Meet the Vermont game maker who created an exclusive launch title for Sony's PlayStation VR
At first Sony didn't want to see Ben Throop's Headmaster game. But he persisted and eventually landed a once-in-a-lifetime deal.
Meet the Vermont game maker who created an exclusive launch title for Sony's PlayStation VR

Hey Ben! Thanks for chatting with us. Let’s jump into it. What does your company do?

My company Frame Interactive makes video games! Our first game was a Virtual Reality game called Headmaster that released for the PlayStation VR in October. Soon we will launch Headmaster for PC based VR headsets like the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive.

When and how did you start the company?

Well, I didn’t so much start the company as begin making a game that required a company to continue with it.

In 2014 I was a game director at Activision studio Vicarious Visions in Albany, NY. On the day our 2nd child, Alice, was born, I quit. I had no plan, but for years I had been working towards going off on my own. After taking a few weeks with the baby, I did a VR game jam and came up with a promising prototype. I kept banging on it over the summer, and shortly after the new year, I was offered a spot to show it at Indiecade East in NYC. That was the first public showing ever, and my hope was to get feedback from players. However it turned out that Playstation had some reps there, and I had nothing to lose, so I approached them.

The funny part was that my initial pitch didn’t work at all! In fact, the guy said he didn’t need to see a demo after hearing my description of the game. I had to decide if I was going to accept that answer and I thought about my Dad, who definitely would have persisted.

So I wrote the Sony rep a text and said “I really think you need to play this. If I can get a demo room set up when can you meet?” Thankfully, he said “Sunday at 3pm!”

Well, the Sony guy showed up for the demo, and it went great. After he got done playing, he said “So, do you have a company?” and I said… nope! He asked if I was looking for money and I said “I’m looking to find the best home for the game and find a great partner.”

He set up a meeting at the Game Developers Conference a few weeks from then and I decided I better start a company.

How did you fund the company?

So, I went to San Francisco and did a formal pitch to a group of Playstation executives, and again it went great. The head guy asked me right then and there how much I wanted. I thought we were going to break out spreadsheets and budgets, but he just wanted my number with no discussion. I said it, he said “Alright!”, and walked out of the room. It was like something out of a film.

A few weeks later the contract came and a few weeks after that, the bank account was filled up.

So how did the development and launch go?

Making a video game is by all definitions an intense process. There’s a lot of engineering, but it’s never “done”, like art. There’s a lot of art, but this art can be broken, slow, and ruin your game in an objective way. It takes a lot of discipline to know when to say “this is what the game will be”, when you could always add more.

For us, the final product is something I’m very proud of. The process was grueling, not just because making games is hard, but also because we were aligning with Playstation’s launch of the Playstation VR, which had its own rhythm of change and improvement over the 16 months we worked on it.

Launch was not as cathartic as I had hoped. Instead we began a process of bugfixes, improvements, and community management that left little downtime to unwind. Web people will certainly understand that launching your product is just the start, but game developers are only in the past few years starting to understand that reality.

However the reception was great and we have a lot of fans and excellent reviews. I am very proud of what we built and very pleased with the result. Now we can move onto the next steps of releasing it on other platforms and continuing to grow the company.

How did you pick Vermont as the home for the company?

Well, the culture here is really appealing as a parent, as a business owner, and as a citizen. I believe that lifestyle appeal is the prime driver of population growth nowadays. While it is certainly dependent on money and economic health, culture is the foundation. The waterfront, the restaurants, the bike lanes, the natural beauty and the arts… this is a great place to live. We were in Portland, OR before and there’s a really similar vibe of small groups of great people doing quality creative work.

The second thing that drew me here was Champlain College’s Game Development program. It is ranked #14 in the Princeton Review and is climbing. More importantly I love the style of the program. They put their students into project groups and the experience they have is a valuable recreation of a real game studio. I figured it would be a great place to get involved with, as well as a generator of quality talent.

And the third reason is the internet connection. Sounds trivial, right? But it’s Gigabit Fiber to your house! A lot of my friends around the country are jealous. It’s actually a huge deal. We distribute internal builds of our game to team members and a single one is 1.8GB. With gigabit upload speed, I just host the build machine out of my office. It’s amazing. Once you have that pipe to play with it’s amazing what you can think of to do with it.

What are some of the upsides as well as challenges of having a tech company in Vermont?

An upside is that this place is littered with brilliant people - but you just have to find them. So, your site serves that need really well. People have been really welcoming since we arrived too.

A challenge is that there’s just not a high volume of… anything? It’s a small town. For the size that Burlington is it certainly punches above its weight culturally and economically, but at the end of the day it’s a small town. That’s an upside lifestyle wise, but some things just don’t happen in small towns because there’s not enough diversity of interest.

I’d like to see more initiatives to cross pollinate between here and the other tech centers. Inviting specific people in for small conferences and meetings is one thing that comes to mind. I think Vermont’s strength is in focused, genuine quality. We should lean into that and make it our identity without worrying about becoming “big”.

What are some of the highlights of your company you’re most proud of?

Well, we finished our game, Headmaster, and it launched with the Playstation VR to great reviews and sales in October 2016. That’s the obvious thing. More importantly, we established a company with processes, culture, and an identity – all while building the game. When you start with a blank canvas there are a remarkable number of problems to solve, from company name, logo, website, Twitter, Facebook, press contacts, hiring practices, contracts… it just goes on and on.

But probably the most valuable thing we have done is get in early on Virtual Reality and become part of a tight, passionate community around the world. We certainly have a first mover advantage in terms of who we know, what we can do, and how we think about VR. As an example, two of my close friends who were just regular guys making games, went on to start VR companies that were acquired by Google in the last two years. We were there when the seeds were planted, and now the garden is getting pretty lush.

Any advice to aspiring game entrepreneurs in Vermont?

Talk to me! Talk to each other! Work together! We need to support each other in any way we can.

We also need to work to keep kids from Champlain from leaving, or if they did already, get them to come back to town and start their ventures here. In my opinion that’s a strong play, to reach out to folks with some ties to Vermont and convince them that it’s safe to come back now.

Last piece of advice is to consider yourself part of the industry regardless of your location. The game industry has local centers but is one of the most friendly industries to remote workers. We have people in Portland and Washington now, and have worked with others in Chicago, North Carolina, and New York. That remote structure is what allowed me to move here, but I am looking forward to engaging with the local tech community too.

Ben Throop lives with his wife and kids in Burlington, Vermont, and can be found on Twitter at @ben_throop.

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