC; a concert of the electronic-music legend Jean-Michel Jarre held completely in virtual reality and followed in total by 75M people worldwide.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share the “backstory” behind what brought you to this particular career path?
This is an easy one: like many young guys, I have always loved computer games since when I was a child. But together with loving games, I have always had also this willingness of developing them, of creating games of my own.
That’s why when I had to choose my University path, I decided to enroll in computer science engineering, and then specialize in “Multimedia and software application”. There they taught me about programming and computer graphics, all the basic components to develop games.
This is the same story that you can hear from any other people that loved videogames in their youth. What is peculiar about me is that I started developing virtual reality games in 2014, that is soon after modern virtual reality (re-)started.
It all happened because those years I was talking with a friend of mine, Gianni Rosa Gallina, about new technologies, and especially some research articles that I’ve read about the insertion of virtual elements on top of videos (later on, I would have discovered that this is called “augmented reality”). When Google Glass came out, we thought they were going to be the right device to do this kind of mixed reality solutions, so we decided to buy them and start a team called Immotionar to work on this technology. The Google Glass proved to be terrible in the end, but my partner had a plan B: the new Oculus Rift DK2 virtual reality headset.
At that time, I had no idea what it was, but when I arrived in the office and put this little black box in my face, I immediately fell in love with it. I saw myself virtually teleported in a beautiful villa in Tuscany while I was sitting in the real world just in my gray office. It was love at first sight because it was like magic, it let me magically teleport to other amazing locations to do interesting things, like if I was in a dream. At that moment, I understood that I wanted to do VR for the rest of my life.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
There would be many stories to tell, but if I had to pick one amazing moment, I’d choose when I had to announce our game HitMotion: Reloaded in China.
It happened that we got in contact with HTC when they were going to launch their new VR headset, the Vive Focus Plus. We pitched them a fitness game that would let the user move all around the room and punch droids so that to have fun in virtual reality while at the same time moving a lot, so doing fitness exercise. They accepted our proposal and supported us in making the game.
We had a very limited time to develop a version for the launch event, so we had to rush like hell… it was very stressful, also considering that many of us got ill during that period. To make things even funnier (or scarier), when I arrived in Shenzhen to attend the ceremony, I discovered that our game was not working with the new runtime update that HTC had created for the launch of the headset, and I had to work all night to fix the problem. Considering the problems with the internet limitations and my computer having its own issues, I had to work using an absurd setup consisting of 3 computers connected through a VPN and a remote desktop solution to fix the game, but in the end, I did it.
The day after, I was exhausted, but it was cool going on the main stage of the event, with a hundred people in front of me and thousands watching me in streaming, announcing the launch of HitMotion: Reloaded. For a little game studio in Italy, with limited resources, having the launch of its own game in a big Chinese city, supported by a major Asian company, felt incredible. I still don’t believe it.
This experience taught me that if you are determined if you have great expertise, and especially you know how to seize opportunities, you can do incredible things. If we never dared to propose ourselves to HTC, or if we abandoned because of the thousands of difficulties we had, we would never have had the amazing launch that we had. This was not the first time we tried to propose a game of ours, we got rejected many times by other companies, but we persisted and in the end, we succeeded. If you try to smash all doors, sooner or later, one will open.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Massimiliano Ariani is the person without which I wouldn’t be a game developer. I met with him during a global game jam in my city, Turin (Italy), where I was a mentor and he was a participant. He was very passionate about VR, so we immediately clicked. At that time, I had my startup Immotionar, but when it closed in 2017, I immediately called Massimiliano and proposed him to do something together.
From our partnership started New Technology Walkers, a team dedicated to developing AR and VR solutions. But since Massimiliano is a true gamer, and also a professional game designer, we always discussed making games, and HitMotion was our first possibility to do a complete game for an official store.
We spent many days (and sometimes nights) in the office, with him explaining to me how games are designed. And not only that, since he has studied at the art academy, he also taught to me a lot about art and creativity. At the same time, I taught him about programming and time management. I think that without him, I would be much more like the standard techie, while now I know also about art and multimedia, and that has enriched me a lot.
He pushed me to make my childhood dream of becoming a game developer to become true, inspiring me to not only care about enterprise VR applications.
HitMotion is “our baby”: he designed the game, while I created the technical infrastructure to make it possible. We are very complementary, and that is good for our collaboration.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
HitMotion is a game that lets people stay fit while having fun. This is very helpful for people that don’t want to go to the gym, or that find exercise boring. The game can help many people in keeping up their shape because everyone likes playing games, and by playing this game, they automatically stay fit. When the pandemic arrived, we realized that with the gyms closed, HitMotion could be even more helpful for the people out there, so we discounted it 50% to encourage more users in starting using it to stay fit at home. It was our way to try to help the community.
And we did even more: for the game, we developed a special plugin to let you see the real world around you even if you are wearing a Virtual Reality headset. This let people play boxing safely because they could see their surroundings and so they didn’t risk punching other people. Since we thought it could be useful for other developers, we decided to gift it to the community putting it opensource on GitHub.
Our attention has always been towards helping the community. And also on the personal side, since some people consider me an influencer in the AR/VR field, I’ve always used my communication reach to try to help others. On my personal blog, I share for free the solutions that I find to some problems that I have faced; or I give visibility to indie developers and their games by giving them a shoutout on my social media channels. I think that if we all try to help each other, the world (both the real and the virtual one) could be a better place (Yes, I wanted to say this sentence like all the startuppers in the series “Silicon Valley”).
Ok fantastic. Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in gaming that you are working on?
Sure. My sectors are virtual reality and augmented reality. There is usually a big confusion about these terms, but the distinction is pretty easy:
- With Virtual Reality, you have opaque glasses on your face that let you feel you are in a completely different place. You are “teleported” in a digital world;
- With Augmented Reality, you have transparent glasses on your face that let you see the world around you, with the addition of some virtual elements. Pokemon Go is one of the most famous examples of Augmented Reality.
AR and VR games are disruptive because they happen all around you. When you are in a virtual reality game, YOU are in the game, you feel like being the character that you are embodying. The world of the game is all around you, and there is a level of immersion that is far superior to all the other kinds of games.
All the emotions are amplified, and the games feel very realistic. We call it the sense of “presence”, and this means the sense of feeling there, but it is impossible to explain with words, or even with images or videos, you have to try it to understand what it is. And this is why VR has still some problems in being adopted: until you try it, you don’t understand how much it is cool. The same holds for our game: if you see it in a video, you may even think it is “meh”, but then if you try it, I’m sure you would find it funny and especially you would feel the fatigue of the exercise.
How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?
As I told you before, the sense of “presence” is disruptive. Being inside a game is an experience that changes everything that you felt before, in whatever game you have played before. I don’t mean that VR games will substitute all games: I still also play standard 3D and 2D games on PC and mobile. I want to say that people will realize that there is this new way of playing games, and this new way is so intense, so emotional, that they will want to play it often.
VR and AR will be a complete revolution in every sector of our lives. I know I may seem crazy to some of you, but we of the AR/VR ecosystem think that in 10–15 years we will all wear AR glasses on our face all day, exactly as we all have a smartphone in our pockets now. And these AR glasses will let us see an augmented version of reality. This could be used for instance to show in front of our eyes the hologram of a distant friend we are talking with exactly as if he were in the room with us; or to make us see the suggestions about what restaurants to enter in while we are looking around in the street, all in front of us, without having to look on a smartphone; or to have as many virtual monitors as we want on the desk when we are working. Many innovations are coming up in the field, and even if we still need many years, the future possibilities are so huge that I’m sure that this mixed-reality future is going to happen.
You, of course, know that games and toys are not simply entertainment, but they can be used for important purposes. What is the “purpose” or mission behind your company? How do you think you are helping people or society?
The main purpose that we have as New Technology Walkers is to promote these new immersive realities. We help other companies in developing VR solutions because we know that AR/VR can give many benefits to the enterprise (for instance VR training is safer, cheaper, and offer 2x the retention of standard training methods). We help people discovering VR by making many demos in exhibitions (at least, before the pandemic we did this). I personally help the other members of the community by promoting them on my blog and we all talk about AR and VR wherever we can because we think they can make many sectors to grow beyond what is possible today.
Talking about our game HitMotion: Reloaded, we decided to make a game that had a strong fitness component because we wanted people to exercise through it, so have a healthier life by having fun playing a game. We believe in the power of “gamification” to let people do useful things by having fun in the process.
I’m very interested in the interface between games and education. How do you think more people (parents, teachers etc.) or institutions (work, school etc.) can leverage toys or gamification to enhance education?
There is a big hype around AR and VR and education. In Virtual Reality, it is possible to visualize historical events in 3D and being immersed in them; it is possible to visualize better geometrical elements or physics experiments; it is possible to create a chemistry lab that is affordable and completely safe. The possibilities are endless and there are already many startups working on it. When I traveled to China, I had the pleasure of meeting with many companies that were focused on creating virtual lessons, because the government there is strongly encouraging all schools to use virtual reality.
I think that the mix of AR/VR and gaming could be very powerful. Games have always been a means through which we learn new things without feeling the burden of it. I’m Italian, and I remember having learned many new words in English by just playing American computer games. So imagine if you could learn English by playing a computer game that lets you interact with other virtual characters. Or learning history through playing a VR Action game or a Strategic game set in the Middle Ages. Or learning about robotics by playing with Lego bricks. That would let people learn while having fun, removing the boredom of passively following a lesson. And the introduction of gamification, that is fostering competition through a high score chart and similar solutions would also stimulate the students to learn faster and better than their peers.
Anyway, I also think that we must be careful not to overhyping games in education: teaching concepts through games is not always possible, and it is not always the most efficient way. Every case must be studied separately so that to understand what can be taught by a game and whatnot. As always, I think that a good balance between gaming and standard learning could be the key.
How would you define a “successful” game or toy? Can you share an example of a game or toy that you hold up as an aspiration?
A game is successful if it lets people having fun. If people play it and then they want to play it again, then the game is a success. Of course, it is important also to sell well and to earn money from it, but the biggest satisfaction for a game developer is seeing people enjoy the game he/she has developed.
In the VR field, a game that has made strides is “Beat Saber”. It is a very simple game, it seems like a VR version of Guitar Hero that you play with lightsabers… and it is so catchy, so polished, that everyone loves playing it. It is one of the most famous Virtual Reality games, and one of the most profitable on all VR stores. It is interesting that while many studios tried to make complex games with super-expensive graphics, this 3-people studio made this game that literally boomed. It seems a bit what Among Us has made in computer games this year: a simple game, with a catchy mechanic, that had a huge success. And in both cases, the fact that the games were not only great to play, but also to watch, was a decisive factor in their success.
What are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Create a Successful Game” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)
There are many lessons that I’ve learned these years and many that I’ve still to learn. If I had to pick 5:
- Making videogames is very expensive. Everyone dreams of making a game, but when you do realize that considering graphics, development, sound, etc… you start from a minimum of 50K dollars, you understand that every game requires a big effort to be good. So if you want to make a good game, you must have in your team someone that knows how to find the money to do it;
- Developing games is not fun. Before I started professionally developing games, I thought that developing games was all about having fun with friends while randomly writing code. It is not that way: it is very stressful to cope with the budget and deadline; it requires concentration and dedication to create quality content; there can be quarrels in the team that must be solved; etc… It is exactly like developing whatever other product, with the only difference that the final result is better to show to your friends than a project for the industry;
- You must aim at finishing. If you are in the IT world, you for sure know many people that are developing a game with their friends, often in the free time. The problem with many of these projects is that they never come to an end. There is this dream of a big game, but the team is not organized well, the time at disposal is always limited, some members go away… and in all this mess, the game gets abandoned halfway. As I said before, developing a game must not be considered as a “fun side-project”, but as a serious project. You must give yourself intermediate deadlines, you must have a clear time organization and a clear commitment from all the members of the team. And you all must have a deadline for the end of the project, and aim at finishing it. If you finish your game, even if you just sell 1 copy, you are already better than many game developers out there. And I tell this by standing over the cemetery of the games I’ve never finished;
- Remember that the game is not for yourself. When you develop a game, you must develop it for a target audience that you decide beforehand. The game will be designed by the game designer for that audience, and if you’re not part of that audience, this means that you won’t like the game. I’ve had some arguments with Max Ariani when developing the game HitMotion because I didn’t like some mechanics of the game, and he always answered me “You choose: either we make the game for you, or we make it for our audience”. Needless to say, he was right and I chose the second option.
- Test your game in the wild! Another lesson that Max taught me is that even the best game designer in the world can’t design a good game without making people test it. The game designer must create the game, but then the first prototype that gets developed must be tested by people external to the studio that are in the target audience. Only with tests on real people, you can see if your assumptions were right and the game is really funny. And thanks to the feedback from the tests, you realize how you can improve your game. For instance, when we took HitMotion to the important exhibition WCVRI in Nanchang (China), we spent a long time developing a detailed tutorial for the game, to then realize with the first users that people got bored with the tutorial and they just wanted to play the game. The Day 2 of the exhibition, we had stripped out the tutorial and we had many more people playing in our booth. We kept the things that worked and removed the ones that didn’t work: some of our assumptions weren’t correct, and we could notice that only by testing on real people.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I would love for a better community of game developers. In Italy, where we are, the ecosystem is too much fragmented, and there is very little support from the government. Many people want to have a game studio, but the truth is that many game studios can’t survive just by making games. I would so love a movement that helps in supporting the game studios, not only in Italy, but worldwide; a movement to create a community where game studios can help each other; a movement that helps studios in finding funding for their games; a movement that makes understand to the outer world that games are not just a waste of time, but there is a way to stimulate logical thinking, to make people learn something new, or to make people dream.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If you can’t fly then run, if you can’t run then walk, if you can’t walk then crawl, but whatever you do you have to keep moving forward.” It’s a beautiful sentence by Martin Luter King that shows the attitude you have to keep if you want to succeed in life. Every day, I try to go forward: even if I face difficulties, even if I’ve woken up with no willingness to work, even if I’m too distracted… I still do something.
This attitude of always going forward is what has led me to finish HitMotion notwithstanding all the difficulties, that makes me write my blog articles every week, that made me obtain the little successes that I had. People say that I manage to do many things, and this is possible because every day I work to obtain the best I can, even if it is just a little.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I would love to connect with all of you. These are the social media I’m most active with:
- Twitter: @Skarredghost (https://twitter.com/skarredghost)
- Linkedin: Antony Vitillo (https://www.linkedin.com/in/antony-vitillo-vr/)
- Youtube: Skarredghost (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC5TQ0u_d4KbIvaBW9LuVUsg)
- Blog: The Ghost Howls (https://skarredghost.com)
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.
Thanks to you! It was an enormous pleasure speaking with you