Verge Meets: CEO Ian Hambleton of Maze Theory

While attending MCM London Comic Con, I was lucky enough to be able to try out some of the exciting experiences the event had to offer. If you want to hear more about Verge at MCM check that out here (https://vergemagazine.co.uk/verge-attends-mcm-london-may-2019/). During one of my days, I got to try the super exciting Doctor Who VR Experience. 

If you want to know more general information about this, check out the release information here (https://vergemagazine.co.uk/doctor-who-the-edge-of-time-vr-experience/).

Surreal is the word I would use to describe how it felt playing this game. I used a sonic screwdriver, I walked inside The Tardis and it felt amazing. It took me a little while to grasp it because I never had tried VR until now. Once I had a handle on it, it was like being a part of the show.

After having that hands-on go, I sat down with the CEO of Maze Theory Ian Hambleton to talk all about it.

Verge: What led to you wanting to do this?

Ian Hambleton: So we set up our studio, this is sort of our first major piece. We set up the studio about a year ago. We have a VR focus so all of our stuff is around a thing called evolutional storytelling. The reason we love VR is it is this new entertainment medium that sits between gaming, cinematic film, TV and immersive theatre. Immersive theatre is a huge inspiration for us and that is where I and Marcus come at it from.

It is a game but our main mantra is to make it feel like you are a part of the show. So when we were approached about doing it, this has got everything you want from a VR thing. At its best, VR is a way of teleporting you to new worlds and places, going back in time and forward in time.

That’s how it came about and BBC said you nailed the atmosphere, so yeah we are about ¾ of the way through the production. It is about a 3-hour long game.

V: So can you tell us more about the game itself?

IH: You start off in a sort of present-day East London laundrette and because it is VR you can do your washing. Then The Doctor gets in touch to tell you she has been trapped at the edge of time by this new baddy. This new baddy is releasing a reality virus as she is not happy with the way the universe has panned out.

V: Given the current present-day situation, I think that is fair enough.

IH: Yeah exactly, there could be some deeper meaning there. Then there is a time shift to this apocalyptic world and you have to escape these new monsters. You do an escape room sort of thing which leads you to a junkyard which is sort of based on Totters Lane.  Then there is the bit you have done where you work to summon the Tardis. Once that is done and you enter the Tardis, you get to pilot the Tardis to these different worlds/locations.

We found out that one of the things fans most want to is to pilot the Tardis. It is quite a crazy experience she (The Doctor) is screaming at you, things are exploding but you actually get to pilot it.

Then you go to three locations, an abandoned spaceship in the future but I won’t give away too much more. You then fly off to Victorian London, where it becomes an escape the room sort of thing and you unleash The Weeping Angels.

V: Wow! Now that seems quite scary in VR.

IH: Yeah, it totally just works in VR, I mean you look away and they come at you. One of the puzzles is around trying to complete the task while also trying to not look away.

Then you go to a sort of Aztec/Egyptian world in the future that has been invaded by the Daleks. It involves a stealth sort of game. Each of these is about 1 hour long. So that’s the game!

V: Sounds incredibly impressive. Was it scary to take on something like Doctor Who because of it being such a beloved franchise?

IH: I think what has been good, is that we have worked with the show’s creators and writers. Gavin, one of the writers has written for previous shows and understands the cannon and the world. It is all authentic and exact. We also come at it from an immersive theatre/gaming background so we use that to our advantage.

You just have to be true to it all, so the Tardis is mapped one for one and we just try to keep it really authentic. The details are really important. I wouldn’t say scary but maybe more of an exciting challenge.

V: So today is obviously the first day you are showcasing the hands-on experience to the public at MCM London Comic Con. What are your current thoughts on that?

IH: Yeah, so we released a teaser trailer last week. This is the first time we have actually demoed it and it is amazing watching the fans.

In a way, comic con is such a great place to be. In the VR world, there is so many Doctor Who fans, even at the platforms like Oculus, PlayStation. We have been showing them stuff and standing in front of a Dalek in VR is so much more powerful than being in front of a prop. 

A lot of the people today are looking at the Tardis in awe.

V: I mean seriously, walking through those Tardis doors does feel like you are actually doing it. Which obviously is such a great thing to capture.

IH: We are going to get some reaction films later which is quite exciting.

V: Everyone I have seen walk past has stopped to take a look. It definitely seems a great place to show it off for the first time. So let’s hear about other projects you have worked on (VR wise)?

IH: The other game we have in development is Peaky Blinders. Which we weirdly announced before because we won this grant to develop AI characters in VR. Which we are mega excited about.

In Peaky, you will have characters like the Shelby family which you come across and in a traditional console game you press a button and they deliver a line. All of that which is very staged/not that real which is fine and all we could really do up until now.

In VR, you will be able to change the way they react to you based on body language, movements and what you actually do. So if you look over there they might actually question you on why the hell you are looking over there.  They are like AI enhanced human characters and it makes quite a difference.

V: Wow, that is crazy. I am just sat here trying to process all that.

IH: I mean yeah, it just like Westworld. We might not be getting to Westworld immediately but it is a start.

Ross who’s working on Peaky did The London Heist. They used a bit of AI in that and it makes quite a difference. So if you point a gun at The London Heist characters they will dodge out of the way and if you do it enough they will start being rude to you.

Our focus is on our own IP, we have our own games in development and we want to keep doing narrative/dramatic things. For example, we won’t do Tetris and we won’t really do shooters.

V: Experiences are more like what you are trying to create.

IH: Yeah, like proper deep things. There is a lot of VR which is just 10-20 minute experiences but we want it to be deeper than that.

V: You are going for episodes, you are trying to capture that feeling of being in an episode.

IH: Yeah totally! Which is why people are so excited by the two announcements. They want to be with The Doctor or a part of The Shelby family. I am quite excited by going back in time stuff as well.

A lot of the stuff out there is sort of just future/Tron world and actually, Victorian England is just as exciting.

V: VR is a little too easy to do future world because it is that kind of technology. When really, the past is more exciting because we don’t get to see that stuff.

IH: Also, the thing is with technology there is always the first wave done by techy developers. It is always obvious and I have seen it in loads of things. The content needs to be done by creative storytellers as that is when you get these emotional works. You don’t get it from ripping off Tron and I think that is what a lot of VR is currently.

V: Is it quite interesting working with such an emerging/developing technology? As VR has been done before but it is still quite new and has not reached the level which you are working on currently.

IH: You sort of are close to the edge but I think VR is going to have such a big wave this year. As it was over-hyped at first with the thought being everyone was going to have a headset but it was not like that. This year, a lot of the big launches are around trying to make it useable.

Oculus Quest I think is going to be a big deal. As everything is in the headset, there are no cables and even little details like it plays the sound into your ears so you don’t need headphones. Now, that sounds like a small detail but that means you can get it out of the box and just immerse yourself in straight away.

V: VR is currently entering that stage of no longer being just games. As we discussed they are becoming more like interactive films.

IH: Yeah, I think with things like Vader Immortal, the Iron Man one. I think you will play VR games differently to how you would play regular games. I think you will be like I am going to play this 2-hour experience like it was a trip to the cinema.

V: That is a great description of what yours is.

IH: I think you will feel more like you are a part of it and you will also dictate the story.

It won’t be just sitting down and playing games anymore, you will be entering worlds and experiences in a whole new way.

Thank you to the wonderful people who set this up and allowing me to experience this and chat about it. This is definitely going to be one to watch as it develops. I for one am very excited about what the future could hold for both this and VR.