'Bejeweled' co-creator has a new studio devoted to 'social' VR

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What do you do after co-founding a studio responsible for myriad massive successes? From Bejeweled, to Peggle, to the massively popular Plants vs. Zombies, former PopCap Games co-founder John Vechey left a wake of breakthrough gaming franchises. After 15 years, he took a brief break. And now, five months after his amicable departure from the studio, Vechey's taking his hit-making talent to a new medium: virtual reality. Today he announced Pluto VR, an augmented-and-virtual reality studio named after our solar system's most (loved) distant planet-like mass.

Vechey made it clear that he wasn't interested half-baked VR experiences. He wants to steer clear of creating something that's "good because it's virtual ... but is still way worse than real life," he said when I talked to him recently. "That's not what we're aiming for." Instead, he said Pluto VR is trying to make social experiences and software that are "better than [being there] in person" for the likes of Oculus Rift, Google Cardboard and Samsung's Gear VR.

The first step is building a technological base that makes it easier to do multi-user virtual reality. Then you have to start developing some concepts for how to bring people together in the virtual world. "Virtual reality is hard. Anything multiplayer is hard," he said. "They compound each other, it turns out. There's a huge technological investment that needs to be there."

Vechey is already thinking about projects like a virtual conference room, replete with an interactive whiteboard (the "number one collaboration tool" in an office, he said). He's also floating ideas like shared, virtual workspaces and party games like Cards Against Humanity, Apples to Apples, Mafia and Werewolves. "We're doing the baseline tech around those use cases because a lot of the hard work is similar between all of those," he said. "All of those seem very different from a feature-set standpoint, but, from a VR multi-user one, in terms of what's gonna break and what's not, they're all pretty similar." All that is to say, Pluto's working to crack the hard parts of shared virtual gatherings for everyone else.

Over the course of our hour-long conversation, a few things became pretty clear. Namely, lot of what Vechey said echoes Mark Zuckerberg's vision for VR: communal social experiences in a virtual world. That, and his team (comprised of four co-founders, including a former director of technology from Walt Disney Animation Studios) has a lot of big ideas, but they all seem early in the conceptual phase. I posed a hypothetical question to him: If a consumer VR product were announced at the Game Developers Conference next week and it would go on sale soon thereafter, when could we see Pluto VR's first project?

Surprisingly, he said that if making launch day wasn't possible, it'd be a matter of weeks, not months or years, before the public experienced Pluto's work. "I think we have enough lessons [learned] that we could get something out that was simple enough and was still cool and usable."

"It wouldn't be world-shattering," he admitted.

"That's a really long-winded answer saying 'Yeah, we have something!'" he said. "Would it be Wii Bowling? I can't say, but would it be something that we stand by and allow people to think about VR differently and allow for something fun and useful? I think so." Given Vechey's work at PopCap, I'm inclined to believe him.

[Image credit: Getty Images]