From Lead Programmer on Gears of War and its critically-acclaimed sequel to an impressive tenure at Microsoft that included stints as CTO for Xbox and Technology Director of HoloLens, followed by a return to Epic Games as General Manager of Unreal Engine 4, Ray Davis has street cred in spades. In 2015, he left Epic’s headquarters in Cary, North Carolina to head up its studio in Bellevue, Washington, where he served as Executive Producer for Bullet Train. In fact, working to get Robo Recall—the frenetic FPS birthed out of the now-infamous demo—greenlit was one of the last things he did at Epic before leaving to co-found Drifter Entertainment in 2016.
And now, that work is about to come full circle as Drifter prepares to launch Robo Recall on Oculus Quest.
“My background is a mix of AAA game development and VR/futurism-type, which is the core of what we do,” explains Drifter CEO and Co-Founder Ray Davis. “We don’t just want to make fantastic games—we want to make awesome games specifically for VR and XR.”
That ethos shines through in Drifter’s first game, Gunheart, a self-published title that came out back in Summer 2017.
“Our Art Director and Co-Founder Kenneth Scott came from Oculus—he’s a huge fan of VR and a big proponent of Medium,” Davis says. “It allowed us to skip a lot of the character concepting steps. Rather than going from 2D to 3D, Medium lets you move quickly and then place those assets almost directly into the game.”
Drifter went on to develop Ready Player One: Rise of the Gunters, a unique, interactive tie-in to the blockbuster film, before starting pre-production on a brand-new game built from the ground up for Quest.
“I’ve known [Head of Oculus Studios] Steve Arnold for many years,” says Davis. “We worked on Bullet Train together in the old days. Last summer, when we started a conversation with Steve to build our new Quest title, [Epic Games Vice President and Co-Founder] Mark Rein had been talking to some folks at Oculus because there was a desire to bring Robo Recall to Quest.”
Based on the scrappy startup’s big studio chops and its intimate familiarity with both Epic and its trademark engine, Unreal, Rein was quick to suggest Drifter as the perfect partner to bring Robo Recall to life on Quest.
As Davis puts it, “Having been there from the very beginning, it was a natural fit.”
Excitement was high, as were the stakes. Robo Recall set the standard for what AAA gaming in VR could look like—and translating that experience to a mobile GPU, while necessary for an all-in-one experience, was daunting.
“It’s going to push the platform extremely hard,” says Davis, who also points out that it’s “a fantastic opportunity for us to understand how the hardware performs—what are the challenges and trade-offs?”
Throughout development, Drifter was adamant that the gameplay experience should be identical. “Our core principal was, ‘Do not change the gameplay,’” stresses Davis. “We want complete parity on Rift and Quest.”
To achieve that, the team focused on rendering and technologies like Multi-View, working hard to squeeze as much out of the GPU on Quest as possible. Robo Recall’s signature photorealistic style proved particularly challenging, as did bloom effects and depth of field. “We had to find ways to bring back the feel of those things while still hitting our performance targets,” Davis notes.
For many at Drifter, that equated to a return to their roots. “It reminded us of the techniques we’ve used with previous platforms,” says Davis. Whether lowering polygon counts or tapping into other tricks of the trade, Drifter worked closely with the Platform Team at Oculus as well as Epic to pull off the seemingly impossible.
“Early on, everybody had some skepticism,” admits Davis. “But once we got Robo Recall playable on Quest, more and more people were like, ‘Wow, this is how the game was meant to be played.’”
While there’s a lot to be said for PC-powered graphics (just wait until you see Robo Recall on Rift S), there’s something undeniably magical about a fully untethered 360° experience—especially with rogue bots attacking from all angles.
“Robo Recall is Epic’s IP, and they care deeply about it,” Davis says. “They trust us, but we have to prove to them that their trust is well-founded. The months leading up to GDC involved a lot of last-minute flights to demo the game at Epic and show them that it’s going to be fantastic. We’re really excited to let press get hands-on this week.”
A relatively small studio (they’re about to onboard their 16th employee), Drifter has a healthy mix of grizzled AAA veterans with some fresh blood thrown in—all aligned on a singular passion. “In VR, we have the opportunity to not only make our favorite kind of games, but to also understand how the genres can evolve and move forward,” says Davis.
With Gunheart, Drifter tackled comfort as a key issue, working hard to make teleportation feel satisfying while also addressing smooth locomotion, jumping, and other things the community cared about. And with Robo Recall on Quest, the team continues to take its collective expertise and combine it with a willingness to experiment and solve for truly great VR content.
“When I told [Epic Games Technical Director] Nick Whiting we were taking on the project, he said, ‘You are <expletive> insane,’” Davis says with a laugh. “Four months later, here we are. It’s totally a viable, awesome experience—and it also speaks to our culture at Drifter. We’ve all had the past experience of really pushing forward on new platforms to see what can be done, so this is the perfect project for us.”