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Behind the Build: Another Axiom Talks ‘Gorilla Tag’

April 24, 2023

Multiplayer VR sensation Gorilla Tag launched on the Meta Quest Store proper today after an astoundingly successful run on App Lab. We sat down with indie developer Another Axiom’s Kerestell Smith, David Yee, and David Neubelt to talk about the game’s design philosophy, their backgrounds, and what’s next for monke.

Kerestell Smith: That’s right—there’s no tutorial in the game. You’ve gotta learn to crawl before you can learn to run. We put the players in this cave where there’s no instructions except for an arrow pointing outside, and then we leave you alone to explore. The buttons will only move your fingers. As you figure out how to start moving, even if you move your arms a little bit, you’ll accidentally touch the ground and start moving. When you get to the end, you’re on this cliff overlooking a forest, which is a live game that’s already in progress. You can look down and watch everyone else already running around playing tag. It’s a place you can go to, but it doesn’t exist just for you.

And it gives you a strong sense of connection to that space. People want there to be ways to get back to the tutorial—and there’s nothing in there. People have such a powerful experience being in there and not having explicit instructions of how to move. That initial experience of stepping out to the cliff and getting that first experience of stepping into this world, it really sticks with people.

We don’t actually explain anywhere how you play any of the games—there are no actual instructions anywhere. It’s all left up to the players to figure it out and teach each other. You don’t exactly need people to teach you how to play tag, but in terms of the movement, you have a lot of ability to move freely and figure out new ways to interact with the world. We’re relying on the players seeing somebody do something they can’t do and asking, “How do I do that?” They’ll either try to figure it out or ask for help. It’s really common to see people go up to someone who’s new and offer to teach them some stuff. We’re really relying on social connections to disseminate information. This kind of allows people to figure it out on their own terms.

David Yee: There’s something we’ve lost touch with as adults. We’ve forgotten how to go up to people on the playground and ask if someone wants to play. When you go to a park as a kid, you just interact with other kids. You ask them questions. There’s this spirit of play and discovery, and by not having these tutorials and mandatory steps in the game, we’re steering people toward the joy of exploration and discovery. It not only makes you want to explore, it encourages you to be social.

KS: When some choose to play a multiplayer game, me included, they often engage with it in a pretty similar way: I’m not going to talk to or engage with other players—I’ll just quietly play alongside them. This game forces you to interact with other people, which is uncomfortable at first, but after a while it feels natural and enjoyable. The game guides you in that direction.

And Kerestell, you actually competed in esports. Did that inform your desire to have people tap into a sense of community and camaraderie while playing your game?

KS: Ready At Dawn’s Echo Arena, which I completed in, that was the foundation for me and my philosophy for what VR can and should be. In my mind, all the things that are best about VR were done in that one game, and that game made it clear how, if you’re paying attention to it, it’s doing all those things—how the locomotion connects you to the world, how the social lobbies connect people to the space, contextualizing everything you’re doing in terms of consoles and buttons you press and spaces you move around to. It’s not just that it’s a fun game, but all these individual things work together as this fun experience.

So is it a bit of a chicken and egg question? Did you know what you wanted to build going into it, or did you iterate and find the sweet spot over time?

KS: Certain parts had a lot of iteration—we spent a lot of time on locomotion and making that feel really good. Other things didn’t—connecting rooms had surprisingly little iteration. There are no menus, no laser pointers, nothing that kind of gives away that it’s just a video game. We absolutely wanted everything to be grounded in the world as much as possible. That’s where we started from everywhere. That wasn’t something that necessarily came through playtesting or iteration, but I knew why I loved Echo Arena: There was a menu at the start, but once you get to the lobby, there’s a pod that you have to float out of. That experience of it feeling like you’re in this place that could exist, that’s internally consistent, that gives such a strong feeling that I knew when I made this game that was one of the primary things I was going to do. I didn’t want the way that you interact with the game to have this layer between you and the game. When you clear as many hurdles away as possible, it’s not that everything’s easy to do, but you don’t have to think, “How do I move my hands?” You don’t have to worry about the buttons or joystick—it’s all embodied. The game was created very intentionally from the ground up with these ideas in mind.

It’s hard to tell in hindsight what contributed to the game’s success. We wanted to make sure the locomotion allowed you to create a connection with the world that was very strong. You have to know how you’re moving, what’s in the way, how to make a far jump—the distance between you and the platform is more than an arm’s length. We wanted to make sure everything was diegetic. If you want to join a room, you have to walk out to the forest and join the room. To join a new game mode, you have to physically go over there and play. And then we had to have social interactions—the ability to talk to each other, share what you’ve learned, explore other areas.

A lot of people have asked for a menu or being able to use the joystick. If you want to hold something, you use the grip button—you have to actually hold it, so it makes it feel much more real in the world. It allows you to interact with the world further. We obviously want to react to people, but the core, fundamental thing is that this is how we think you build an experience in VR that people will connect with.

What can you tell us about the new Clouds level? What was the inspiration behind it, and what’s your favorite part about it?

KS: In the early, early days of Gorilla Tag, when everything was cubes and placeholder robots, there was one area of cubes in the air that everyone just called Sky Jungle, since it kind of resembled a bunch of packed trees, but up in the sky. I always thought that was a super fun part of that early level, so I’ve always had it in the back of my mind. When we were thinking about possibilities, a giant tree in the sky sounded like a cool continuation of that idea. I think my favorite part is the area with all the hanging vines—it captures that initial spirit the best where you’re just trying to go nuts and be as evasive as possible, but if you mess up, you fall all the way down to the ground.

So Kerestell, tell us about your background. How did you go from a passion project to giving up your day job?

KS: It’s tough to make the decision to go out on your own and do something that’s a little bit risky. I had followed VR since the DK2 days, but I really got into it around the Vive and Rift days. Echo Arena was the first game that totally enraptured me and convinced me that VR was something special and not just a tech fad. I ended up competing in esports for the first time in Echo Arena for a few years, which is what I was spending almost all my free time doing. After a few years of that and feeling like I was seeing some stagnation in the way VR games were being developed, I wanted to start messing around with some projects to implement some of the ideas that I thought made VR really special and unique. I eventually landed on what became Gorilla Tag, which started being pretty successful as soon as I released it, even in its early state.

I ended up feeling like I was working two jobs: one at work, and then one after hours just trying to keep the game going and adding new updates. I’m actually a pretty risk-averse guy, so I started by taking a sabbatical to see if I could make indie dev work, with the backup plan of going back to my day job. Thankfully things worked out, but I was still really nervous when I finally made that decision. Of course looking back, it feels like it wasn’t really a difficult choice, but it was still really scary at the time.

For the Davids: What brought you to Another Axiom? What is it about the studio’s mission that resonates with you?

DY: I first met Lemming in 2016—I still call him that because that’s how we were introduced to each other in VR. He was one of the most active VR enthusiasts and players in a game that Oculus Studios made with Insomniac for Touch launch, The Unspoken. He was one of our top competitors in the VR Challenger League, and I wasn’t surprised to see him show up when we launched the Echo Arena Beta in the summer of 2017—which I worked on with David Neubelt who was the Game Lead at Ready At Dawn for that game.

Lemming became famous for playing upside-down and was the captain of the North American championship team for the first two seasons. Over that time, the three of us kept running into each other at esports events and at VR events like Connect, and we would always have the best conversations about the games, but also about VR in general and what we thought were the most important things to build a virtual world: diegetic VR, tactile presence, and social interactions.

What impressed me the most, personally, was how much Kerestell understood, from the outside, what we were trying to do at Oculus Studios and the approach we had with our portfolio. It wasn’t just The Unspoken, Lone Echo, or Echo Arena—we had deep conversations about games like Sports Scramble, Brass Tactics, Wilson’s Heart, and also EverQuest once he found out I had worked on that one while at Sony Online.

What excites me most about our mission is that our roadmap is a natural extension of all of those theoretical conversations that we’ve had over the years and how much we really believe we can make a difference in building a VR-first social game that is at its best because it is in the VR medium.

David Neubelt: I met Lemming as one of the best and most outspoken players of our multiplayer competitive esports game, Echo Arena. However, while we’d play sometimes, we spent a lot of nights in VR talking about how VR can be so much more than it is today. Being around at the start of VR’s rise in popularity, we’d see a lot of quick ports or cheap attempts for money grabs. However, every once and a while a gem came along, and we’d play it for hours talking about how VR needs more games for VR first and what we’d do to make it better.

I remember him showing me early demos of explorations of VR and giving advice on how to make it better—however, I know he knew it, too. It was exciting to see early ideations of Gorilla Tag. I believed, like him, that movement was crucial to bringing people into VR. I saw it while watching early focus tests on Lone Echo where players reached their hands out and pulled themselves into space with bewilderment. Gorilla Tag took a novel spin on it and really made you feel like you were a Gorilla flawlessly traversing trees. It’s special.

What brought me to Another Axiom to work on Gorilla Tag wasn’t so much the product, even though I think it’s great, but to know that I’ll get to stay up late waxing and waning about how to make VR better—and most importantly, we can try and do it together.

You’ve been busy delivering regular updates to the game. Is there anything on the roadmap in particular that players can expect to see in the near future, or are you playing it close to the vest for now?

DY: Players can absolutely expect to see us continue our regular updates that will include environment changes and a variety of themed cosmetics for players to express themselves.

We want to encourage the spirit of exploration and play. We’re excited to be working on some new mechanics that are similar to the balloons that we released a few months ago, and the new platforming features that are in the launch. Our game is about emergent play, and we want our players to have more choices when they come into our world.

We’re also looking at other VR platforms and starting pre-production on an expansion that we’re thinking about releasing sometime late next year.

DN: The fun part about working at Another Axiom is that while we are building out a roadmap, we also don’t want to lose our roots and we want to continue to be experimental. I hope players will be happy to see us continue to try and push the boundaries of what can be fun in VR and bring it into the Gorilla Tag universe each month.

How have you thought about integrity and moderation as your community has grown?

DY: We think about moderation and integrity a lot. We have dedicated resources and work streams that are only working on improving our systems and tools.

Integrity and moderation have unique challenges in VR. There’s a great session from Connect hosted by Mari Kyle that talks about some of the unique challenges we’re facing. It would be tempting to immediately restrict players’ ability to talk or interact, but we feel like that takes away from what makes social presence in VR special. A lot of our effort is going into how we can adapt best practices, or invent new ones, that create a positive space for people without being overly restrictive to start.

We currently have voice comms options, in-game reporting, private rooms, and a persistent mute button where if you mute a player, whenever you encounter them again, they stay muted until you turn it off. There are anti-cheat and banning systems, and we have hired moderators and community managers and have a robust support and appeals system that is run through our Discord server.

We have several features in development, including an auto-mute, community features, and we’re looking to expand on players’ ability to control their own playspace with additional private lobby options.

Anything else you’d like to add?

KS: I think that VR is still in a really nascent state for software. The hardware, to me, is already way beyond anything I thought we’d have by now when I was younger, and I think there’s so much untapped potential in what we can build with the resources we have today. I hope Gorilla Tag is able to convey some of the ideas we have about what’s really compelling in VR and inspires other people to build things that really fit the medium. I’m super excited for where things are going, and I’m really glad we get to be a part of shaping it.