Set along the river in the magical ‘Forest of Dreams’, Sandman artfully combines canoe based survival gameplay with an emotional, character-driven story adapted from the classic ‘Mr Sandman’ tale by Hans Christian Anderson. Brought to life by the immersive and groundbreaking Oculus Rift and enriched by an advanced randomisation system that means you’ll never experience the same river twice, Sandman is a first in a new generation of games designed specifically for this emerging virtual reality technology,” reads the official Sandman website.

For our readers in London, there is a chance to play the Sandman demo today and tomorrow at the BFI Southbank where graduating games design and development students from the NFTS will be showcasing their games. Details here.

Albert Bentall, lead developer on the team behind Sandman, represents what is so exciting about the new wave of virtual reality. An independent Unity developer, his demo game, Sandman, is a visually stunning narrative led experience that adopts an interesting approach to game mechanics, absorbing the player into a world Bentall hopes to expand should his future Kickstarter campaign be successful.

The concept for Sandman has been in development since about April of 2013 and the idea came from the link between wearing a VR headset and transporting yourself into an alternate reality and the theme of dreaming.

Bentall is part of a small team who met at the National Film and Television School. Prior to that, he worked in the QA departments at both Sega and EA and for several years was a theatre director at Central Saint Martins. His background as a theatre director seems to have influenced the aesthetic of Sandman with its fantastical lighting and atmospheric ‘stage’.

“We want to be there showing people that it doesn’t all have to be flight sims, horror games and mech fighting games. There is room for leisurely, whimsical games too,” said Bentall.

I met Bentall a few months ago at a VR Meetup event and was struck by the reactions of the people playing the demo. At the time, VR demos were dominated by extreme thrills but Sandman’s whimsical slow paced and almost meditative structure really seemed to appeal to the players, one of which I remember saying, “That’s the first VR game I have played which I felt I could have played for a long time,” (sadly for them another person was in the queue!).

In this interview, I get to understand more about Sandman and what Bentall’s future plans are.

Road to VR: What is unique about Sandman?

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Bentall: We want to accomplish various things with Sandman. The first goal is to create a comfortable and engaging VR experience that goes beyond being a tech demo. The game has been designed from the ground up to take full advantage of what the Oculus Rift offers whilst also creating a game that would be entertaining and innovative in its own right.

All people who are developing for the Rift are learning the rules as they go along so one of the exciting things about developing Sandman is that every time we uncover something that either doesn’t work or that works really well in VR we are in a position use that discovery to our advantage.

Every part of the game has been designed to enhance the experience of using the Rift, from the scale and shape of the generated environments to the control system. The reason the game takes place in a canoe is so the player can feel grounded in the game whilst they are playing from a chair with a Rift on their head, they will feel very close to the game environment as they bob and float down the river.

Road to VR: Explain more about the non-linear element to the game.

Bentall: The systems that generate the levels are very versatile and can be used to create levels of any size and with any amount of scenery objects. It isn’t the most complex level generation system but currently we are getting very varied and interesting environments with each generation, the complexity and variety will increase as development continues. The current plan is to have three different levels with distinct environments when Sandman is released but adding further levels or chapters post release is an option.

Road to VR: Will a non-Rift version be released?

Bentall: We do plan on releasing a non-Rift version of Sandman but it isn’t a priority at the moment. Since the game has been designed to be played on the Rift and there are mechanics within the game that react to what the player is doing with their head, playing it without the Rift would obviously be a watered down experience. It is dependent on time and funding at the moment.

Road to VR: What has the reaction been so far?

“We can’t help but get a real kick when experienced Rift gamers say that Sandman one of the few demos that has excited them and shown them how good VR games can be.”

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Bentall: Sandman has always been very well received at the expos where it has been shown off. We first unveiled Sandman at Eurogamer 2013 and since then we have been to Hull Platform Expos, Insomnia i50 and various meetups and smaller events. The Rift is always going to help draw a crowd but it we can’t help but get a real kick when experienced Rift gamers say that Sandman one of the few demos that has excited them and shown them how good VR games can be.

We were fortunate enough to meet Oculus VR’s Joseph Chen at Eurogamer 2013 and he had a quick go on Sandman and we think he liked it, apart from that I haven’t had any contact with Oculus. We have really been waiting until we had something more complete to show them before getting in touch again. Hopefully we will be in touch with them pretty soon.

Road to VR: What have been the most challenging design elements to Sandman?

Bentall: One of the most interesting design challenges we encountered whilst developing Sandman was working out how we would deliver the story content. Obviously with procedural levels the player won’t be following a set route through the world so we had to write the script so that the dialogue could be heard in any order and it would still make sense.

Furthermore, the game is supposed to be played for short amounts of time but repeatedly. So each time you experience a new world and encounter different characters, this also affected the story design because we don’t want the player to hear the same bit of script repeatedly so we have lots of variations on what the characters say. The overall aim being that by the time you have played the game several times, the players understanding of the Sandman universe becomes more and more complete. Currently you need a fairly powerful system to run Sandman but we think that we will be able to optimise further to enable people with less powerful machines to play.

Albert Bentall watches the reactions of a first-time Sandman player at a VR meetup.
Albert Bentall watches the reactions of a first-time Sandman player at a VR meetup.

Road to VR: The character you play in Sandman is in a canoe and there is already an issue with motion sickness in VR—Have you managed to lessen the sensation of nausea?

Bentall: We have naturally had some problems with people experiencing simulator sickness when playing the game. Personally I have never really felt any sickness with the Rift which makes it hard for me to determine how much Sandman can affect people. Over the course of the past year I have been making tweaks to the camera setting to try and alleviate sickness and people tell me that it has improved. I think once the new version of the Rift is available to developers then there might be more to do on that front.

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Road to VR: Will Sandman be able to take advantage of the positional tracking functionality of Oculus Rift dev kit 2 and the consumer model?

Bentall: We are excited by every new bit of news we hear about the new versions of the Rift. Oculus are obviously aware of what people like and don’t like about the early developer version and making changes as necessary. It will be very interesting to get our hands on one of the kits with position tracking and there will probably be a number of things that need to be redesigned when that feature is added but we are excited about exploring the new possibilities it presents us with. To be able to lean out of the boat and look down in to the water will be pretty powerful in terms of immersion.

Road to VR: What are you hoping to achieve with your Kickstarter campaign?

Bentall: We are planning to launch a Kickstarter campaign sometime in April. We are not going to be aiming for very large sums of money. The team size is still relatively small and not all of them will be needed full time to complete the project but the main thing is to get some very talented artists on board who can help to flesh out the world and additional developers who can create exciting and dynamic experiences that we can slot in to our world generation system.

Really there is no limit to the amount of stuff we can cram in to the world so the more money we get the greater the world we can make. We will hopefully release a short demo on Oculus Share in the run up to the launch of the KickStarter campaign.

Sandman is a great indication that independent talented developers are starting to grasp the opportunities virtual reality offers and we can’t wait to see how this exploration game develops.

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