Talking VR, sequels, and keeping creative with the mind behind Superhot



In the hour before I chat with Team Superhot lead Piotr Iwanicki, I go watch him give a talk at the Digital Dragons convention in Krakow, Poland. The topic is “Ideas that nobody is doing” and that’s oh such a broad range of possibilities. It’s a wild ride. Through some combination of HQ Triviaand Superhot, I think it eventually settled on fighting a real-life person through your phone. Or something.

Iwanicki oozes creativity. He’s the sort of free-flowing cool-as-a-cucumber type who’s going to have an insightful response for every perfectly-manicured question I can come up with. It may not always be direct but it will always be interesting.

On maintaining a creative spirit while hunkering down on one game for many years:

Creativity is always a thing that happens and it’s not to be taken for granted. It’s moments. When there’s a structure to the team and when there’s a bigger process to it, it always is kind of hard to achieve those magic moments. That’s when people are most creative and when people are most engaged in their work. The best stuff happens just at a glance and it’s very quickly improvised. We had this feeling with Superhot. We think about how to maintain it, but also you can’t think about it too much or else it doesn’t happen.”

On side projects to keep the creativity flowing:

“I did a mobile game but it’s only in Polish. It’s called Hajibaksen Vs. The Pigeon Mask (Note: I have zero confidence that I spelled this correctly). It’s a wrestling game. So you’re a wrestler, he’s late for a fight and he’s running through this Polish neighborhood and meeting dudes who have been sent by The Pigeon Mask, his arch rival. Then you confront The Pigeon Mask in the ring and you win. But what does it mean?

I like it and that’s the best metric for me. I show it to people and they have fun.”

On how important it is that Superhotinstantly communicates its mechanics and appeal to the player

“You nailed it. That’s it. It’s the most important thing: How those people are going to understand this. You give a gamepad to anyone who’s not playing consoles often, and the gamepad is a complicated beast. Those two sticks — it’s a lot for a casual person to process. A good rule of thumb is One Stick, One Button. That’s something that can be handled by them. Everything else is superhuman abilities.

I play complicated games on a gamepad but you always have to adapt to it and it doesn’t just flow. It goes with all the things in game design. Games are generally complicated. When you come back from your work and your life, you sit in front of the machine and you want to get entertained interactively. I believe it should be as simple as possible.

Go too deep into it and it becomes too big of a thing in their life. It’s important for this to be simple otherwise it’s this esoteric strange thing from the world of games. We aim for things that are from the world of people — something that you understand and that captures your imagination on a very very basic level. That’s important.”

On a small studio working on one game for four years, and how to divide the tasks

“We did the game jam in August 2013 and ever since we’ve been doing this. It’s never boring. There are always things happening. It may be the same project, but in the end there is vastly different stuff that you do and it changes. At first, I was programming and game designing. Then I was project leading. Then I was coding some stuff on my own later in production because I saw that some of the problems are best solved when one person jumps on it.

That’s the best way of working, we discovered. The graphic design of Superhot, this is all Marcin Surma and it’s all his imagination. I worked with him and described interface and how understandable it should be. Then he developed his own style with this base. He’s an illustrator, he’s doing 3D graphics, he’s coding his own shaders with his own feeling for color. When this is all contained in one person, this may seem like a slow process. You can optimize it, you can hire programmers who will work with him. But there’s this level of craftsmanship that needs to be done in person. We did a lot of this one-person work even when it was a team project and everyone was doing their part. This was an important part of the process.”

On studio culture

You know the culture from the outside only. When you’re on the inside only, it just seems normal. I’m kind of hesitant to describe it. It’s the same with game design. There are a lot of things that are verbal and said about game design. I don’t think I learn from hearing about those ideas from someone else. If you make games and you listen to game design theory and you feel you learn something, you’re probably just rediscovering what you know already.

That’s my general opinion about studio culture. If we describe it, it’s probably not it. Every company describes themselves as a young, innovative, dynamic team. If you say it like that, you’re just repeating the words.”

On more Superhot

The core of Superhot is a very cool idea. It’s this visceral thing when you experience it in VR for instance. People in front of you. They try to hurt you. But until you move, everything stops. This is such a primal role fantasy. It’s something that I know we’ve only scratched the surface of things you can do. We are working on more of that. We’re working on different tools and motion capture stuff — things that we feel will bring it to the next level. And it will be visible.”

So, a sequel?

“I hesitate on your distinction between evolution and a sequel. Because if it’s a proper evolution, it’s a proper sequel. Sequels also have this money grab connotation. I know that we’ll find stuff that’s there. Having those enemies move like they mean it. They have these tiny moments with you. This is something that really didn’t click in Superhot VR because the animations were all made for a 2D game and it was kind of hacked together to be a VR game. It’s a hack, it’s not like an animation system that was designed from the ground up. There’s some legacy from the flat-screen version. What we’re developing now is making an even more core VR experience.”

On whether VR is integral to who Team Superhot is as a studio

Hmm…It’s a huge part of my work, but we’re branching out a bit as a studio. We are doing more traditional games also. We have a very cool mouse controlled Superhot top-down where you kind of just lay down on your bed and move the mouse. You move the mouse slowly and the guy moves slowly and the time moves slowly. But you can also play with faster movements.

I don’t know of many games like that and it’s interesting to me. We’re exploring that prototype and it’s promising. We’re also doing simpler stuff. We’re also doing DLC for Superhot: Mind Control Delete. It’s in Early Access and it’s growing. That’s something I really like in Early Access games because it’s almost like an episodic adventure. You start with this bare bones thing and it grows. And you have memories of playing the older versions when things were different.”

On the future of VR

“It’s a tricky question. Everyone knows why it’s tricky: Because it’s a question of predicting the future. I feel like that’s impossible. But what we are seeing is that huge companies are backing VR as this important thing for their development. They’re also in a position of needing to find a way to make something interesting that actually distinguishes them from other companies and gives them an edge.

That’s why you see all these people trying different stuff and VR is one of them. It’s an interesting consumer device right now. With Oculus Touch, I think this is the first good device when it comes to VR. This and HTC Vive. Except the controllers on Oculus Touch are a notch better I’d say. It makes it a bit more friendly.

But still, to have VR now, what do you need? You need a computer and not just any computer. You need a VR-enabled computer with the proper USB ports otherwise your headset doesn’t work. This is complicated for people. If you want to make this purchase, it’s lots of money and then you need to make a choice of which computer to buy. Fucking complicated. Then you have to set it all up in your room. And you need to have enough space. And that’s where trade-offs start happening. People play in strange positions, they don’t have enough space around, and maybe VR doesn’t really work for them.

Those are early adopter things right now. It’s people who are really interested in it and they just play around. More devices are coming. I’m especially fond of all the ideas for standalone devices. You just buy one thing and it works. That’s an interesting product. So we need a standalone device with hand controllers and room-scale tracking.”

On VR finally moving motion control gaming past the point of gimmicks

I think the big companies in VR are focused on the right stuff and that’s important. VR is sometimes a buzzword. It’s not only a product but it’s a buzzword that worked for some time and now there are fewer of those people. But the people who really believed in the technology and see the possibilities, they’re still working with VR and they’re perfectly funded. The way is there and nobody knows if this will succeed. But this room-scale thing is finally a platform for motion control games. Your presence actually matters like ‘what are you doing and how are you moving.’ Kinect tried to sell it years ago. Wii was a smash success early on. But those felt a bit like gimmicks, and I think that presence in VR is not a gimmick. This is fundamentally different than what we’ve seen.”

On developing for a brand new piece of hardware

“It was so strange to develop games for [Oculus Touch] because you get this prototype device. Superhot VR was a launch title for Touch controllers. So we get those controllers early on. They come in a box. You open the box and you install the stuff and you say ‘Okay, what is this thing?’ It fits in your hand but how do you do games for it? It’s very easy to say it’s simple until you actually do it. When you have a totally fresh device, you start thinking ‘What can I do with this?’

Our first approach to doing Superhot in VR was to do this sitting experience. You sit in a chair, you move around with a thumbstick, and then you have your hands around you and you use them to grab stuff and shoot guns. But you’re sitting. What the fuck? We were actually developing this sitting experience Superhot and we believed that it had some issues but that it was a generally okay idea. But it was so far away from okay. It was totally not interesting and very flat. A piece of plastic on your head and strange controllers in your hand. Facing a complicated device, you have to discover these things on your own.”

On whether Superhotmight still come to the Switch

There are plans. It should be there. There’s a conflict with me because I’m the guy who will just say everything up front but the plans are there and we’ve done some preliminary work on it. It still has no date or anything. But I think it should happen. The Switch is a cool platform and it’s an innovative platform. They rediscovered something that was already there. Nintendo is good with their stuff. Superhot would fit there well.”

[This interview was lightly edited for brevity and clarity.]