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Podcast Episode #1 - Callen Shaw, VR Indie Developer

April 11, 2020

We're ecstatic to get the show on the road! After planning, rescheduling, and social distancing we did it! Our first episode is with an award winning Independent Game Developer currently specializing in VR, Callen Shaw.

 

Table of contents

  1. Guest Intro

  2. Betacade's Hands-on

  3. Extended Interview

  4. Podcast Show Notes and Links

 

Callen Shaw is an independent game developing veteran with almost 20 published titles to his name. As a native Pennsylvanian and current Virginian, Callen specializes in games that bring people together. His current project, VR Party Club, a "shameless Mario Party clone" is designed as a VR board game with minigames for up to 4 players. These minigames range from shooting robots, throwing Windjammers, dodging spikes, and flipping burgers. Our playthrough was nothing short of adventurous delight. Please enjoy our first Podcast Episode and the below extended interview with Callen Shaw.

 

 

FULL bio: Callen Shaw has been developing games since he learned Visual Basic in High School. While studying Computer Science at Pitt, he started to publish Xbox 360 Indie Games as The Unallied. His most successful games were the "Drinkards" series of drinking games, including Flip Cup, Drinkards Beer Pong, and the original Drinkards - a party game which adds minigames to the drinking games like "Kings" or "Ring of Fire", and has been re-released as a free Android game. Also called "Drinkards", the mobile version was honored to be Technical.ly DC's "Indie Game of the Year" in 2016. In 2016, he released "Ballot Hell", a humorous game based on the electoral college, for Android and iOS, which was later pulled from both stores for being too much fun.

 

Callen is now investing heavily into mixed reality and specifically VR, making 4 Global Game Jam VR games between 2016 and today, doing live mixed reality as part of "MAGFest Versus" (a headlining panel at the titular "Music and Gaming Festival aka MAGFest"), and combining all of those skills into his current indie project, VR Party Club. Despite still being in development, VR Party Club has sold hundreds of copies in Steam Early Access, and been selected to for inclusion at DC Web Fest, MAGFest, Awesomecon, District Arcade (winning 1st place), and Baltimore Artscape (winning 2019 Gamescape Quick Play People's Choice Award).

 

Yet, due to the financial pressures of indie dev, he's been lucky enough to make his living working for top interactive entertainment companies in the DC metro area. For the past two years, he has made serious games at MediaRez, where, as Lead Game Developer, he makes games for addiction prevention, infant safety, pain reduction, sleep health, young adult health, and more, specifically focusing on underserved and minority communities. 

 

Callen credits most of his success to the friendship and networking done within groups like the International Game Developer Association (IGDA), where he has served on the DC Chapter's board since 2016, and as board Chair in 2017. He also serves as Vice Chair for the IGDA "Anti-Censorship and Social Issues" special interest group (IGDA ACSI SIG). He runs the DC-area Meetup called Gaming in Public and it's his favorite place to relax every other Wednesday night with some drinks and Super Smash Bros.

 

 

 

 

Betacade's Hands-on!

 

Per their steam page, VR Party Club is an: “Easy to learn VR fun for your friends and family! 1to 4 players PARTY throw, roll, shoot, and slice their way to 1st place in various board game and minigame environments! VR Party Club was designed for comfortable, intuitive gameplay that will delight both VR veterans and neophytes.”

 

VRPC is still in development (playable via Steam early access, link below), looking to release sometime in 2020. With intuitive challenges that are easy to learn yet difficult to master, VRPC is designed to share VR immersion in a Mario Party-esc environment with family and friends. 

 

I got a chance to play VRPC at Callen’s home during his birthday party gaming extravaganza. Right off the bat, shades of Mario Party childhood memories surfaced in my mind. It was familiar but pleasantly altogether different. Using dice to advance your position on the board via throwing them like a soccer ball over your head. Based on where you land could mean an assortment of minigames. My favorite was like a mix between throwing frisbees on a beach with Pong rules. During the podcast with Callen, he stated this minigame was inspired by an old friend who pleaded with him to include “WindJammers”.

 

 

 

Having to move around

Other minigames would require you to duck under obstacles. Being a VR newb, this was really fun and engaging. Sometimes my Wife will catch me dodge or dipping around while playing on the couch and finally, an experience where those moves matter. One game required the player to move around a kitchen to cook. The game is designed to only make the player move about 1 step in any direction, but that’s why it’s great. Having to handle the grill, prepping station and then deliver it to the counter was a fun challenge. 

 

Getting used to the controls

The controls were not hard to grasp (ha VR pun..). As I held the controllers in each hand, I only used my pointer or thumb to press or grab objects. Each game I played had well defined controls and most of the objects were responsive to my interactions. For next time however, I’ll make sure to have some way to fasten the controllers a bit tighter to my hands. For some activities, I caught myself getting a bit too aggressive nearly losing a controller.

 

Having fun and being competitive

VR Party Club in early access has a variety of minigames to play and their Steam page states that at launch, there will be 20 minigames and 5 game boards. During my play session with 3 other people, few times occurred where the same minigame repeated. Not only was it fun to play, but also fun to watch other players give it their best shot. It would seem that VR gaming is not just a gaming type or format but also it could be considered its own form of entertainment. Playing a VR game like VRPC is a ton of fun but watching others play is actually fun as well. Watching others trying to learn how to excel at a minigame while seemingly dancing around the room provides entertainment when you aren’t playing.

 

 

 

VERDICT:

I highly recommend VR Party Club to everyone, especially as a first time user of VR. The bite sized experiences really help sharpen what I would call VR cognitive calibration. You won’t look pretty the first few times but after a while you’ll be slicing and dicing in no time.

 

 

 

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Extended interview with Callen Shaw

 

Betacade: When and why did you start developing games? Also growing up, what were your favorite titles and how have they informed the games you make?

 

I've grown up playing games, since my dad bought me a Sega Genesis at age 3. They were always my favorite hobby, from Sonic to Pokemon, later Mario 64 to Perfect Dark. One day in high school, a friend said he was making his own games in an elective class called "Visual Basic", and this was essentially the first time I realized that I could learn to make the kinds of games I loved. I enrolled in that class, and by the end of it I sold a dozen kids at school floppy disks with my first "commercial" game - a turn-based RPG named "Medieval" - for about $4 a copy. The successor class taught Java as an AP prep class, but I was so insatiable I convinced the teacher to make two more programming classes just for me, to learn C++ and C#. This all culminated in my high school senior project, a shmup called "Space Attack" with RPG elements, several enemy types with unique AI, and 5 stages with a unique boss at the end of each.

 

 

 

I've never quite been content to play a single genre of game, however, enjoying Zelda as much as Halo, wasting hours in arcade racers as well as racing sims, and this diverse set of tastes is clear in the games I've made over the years. The biggest thing I take from my past, however, is that indescribable "je ne sais quoi" from Nintendo's games - its a certain lack of bloated UI elements, straightforward "teach by playing" early game, and iconic imagery that has given Nintendo's games global appeal for over three decades. I tend to avoid making games for a specific segment of gamers; instead I try to make them for everyone!

 

Betacade: How many games have you published, which one was your favorite and why?

 

Commercially, 10 Xbox 360 Indie Games, 2 mobile games, and VR Party Club. Including "published and downloadable somewhere", I made 12 games in 2013 (#OneGameAMonth), though 2 or 3 of those were eventual X360 releases, as well as 7 global game jam games - however, 3 of those are now VRPC minigames.... so it's a tough question to answer precisely! I'd go with "more than 20 released games, 13 commercially".

 

I love all my babies equally! But when people ask about a favorite, I always go back to my Xbox 360 game "3D-struction". Back when 3D TVs were all the hype, I made a 3D "Breakout" (Arkanoid) clone, that supported 3D TV, plus Red-Blue and Green-Violet glasses - like the old 3D movies used. You could even do the "magic eye" cross-eyed thing to view it in 3D, though I don't recommend that! It was challenging to keep my color palette within the restrictions this imposed. I wrote essentially perfect ball-bouncing physics, which is easy enough for a purely voxel-based world, but not for me at the time! I also built out about 30 levels (about 10 which were co-op focused), with a score/star progression system, and online Leaderboards. I think it was, polish-wise, one of the best things I ever made... and it sold TERRIBLY! My heart is still broken to this day! The title screen even had a note about sending me a self-addressed stamped envelope to a PO Box I rented out, and I'd send them a free paid of red-blue 3D glasses - but only one request ever came. Still, that was my first flirtation with stereoscopic rendering (which I had to do the calculations for myself), and I think its a big part of my love for VR today.

 

Betacade: How many games have you developed overall and which un-published game had the most promise, why wasn’t it published?

 

I actually tend to release most of the games I start, but clearly some never make it to the finish line. Most of those are killed before they really start, and I'm sure I've forgotten more than I'll talk about, but here are a couple examples. I began working on the sequel to 3D-struction as soon as I released the original. Titled "3D-scovery" it took the single-paragraph backstory of a space mining company to multiple planets with their own 3D environments, while adding a full story, numerous gameplay features, and so on. However, a couple months into the project, as I saw the abysmal sales of 3D-struction, and the fact that 3D movies and TV were starting to become a bit of a mocking joke, I sadly had to stop development. Next is a turn-based strategy card game I built toward the end of high school. I spent a lot of time on it, but I was probably only 2% of the way done. That was my first lesson in scoping your work properly, and I never really made that mistake again.

 

The unpublished game with the most promise was one I actually did publish in a few prototype forms, with different names like "Break-IN" and "Blocked Out". The concept is another Breakout/Arkanoid style game (sorry, I'm over-representing that genre's impact on my career haha), but instead of paddles, the level's blocks encapsulate the ball, and you control the blocks by rotation, scrolling (think a conveyor belt), or a combination of the two. The Xbox 360 version would have dozens of levels each with their own unique clockwork puzzles, for example, navigating to a "switch" block to open a door. Everything must be done quickly enough that you don't destroy the level itself, and lose your ball off the screen. My friend was doing hand-drawn colored pencil art for the blocks and backgrounds, with a fantastic style which today would remind you of Minecraft, but before Minecraft was a thing. However, this friend eventually got bored of the rigors of game art, and dropped out of the project. Since I had only completed the first few levels, and knew no artists I trusted to continue his awesome style, I shelved the project, hoping he would come back to it someday. Now he's drawing promo posters for Miyazaki films, so I'm glad he found his passion.

 

Betacade: Briefly describe what you’re doing to pay the bills in regards to the cool VR project we discussed earlier.

 

I could talk a bit about our one released game, Recovery Warrior (http://recoverywarrior.com), however it's not such fertile ground since I joined the company when this was mostly complete. I fixed a lot of things for release, but didn't get to do much design work. Now, we're heading into clinical trials for our VR for Pain Control app, which is a huge suite with multiple games I fully designed and built, but this sentence is probably the limit of what my boss would be comfortable with me talking about.

 

Betacade: What’s your role and involvement with IGDA-DC

 

As mentioned above, I've been on IGDA-DC's board since late 2016, and served as Chair in 2017. I'm currently our Treasurer, for our basically non-existent budget. In my tenure, I've run the Meetup group and forced us to hold regular meetings, which has grown our total membership as well as our per-meeting numbers, from a handful of people when I joined to about 30 regulars and 100 occasional members, with new ones coming all the time. I also helped conceptualize and run the District Arcade, which is a locally-focused indie game exhibition held every late summer or fall since 2016.

 

Betacade: Let’s talk about VR Party Club. 

 

What inspired this game?

How long has this been in development? 

Is it just you or is there a team?

What has been the most difficult aspect in getting the game off the ground?

What has been the most memorable moment in developing this game?

 

VR Party Club was the culmination of everything I was doing in 2017. I was getting very into VR. I was promoting my party game, Drinkards, at every event I could find. I was a part of MAGFest Versus, where a group of local developers were tasked with making, originally, greenscreen-based "augmented reality" games, that we would string together as the game show's finale. For the show in Jan 2018 we were all-in on VR and Mixed Reality capture, but when the other 2 devs became increasingly flakey, I brought my friend Kevin Berezansky in to pick up some slack. Between Kevin and I, we had eventually made a handful of fun VR minigames by the time MAGFest Versus 2018 was over, and I said to him "why don't we try a Mario Party style game?" Very few people own VR headsets at home, yet games like "Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes" were very popular, so we wanted to give the early-adopters a great showcase of VR's strengths to share with their friends and family.

 

About 9 months later, in Oct 2018, we released the first build of VR Party Club on Steam Early Access. Kevin says we released too early, but I say "release early, and release often", and we've been hard at work on that for over 2 years now, putting out our latest update with our 15th minigame on Mar 9. The core team is just me and Kevin, but we've been supported along the way by our friends at Gaming in Public and IGDA, who give great feedback, transient collaborators for the stuff we do at game jams (including the awesome Diwa DeLeon who made some sweet music for our next minigame), and our most loyal friend, the Unity Asset Store! Kevin and I have very overlapping, yet different skillsets, leading to an interesting working relationship. We sometimes build entire minigames alone, then pass them off to each other for bug fixes and polish. Other times we'll have a great idea that requires my programming expertise to make a new interaction, and his much better level design talents to make the new mechanics really shine.

 

 

 

The core structural parts of the game are almost fully my domain, as are the business development, website and marketing stuff, applications to shows and conventions, etc., and with all those jobs to do I'm always grateful when he slips a cool new feature into the game while I'm too busy to open Unity. That's really the most difficult part of things - I want to build so many features, fix up so many things in our existing content, and market on every facegram and twitter and reddit thread, but there's regrettably only one of me to do any one thing at a time. And that makes me feel like I'm always behind, or neglecting one aspect of the game to improve another.

 

The most memorable moment was our tournament at MAGFest's Indie Videogame Showcase this year. We show our game off as much as possible, and constantly tear our hair out trying to balance something challenging enough to be fun, but accessible enough for someone to pick up and play. I'm always worried the game is too hard to grok, based on the mediocre scores almost all players are earning. But in a MIVS tournament, you are given M-Points to distribute to the winners of your tournament, and they're as good as cash at all MAGFest vendors. All of the sudden, every single player is getting Gold or Platinum scores on every game I threw at them, proving that, at least, the games aren't impossibly hard ;)

 

Join us, won't you?

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Show notes:

 

VR Party Club early access Steam page

VR Part Club Game Play [VIDEO] - Youtube

 

 

Youtube - Geometry Lesson in Half Life

Youtube - Juggling in Half Life

Youtube - Final Fantasy 15 Food

Facebook Group for the Washington D.C. Chapter of the International Game Developers Association (IGDA)

Meetup Group - Gaming In Public

 

 

 

 

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