Interview: Jed Ashforth, Senior Game Designer for Sony’s Project Morpheus

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Some might say Jed Ashforth has the best job in the world. It’s his responsibility to test out Project Morpheus, Sony’s revolutionary new virtual reality console that aims to forever change the way consumers interact with games.

Following an appearance at our GamesLab Digital Games Day in Bristol, we caught up with Jed to discuss his role, the endless gaming possibilities opened up by virtual reality and how mentoring is the key to success…

Describe your role and tell us a little about Project Morpheus…

My name is Jed Ashforth, I’m a Senior Game Designer at Sony Computer Entertainment working as part of the Immersive Technology Group. We’re an internal group made of Technical, UI and Design experts who investigate all areas of Immersive Technology. Currently we’re heavily involved in Project Morpheus, which is our Virtual Reality platform for PlayStation 4.

My particular specialisation is in Game Design and User Experience, and I’ve been working in the Virtual Reality arena for more than 2 years now. My job’s the best job in the world – I’m the guy whose job it is to try all the fun VR demos, games and experiences that people are building! Through such a wide exposure to the many varied experiences that can be achieved in VR, I’ve been defining what works and what doesn’t work in this new medium, exploring how it differs from traditional entertainment mediums, and what our developers need to know to be able to make great VR experiences for Project Morpheus. Then the other half of what I do is to work with our development teams and help them get the very best from this brand new medium. It’s incredibly exciting!

Why do you think now is the time for VR to be embraced by the gaming community?

VR has been around for a long time, and it’s always been a real ‘wow’ technology, but very few people have been building games for the medium because the technology just wasn’t fast enough and affordable enough to be used to make great videogames.

But technology marches on, and over time the combination of component parts that are needed to make really great VR experiences have become more widely available and more affordable, and so now we’re seeing a lot of renewed interest in Virtual Reality again. The processing power we all have in our everyday devices today is so advanced compared to even a few years ago, and those technological improvements have remedied a lot of the shortcomings that people couldn’t solve 15 years ago.

Now when we put the headset on somebody and transport them to a virtual environment, they can really feel like they are standing in a different place. I might be exploring the Louvre, watching a sunset on Mars, or standing inside a game I’ve only previously been able to experience from the outside, through a TV screen. The difference of actually feeling that you’re present in that scene and that the world is all around you wherever you look, that you’re standing inside a virtual world, rather than viewing it through a screen, is huge. It’s a game-changer, it changes so much about the experience that it’s hard to compare it to videogames that we’re familiar with. It’s one of those things that’s almost impossible to describe to somebody, you’ve really got to try it to understand how different it is. But once people try it, it blows them away and the word of mouth that spreads from that is amazing, it’s snowballing so rapidly. We’re all gamers these days, to a greater or lesser extent, and VR allows all new experiences unlike anything we’ve played before. More immersive, more believable, and it feels much more like real life. It’s not a gaming device, it’s a teleporter to amazing new worlds and bygone times. I’m not one for hyperbole, but to me it’s clear that this is a technology that’s going to change everything. And not just in games!

What one piece of advice would you offer to those starting out in game development?

Learn about VR – it’s new, it’s unique and very different, and you have to really gain an understanding about it to be successful. For VR, these are pioneering times. There’s spirit of opportunity, of course, because this is all so new, but the possibilities of where this might go, of how big this might become and how important it might be in the future are limitless, and very exciting. People starting out in game development for VR now are in the same place as everyone else – like the pioneers who took part in the land rush into the unassigned lands in Oklahoma in 1889, everyone’s lining up on the starting line, and there’s great fortunes that can be won here. I’ve never seen anything like this in my career before – this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stake your claim in this new medium. It’s incredibly exciting times – whether you’re a new developer starting out or a grizzled old veteran looking for new challenges, there really are incredible opportunities for everyone.

How important do you feel proper mentoring is to emerging studios?

I’m a big advocate for Mentoring, especially in our industry which is forever undergoing rapid change. Whatever area of game development you’re in, the technology, the software, the competition and the market are changing all the time. It’s a constant set of moving targets that can take a lot of your attention just to keep up to speed with it. I find that navigating this river of change often becomes a constant necessary focus, and developers sometimes don’t have time to look back and reflect on the journey they’ve taken and what they might learn from that. So I think it’s hugely helpful to be able to draw on the wisdom of people who’ve seen so much change over the years and have survived it and learned from it, and can see similarities in their own experience to those situations an emerging studio may be facing. The instruments might be different, but the tune is often the same. Having someone to draw on, ask questions of, and seek guidance from can be a real help when those waters get tricky.

Do you think programmes such as GamesLab Campus, on which Creative England partnered with Sony to fund and mentor games companies in the English regions, are making a difference to up and coming games studios?

Oh yes, certainly, there’s no doubt in my mind. It’s a huge benefit to be able to go to a job interview or to kick-off your new start-up studio having already garnered a wealth of development experience on PlayStation. This is a competitive industry to get into and to make an impact in, and there’s no shortage of super-smart and talented girls and guys out there who can build great games, so you’ve got to be really good to compete against the games your peers are making.

Through mentoring programmes like Gameslab, developers don’t just get experience building games for PlayStation, they also get exposed to the whole PlayStation development ethos, and start understanding how it takes more than just good ideas and technical knowledge to put out a great game. By helping them through the whole process from the initial inception of ideas, through building a pitch proposal and developing prototypes, all the way to finishing, testing and publishing, fledgling developers get essential real-world experience, and the benefit of regular mentoring from experienced developers who are already working and succeeding in the disciplines they’re training for can really help them steer the right course. It’s the start of that journey that’s often so difficult, so it makes a lot of sense to use the wisdom of an experienced guide when you’re setting off.

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