Q&A: ArtLord’s Mike Yang on VR Gaming, Deep Terror and Turning Taiwan's South Digital

Q&A: ArtLord’s Mike Yang on VR Gaming, Deep Terror and Turning Taiwan's South Digital
What you need to know

Can animation, virtual reality, and digital content replace heavy industry and manufacturing in Taiwan's south?

Prepare to experience Deep Terror. This was the enticing proposition offered to InnoVEX attendees by ArtLord Studio, a Kaohsiung-based animation, visual FX and virtual reality (VR) studio. Deep Terror is the studio’s first VR game for up to six players that leverages HTC Vive’s Trackers to turn sizable prop guns into weapons you can use to blast virtual alien invaders to the infinite beyond. More than 1,000 visitors gave the game a go during the course of InnoVEX, the section of the Computex hardware exhibition devoted to startup innovation that took place in Taipei last week. The News Lens caught up with ArtLord’s Director Mike Yang to explore his experience working out of Kaohsiung and the company’s plans for pushing immersive and holistic VR experiences to a global client base.

TNL: Kaohsiung has recently stepped up its effort to become a digital content development hub, what’s been your experience operating there?

Yang: Kaohsiung is trying to create a new industry to transform from its past reliance on heavy industry and manufacturing, which has died down over the past five to 10 years. They have been trying to transition and digital content has been a main focus. Starting from last year, there’s been a focus on VR, from the central government as well, and they’ve been pushing a lot of resources to the south of Taiwan, trying to balance north and south. The mayor and Kaohsiung government team has been doing this for many years, but now with the change of central government they are actually putting a lot of dollars behind it. In the past Kaohsiung has had a lot of heart and tried very hard, even though they don’t have as many resources as Taipei. Now they have the resources as well.

TNL: What form did the incentives take for ArtLord Studio?

Yang: We started in 2014 and were offered office space in the incubation center. There are incentives and subsidies to the salary for employees that relocate from other counties. They will also bring in other people from different industries to explore possibilities for collaboration across industries. They have events because the Kaohsiung government has a lot of contacts with traditional manufacturing industries, and when they have seen an opportunity, they introduce them.

TNL: What’s your background and how did you come to establish ArtLord?

Yang: My background is in feature film FX and animation.I was lucky enough to be part of the production team for Life of Pi – Ang Lee’s movie – working with Rhythm & Hues (R&H), a US company that has been doing feature FX for 26 years and was the post-house that did the visual FX for Life of Pi. They were looking to set up a studio in this part of the world and Ang introduced them to Taiwan and I ended up joining R&H. They won three Academy Awards for visual FX but unfortunately just after they delivered Life of Pi they entered financial difficulties and were bought out by another company.

The new owner pulled out of the global facilities and so there was an opportunity because a lot of great talent came out of R&H – there were 1400 people around the world. I rounded up the Taiwan studio and some from the India studio and asked if we could do something. We formed ArtLord and started doing theme park work. We have done, and are still doing, large theme park content and working with theme park hardware manufacturing companies in Taiwan. We provide the software, the content. The Kaohsiung team is 15 people and the India team has 30 people - it’s a separate but like a sister company and we collaborate on almost everything.

TNL: When did you first venture into VR?

Yang: At the beginning of last year we started working with HTC when the Vive came out and they needed content, so we started to get into the VR world and the Unreal game engine. With our background, we cared about image quality a lot so we started developing and applying visual FX skills on to the game engine, in VR, which has its own technical difficulties. We came from a world where rendering a frame for Life of Pi takes 30 hours to having to render 90 frames per second for VR.

Deep Terror is the third VR experience we’ve done in gaming. We’ve done other pieces for education, government, for research. We’ve done one on a research facility’s work on the brain to showcase that to the public in museums. This is the first one we have done that is multiplayer – up to six players in collaborative gaming that is designed for VR experience stores that have a better business model and can actually sell tickets.

TNL: Do you think you need to have a physical space to deploy VR and make money?

Yang: There are still not enough headsets out there. Unless you’re a heavy duty gamer you’re not going to spend the money to buy the full HTC set and the computer - and not many people have the space - so there are still hurdles for home use, but for business and experience stores it is a business model that is working, provided you have good content and provide a good experience all around - it’s the whole experience.

TNL: Did you 3D print those bad boy looking guns?

Yang: No, the guns we purchased from China. The mainland is moving very fast on peripheral hardware so it’s easier for us to adapt it. What you see is still far away from what we are planning, which is to provide a total solution. You need a whole environment with sets and props, and preshow, just like Disney World or Universal as you walk up to queue you are already getting in to the experience.

TNL: Where are your clients based?

Yang: Both overseas and in Taiwan. We’ve done work in the theme park world in Japan and parks show our products in Canada, in China and in Taiwan. We’ve worked with different clients turning famous IP into, for example a five-minute [Japanese animé series] Attack on Titan flying theater experience working with the Japanese distributor. With our own IP, like Deep Terror, we are working with a distributor and are looking into operating it ourselves in experience stores. This is the first time we’ve released and shown it to the public and we are already talking about exploring going into China, Japan and the Philippines.

TNL: What needs to be done for VR industry to be truly successful in Taiwan?

Yang: To build working business models. I think a lot of the time the government focuses on these shows and showcasing but if there is not a solid business model behind it then companies can’t last long with subsidies alone. We need a market – not just in Taiwan – we’ve got to be able to push product outside of Taiwan and be able to generate revenues, and that will spur other content or hardware to enter this market. Just giving out money is very short term.

TNL: Marketing overseas is a problem for a lot of Taiwanese companies, do you think that is properly understood as a crucial element that needs addressing for Taiwan’s companies to be successful?

Yang: Not many people put emphasis on that in Taiwanese companies. I don’t know if it has to do with the culture or the language barrier. In the IT world I see, we know how to build and produce a product but we don’t know how to sell it, or we don’t understand the market. We think we do but we miss the last mile in understanding what overseas customers really want.

Credit: Image from Deep Terror, ArtLord Studio

Editor: Edward White