Interview | Ernest Cline: Watching ‘Ready Player One’ Become A Reality

Ernest Cline’s 2011 bestselling sci-fi book, Ready Player One, is being developed for the big screen by Cline and screenwriter Zak Penn for Steven Spielberg to direct as his next project. When Cline began writing the virtual reality action adventure, it was before Palmer Luckey had taped together his concept version for the Oculus Rift. Cline’s book is now required reading for employees at Oculus VR, which was acquired last year by Facebook for $2 billion. That meant Cline had to use his imagination when conjuring that original story.

“I was standing on the shoulders of other science fiction writers like William Gibson, who had written Neuromancer on a typewriter before home computers even really existed, and Neal Stephenson who wrote Snow Crash in the early ‘90s and imagined an online virtual world before the birth of the modern Internet,” Cline said. “I had grown up reading fiction like that. And having been promised virtual reality since the ‘80s, when there was rudimentary virtual reality in some arcades with bulky helmets that didn’t work very well, I was waiting for virtual reality like a lot of other people. I think that’s what prompted Palmer (Luckey) to start his Kickstarter campaign.”

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Cline imagined the VR in his book based on the coolest possible growth of the Internet. He grew up watching games evolve from cartridge to CD-ROM to DVD to Blu-ray and the Internet grow into a mainstream media. He imagined how the Internet would merge with online gaming and evolve into a three-dimensional space that we’d view through our view screens. 

“I’m surprised that VR has come about so quickly,” Cline said. “It’s lucky I just happened to write a book imagining virtual reality right on the cusp of it actually happening.”

Armada-book-cover-CRNow Cline visits with Palmer at Oculus VR on occasion, checking out Oculus Rift and, most recently, Oculus Touch. He’s done book signings at the company headquarters. And the direction VR is heading inspired his latest book, Armada, which is now available in hardback. Armada blends VR with two new scientific ideas: Quantum Data Teleportation, which uses Einstein’s spooky action at a distance to transmit data losslessly and instantly across vast distances and telepresent robotic drone controls.

“If you can control drones that are far out in space instantly, and combine that with current Oculus Rift space combat games like EVE Valkyrie and Star Citizen, then you can have anyone safely piloting armed ships against an invading alien force,” said Cline. “VR really changes everything for flight because the old simulators for the PC were 2D and you couldn’t look around inside the cockpit and learn the controls or even track other planes through the cockpit. They’ve already hacked Microsoft Flight Simulator to work with Oculus Rift and it’s amazing.  It’s a whole quantum leap forward because you can look out over the wing of your plane and in EVE Valkyrie you can see the laser cannons firing.”

Cline, who was weaned on everything from Star Wars films to Ender’s Game books to The Last Starfighter, connected gamers and space combat in a new way. Unlike any previous sci-fi, which always put pilots at risk by sending them into combat, Armada uses the video game players of the world to fight aliens without ever being in the line of fire.

“Sending these drones into space and having gamers pilot them turns them into real-life heroes, which is something that’s playing itself out in our military today,” said Cline. “They recently the sequel to Top Gun is going to be all about drone pilots because that’s where military aviation is heading.”

Ready_Player_One_cover-CRJust as he did with Ready Player One, Cline has hidden the location of a real video game inside Armada. The new game is a new retro game that harkens back to the vector graphics games Cline played growing up like Star Wars Arcade and BattleZone. And he once again worked with Other Ocean Interactive, creators of the Stacks Atari 2600-style game based on the fictional retro game in the first book, to bring this game to life. Cline said he won’t be doing the real-life video game scavenger hunt that he orchestrated with Ready Player One, which gave away a DeLorean (which is a cool prize, but only cost Cline $23,000).

“The game’s online so people who read the book can follow the clues and go online and play the fictional old retro game,” Cline said. “I’m working on the first draft of the Armada movie, which Universal Pictures bought, and I’d like to see a new game for the film release. They’re really invested in the idea of doing video game tie-ins. If you have all the gamers of Earth using their video game consoles and tablets and phones to control drones to defend their neighborhoods from aliens in the movie, people who watch that will want to be able to go home and log on and play that game with their friends and re-enact the movie. That’s something I’ve always wanted to do because I remember going to the arcade after watching Return of the Jedi and playing Star Wars to relive the experience of the movie interactively.”

Cline would also like to see Warner Bros. Picture, which happens to own Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, and Steven Spielberg, who happens to be a huge gamer, turn Ready Player One into a legitimate game.

“I’m hoping all those planets line up, but the blueprint I liked were The Matrix games, where they shot additional footage while they were making the movies and then wove them into the video games. There was an entire movie hidden in the game, which told an original story that paralleled the film. And there was also The Matrix Online, which came out after the films. I think that’s one of the reasons this project is interesting to Mr. Spielberg and to DreamWorks is the potential to do all of that. He’s a life-long passionate gamer too, as is Zak Penn, who I’m friends with after meeting him on the Atari: Game Over documentary he shot about the E.T. video games buried in New Mexico.”

Cline hasn’t met his childhood hero, Mr. Spielberg, yet, and he’s nervous about it. He believes pre-production on Ready Player One will begin this fall with an eye towards shooting it next year, and then it would come out the following year. That would give game developers plenty of time to make Cline’s virtual game dreams a reality.

“There’s this great photo of (Spielberg) in his office at Amblin with this mini arcade with eight arcade machines in there,” said Cline. “I saw this great video that was shot for Japanese television in the ‘80s where they intercut him playing Sprint, which is an old racing game, with shots of his first movie, Duel, and they look exactly the same. So it seems like a dream to me.  He’s on everybody’s wish list and everybody would like to make a movie with him. That’s why his movies end up being so good because everybody brings their ‘A game,’ including the actors and writers and everybody on the crew because they know it’s their chance to be part of a Steven Spielberg movie, so I can’t believe I’ve got that chance too, now.”

It’s game on for both Ready Player One and Armada in the near future.


Photo by Dan Winters.