5 Questions for Robyn Tong Gray BCSA ’11

Robyn Tong Gray is co-founder and Chief Creative Officer for Otherworld Interactive, a games company focused primarily on VR. Since Otherworld’s founding in 2014, their projects have racked up millions of downloads, and their game Sisters was featured in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival’s New Frontier program. Gray is also co-founder of The Elsewhere Company, an indie studio that launched the game a•part•ment: a separated place.

In 2018, Gray was named to Forbes’ list of “30 Under 30” in games and in 2017, she was named Top Software Developer at the Global Women in STEM conference. After graduating from CMU, she earned an MFA in interactive media design from the University of Southern California.

“5 Questions” is an ongoing series by the School of Art that asks alumni who are transforming art, culture, and technology about their current work and time at Carnegie Mellon.

Could you tell us a bit about one of your favorite projects you’ve done at Otherworld?
Early on in VR, we got a chance to play around with a lot of new tech and most of the projects we did were smaller tech demos to build a company portfolio. One of my favorite experiments was Café Âme, which puts you in a little empty Art Nouveau Parisian café on a rainy night. When you look to the right, you see this reflection in the window, and you realize that you’re actually a robot. Initially, people would have a physical, and often audible reaction. They would giggle a little bit, probably nervously, because they were taken by surprise.

Café Âme was developed when a lot of motion tracking in VR was just starting, and we could finally track your head position. We created a rig that was connected to your head motion, so if you stand up and look down at yourself, you can see your robot hands starting to stand up from the table. A lot of people at the time hadn’t seen a VR experience where you weren’t a human like you assumed, and it created a different twist on the idea of your identity. People really enjoyed it. It has a calming atmosphere, which isn’t something you find a lot in VR still to this day, and people left reviews saying, “I just sat in there for 45 minutes, listening to the rain, and hung out as a robot. It was really awesome!”

Trailer for Otherworld’s latest game, Hello Puppets!

Why did you decide to launch Otherworld Interactive? What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs who may be interested in starting their own companies?
To be frank, my partner and I started Otherworld because neither of us had student loans and we knew we’d be able to scrape enough by that we wouldn’t just be eating ramen all the time. We also decided to start Otherworld because we saw an interactive niche with lot of funding opportunities, and we knew that there was a really good chance of at least making a modest living out of it, if not doing really well. For us, it was a very practical decision. We both looked at bigger companies, applied for a few jobs, and hadn’t found anything we really wanted to do. Personally, with my computer science and fine arts background, I’m really interdisciplinary, and it’s really hard to find a role at a bigger company that’s not specialized. I like doing a lot of different things, so being able to start my own company and do many different roles, which I continue to do to this day, was really important for my general happiness and interest in projects.

If you want to start a company and make a living from it, it’s important to think about where your interests overlap with a commercial need. The projects we make at Otherworld are not necessarily my ideal projects, but I still find things I really like about them, and they have a broader appeal than some of the stuff I might want to make. So, it’s really about asking yourself what you want to do and does what you want to do overlap with some kind of hole in the market that you think you can fit into. For example, launching into indie games these days is really difficult because everyone is making indie games, so it’s a very competitive, saturated market. VR or AR content is relatively new and there aren’t too many people who know what they’re doing. Therefore, there’s a lot more funding and demand for new content.

Is there a trend in gaming are you excited about?
Indie games have come a long way. When I started a•part•ment, there weren’t really other games like it. We started the development on a•part•ment around the same time that Gone Home was beginning its development, and now, Gone Home is considered an early well-known example of a walking simulator, highly narrative-based game. These games, which have really impactful stories and not much action, really busted open the idea that you could have these less interactive, more story-centric experiences that could be considered games. It’s still pretty niche, but you see a lot more narrative games that tend to experiment with mechanics and have really interesting stories that you can’t get in other mediums.

Trailer for The Elsewhere Company’s game a•part•ment: a separated place

What advice do you have for graduating students who may be looking for jobs in the games industry?
We want to see your portfolio. For an art position I don’t care nearly as much about your resume as your portfolio. I just want to see what you can do. For us, we really love artists with some technical knowledge. That doesn’t necessarily mean you need to be a programmer, although we love anyone who has some programming knowledge. If what you want to do is become a game designer and you have an art background, I want to know that you understand how engineering works and can prototype your ideas. Your prototypes don’t have to be the best, but they need to get across whatever you want to get across.

For people who want to create art for any of our games, I want to know that you understand technical considerations like low poly vs high poly art. Since we do a lot of stuff in VR, we have to optimize the games so that they can run, for example, on high end mobile devices. And that requires an artist to understand how may polygons they can use, the difference between all the different maps and what looks good in VR, what doesn’t look good in VR. Anyone that has any understanding about lighting is always a welcome addition. Mostly, when I talk to you, I want to see that you understand what it takes to get your super awesome looking thing into a game engine and rendering properly.

Could you talk a bit about your time as an undergraduate at CMU’s School of Art? Are there any experiences you had as a student that stand out?
I had amazing experiences with Jessica Hodgins and James Duesing. At the time, they were the only class that taught the technical skills that I really needed. Paolo Pedercini’s class was the best overlap of the conceptual focus of art school with creating something with broader appeal or a little bit more mainstream interest. The class brought the technology of video games into art, while making video games something that could have artistic abstraction or the interest of concept art. Paolo’s game Every day the same dream was a huge influence on stuff I ended up making when I went to grad school. I thought he was ahead of his time in terms of what became commercial in indie games. He broke open games with much more artistic, conceptual stuff that could eventually be pulled a little bit more commercially, as in the narrative game Gone Home.