Wisdom From The Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries, With Lauren Koester of ForeVR Games
An Interview With Fotis Georgiadis
With the incredible freedom of movement afforded by VR, it is also important to design consciously and inclusively for all levels of mobility. I try to keep in the back of my mind a tenant I actually read on a sticker during my time at Mixer/Xbox: if you aren’t actively including, you are actively excluding. At ForeVR Games, we work with Cathy Bodine (Associate Professor, Director, Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering) as an advisor and made sure that players could bowl seated, any throw style, one handed, and even lying down.
The Virtual Reality, Augmented Reality & Mixed Reality Industries are so exciting. What is coming around the corner? How will these improve our lives? What are the concerns we should keep an eye out for? Aside from entertainment, how can VR or AR help work or other parts of life? To address this, as a part of our interview series called “Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries”, we had the pleasure of interviewing Lauren Koester.
Lauren Koester is Senior Director of Marketing at ForeVR Games. In this role, she oversees all PR, community and marketing efforts as the company grows its game portfolio. A senior marketer passionate about building gaming communities and elevating VR marketing, Koester’s previous experience includes roles at Amazon, Microsoft, Xbox and Unity Technologies.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory and how you grew up?
I grew up outside of Atlanta and as a kid I tried out everything. I was really lucky that my parents supported my quest to try everything from tap dancing to soccer to acting. When I was 11, I sang the National Anthem at an Atlanta Braves game solo! I had a creative and empowering support system that definitely prepared me for a future of wearing many hats and commanding an audience. I was raised to be vocal and stand up for myself, which absolutely prepared me for my existence as a woman in gaming.
I went to school for Broadcast Journalism because I wanted to be a sports reporter, apparently just my first foray into a male dominated industry. Through internships and college jobs, I ended up in my first full time job on the other side of the country in Los Angeles as a Sales Assistant at CBS Radio. Although my career can seem a little random, it has been a series of focusing on a role, finding something I’m really passionate about and then expanding on that thing and sometimes that is at the same company sometimes it is externally.
From radio I moved to digital radio which then transitioned into digital media and then mobile ads to mobile gaming and then to Unity Technologies! To this day, Unity gives me the most street cred in the community. I used to work closely with the evangelism team and do talks at Unites and Unity Dev Days about Unity Ads and Analytics, best practices, how to be successful, topics along those lines.
Instead of business cards I decided to have a chibi cartoon of myself made holding a cellphone with my contact information and printed on a sticker. At the last in person Game Developers Conference (GDC), a friend captured one of those stickers in the wild. After my time at Unity, I worked briefly on a game tech at Amazon called GameOn and then I led marketing at Mixer through the Ninja acquisition until, unfortunately, the service was shut down. Working on two products that were ultimately shutdown back-to-back after two year stints was rough, but it gave me the opportunity to consult which led me to opportunities in VR. When I was considering accepting the role at ForeVR, my friend who made the introduction joked, “you might’ve marketed the most VR games of all time.”
Is there a particular story that inspired you to pursue a career in the Virtual Reality industry? We’d love to hear it.
I have always loved anime so for me the ultimate VR experience is something fully immersive akin to the world of “Ainkrad” in Sword Art Online (SAO). There is a special feeling when you put someone in a VR game for the first time and they try to touch their surroundings and then you connect them into multiplayer to play with a friend or even a stranger and you feel the presence of someone who could be thousands of miles away. That’s magic.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began this fascinating career?
One story that I learned the most from happened before my time in the VR industry, prior to graduating college. At the time, I was on my quest to be a sports reporter. I was a beat reporter covering the local NHL team and I had a press pass and was doing post-game interviews with the rest of the reporters. The team captain came in, he hadn’t been on the ice much, he had a pretty lackluster game and I was actually focused on a player piece for someone who hadn’t come back to the equipment room yet, so I was standing off to the side with three other (male) reporters. I ended up behind the shot in the night broadcast. I got pulled into the press office the next game and told that I was there for a reason, not to socialize. None of the male reporters were spoken to. But as a female reporter, I needed to pretend to be getting quotes so that I don’t appear unprofessional? How is that fair? It’s not. But that’s how it was. My learning from that incident was not that I should give up or that I should fight the system, but that sometimes things will be harder for me because I have put myself in a situation where I’m in the minority. I am going to be conscious of myself when I am in these situations because I have things to get done and I don’t need to waste my time on nonsense. However, I will absolutely voice my concerns and ensure that I have the right motivating evidence and information to have the right conversation to actually spur change. It’s always easier said than done.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We had a recent hiccup, with our last Atlantis alley update of ForeVR Bowl!
To set the scene, it was around 6pm the night before our update was supposed to be featured by Oculus and we were finalizing the store page and assets and submitting everything for review. I had our marketing materials and assets scheduled to go live, all of our content creators were under embargo with the new content, everything was timed to perfection. Myself, our Chief Creative Officer, and our CTO were all dialed into a Google Meet as we went through the final steps of the submission process for review when I heard: “Ooops.” Somehow in the submission process an error prompt resulted in the update going live roughly 18 hours earlier than scheduled. My meticulously planned and timed tease of content and ‘exclusive first look’ all rendered out of date. I decided to have some fun with it and made a TikTok which ended up kicking off some fun account virality that was an unexpected hit: Link to TikTok. I’ve found that our community really resonates with the human side of our business, so my takeaway from something like this is to just own it and have fun with it. While we absolutely had a post-mortem sync and escalated the issue to Oculus to ensure it doesn’t happen again, ultimately there’s no need to beat yourself up when these things happen.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are always working on updates to ForeVR Bowl, we have a new Versus Multiplayer mode that lets players play for one side each week, asking classic questions like: Batman vs. Superman? Cats vs. Dogs? Hotdogs vs. Hamburgers? The winning side gets a prize. We also have a brand new Brooklyn coffee shop themed lane, launching September 9th. We’re also a part of the VAL Summer Games. We have a few more updates planned throughout the end of the year for ForeVR Bowl and another game launching later this year.
Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. The VR, AR and MR industries seem so exciting right now. What are the 3 things in particular that most excite you about the industry? Can you explain or give an example?
- VR is welcoming a cohort of non-gamers. Somehow, VR has become a non-gamer+ middle ground, specifically with the introduction of the Oculus Quest. Now that VR no longer requires an expensive gaming PC, it’s much more accessible to and easy to get into the system. But in addition, I have found that amongst our players and even my family members, the people that gravitate towards VR are often not those that would ever refer to themselves as a “gamer”. They might enjoy mobile games, but they likely don’t own a console. I’ve also noticed most people are very reluctant to try VR, but once coaxed into it they want to try it again. This is where it’s often the decidedly non-gamer who is captivated.
- Streaming in VR is becoming easier and flashier. Another way to grow the platform is to make it easier for streamers and content creators to adopt and use. With tools like LIV making it very easy to stream yourself inside the game (it allows you to create a green screen effect of your person in the game, instead of the avatar), the content can turn out really cool. The tools for streaming are still far superior for PCVR (ability to see chat, use Discord audio reliably) but you are then wired to your PC. But Oculus seems to be adding features that may make chat viewing possible so that you can play untethered, but I recommend investing in battery extenders.
Since the launch of ForeVR Games, one of my goals has been to make content creators an integral part of our community. Our upcoming new bowling lane in ForeVR Bowl is a coffee shop and we’ve asked our creators to make 11×17 “gig posters” that we can have stuck on the walls throughout the hall to give it that lived-in, coffee shop vibe. I’d love to take it one step further in our roadmap to build in tools that allow streamers to interact with their chat, such as allowing Twitch chat to choose their bowling ball arsenal or grant a gutter avoider ball in Pro Mode.
What are the 3 things that concern you about the VR, AR and MR industries? Can you explain? What can be done to address those concerns?
- It’s difficult to “police” presence. The element of physical presence in VR can add an extra dimension (literally) of engagement with other players. For example, if I’m playing a PC game and another player decides to come over and do the running man (or worse) on top of my character, it’s annoying. In VR, if another player comes over and stands on top of me or gets “in my face”, it’s not only annoying, it can truly feel upsetting and unsafe. I recently had an experience myself in a free-to-play game where I experienced what would be considered sexual assault in the real world. There is no way to sugar coat it. In a multi-player situation, I was the only female identified player, and I was being harassed by multiple players in various forms. It took about six “clicks” to get to a screen to report the players as I sat experiencing the abuse while using the reporting tools. One of the female members of the ForeVR Bowl community told me she rarely plays multiplayer VR games without a “chaperone”. It’s important for developers designing games to find ways to not only mute players but make their avatars invisible and unable to interact with a player at a boundary that makes them comfortable. In ForeVR Bowl, we have two icons next to the player’s name that allow you to mute and vanish a player with one ‘click’, however, it’s something we are actively building on because we realized that making the offending party invisible is nice, but the fact that they’re still able to interact with my person is just as hypothetically upsetting. While on the other hand, if I’m in VR with a friend, it’s super fun to be able to give them bunny ears and sneak up behind them and goof around because in that context, presence can be delightful. Oculus has also added an easy to use ‘who’s here’ and ‘report’ feature to their latest multiplayer Software Developer Kit (SDK) and I’ve been in multiple conversations with members of the Oculus/VR community about sharing our learnings and building best practices. It’s a challenging problem but it’s a great one to solve for now, in the current life cycle of VR.
- Another concern is merging and growing “gaming communities” with “non-traditional gamers.” One of the most exciting things to watch since the launch of ForeVR Bowl has been the growth of the community. We have a passionate and engaged community in-game, on Facebook, on Discord and on Twitter. Our Discord hit two thousand members in our first two weeks the app was live. While we plan to bring ForeVR Bowl to other platforms and have other titles scheduled for release later this year, we have already found a vibrant, uniquely non-traditional gaming community on Oculus Quest that might not be familiar with Discord or more gamer-bred community tools. It will be crucial to VRs growth and emergence to the mainstream to avoid any type of gatekeeping and ensure all players are welcomed and feel supported. With the incredible freedom of movement afforded by VR, it is also important to design consciously and inclusively for all levels of mobility. I try to keep in the back of my mind a tenant I actually read on a sticker during my time at Mixer/Xbox: if you aren’t actively including, you are actively excluding. At ForeVR Games, we work with Cathy Bodine (Associate Professor, Director, Center for Inclusive Design and Engineering) as an advisor and made sure that players could bowl seated, any throw style, one handed, and even lying down.
- Limitless tracking opportunities. Oculus has recently added support for “hand tracking”, which gives developers the ability to drop the controllers and recognize players hand gestures in VR. At ForeVR Games, we’re making your favorite in real life (IRL) games in VR, so the more access to different tracking options the closer we can replicate those realistic game motions. Where device tracking is limited, companies are making all kinds of devices like shoes, gloves, sensors and even “mind control” neural controllers as add-ons. We are leveraging hand tracking in an upcoming title and while it has unique challenges, it’s exciting to see the veil between reality and virtual becoming thinner.
I think the entertainment aspects of VR, AR and MR are apparent. Can you share with our readers how these industries can help us at work?
I actually have a great quote from one of our players that speaks to how the aspect of “presence” applies to VR:
“Our social life is mainly online now and it’s nice to be able to chat with friends but actually being able to hang out in VR and chat and play games really help with my mental state. It feels like we’re actually physically there with our friends and that makes coping with what’s going on just a little bit better.”
The ForeVR Games leadership team has held all of our meetings (5 total now) in Horizon Workrooms since its launch (screenshots). Once you get past the novelty of poking your neighbor, staring at your hands and how funny your CCO looks when he’s petting his dog, it’s way more engaging than the standard video call. It’s easy to get distracted, but who doesn’t enjoy a little humor when your coworker drops their pen and suddenly appears with just their eyes to the top of their head levitating in the middle of the table. The screen sharing tools make it possible to conduct business and we’re now trying to coordinate how we can fit our whole team into a Workroom with the size limitations (16 avatars + 38 remote on video) with the goal of getting everyone into the room. Especially as remote work becomes more prevalent, VR can truly bridge that gap that video conferencing doesn’t quite achieve. In fact, since ForeVR Games was founded during the pandemic and did not meet as a team in person until after our first game (ForeVR Bowl) shipped, most of us ‘met’ in game. We all kind of knew what we looked like, how tall we were and even our mannerisms, all because we’d spent so much time together in VR prior to launch.
Outside of replicating the physical office, there are a ton of uses for VR from training athletes to replicating intricate surgeries to a recently launched app (that I purchased but have not yet tried) for learning languages. Most types of simulations can be achieved easily in VR
Are there other ways that VR, AR and MR can improve our lives? Can you explain?
Like any “console”, there are slowly becoming more and more non-gaming apps for VR. Fitness is arguably the largest draw to VR and one of the reasons — anecdotally — a lot of women I know have gotten into the Oculus platform in particular. You can truly work up a sweat, have fun, and you get the added bonus of being removed from the reality of your mortal meatsack. There is also a meditation app that I enjoy called Tripp that I have tried a few times as a wind down after a late night work session before going straight to bed. A good friend and game developer, Theresa Duringer actually used VR and developed her game, Ascension VR to help get over her fear of flying. There’s so much potential for learning, immersion and different experiences, we are only limited by the developers and creators willing to invest resources based on the size of the VR market.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in broader terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in STEM? If not, what specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I’m very lucky that I’ve worked with some incredible women in gaming. The companies I’ve worked for have always been committed to diverse hiring practices, with close ties to industry organizations like Women in Gaming and Girls in Tech. At ForeVR Games, there are four awesome ladies on our team in engineering, production and customer service roles.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about working in your industry? Can you explain what you mean?
In order to work in gaming you have to be a “gamer” is a big one. I have worked with some great people who make great games and don’t play the game. For certain roles it’s not as important to be ingrained in the community and day-to-day gaming. Additionally, if you’re removed from the inner workings of the game in a business role, you might not be a gamer at all and might be super passionate about HR. This is cool, as long as these people understand gamers and the product.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
If I look at this in the lens of inspiring a movement that would bring the most amount of good to my industry, would be stronger VR moderation best practices and tools. And a path towards shared reporting for gaming platforms/developers so that developers can be wary of other title’s repeat offenders and track patterned behavior.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
We don’t even need to have a meal, I just think Bill Murray would really enjoy ForeVR Bowl. I once read he did most of his own bowling in his movie, Kingpin, in the first take. I would really like to get Bill Murray a bowling shirt, an Oculus Quest 2 and a copy of ForeVR Bowl. Selfishly, because — in my head — if he jumps into at least one game of multiplayer and one person posts their mythical story on Reddit about the night they played in multiplayer with Bill Murray — we can just copy and paste our new app listing.
Perhaps I should say I would have lunch with Wes Anderson or Jason Schwartzman because I don’t think Bill Murray is an active social media-er.
Thank you so much for these excellent stories and insights. We wish you continued success on your great work!
Wisdom From The Women Leading The VR, AR & Mixed Reality Industries, With Lauren Koester of ForeVR… was originally published in Authority Magazine on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.