Last week, Northway Games announced that its 2008 game Fantastic Contraption was getting relaunched for the HTC Vive. The popular 2D free-to-play puzzle game is to be rebuilt from the ground up with the help of VR developer Radial Games, converted into a 3D VR workshop that puts one in mind of a toddler’s playroom version of Tony Stark’s lab from the Iron Man films.
Going hands-on with the game at Valve’s HTC Vive demo at PAX Prime, and speaking with Colin Northway and his team of developers, it was clear that the construction puzzler could make the transition from 2D to 3D. They also shared some background on the challenges they faced, the lessons they learned that laid the groundwork for their philosophy of VR development, and the things they believe will be necessary as VR becomes a bigger part of the industry.
Fantastic Contraption’s HTC Vive demo makes use of the machine’s two controllers to let the player reach out and touch an entire toolkit. You use it to build machines inside a 15 x 15 foot space. The basic elements are similar to their 2D cousins from the first Fantastic Contraption, but now, players stretch, manipulate and position these rods and wheels using the Vive controller’s triggers.
The tracking capabilities provided by the Vive allow for fine manipulation, making the experience more akin to linking together physical objects than to dragging and dropping 2D images on a monitor.
This demo is the result of a process that began three months ago, when Colin and Sarah Northway visited Valve and tried the HTC Vive. It wasn’t just born from their desire to make a VR project, but also their years-old vision to make a 3D version of Fantastic Contraption. “The idea of a 3D Fantastic Contraption has always been an exciting one, but it's was like ‘how do you do it? How do you actually build a contraption in 3D? How do you tell the game where to put stuff?’” says Colin Northway.
“I had a no idea how to do that until a mere three months or so ago we tried a Vive for the first time and went 'Oh! This is how Fantastic Contraption in 3D works!'"
Andy Moore, who's with partner developer Radial Games, had been one of the people who brought Colin and Sarah to the HTC Vive demo. He had been spitballing with business partner Kimberley Voll for years on what kind of VR game they wanted to make. Says Moore, “We were able to use a whole bunch of tech from our previous demos... going from absolutely nothing to a working demo of the game was incredibly quick. We had all this previous experience, and Fantastic Contraption, the original game, was fleshed out as an idea, so extrapolating that out to 3D space wasn't that complicated.”
Sarah Northway pointed out that their biggest challenge was reinventing the mechanics of the 2D version of the game and figuring out how to realize the assets in a 3D space. “The wheels -- the wheels are pretty weird, right? You don't want to have one-plane wheels, so we ended up with Flintstones car, super-wide wheels that stay on one plane most of the time.”
From there, the design process for the VR conversion of Fantastic Contraption has largely been about capturing natural human behavior. Kimberley Voll’s big suggestion for VR devs in general is to examine exactly which tools, mechanics, and choices let players use natural and instinctive behavior for sensory input in a 3D space. “Really, we were just observing and capturing the things we thought people wanted to do in that space," she says. "We just tried to pay attention to natural movement.”
During a conversation about observing player movements in these 3D spaces, most of the Fantastic Contraption team made a very firm declaration: In order to VR to succeed, players need to have some way to bring their hands into the space. Colin argued that the hand controllers are fully 50 percent of what makes the VR experience work, and Moore leaned in even further and said it’s more like 80 percent.
For Sarah, the fact that other virtual reality devices like the Oculus Rift are shipping without any packed-in tailor-made hand tools is concerning. “I'm worried that Oculus launching with no hand controls means that games are going to have to support Xbox Controllers and hand controls. For development, we have this dual stick system where you drive a hand around in this 3D space, and it's the ugliest thing.”
Moore agreed. “I'm terrified that a bunch of people are gonna go out and buy their first VR kits, it won't have hand support, it'll be missing a key component, and they'll be soured on VR forever And that will ruin the whole upswing of VR again. It doesn't matter how good your display is -- if you don't have the rest of the environment, you could ruin it for everyone.”
Challenges with Reinvention
With SteamVR and the HTC Vive recently delayed to 2016, the team laughs half-heartedly and says that its launch date has effectively been pushed back as well. The devs have also been toying with the very real fact that bringing Fantastic Contraption to SteamVR means the audience who enjoyed the original version won’t have anywhere near the same ability to access it. And right now, they’re just learning to deal with that reality.
Colin in particular was still thinking about existing fans of the game. “It’s definitely a big question mark for me. Fantastic Contraption, the original game, still has players. But that is free-to-play, and you don't need an expensive machine to do it. This new one -- I don't know how many of those people are going to get to play it. I think that's a result of being way out here on the edge now.”
Fantastic Contraption’s construction conceit has given its developers a unique look at how players will interact with VR handsets. As Voll put it, it's a new language that will define Radial's game development process going forward. Colin explained his new, almost improv-like approach as “never say no.”
“If the player wants to do something, touch something, grab something, interact with something, then you have to let them. You can't make an utterly immobile thing because people don't experience those in their real lives. If you let people mess with anything, do anything they want, they will always feel like everything is working like it should.”
(Brief observation: Valve’s own Portal-themed VR demo broke this rule pretty badly.)
For Moore, it was about learning to let go as a developer. “As developers, we went in thinking 'players are gonna need this, or players will need that,' and we put in a bunch of tech that got between the player and the experience, when really the player just wanted to grab something. And we don't need to code the grabbing. You get that for free with the Vive.”
For Voll, it’s about redefining “presence” as it’s so commonly understood in VR developer circles. “I think it's one of the buzzwords thrown around a lot is in VR, where 'presence' is really how your brain serves up its reality. The fact that I'm standing here, in the convention center, right now, at PAX, there's all sorts of different cues, from my feet sending messages up my nervous system to tell me I'm standing on the ground, all of this complex stuff comes together to tell me that I'm here. To be able to deliver presence in an artificial environment, I need to supplant all of those systems with new information, and override that. It's incredibly difficult.”
“People talk about VR giving presence for free, but that's not necessarily the case. What's important is how we deliver on the fidelity contract. That's the biggest thing for me as a game developer, putting together and meshing how the human brain works, understanding that commitment to fidelity. What we get from the brain for free we shouldn't mess around with; we should be developing in order to complete that, to turn it into one fluid experience.”