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Social Gaming in VR Begins to Grow Up

How one startup is creating social games for virtual reality that feel like traditional console games.

Social interaction has been core to video games for as long as they have existed. Players have transitioned from gathering on the floor of a living room to play Mortal Kombat to conversing over headsets as their digital avatars interact in Call of Duty. Virtual reality developers know the same is true for their games, but they are not exactly sure what form social interaction should take within a headset.

Los Angeles–based Kite & Lightning is toying with one solution. The virtual reality studio has raised a $2.5 million seed round, which it plans to put to use developing a bizarre social VR game that invites players to become battle-hungry babies.

Bebylon: Battle Royale is really a game within a game. It takes place after humans discover an immortality pill, causing people stop aging as babies. They jostle for fame peacocking, fighting, and trash-talking in a Coliseum-like arena. CEO and co-founder Ikrima Elhassan likens it to Super Smash Brothers and Street Fighter. The arena sits within the greater world of Bebylon. You can stroll around and find side attractions like gambling, shows, and rides.

Bebylon blends storytelling with interactivity.

Bebylon is a shared universe. Battlers and even the audience are real people. You can interact with people in the streets or choose to throw weapons and other goodies down to battlers on the arena floor. It is built at its core to be a social experience.

“We got a chance to dive really deep into world-building and cinematic stories and create a universe that we think can only exist in VR,” Elhassan says.

Some of the early attempts to make VR social have been practical: Oculus built Toybox, a shared space where you can manipulate toys and shapes on a table with a buddy, while AltspaceVR offers digital rooms where visitors’ avatars can meet and converse. Companies like High Fidelity and Linden Lab are dreaming bigger with sprawling virtual worlds that mimic the rich metaverses described in sci-fi books and movies.

Bebylon feels more like the social gaming we see on the currently dominant consoles. Gamers know how to interact with this kind of game, or at the very least could be compelled to pick up a VR headset for the first time.

Virtual reality is more effective than a computer monitor at transporting users to another world, according to Frank Biocca, a Syracuse University human-computer interaction researcher who authored Communication in the Age of Virtual Reality. But adding a social element gives users’ sense of immersion an even bigger boost.

“Their level of presence goes up,” Biocca says. “If they know those characters, if they know the people behind the avatars they see, then they feel even more connected to the virtual environment.”

Elhassan and Cory Strassburger both worked in the film industry before founding Kite & Lightning in 2013. Since then, they created the popular VR film “Senza Peso” and several experiences for commercial partners. Elhassan says working on lots of small projects quickly gave them a sense of what works and doesn’t work in VR.

They see the interaction of gaming and film as the sweet spot for VR. Bebylon is built to allow them to blend storytelling with interactivity—a seamless universe that players can move around in and explore.

While High Fidelity’s and Linden Lab’s worlds have their place, Biocca believes there is room for multiple social worlds that provide different environments. Kite & Lightning doesn’t currently plan to allow users to modify the Bebylon world in any significant way, though they will be encouraged to customize their appearances as a part of the game.

It’s more about preserving a narrative that provides a strong sense of immersion. The world of Bebylon tells a story, and you and your friends are invited to visit.

“VR allows us to do that in a way that’s never been done before,” Elhassan says.

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Bebylon blends storytelling with interactivity.
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