Indie developer Owlchemy Labs recently announced that Oculus Rift support for their Futuristic Base-Jumping title ‘AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome’. We were intrigued, so we asked their ‘Chief Scientist’ Alex Schwartz to tell us more.
“Absurd and highly polished games” is the strap-line adorning the Owlchemy Labs’ website. Browsing the list of titles already published by the quirky independent it certainly seems apt. “Shoot Many Robots” and “Snuggletruck” exude that kind of whacky charm that the best indie studios do well. Clearly Owlchemy aren’t big on taking themselves too seriously.
However, after spending a good couple of hours with the non Rift-enabled (rift-unabled?) PC edition AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! (here-on in to be known merely as Aaaaa!), it’s clear Owlchemy Labs have some skills. As you’d expect from a developer who cut their teeth on insta-play mobile titles, Aaaaa! is pure pick-up-and-play joy with a healthy dollop of depth lurking for those willing to invest the time. After then seeing their absurdly enthusiastic announcement about their Dev-Kit arrival and that Aaaaa! would receive Oculus Rift support I had to get in touch to find out more.
Not only did they happily agree to talk to us, they gave us access to an early build of Aaaaa! with Rift support. A full preview will follow soon, but I can tell tell you that the ‘kerrazzy’ gesticulations and explosive enthusiasm exhibited by YouTube megastar PewDiePie when he played it aren’t wide of the mark. It’s one of the best Rift-ready games I’ve played and the genre is perfect for VR.
More on that later, for now the questions:
Road To VR: Tell us a bit about Owlchemy Labs and it’s team.
Alex: Owlchemy Labs is an indie game studio developing “absurdly polished” games. We’ve been around since 2010 and have created multiple titles for iOS, Android, and Steam PC/Mac, including Snuggle Truck (or Smuggle Truck, depending where you look) and Jack Lumber. We also worked with Dejobaan to create Aaaaa! for the Awesome and worked with Demiurge Studios to create Shoot Many Robots on mobile devices. Our latest thing is Oculus support for Aaaaa!, which we’re really excited about.
Road To VR: How did Aaaaa! originally come to be? Whose idea was it?
Alex: The original base-jumping game AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! was the brainchild of Dejobaan Games. They designed and created the game to much critical success, garnering awards and ending up finalists in IGF 2010. The semi-sequel, Aaaaa! for the Awesome was co-developed by us, Owlchemy Labs, as we worked with Dejobaan to bring the game to Unity, add several features, and bring the game to mobile. Some of the team even went skydiving… for research purposes.
Road To VR: The game seems to have a fairly heavy surfer / skater vibe, is this a reflection of the teams other interests?
Alex: Dejobaan’s fearless leader, Ichiro Lambe, is known to watch extreme sports from afar, and may also be the devil, according to this picture:
Road To VR: Had Owlchemy dabbled in any 3D technologies previous to working with the OR?
Alex: We’ve done some work with the Kinect and the Leap Motion, but nothing that wraps around your skull. This was a new experience for us, but during development we learned a ton about VR, best practices, and ways to reproduce certain feelings and emotions in haptic gaming.
Road To VR: What game engine is Aaaaa! based on? What do you like / dislike about it?
It was surprisingly easy to get up and running with Unity’s sample Oculus integration. The hard part was the weeks of work making it feel ‘right’.
Road To VR: You now have an Oculus Rift Dev Kit, what are your feelings on the technology in it’s current state? What are your hopes for it’s future?
Alex: The dev kit, even in it’s early stages, is really quite amazing. We know that in the future, the resolution will be increased and we’ll be seeing an improved refresh rate, so we’re really looking forward to the production kits. Even without those, we’re in love with what we have.
Road To VR: Have any team members find nausea to be a significant issue? Be honest, who barfed? :)
Alex: Surprisingly (or not surprisingly) we’ve had zero cases of vomiting thus far. We learned early on that swinging the camera on the player without their input was nausea-inducing, so we’ve been careful to remove elements from the game that would shake the camera view, or auto-rotate the player’s view. Care definitely needs to be taken to remove opportunities to make the player uncomfortable.
Road To VR: How long did it take to get a version of Aaaaa! up and running on the Rift? What were the challenges?
Alex: We had our first build up and running on day one. The Oculus crew did a good job of providing sample code and a clear API to work with. The skyboxes were completely wrong and messing with our eyes pretty badly, nothing was tuned properly, and our interface was completely incorrect, but it was WORKING! And it was incredible. A couple of weeks later, we have a build where all of the levels are fully playable and the UI is readable.
Road To VR: Playing in VR versus a flat monitor raises challenges with scale that can be challenging. As scale is clearly pretty important to Aaaaa!’s mechanics, were there any changes you had to make to make Rift play make more sense?
Alex: In general, scale hasn’t been that big of an issue. We did make some changes to help with fatigue while playing and also some changes to increase the sense of *speed* in the game.
Managing fatigue: We soon learned that falling straight down in-game and requiring the player to look straight down at their feet to match that camera angle was going to be an issue. Our necks were hurting after only a half hour, and we decided to change it up a bit as an experiment. We attempted rotating the whole setup by a 90-degree-rotation forward (imagine that looking straight ahead at the computer screen would match with your avatar looking straight down in-game). This was much better for our necks but didn’t give the exact feeling we were looking for. It felt a bit more like Superman flying through a field of buildings. We ended up settling on a 45-degree downward angle. Reading this may be confusing, and is one of those strange behind-the-scenes details that almost no players realize.
What really happens is quite cool. When we start the level and the player is walking around on the top of a building, their camera angle is matched 1:1 with the real world, but once they jump off, the camera re-orients in a thrilling sensory moment where the player begins their fall. It truly feels like you’re weightless and actually hurtling through the air. Those with tangible fears of heights will feel that same uneasiness when looking over the edge of the building, down to the city below. It’s simultaneously thrilling and unbelievable. In that moment, we re-orient the camera downward by 45 degrees, and players feel completely natural starting their descent.
The fun part happens when players remove the Oculus goggles. It’s a bit disorienting to return to the real world. You could have sworn that you were looking right down at your feet, but in fact, you were not. It’s all Hollywood magic ;)
As for the sense of speed, we added some additional effects to the camera to help make the game feel faster. One of those is a ‘wind blur’ effect in your periphery. This was initially present in the PC version, but we re-worked it for the Oculus edition. Having particles stream past you in your periphery really adds to the feeling of moving quickly through the world, rather than a feeling of the world moving at you.
Road To VR: After you received your OR Dev Kits, were there any Eureka moments around new directions for the Aaaaa! franchise? Has the OR been an inspiration for any dedicated VR projects?
Alex: Only time will tell! At the moment we have nothing new to announce, but we’re very impressed by the Rift, that’s for sure.
Road To VR: When is Aaaaaculus! out and is it a Steam exclusive?
Alex: We don’t have a release date, but it’ll be launching on Steam at first, and that launch should happen “Sometime soon™” :)
Road To VR: Finally, you’ve proclaimed Aaaaa! to be the ‘best thing ever’ on the Oculus Rift. Should other developers give up now?
Alex: We challenge all other developers to join us in the “Best Thing Ever” club. It’s nice in here, and there’s an open bar.
Thanks to Alex and the team for taking the time to answer our questions. We’ll have a hands-on preview of Aaaaa!: Oculus Rift Edition for you soon. In the meantime you can grab the standard version on Steam now.