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The Future of Gaming With Penny Bauder & Will Hellwarth

It’s unfortunate that the success of games or toys is pretty universally measured by its financial success. For me, a successful game is one that tells a story or explains a truth in a way that only interactive media can. Often the truth is not one perspective or one hero’s journey; it’s a combination of […]

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It’s unfortunate that the success of games or toys is pretty universally measured by its financial success. For me, a successful game is one that tells a story or explains a truth in a way that only interactive media can. Often the truth is not one perspective or one hero’s journey; it’s a combination of perspectives and seeing how choices we make affect a greater whole. These days, the truth is often so complicated and nuanced that linear media, even news media, needs to simplify and distort it in order to make it coherent. Interactive media doesn’t have to. Games don’t have to tell you the truth — they can give you an open system and let you see what is true from what arises. If you destroy the hospitals in SimCity, you will see that it’s true that people depend on them for their livelihood, as an example.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Will Hellwarth. Will is the Founder, Director and Lead Engineer of VR/AR game studio GoodbyeWorld Games. His clients include: Emblematic Group, Entrypoint VR, and Khan Academy. Creator of Close Your, the acclaimed and innovative VR/AR/MR experience. Winner, Developer’s Choice Award at Indiecade 2014. Winner, Best Student Game at Independent Game Festival (IGF) 2015.


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?

Mybackground is originally in game design and development, but I started working with some proto VR devices pre-Oculus at the media lab at USC and got swept up in the boom around the Oculus kickstarter launch. I met Nonny de la Peña there and started working on a lot of her earlier projects, to really get a feel for what the medium was capable of. This is also around when I founded my indie studio GoodbyeWorld Games to work on our first game Close Your (now titled “Coda”), which was starting to get some festival attention and warranted us developing. I worked freelance for all kinds of XR projects at this time, most of which were in the educational or non profit genres.

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?

That has to be the time I went up with my colleague Patrick to Ireland to set up and manage the first deployment of our ARwall AR green screen replacement film making tool on a big budget TV set. We had of course tested everything we could think of twice before we left, confident we could get it set up and running in a few days. We ended up running into absolutely every possible bug, mostly with systems out of our control. We got it working a few days before the shoot, but on the actual day, of course, there’s a new problem with wireless connectivity. We went through absolutely everything, and just before we gave up, we realized the one difference was the amount of wifi traffic. I had to yell at the whole cast and crew to get off Instagram and into airplane mode, and in the one moment I was ready to admit defeat and pack up for LA, the screen came to life and everything was working.

There were a lot of things I had to learn the hard way — mostly about what working on a set is like. Also, the importance of not just knowing your product, but knowing everything your product connects, every service it uses, that could cause your product to appear to fail. To the user, it’s your fault, so it needs to be your responsibility. Most of all, in the moment where it finally came together, I learned that great victories only happen when the possibility of crushing defeat is on the line.

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?

Definitely. From the beginning I have been very aware of my weaknesses in the business and organizational aspects of running a game studio. I’m very much a head-in-the-clouds creative, even if I routinely have to fill a number of non-creative roles. I was very lucky that our (at the time) composer for the game, Oliver Lewin, said that he would be interested in transitioning into more of a producer role. Since then, he’s become my absolute favorite person to work with. I didn’t realize beforehand that I was trying to do everything and ended up not being able to focus on creative direction, which is both what I was good at and what the project sorely was lacking because of all the time I spent struggling to produce and manage operations. I think a lot of developers out there think they need to do everything themselves, and think of organization and finance and operations as tasks that can be done in their spare time, and have no idea how much it will cut into the work that they should be doing. Thanks Ollie!

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

I think it’s extremely important in the tech industry to exercise any success or power to change it from the inside. I think every company has unique problems, but I see two just about everywhere. The first being a lack of concern for ethics, assuming that it’s something that can be worried about after the project is successful, or just “later.” Personally, I try to be the voice that says just because we can make something a certain way doesn’t mean that we should, as unpopular as that may be.

The second problem I try to address is tech’s glaring issues with diversity of any kind. I think if you are making hiring decisions it is your prerogative to reverse this trend and be conscious of this during the process. That’s something that I’m particularly proud of with who I’ve helped hire at ARwall.

Let’s now move to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell us about the technological innovations in toys, games or experiences that you are working on?

At ARwall, our original innovation was creating a kind of mathematical distortion for an image coming out of a real-time engine for use in filmmaking. Essentially, we would track the position of the camera in real time and warp the outputted scene so that it looks like a window into a 3D space with parallax and perspective, rather than a flat screen. We’ve also adapted this to track a user’s head to create experiences that look more like a portal than a familiar screen.

My main focus for ARwall right now is finding ways to innovate in the location based experience (LBE) space, particularly for marketing and advertising. We know that a huge amount of money is being spent on giant screens for these purposes that are usually showing looping video or stills. I think it’s very compelling to people spending on these screens that adding a computer and a real time interactive component can completely change how much people engage with and talk about each piece.

How do you think this might disrupt the status quo?

For ARwall, my hope is that our film making tools take away a lot of the challenges of green screen while being a cheaper solution. I think it has the potential to replace chroma key based effects in almost every situation. As a game designer, I think the biggest potential here is giving filmmakers the tools to orchestrate their CGI live on set, and being able to change just about everything — or start from scratch making new environments and worlds — with no 3D art experience. My biggest hope is that it democratizes the use of visual effects, especially ones that interact with the director and actors in real time, and allow for improvisation and those magical spontaneous dramatic moments.

For Coda, I wanted to make this game not to try everything that is possible with using the player’s face/emotional state as a core part of the game. I wanted more to make a very convincing study on one aspect of it and basically announce to the game industry as a whole, “We’ve got some amazing data in real time for the first time ever in game dev, use it!” I hope to be surprised by the changes to the status quo that makes. I think Snapchat face filter style applications of face tracking will still dominate for a while, but I definitely think we’ll see more pieces in the indie game scene that get really interesting uses out of it.

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?

I think people are very used to media, especially advertising, being manipulative, instructional, and above all, it’s one-way. While our interactive product isn’t the entire focus of our company, it’s my focus. For me, the goal is to create media that is a conversation and gives the user real agency; that is aware of the user in a meaningful way and uses that information to provide context for a social experience. I think people will be expected to be more empowered, more in control of what they engage with, and start to demand that from the companies that make them feel manipulated.

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?

I’m very hopeful for this application of the technology, but also a little anxious. Growing up, I figured that school didn’t really reward my effort in a way that I cared about, so I blew it off enough to get average grades and play video games as much as humanly possible. I know for sure if an educator had been able to leverage the full knowledge of game and experience design that the developers of the games I played had, I would have been riveted by school and a straight-A student. Game designers definitely have the power to revolutionize the ancient Victorian-created school system we still use. I think creating meaningful incentives that matter to the children while also cultivating intrinsic motivation is doable, and would be such a breath of fresh air. So I see the hope there, but on the other side I’ve worked (briefly, until quitting) for clients in the education industry who are super eager to capitalize on the lack of knowledge school administrators have of the topic combined with the absolute fervor school administrators have for anything STEM. I’ve definitely seen XR and gamification be used as labels to make courses seem sexier to decision makers, and I think there’s a real danger that kids are put in front of some very poorly thought out experiences in the name of the school getting to say it has VR headsets in the library.

I know that this question may be outside of your core expertise, but I’m sure you will be able to share some important insight. In your opinion, how is the US doing with regard to engaging young people, particularly girls and women in STEM subjects? Can you suggest three ways we can increase this engagement?

Well I guess I tipped my hand with the last question about how I feel about STEM fever, but I do agree in the point of engaging young women with tech. It’s become a buzzword in the US system and has started to lose some utility, but I think conceptually the knowledge of science and engineering should be for everyone.

I think the exclusion problem in gaming is very closely tied with the games industry’s attitude towards difficulty. I think as an industry we were really hamstrung by our arcade game roots where games had to be difficult in order to make money, and we’re still feeling the effects of that design pressure in modern games. I think for a long time this has created an attitude that if you’re not already good enough at using games/tech, then it’s not for you and you’ll never be good. That’s definitely eroded, but I think the trend towards games that anyone can enjoy, regardless of gender, age, previous experience, will really break down that myth for good. I think the Wii was the first big stab in this direction and it has continued since, but mainstream huge budget games are going to take a while to budge. It will be very meaningful when they do.

I think every programmer should know who Grace Hopper and Ada Lovelace are before they’re taught a single line of code. I think the assumption starts when a guy walks into a CS class of all guys and assumes “this is a guy thing,” because what else should they assume? Wrong! Computer Science originated with women! That ignorance, combined with engineers being taught “your job is to solve problems, not question if the problems should be solved,” leads to huge unconscious bias even in well-meaning guys who want to practice equality.

Finally, I think that the most noble application of technology and STEM is in the creation of art and culture, and it’s assumed that these are tools for serious study or industry. One of my favorite experiences in evangelizing tech was just showing off a VR drawing/sculpting tool to a sculpture class at an all girls school. Students who had never thought about going into tech because they wanted to be artists suddenly lit up, and realized that knowledge of CS and STEM can be a tool to facilitate thinking about any kind of profession, including art, theatre, comedy — you know, the stuff that makes life worth living. I’m in the camp that thinks it should be STEA(Arts)M.

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?

It’s unfortunate that the success of games or toys is pretty universally measured by its financial success. For me, a successful game is one that tells a story or explains a truth in a way that only interactive media can. Often the truth is not one perspective or one hero’s journey; it’s a combination of perspectives and seeing how choices we make affect a greater whole. These days, the truth is often so complicated and nuanced that linear media, even news media, needs to simplify and distort it in order to make it coherent. Interactive media doesn’t have to. Games don’t have to tell you the truth — they can give you an open system and let you see what is true from what arises. If you destroy the hospitals in SimCity, you will see that it’s true that people depend on them for their livelihood, as an example.

My favorite games/toys in this genre are the ones made by Nicky Case. Check out any of his work, but I think the parable of the polygons is a really amazing look at how individual racial bias can lead to segregated neighborhoods, cities, countries and in a way only interactive media could. Seriously, it’s free, go check it out right now: https://ncase.me/polygons/

What are the “5 Things You Need to Know To Create Successful Games or Toys” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

The job of the designer or creative director is to be the advocate of the user. They should be constantly imagining themselves in the shoes of someone who doesn’t care at all about the product and what their experience will be, as well as getting people in to QA test and interview.

It doesn’t need to be as flashy as you think it does. I think the game that made big waves with this in 2019 was Untitled Goose Game. Most games or toys are about a simple specific emotion or experience. You don’t need a Hollywood blockbuster level of story and CG and world building to give someone the feeling you want to give them. Especially for game developers: your scope is too big. Whatever you’re doing, you can do it with less.

Similar to my previous point, you should always respect the intelligence of the user. This does not have to be at odds with accessibility. Give them the tools to figure the whole thing out, make it so it wants to be figured out, but walking them through step by step can destroy some of the best parts of the experience for them.

This is more applicable to games, but just as important is respecting the user’s time. Just like we are cursed with obsolete arcade difficulty standards, we are also cursed with the length of play time being associated with value. This notion is dying out but is still very structurally reinforced by things like Steam’s user refund policy allowing anyone to get a full refund on any game they spent less than two and a half hours on. You can see how this disincentivizes short games. My advice would be to realize the trend is moving in the other direction, and players are much more willing to recommend games that are closer commitments to watching a movie or tv show at max, not 60–1000 hours.

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.

It’s hard to evaluate what’s good for society as a whole without thinking of the impending climate apocalypse. It’s even trickier that consumers only make up 10% of carbon emissions, so even if we all used the right straws and did everything perfectly in our homes, 90% of emissions would be unaffected. I think the best we can do right now is to realize how much power is in our purchasing decisions. Stop giving terrible people as much money as possible. Move to a bank or mutual fund who invests in things you care about, cancel your Prime subscription, stop going to Walmart. These are the kinds of changes that can start to affect non-consumer emissions.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“It’s not what you do, it’s how you do it.” What sparks me creatively is concept and complexity, and I struggle every day to try and internalize this, but it’s true. I think we have a huge novelty bias for new concepts or new ways of thinking without being critical of how those plans are executed. I think that concept and execution are multiplied together to determine the quality of a piece of media, but more and more I am realizing it is weighted towards execution.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

@goodbyeworldwil on twitter

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