When you hear the word franchise what comes to mind? Maybe it’s your favorite series, movies, games, or even books. Is it the characters, the world it portrays, or could it be the adventures it takes us on that make it the lasting impression that keeps us coming back for more? For me, it can be a variety of things from the characters making that special impact to the chemistry they have with each other. But it’s when the franchise invites you in and welcomes you and brings the humor of those characters as they take us on a ride. But when I heard that developer, HappyGiant was bringing a new adventure of Sam & Max and this time into Virtual Reality, I had to know more. So I reached out and the founder and creative director of HappyGiant, Mike Levine, was happy to talk about Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual! and Virtual Reality.
Interview with the founder and creative director of HappyGiant, Mike Levine
Welcome to THE VR DIMENSION. Would you please introduce yourself and what you do at HappyGiant?
“My name is Mike Levine, the founder and creative director of HappyGiant.”
HappyGiant has had some great partners from Disney, Lucas Arts, Mattel, and Universal just to name a few, and has been a part of projects such as Ninja Time Pirates, Empire and Quasar Arena to name a few. What’s it like being part of that community of partners and what has been one of your favorite projects that you’ve been a part of?
“We’ve done a lot of different things over the years, mixing our own games with service work for partners. We enjoy pushing the envelope and exploring new ground in gaming. Our game we made in collaboration with Tippett Studios, HoloGrid: Monster Battle, was a lot of fun, and a really good game. But, we discovered it was ahead of its time, at least in terms of people who could play it on phones. The versions we made for HoloLens and other headsets were amazing, and we are hopeful as AR headsets become mainstream one day, this game will have a second act.”
Your newest game is part of a popular franchise that has been part of comics, animated series, and games. Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual! is about to release for the Oculus Quest and Oculus Quest 2. What can you tell us about the game and where do we find Sam & Max after all these years?
“In Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual!, the freelance police are still doing what they have always done, i.e. chasing down any form of bad guys or criminals they can get their paws on, and berating them – and each other – in the process. But time has passed, the world has gotten even more crazy, and they could use a little help. They are looking for new “cadets” to join their ranks, but you (the player) will first have to pass a series of grueling “Courses” the duo have concocted on top of the remains of an abandoned amusement park. As you pass the courses, things happen, and you are called out into the real world to accompany Sam & Max on actual capers.”
Will there be any references to any of the previous adventures the duo have been on in the past?
“As many of the team who made this game worked on Sam & Max Hit The Road and other Sam & Max games over the years, there are quite a lot, actually, both in dialogue and in some of the visual aspects of the game. I don’t want to give too much away, as that stuff is kind of in there for Sam & Max fans to find and enjoy as they discover them. But since our team had some history with them and we’ve been around the franchise a long time, there was plenty of references and knowledge to pull from.”
There has always been the comedy, the choices, and the point-and-click exploration with Sam & Max. Since Sam & Max are entering Virtual Reality, can we expect more of the same?
“The game has all the core elements that Sam & Max fans should love. We’ve done lots of external testing and have heard that repeatedly from fans. At the same time, we wanted to make this game accessible to all, including those who had never heard of Sam & Max. So the game is fairly unique in the VR space. The game has comedy and a story, but also an incredible variety of gameplay. It’s always changing and there is something new around the next corner.”
Without giving too much away, can you tell us something that the players may find a little surprising for those who may be familiar with the series?
“We have released a lot of footage so, hopefully, people can check some of the clips out and get some idea what this game is about. For previous fans of Sam & Max games, probably the biggest difference is you are not playing as Sam & Max. You are playing as “You” – a cadet hopeful – beside them. Playing as Sam or Max in VR was really a non-starter for the kind of immersive game we wanted to make because it actually hindered the interaction with them. We wanted to put the player into the world of Sam & Max, up close and personal!”
Will there be episodes within the game?
“No, not like in the Telltale sense. This is one complete game. We hope to release DLC at some point. “
Sam & Max has always been played in non-VR. What was the deciding factor to bring the duo and their world into Virtual Reality and what was the most surprising about bringing their world into VR?
“The answer to that lies in the story of HappyGiant, really, and me, personally. When I worked at Lucas, one of the things I was in charge of was discovering new art techniques and processes. Being on the bleeding edge of tech is something I enjoy and it’s been a theme my entire career. About 7-8 years ago we got into Augmented Reality very early. I had a friend (whom I worked with at LucasArts) who was working at Magic Leap at the time. I visited him and the company, and this opened my eyes to what was coming. For HappyGiant, it resulted in a multi-year journey of pushing the boundaries of what was possible in AR and also VR, or now “XR” as it’s now called, as the two have a lot in common. To make a very long story short, after working with Niantic and taking Mobile AR about as far as we could take it, we saw what was happening on the Quest and with VR, and we decided we wanted to focus our attention on VR. As we pondered on what to make, somehow Sam & Max bubbled to the surface. It had been 10 years since the last game, and I’d stayed in touch with Steve Purcell, the creator and IP owner. So I asked him if he was into it and, to my shock and awe, he said he was, and away we went!”
What did you find to be the most challenging when working with VR?
“Probably the most challenging thing working with VR (or AR) as a developer is that testing things in the game editor can be somewhat useless. You have to test in VR. This can be cumbersome and it takes more time to implement and test things. Otherwise, our biggest challenge was ensuring that this big of a game ran well on the Quest1.”
What do you feel are the top three things when making VR as immersive as possible?
“I would say, not in any particular order: Framerate; Interactibility with objects in the world; Audio – these are all pretty critical, along with all the other things you need to make an immersive game.”
When working with the graphics, did you find things that worked better in VR vs non-VR that surprised you?
“This game’s graphical style is on par with other Sam & Max games. We wanted to put you in their world which, up to now, we had only seen from a 3rd person perspective. So maybe not so much even VR, but just being inside their world 1st person took some figuring out.”
Do you see bringing the rest of the Sam & Max franchise into Virtual Reality in the future?
“By “rest” what do you mean? The other LucasArts titles? Those are owned by Disney whereas Sam & Max are not. We are definitely interested in working on some of those IPs as well if the opportunity arose and are close with many of the leads on those projects.”
Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual! is releasing on the Oculus Quest/Quest 2 platform on July 8, 2021. Do we know if the release will be towards the middle or end of the Summer for Steam and Viveport and how early in 2022 are you hoping to release the game on PlayStation VR?
“We do not have clarity on those dates yet, but we will let you know as soon as we do! We hope it will not be too long!”
If you opened a door to THE VR DIMENSION, and had to spend the rest of your life in the Sam & Max world but could be anyone from any time, who would you be and how well do you think you would do in their world?
“Well, to keep this in the Sam & Max context, I will go with their office neighbor Flint Paper! He may be the best equipped to handle Sam & Max and their crazy world, as he was already part of it!”
With the content for Virtual Reality continuing to grow, what would you say to someone as to why they should experience Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual!
“I am, admittedly, a little biased, but I do think this game is fairly unique in the VR space. When we set out to make it, we did not see many games with the same kind of gameplay variety, comedy, and story combination. We wanted to make a game that was a full experience; that you would not get bored playing, as there would always be something new with Sam & Max bringing the funny at every turn. That was the essence of many of the adventure games we made at LucasArts, and this game has that same spirit. It has a little bit of everything from escape rooms, puzzles, story, adventure; but also physical things like obstacle courses, shooting ranges, and much more. If you make it to the end, the game takes some crazy turns and has quite the “big” ending. We hope people enjoy it!”
I really want to thank Mike for taking a break out of his day and giving us a closer look at Sam & Max: This Time It’s Virtual! and for also talking about Virtual Reality.
In case you missed the trailer, please enjoy.