Welcome to the latest installment of our LA Creator series where we take you inside the up and coming VR startups in Los Angeles. This time we took a trip downtown to get a peek inside Stress Level Zero, developers of the HTC Vive multi-player shooter, Hover Junkers.
Welcome to the Broasis
You might walk into Stress Level Zero headquarters and think to yourself, dudes work here. Dudes might even live here. And you’d be right twice. We sat down with head dude Brandon Laatsch to talk about how he parlayed his YouTube success into a leading VR game studio.
These are smart guys. About 15 of them along with one woman holding down the fort. The first conversation I overheard was a discussion about which of their high school math and science classes they found to be most meaningful. Physics and Calculus were unanimous favorites. The great thing about Stress Level Zero is that they still approach their work like students. They spend the majority of their waking hours playing games. They understand how they’re made, how they’re consumed, and how they make money.
Like any good millennial startup, SLZ has YouTube to thank for their existence. The company started in 2014 with a popular gaming channel called Node, where of 1.5 million subscribers watch them get their game on.
Before that, Brandon Laatsch’s first job out of college was: YouTube Star. He met his first business partner, Freddie Wong, as a student at USC. Upon graduation, they went on to build the infamous channel, FreddieW. They led a VFX revolution, employing special effects once reserved for expensive Hollywood productions to crank out regular action shorts for millions of fans on YouTube.
The two parted ways in 2013 and Freddie bought out Brandon’s half of the channel, rebranding it as RocketJump. Laatsch kept the behind-the-scenes channel, which also had over a million subscribers, and rebranded it under his own handle, BrandonJLA. You can still follow along there to see what’s happening behind the scenes at Stress Level Zero.
Laatsch says the main reason for his shift from video to gaming was the low ceiling to monetization for video content, especially if he wished to retain creative freedom. He said he didn’t know who’s at fault for making video content worth so little. Then he laughed and said “Actually I do know. It’s us. We gave away a billion views of action VFX, fresh content, for free on YouTube. Therefore video content is worth 50 seconds of your time. That’s all it’s worth. So we wrecked it for everybody.”
But their roots still show. There are still a couple full time video editors on staff. New videos are released every week on YouTube. They even livestream all of the daily operations on Twitch. SLZ is an open book.
Visions of VR
By starting on YouTube, the team gained a deep understanding of what resonated within the gaming community. Shortly after Laatsch founded Stress Level Zero with partner Alex Knoll in 2014, it became evident that people wanted more VR. For example, when they published a first look at a new Battlefield back-to-back with a random demo for the Oculus Rift DK2, the latter gathered more views.
They took a trip to Valve in the Fall of 2014 and got an early look at what is now the HTC Vive and spent three days learning how to develop for it. Brandon giggled and said that back then the tracking and controls were completely fragmented and Valve thought a 2018 launch looked optimistic. But it was there that he and his team determined their minimum viable platform to begin developing games in VR was a headset and two controllers.
Before they even got a Vive dev kit of their own, they began testing shooting and reloading mechanics using multiple DK2s, so that when they did finally get their hands on one, it was off to the races for Hover Junkers. They got the guns firing, along with other game mechanics. As soon as their second Vive dev kit came in they made it multiplayer. By 2015 they had eight dev kits in the office and held their first full match.
Hover Junkers was officially released on Steam in April 2016.
The Road Ahead
Today Stress Level Zero is making bets on the future of gaming like they did on the future of video.
The first priority is continued support for Hover Junkers. After 2 months and change, some players have over 100 individual hours logged. At any given time, you can expect to find about 60-70 people playing concurrently. They just released their first content patch to give new players a chance to acclimate, playing against computer Buzzbots instead of human opponents.
One of the things Laatsch is most proud of is that some players are reporting 10 pounds of weight loss so far due to the movement and squatting necessary to excel.
Beyond Hover Junkers, Laatsch says they’re looking to employ a similar model they employed on YouTube, creating content more rapidly than people are accustomed to. While typical developers will turn around a new title every 18 months, SLZ would rather focus on smaller scale, lower cost entries released on a shorter timeframe. He says to expect another release from them this year and at least two more next year.
As a team they will continue to grow slowly to maybe 18-20 by the end of 2016 and they’re in the process of expanding the office, more than doubling its size.
Every new team member is hand picked and meticulously vetted. They have no middle management installed. Everyone at SLZ must be self driven and, according to Laatsch, there is no room for anyone who doesn’t want to learn new skills and programs.
So if you’re working in VR or looking to get in, this is what you’re up against. A bunch of hungry young guys busting their asses, keeping no secrets, releasing games and content faster than anyone else, and making it look fun.[addPanorama src=”http://l3apq3bncl82o596k2d1ydn1-wpengine.netdna-ssl.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/360_0114_Stitch_XHC.jpg” height=”400″ rotate=”0 240 0″]