We put your questions to Denny Unger from CloudHead Games, the development studio behind Oculus Rift integrated game The Gallery: Six Elements. A game that not only seeks to revive memories of classic adventure games such as Myst – but to also wrap it all in a Virtual Reality showcase.
Ready, Player One?
Now that the Oculus Rift Kickstarter chapter is coming to a close and gleeful VR enthusiasts and developers take delivery of their Development Kits, the reality of VR’s second coming is here .. at least in terms of hardware. But, as the Oculus team have long been at pains to drive home, Hardware is nothing without software. Games are everything for the Rift and now that the hardware is here, attention will quickly shift to the handful of titles in development that have pledged support for the new HMD.
The Gallery is just one such title. Currently closing on its $65000 Kickstarter goal, the title seeks to marry old-school gaming values with cutting edge gaming technology. Not only has the Adventure-cum-Puzzle-em-up been designed specifically to take advantage of the Oculus Rift, it’s also targeting full Razer Hydra support too. We took a look at the game recently here.
We got in touch with CloudHead and asked if they’d be willing to answer some questions from the community, happily they said yes …
wakestrap [via /r/oculus]: It’s clear from the latest update that The Gallery has been in development for a little while. When did development actually start?
Denny: Development actually began in November of last year but we started conceptualizing things last August. The game went through a couple major changes before we landed on something we thought would be compelling in the format. From there a lot of our focus was on raw logistics and ensuring we’d be able to do the things we were talking about.
wakestrap: How has not having a Dev Kit yet impacted development? Are there things you’re worried will have to be completely redone if certain assumptions don’t pay off?
Denny: While we didn’t have early access to the dev-kit, we felt strongly that we had the right sensibilities to start work on a game targeted for virtual reality. Being long-time enthusiasts, you sort of build up a bucket list of things you’d most like to see in the format. More importantly, you go into it knowing what kinds of novel challenges you’ll likely face.
We received our dev-kit this April and we’re happy to say that most of our preparation was pretty much on target. We were able to quickly (albeit with some effort) drop ourselves into our player controller and start playing around. The things you don’t expect have more to do with the psychology of the experience and what it means to “be there”, how people behave and what they tend to do in the experience. Not to say that there aren’t challenges with respect to motion control/general control, but you kind of plan for that as best you can and start tweaking things as you go.
A lot of people in the industry obsess about the hardware limitations but really, once you accept those limitations and work with what you have, it’s easy to create compelling experiences. The technology will get better, but what we have right now on both motion control and HMD fronts is absolutely enough to start making good games. And Indie developers can take those risks to break us out of the current gaming stagnation.
wakestrap: It’s been discussed by a number of people over the last few months but from a developer who is currently working on a title aimed specifically at VR, what are things you’ve got to consider or pay special attention to during this development that’s different from past experiences [developing traditional games]
Denny: Throwing away almost everything you know from traditional game development is the first step. Level, design, game mechanics and player control all take on a different quality in VR.
If developing a first person experience, the number one area you’ll need to focus on early in the process is your player controller. If you get that part wrong, the entire experience will either make people sick or it wont feel right. Once you place a player into a virtual avatar, you’ll need to spend a lot of time refining that embodiment. Making players feel grounded in that virtual skin depends on a number of factors.
You’ll need to consider how you are handling your camera interactions and how to hook that up to your animation sub-tree. Accounting for little things like how your eyes travel through space with a natural neck motion and an appropriate field of view. How much of your body you can see, what those body proportions are and how tall you are. We’ve found that it can be quite jarring to embody a skinny player or a tall player if that isn’t how you are in reality, so creating tools to adjust that in a pre-launch setting can be important. You want to make players feel comfortable in their virtual skin first and foremost.
Then you have to consider what controller inputs you are creating and how best to use them in a “virtually blind” setting. Game pads and Razer Hydra input offer the best options there, for different reasons. Game pads have a massive install base and people intuitively know where to put their fingers but they are limited in that you have to use canned animation states for in-game interactions, which can be a little jarring with respect to arm/hand motions. The Razer Hydra gives you the opportunity to design in nearly 1:1 hand input blended with traditional analog and button control. That comes with its own challenges, because you have to create a pickup and interaction system that doesn’t frustrate players. Thankfully, the Oculus Rift is an excellent tool for spacial cuing, and it makes these interactions fairly easy and enjoyable.
General body movement is another key area. You can’t get away with instant start/stop motions in VR. There needs to be subtle ease-in, ease-out and a sense of mass to the motions. Otherwise people feel like they are being violently accelerated and that can cause nausea issues. You ABSOLUTELY have to kill all head-bob and any camera controlled motions that are not generated by the user. That disconnect between what your eyes see and what your inner ear is telling you will cause nausea over extended periods. You also have to come up with clever controls for jumping, crouching and extending the range of motion without positional tracking.
Latency and frame rates are discussed often. Keeping your frame rate up is vital but its also true that it’s a bit more forgiving than what you might think. The higher the better of course but we’ve found that anything in the range of 45-60 fps is workable.
If you’re using Unity, most post-processing effects will not work for you with the current iteration of the Oculus SDK. You’ll also be doing a lot of light baking as real-time lighting does not work perfectly in this current version. That, we are told, is being worked on, but it’s important to think about with respect to engine choice. UDK apparently does not have these issues.
Object and environment scale are also areas to consider. It’s very easy to design something on the monitor only to find that you’ve scaled it too large once in VR. Always use your player avatar as scale reference when modelling or importing objects into a scene.
Beyond all of the above, coming to terms with level design and interactions really requires being able to step into those scenes during development and seeing what works. VR is a bit unforgiving at first, but the reward is that when you get it right, you really feel like you are there, and the things you do in game have a sense of accomplishment.
dr4ch [via /r/oculus]: How long will the game be?
Denny: We’re still refining our game design document and building out the bulk of our levels, so at this point its hard to say. The scope of the game is pretty huge, but we’re coming up with strategies to keep the experiences focused. Adding in some randomization to certain areas of the game will also extend play times…its easy to get lost in there!
dr4ch: [What are the teams] influences from non-game media?
Denny: Lost, Labyrinth, Pans Labyrinth, Indiana Jones, Hellboy, The Abyss, I could go on…but each world we’re designing takes a little influence from all of the above. In a way, it’s hard to find a good context for virtual reality because the experience is so different from traditional mediums.
rmccle [via /r/oculus]: How fast will the player move? Regular walking might be too slow, but normal FPS speed is probably too fast.
Denny: Player movement is being scaled realistically. In VR, you will want to slow right down to a 1:1 natural walking pace. That might sound boring, but once you’re in that environment it just feels right. Of course, we’ll have a run cycle as well, but you’ll probably not default to that as your primary motion choice (unless you have to for game specific reasons). Gentle easing into those motions is also really important to giving people a smooth and satisfying experience.
rmccle: Oculus is working on solving the position tracking and input problems for the consumer version. Will you wait for that to finish the game or release it in stages, starting with the current Dev Kit?
Denny: That’s a tough question. We know that positional tracking will be a part of the consumer kit, and potentially as an extension to the dev kit. We plan on experimenting with additional tracking options to get front facing positional tracking happening. Already, we’ve encountered a few scenarios where that would really come in handy.
Hopefully by the time the Oculus consumer version ships, we’ll have already accounted for that part of the puzzle.
rmccle: What [PC] hardware [specs] are you targeting?
Denny: It’s too early to say at this stage. Keeping latency down and frame rates up becomes a tougher challenge the further you move into graphic realism. Rendering in 3D is twice as much work for your GPU, so it’s always a challenge to optimize. Abstracted games won’t put nearly the strain on systems that our game will. That being said, optimization is a big part of where we’ll be investing our time when designing levels. Hopefully, mid-range systems will be easily able to cope with things.
VMU_kiss [via /r/oculus]: Is the Hydra support integral to the game or can it be played without the hydra as well?
Denny: We’re designing from an inverse pyramid perspective. The Razer Hydra sits at the top of that pyramid because it offers the most rewarding experience in the format. From there we’re distilling down into gamepad and keyboard/mouse control schemes. Whereas the Hydra allows you 1:1 hand and motion control, we’ll be creating prebaked animations for certain actions with gamepads and mice. With standard peripherals, we’ll also be defaulting to a sort of reticle view for certain actions such as spraypainting.
VMU_kiss: What kinds of puzzles will there be and will they be optimised with the hydra in mind?
Denny: Puzzle design is fairly broad because so much of what this game is about is the experience of “being there” and exploring. Puzzles will be uniquely themed to each of the 6 worlds we are creating. So, while the sewer is all about finding your way through without getting lost, the air world is about navigating and altering the configuration of airborne platforms to reach the observatory. And then we take a complete detour from that and put you in control of a submersible to explore the seabed in our water world. In the Earth world, you’re dealing with physics to cross bridges and climb mountains.
There’s an emphasis on simply observing your world and finding clues but there’s a kind of physicality we’re bringing to the exploration of the game. Its something that wouldn’t normally be possible in a traditional experience or at least not as compelling as it is in virtual reality.
I mean, just walking through the dark sewers with a glowstick held above your head is a fascinating experience in virtual reality. Its so hard to relate what a difference being there makes.
VMU_kiss: You say the environment changes around you can you give us an idea on how it changes?
Denny: There are common areas in the game that players will reach and experience but between these areas are points of modularity. Caves and sewer networks for example will be generated from a number seed unique to each user. So finding your way through those networks will be challenging and will require you to make careful use of your available tools. As a consequence there’s a greater sense of reward and accomplishment when you finally find new areas of the game.
VMU_kiss: Is there a storyline to this game or more explore?
Denny: There is an underlying narrative to the game which focuses on the Gallery and why it is there. There’s also a being down there with you who sort of, gently nudges you along. We don’t want to give too much away just yet.
actuallyatwork [via /r/oculus]: Are you concerned that your first game venture is primarily geared for a device that’s technically not even out yet [and that] the market is basically fellow developers and hobbyists?
Denny: No. The simple fact of the matter is that big studios can’t or won’t take a risk on this technology this early. If they do it will be a secondary focus for them. They will always be concerned with covering the broadest platforms of support and therefor the experiences they’ll be designing will likely not be as rewarding as they could be in the format.
Indies have a unique opportunity to give this the time and focus it deserves without worrying about how broad the market is. The consequence of that I think will be that, at least early on, indies will be creating some of the most compelling experiences for virtual reality. Once the commercial units hit the market there should be some terrific experiences waiting for the general public that are made for the format and not just ported over from content that may or may do the format justice.
actuallyatwork: Many studios leverage their development investment by going cross platform (PC/XBox/Playstation/Ios/Android etc..) Do you think you can leverage your investment to non-RIFT users effectively?
Denny: Its too early to say, I think. There’s a general sentiment out there that once this takes hold in the broader commercial market that other platforms will likely want in on the action. This is an paradigm-shifting technology that simply dwarfs previous gaming experiences, and even larger studios probably won’t last long if they put blinders on and ignore where this is going. There’s a tendency for big studios to drag their feet with bleeding edge technology, in this case that would be a big mistake.
There’s a real sense of urgency to make this shift happen. It will be interesting to see how the major players react when so much of this will fundamentally change their short term prospects.
actuallyatwork: Will you have to make design compromises or give different platforms different user experiences to branch out? Or do you even care about other platforms at this point?
Denny: At this point the only real platform we’re focusing on is the PC market. The experience for PC users will differ depending on what hardware they throw at our game. To what degree that experience will differ is hard to comment on this early in the process. Obviously, virtual reality is a big focus for us but a good game is a good game, and we’ll be doing our best to make it a satisfying experience across the board.
Daan [via RtoVR forums]: Have you experimented with the Razer Hydra strapped to your head to enable better positional tracking? Combining Sixsense like tracking with the Rift could possibly prevent all kinds of weirdness with drift and enable crouching, jumping, etc.
Denny: We’re looking into modifying secondary Hydra systems to use as a stand-in positional tracking method. We’ll be looking at a few options there as time moves on, but the Razer Hydra system just has so much going for it right now.
Kevin [via RtoVR forums]: First of all, congratulations for the vision and being able to push that vision and get decent coverage.
For me, as this is such a new area, how are you finding the interaction of the Rift and Hydra?
Denny: Like Christopher Roe (our lead programmer) said to me recently: “The Rift and Razer Hydra are like chocolate and peanut butter!”
He’s absolutely right. Even with our early integrations we’ve had some pretty amazing and natural experiences with the combination of the two technologies. Its only going to get better.
Kevin: How are you handling positional awareness [for the player’s character] i.e. actions such as jumping which would force your head down etc, as in the video?
Denny: We’re trying to be careful not to throw the player into too many situations that require overly robust motions not driven by their own movements. We’re still experimenting with that balance in terms of how far to push certain aspects of control. Positional tracking will do a lot to help us out there and add options in the future.
Kevin: Finally, massive props for bringing back old style pc gaming such as Myst. Do you feel that [modern] commercial gaming has become more of a rinse-repeat model of COD clones and that it is the responsibility of indies to push games into different directions?
Denny: Being 41 years old, I’ve seen the full spectrum of gaming trends throughout the years. What has disappointed me more than anything is the advent and popularity of the console market. Not because consoles or the games are necessarily bad, but the industry as a whole put themselves into a sort of forced stagnation. Designing for those platforms and profiting from them encouraged a kind of repeated gaming experience and design philosophy.
There’s an unfortunate abundance of violence in video games used as a mechanism to draw players into the game when other things fail. Virtual reality affords new opportunities to create compelling experiences that can offer more powerful resonance to players. I personally see the potential for a lot of good in this space, and if used properly, this is a tool that can change world views.
— Thank you so much for talking to us RoadtoVR! We can’t wait to take players to completely new worlds and experiences!
The Kickstarter for The Gallery: Six Elements is running until April 17th. We’ve backed it and we strongly suggest you check it out too.
A big thank you to Danny Unger for his time and to the VR community both here and at /r/oculus for their questions.