To pull more people into virtual reality, game developer Robyn Tong Gray designs experiences that strike memorable, emotional chords.
“My favorite thing about the game, which may sound terrible, is that it makes people cry,” said Robyn Tong Gray, an indie game developer and the designer of the game A•part•ment.
The game tells the story of Nick Connor, a comics artist going through a difficult breakup with his girlfriend. Players explore the wreckage of their relationship by uncovering the memories scattered throughout their apartment.
When it debuted at the Game Developers Conference in 2015, misty-eyed fans flooded Gray with their own stories of failed romance. One man even buttonholed her with the story of his messy divorce.
“I like to create amazing virtual experiences that draw people in with emotions,” said Gray, who has produced 12 standalone virtual reality (VR) experiences, including the haunting Sisters, which has been downloaded more than 3.5 million times. Players explore a haunted house for clues to the sisters’ mysterious past.
After developing A•part•ment as a graduate student project at the University of Southern California (USC) Institute for Creative Technologies, Gray dug in her heels and began leading the charge to bring emotional content to VR.
Immersed in Learning
Gray entered into VR through gaming. As a preschooler, she was fascinated by her teenage brother’s skills at playing Super Nintendo. After graduating from high school, she enrolled in the undergraduate game studies program at Carnegie Mellon because her older brother was an independent game developer.
“I felt that if he could do it, then I could too,’” said Gray. “As a woman in technology, I don’t feel like I’ve run into many barriers.”
Nonetheless, she is an anomaly in the VR industry. A recent study found that women users comprise less than 10 percent of the VR market. Gray was fortunate to enroll in a graduate course at USC, one of the leading universities in VR research.
“I had a lot of opportunities because of USC that other people might not have had. I was very lucky,” said Gray.
At school, she was surrounded by a faculty of VR pioneers, including her mentor Mark Bolas, who helped create the first VR system for NASA in the 1980s.
Gray was captivated by the experimental research at the university. In the mixed reality lab, she built a system that reconstructed real-life objects in VR, allowing users to interact with the physical world while wearing a headset.
Then in 2014, she helped to produce Leviathan with Intel, plucking a giant flying whale from the pages of a steampunk graphic novel by Scott Westerfeld and bringing it to life in VR.
Crafting Emotional Moments in VR
Otherworld Interactive, the VR studio that Gray co-founded in 2014, is tucked away in a concrete-laden industrial park in Culver City, next to California’s roaring 405 freeway.
The studio is deep in development on their latest project, Taco Sloth. More than 10 Android phones lay scattered across Gray’s desk. She has been painstakingly testing the game on each one.
Taco Sloth is a game about a sloth who runs a taco truck, where the player must meet the ever-increasing demands of a hungry mob. The game is indicative of the type of content Gray believes VR is lacking.
“With VR, you see a lot of the same tropes that you see in traditional games,” she said. “My hope is to cultivate an audience for a wider variety of experiences.”
The studio’s output is eclectic, ranging from interactive haunted houses to VR music videos about the fall of civilization. To keep users emotionally engaged, Gray fills her games with everyday situations rather than big, grandiose scenes. Little details from daily life, such as ordering a chorizo burrito, creates experiences that feel immersive and real.
“Storytelling in VR is really about finding small moments that evoke empathy in your audience,” she said. “Life is made up of small moments.”
Teaching Others to Create
Understanding how to generate an emotional response in players requires a great deal of empathy — it means knowing what will connect with different people. Because of that, Gray keeps her team diverse. Otherworld strives to maintain a balanced ratio of male and female employees, she said, which allows for a wider range of creative voices.
That drive to include women extends to Gray’s personal life, too. Earlier this year, she hosted a game design boot camp sponsored by Intel — for eight weeks during the summer, she mentored a group of future female developers.
“It was really inspiring to work with people who are coming to this medium with fresh eyes, who don’t really know yet what they can or can’t do,” she said.
By leading new voices into the industry, she is helping to expand VR’s emotional intelligence.
Editor’s note: Find more profiles on women business leaders in the iQ series #SHEOWNSIT.