Minority Media, Montréal’s VR gaming pioneers

An interview with Montréal’s Minority Media, a Virtual Reality (VR) pioneer that created Time Machine VR, one of the first game designed exclusively for consumer VR devices.

As you walk into Minority Media’s office in the trendy Mile-End neighbourhood of Montréal, you can’t help but feel you’ve landed in a special place, mixing cultures, both corporate and human. The close to 40-employee shop is one of the city’s first indie game studios of its size and a Virtual Reality pioneer, thanks to Time Machine VR, a leader among fully native VR games.

“Virtual Reality allows for visceral experiences and to impart presence”, says Patrick Harris, Minority Media’s lead game designer. Minority Media gave him his first taste of VR and he was blown away by the full sensory experience of being “somewhere” rather than just watching.

Time Machine VR aims to leverage that into an adventure interacting with dinosaurs in a way not possible before. Set in the future, it turns its player into “a time-travelling cadet tasked with exploring the Jurassic era and the ancient creatures that once ruled its prehistoric oceans.”

Vander Caballero, originally from Colombia, co-founded Minority Media in 2012 with CTO Julien Barnoin. Caballero was at Electronic Arts Montréal for 8 years where he worked on their big sellers, including Army of Two, FIFA and Need for Speed. But he wanted to get away from typical first-person shooter offerings and create more meaningful experiences. That pushed him to develop Papo & Yo a game rooted in his family background.

Backed by the Canada Media Fund, Papo & Yo was the studio’s first project, an example of “empathy” gaming that won awards when released in August 2012. Papo & Yo is about Caballero’s father. When interviewed by Kotaku, he described his father as “a good man but also an evil one. Like many, he used alcohol and drugs to cope with a challenging life, and I was caught in the middle of it.” Empathy games tend to have staying power, so Papo & Yo continues to gain new fans.

Time Machine VR sales are double what was expected in a market that is still small for now. As Sony prepares to launch PlayStation VR, Minority Media is putting a lot of work into adapting the game for that platform. In order to reach a new player base important for the game's continued success and profit, Time Machine VR will be launched on it later this year.

A quarter of Minority Media employees are female, including Time Machine’s lead artist and VR game producer. For his part, Julien Barnoin telecommutes daily from Northern Québec via a Beam tele-robot and drops by in person once a month.

Frédéric Guarino’s interview with Julien Barnoin, via his Beam presence.


We spoke with Vander Caballero (VC) and Julien Barnoin (JB) to learn more about Minority Media’s start and hear their views on Virtual Reality’s future.

Q: How did you two get together to start Minority Media?

VC: Julien and I worked together in AAA game development for a long time. And we saw that it was almost impossible to innovate in that environment. Any idea, any project, had to be vetted by the marketing department to assess its potential for future revenues. Innovation is unpredictable by nature, and in that environment, 97% of innovative ideas get shelved and are never heard of again. It's understandable, because the real value of these companies is based on their stock price. So, having a product that doesn't hit sales forecasts can hurt the stock price and millions of dollars can vanish overnight.

Seeing this, we realized that we had no other choice but to start our own company in order to bring our ideas to the market. And that's exactly what we did. I sat down with Julien and showed him a little prototype of a game I had in mind. I asked him: “Can you help me make a game about my alcoholic father?” And Julien said: “That's totally nuts. I'm in!”

JB: We met at EA, where we both sometimes got into trouble for not following the plan when we saw a chance to do something cool. That kind of spontaneity is frowned upon in corporate settings, as it throws off previous planning. But I really enjoyed working this way with Vander and I wanted to have a place where we could explore our crazy ideas to our heart's content. So, Minority became our way to make that happen.

Q: Where do you see VR in the next 2-5 years?

VC: After developing in - and being surrounded by - VR for the last two years, this technology has become a core part of my life. Based on this, I can tell you that mobile VR devices will become a bedside item, something people keep on their lamp stand. At home, it's already happening.

When I'm in bed with my wife, she grabs her book and starts reading. I grab my Gear VR and put it on, and instantly I travel to worlds I never dreamed of visiting, like outer-space, or a Mongol family's yurt. I watch movies in my own full-scale theatre. I experience joy, fear, and an indescribable peace in this immersion...and yet I'm still in the most comfortable place in the world: my own bed. When I remove my headset and I come back to reality, the lights are off, my wife is asleep, and I'm back in bed...it feels like I've travelled forward in time, it's like having my own time machine! What I'm experiencing now is what most people will be living in within the next few years.

When it comes to stationary VR devices, like the Rift and the Vive, they will completely change the way we play and experience games. After experiencing full immersion in VR, your brain is fooled into believing that what you're seeing is real. Once that's happened, your heart follows. You get a sense of grandness, like stepping off a plane in some tropical island.

After this, it's hard to go back to watching stuff on a rectangular screen. The other day, I played a 2D game on my TV. The game wanted to fool me with beautiful graphics, but my brain wasn't buying it: the game felt like a glossy travel magazine on my living room table. Within a couple of years, gamers will wonder how they even managed to enjoy games on a TV before VR.

JB: I think the next few years will see it making a large impact in a wide variety of fields, from gaming to remote work to professional applications in architecture, medicine, and other fields.

The most interesting thing to me is that VR is currently good enough to do the basics right, but still has considerable room for improvement, namely in resolution, optics, power consumption, haptics, and tracking. Research in these and many other fields is taking place at an incredible rate, so the most exciting part is that things will be changing very quickly in the next few years. So, it is likely that, five years from now, VR headsets will offer features that we haven't even thought about today. And this will drive adoption.

Q: How do you see cinematic storytelling and video games merge together?

JB: Cinematic storytelling - in the traditional sense of efficiently telling a story to an audience at a movie theatre - will have to be completely rebuilt from the ground up to accommodate virtual reality and interactivity.

Traditional video games were a lot more forgiving because they allowed players to temporarily relinquish control and essentially watch a movie to be told the next part of the story. We've come to know this practice as cut-scenes. In VR, this is no longer an option because we have considerably less control over the direction in which the player looks, or where they move to in the environment. So, we have to create the language and rules that will replace traditional cinematic storytelling.

In short, I don't think cinematic storytelling and video games will merge: I think interactive storytelling will emerge from video games and virtual reality as a replacement for cinematic storytelling.

Frédéric Guarino
Frédéric Guarino has been at the crossroads of media, content and technology for almost 20 years : agent, entrepreneur/startup guy in the mobile content space in Europe and in New York, co-head of a New York-based tech lab for a French advertising group, associate producer, Frédéric has worn many hats. He is also an amateur historian of the cultural economy, most notably the positive friction between technical progress and its impact on visual storytelling.
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