Hands-Off: ‘Headmaster’ Twists Soccer Into a Dark Comedy on Rift
Oculus Blog
Posted by Oculus VR
August 30, 2017

Calling all soccer hooligans and quirky comedy fans. It’s time to get your head in the game because Headmaster is now available for Rift on the Oculus Store!

Make the most of immersive head tracking at the Football Improvement Centre (definitely not a prison) where you’ll maneuver your way through a single-player campaign of 40+ levels and head your way to freedom.

We met up with Frame Interactive Founder & CEO Ben Throop for a sideline huddle.

Headmaster has been widely praised for its humor, with Destructoid applauding “its sharp wit” and “genuine depth.” What was your motivation there?

Ben Throop: We wanted to lie to the player with a straight face, repeatedly. There’s something about VR where, as a designer, you’ve really got the player in your clutches. They’re quick to trust what’s happening because it’s so convincing. So it was very funny to put a boring clipboard in front of them and say, “This is your tablet computer,” or show them around what is very obviously a prison cell and refer to it as your “Football Improvement Centre Single Occupancy Residence.” It’s easier to brush off that kind of stuff in a screen game, but in VR it’s like, “Look at it ... look at it!”

We found great inspiration in the work of Peter Serafinowicz, a British jack-of-all-trades filmmaker/comedian/brilliant person. If you’ve ever seen Look Around You or Building A Human, they’re both wonderful examples of straight-faced lying as comedy. I cannot contain my love for these pieces. We had a few Headmaster reviewers call out the influence early on. It was really rewarding to hit that mark for some folks.

The game also has a very unique art style. What did you draw upon for inspiration?

BT: Art-wise, Headmaster is all about economy. The style is realistic, but we only attempt what we can execute on. Our lighting is done with global illumination techniques, but with just one light source most of the time. It creates a really contrasty look that makes you feel like you’re being interrogated. You can see into the darkness and shadow, but it fades off and leaves you guessing. Your imagination ends up doing a lot of work.

Our penchant for lying made its way to art choices, too. Where we needed to give rewards for gameplay, we just purchased the stupidest models of real-life objects we could think of. So again, we’re messing with your trust. We’re saying, “Dispensing Motivational Item,” when you do well, but then we launch a fire extinguisher at your face.

What kind of community response have you seen since the PSVR release? What motivated you to bring the game over to PC VR?

BT: Headmaster has a lot of superfans on PSVR, but it gets overlooked sometimes by folks saying, “I’m not a sports person.” I wish I could shake them by the collar and be like, “It’s not a sports game. Shut up!” But that’s just not how you sell video games these days.

We get emails all the time where people say, “I don’t even like soccer, but I love Headmaster.” They’ve seen how the game co-opts the act of heading soccer balls into a gamer-friendly puzzle/skill/physics game and then go on to ask for updates, news, etc.

How does Headmaster capitalize on the unique qualities of VR as an experience?

BT: Early on when I was concepting the game, I made a trailer and showed it to a really experienced game designer friend of mine. This was 2014, and he hadn’t tried VR yet. His comment upon seeing the trailer was, “Hmmm… seems alright. Do you think you could make it a mobile game? Like, touch the screen to head the ball or something?”

Because he hadn’t tried VR, he couldn’t imagine what it was like. Headmaster is played in a way that’s impossible to understand outside of VR. You’re not lining up a cursor with the ball to make it go—you’re not even positioning it on a screen to aim. You are, in a true sense, hitting a virtual object with your head. You can’t feel it, but you’ll be glad about that because heading soccer balls is a bit rough on the brain sometimes.

All that said, if Headmaster tanks on PC, maybe we’ll release that mobile version where you tap your finger to head stuff because I apparently don’t understand anything and my game designer buddy could’ve been onto something.

Do you think there’s such a thing as a VR experience that’s too immersive?

BT: Maybe. Action and tension can be great, but Headmaster is also really comfortable with quiet moments and emptiness. We wanted you to really feel like you were there in the Football Improvement Centre (which is not a prison). VR can tend to overload people if developers aren’t mindful of the way the technology amplifies experiences. We try hard to be kind to the player in that regard.

What influenced the overall sound design?

BT: I was the audio director and main implementer, though we pulled in Nick Kallman of SkewSound for a bunch of assets, which turned out great. The philosophy behind the sound was of wide dynamic range and clear communication. We like to get really quiet and then BAM, really hit you. No jump scares, though, ever in Headmaster. Promise.

Who did you work with on the soundtrack? What was that experience like?

BT: The music was all Kevin MacLeod! He’s that amazing musical savant from Incompetech.com who uploads almost a song a day! The very first Headmaster trailer used one of his pieces (which I’ve also heard on some Minecraft streams). We loved that track, and it came to influence the direction of the game, strange as it may sound—a funny, tragic darkness I suppose.

Late in development, we needed some theme music, and I got in touch with Kevin. We had chatted a little bit when Headmaster got announced and we used his track in the trailer, and he said he was into the game, so I asked about custom tracks. He kicked out these amazing pieces that fit the style perfectly. We also used a number of pieces from his pool of licensable music.

Why heading as opposed to another sports-inspired mechanic? Have you noticed any unexpected results while playtesting the game?

BT: Mechanically, heading stuff is just very uniquely possible in VR. One of the funniest things is to watch a Headmaster player spectate someone else play by watching the monitor. They will air-head the approaching ball and not even realize they’re doing it. It’s a very unique physical experience to play, and it rewires you a bit. I’m sure you’ll catch me doing this at PAX during the Headmaster tournament.

Thanks for sharing, Ben. We can’t wait for even more people to dive into the game.

You can get hands-off with Headmaster this weekend at PAX West. Ben will be on-hand along with Frame Interactive Lead Programmer Damon Pidhajecky and Associate Producer James Heinichen with plenty of swag.

Check out Headmaster on the Oculus Store, and reach out to Frame Interactive on Twitter to let them know what you’d like to see in future updates.

— The Oculus Team