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Interview: HBO talks Westworld VR experience and plans for gaming

Following the finale of Game of Thrones, HBO’s next key show has to be the acclaimed sci-fi show Westworld. HBO is investing a lot into making Westworld its next flagship series with mobile games, bigger and better talent within the show, and now, a VR title.
Westworld: Awakening puts you in the shoes of a self-aware host named Kate during the show’s second season. Kate discovers a world designed to enslave her and must find a way to overcome and survive it. Given her place in this world and how she’s learning about the universe of Westworld, it makes it easily accessible for newcomers to the series but those who are fans will get a much deeper experience.

By not adapting the show and telling a parallel story, it enriches the universe beyond the characters and stories we’ve already seen.
We got to speak with Colin Foran (creative lead at HBO) and Michael Clark (producer at Westworld: Awakening developer, Survios) about the making of the VR title and HBO’s outlook on gaming.
How did this all begin? Who approached who for this project? It seems like there was a genuine passion and interest for this series so it wasn’t just a way to cash in on the show’s popularity and success.

Colin Foran: I’m part of a team in Seattle that was tasked with finding new and interesting immerging technology and trying to marry that with what we’re good at: the story stuff. A couple years back, we did a Westworld experience that only got deployed to festivals but we used that to lay some track between showrunners and what we were trying to do. It did really well, people really dug it, so that allowed us to say that we proved ourselves.
Then we thought can we “put our actors in these experiences”, can that be powerful, do I care, does it actually work? I feel that we did that and so did the showrunners. So we thought, what if we made a full-length experience and applied these concepts for real.
So when we reached out for partners, Survios bubbled to the top of the list because they’ve been so successful in this space already. Then we got the showrunners in the room, the writers in on it, and started banging on what the experience could be.

Is there any idea for making IPs like Westworld and expanding them into more traditional, larger games outside of VR? 
Foran: With this one specifically, if you look at the Westworld IP, it’s about weird subjective narratives that deceive you. We’d sit with the writers and the showrunners and they’d get excited about it. It’s such a good fit. There might be any number of other games we could do but for now, can you actually cash in on that feeling of presence? It’s not just showing someone an episode in a VR headset, it’s about that feeling of presence. It fit so well with this, we can’t not do it.
Michael Clark: To Colin’s point, there are other games you could make with Westworld but we wanted to tell a story about being in this world and discovering it. We wanted to have agency stripped away from you and have you regain it over time, VR is a format where you have an unprecedented level of immersion and it plays well with these concepts of exploration and agency.

You are much more able to explore and interact with an environment and be present with characters than on a traditional flat-screen game. I think there’s no other way to do this story that’s not VR.

Westworld: Awakening

Are there plans for a PSVR version?
Clark: No plans for a PlayStation VR port at this time. With our development cycle, PlayStation wasn’t an option when we started and it wasn’t something we could integrate late into the process.
Westworld is very meta with how it acknowledges video game inspirations. It’s like Red Dead Redemption or Grand Theft Auto where you’re free to do what you want at the expense of the NPCs. Was that interesting to explore, where you’re making a game that’s almost about a game?
Clark: There was a lot of fun with that. The first chapter of the game very much parallels real-world game development where you’re polishing and iterating and taking something where there’s an element that you want. There’s a lot of those parallels. As you said, Grand Theft Auto and Red Dead Redemption are the games that correlate with the guest experience in Westworld.

The host experience is one that’s stressful, it’s terrifying. You’re an NPC, it’s a very different world to be the protagonist in an open-world game versus a bystander or civilian. That’s the fun we had with it and being able to tell that story from the other side. We’ve all played a lot of open-world games and driven over a lot of pedestrians on the sidewalk but to be in that world, there isn’t anything else like that.
It’s interesting, it’s almost like the hunter becomes the hunted in a way. You’re the apex predator in GTA but in Westworld, you don’t have that luxury anymore.
Clark: Totally! That’s the story we tell in Awakening and coming to realize what her situation is, trying to break away from that and becoming a real person. A player as opposed to a situation.

Westworld: Awakening

How much freedom do you have to explore your own area of the Westworld universe or are there rules you have to follow?
Foran: It was actually a really freeing process while we were doing it. We worked really closely with Kilter Films and the showrunners themselves. It was never really flying off down a path, it was sitting in a writers room and trying to figure out the best thing we could do with what we had. On top of that, there was this really cool opportunity where Kilter had ideas of things they couldn’t get to in the show yet so what if we investigated those here.

That got them really excited, then we started bouncing the ball back and forth. It never felt limiting, it felt like there’s this new opportunity, what do we do with it?
Clark: This was a highly collaborative development, more so than a lot of IP-based games. We had a writers room within Survios with a constant connection between development, Kilter, and HBO so there was never any contention. What there was were challenges with how do we make this better, how do we land this moment but never a conflict over what do we want to do? It was how do we do this best.
That’s the whole concept of a writers room. Pushing these ideas through a crucible and going “What if…” or “Ok, but..”, it’s what built the level of narrative fidelity that we have. It was a fantastic partnership.

Were you doing this while season 2 was being made or was it done after it was written, shot, or even released?
Clark: They were side by side, but there wasn’t much co-development with season 2. We were trying to not bother them, they’d send an email out asking how it’s going, but we were trying to be respectful of that co-development. We have to say they were super good partners.
[Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy] love video games so they get it. It’s not like we’re shoveling this thing on top of what they’re doing, they get really excited about it. They wanted to work on it as much as they could but they’ve got this other thing going on.

Westworld: Awakening

HBO has dabbled in games before. There were games for Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, and now this, what’s the company’s mindset toward gaming? Are you taking it on a case by case basis?
Foran: We’re not using this as grand announcement right now but it’s certainly a thing we’re thinking about.

I’d personally like to see a Watchman game but that’s just my opinion.
Foran: You’re preaching to the choir, man.
Clark: As a big comic-book fan, I’m totally there.

Foran: You can see which way the industry is going, it’s “Yes and…” for everything. There’s going to have to be some sort of involvement but we’re still trying to figure it out.
There’s also an arcade release for Westworld: Awakening on top of a home release. Is that the full game?
Clark: Yeah, the game is fully playable in arcades with a chapter select since you aren’t saving and are leaving and coming back to finish up. It’s entirely playable in arcades but isn’t built exclusively for arcades. It’s a long-form game designed to be played start to finish.

Finally, circling back to an earlier question but more specific to Westworld. Do you think there’s a bigger, more traditional Westworld game on the horizon? 
Foran: There’s nothing in the pipes now. I think part of it goes back to Jonah and Lisa just saying “Why wouldn’t you just play Red Dead?” They need something interesting, right? That’s why we made the thing we made here. This isn’t a traditional game. You don’t pick up a gun and shoot your way through hallways. This is very much a character study and they wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t that. It was something interesting for them.
If something came down the pipe, maybe but we don’t know what that would be right now.

Westworld: Awakening

It’s good that you look at it like that instead of just trying to make as much money off these IPs.
Foran: It’s a cool HBO thing where there’s a thing in the DNA where if it’s not good, don’t do that. It’s not a corporate [mindset], people feel that really strongly. If it’s not coming through or people aren’t going to feel strongly, it’s not going to get started.

Westworld: Awakening is out now on Oculus Rift and Vive for $29.99. It is also available in 400 VR arcades worldwide.

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