"Everyone else is doing immersion wrong," says Please Don't, Spacedog! developer G.P. Lackey of KO-OP Mode. His team's game uses an Oculus and MIDI controller combination to confront players with unfamiliar territoy, and it was in large part what made their exhibit the talk of the town at last month's alt.ctrl.GDC.
Please Don't, Spacedog! is a short game about trying to prevent a space ship from going horribly off course, due to your dog co-pilot messing with just about everything. In this virtual ship setting, immersion and embodiment made more sense to KO-OP Mode than shoehorning standard controls. To help players, the ship and control pad in-game give several visual clues as to how to solve each issue to advance.
Spacedog's playfulness at atl.ctrl.GDC caught the attention of the New York Times, Paste Magazine, and Engadget, along with a slew of gaming outlets, suggesting the team might be onto something.
G.P. Lackey, Bronson Zgeb, and Saleem Dabbous discuss how they created their exhibition-only Oculus VR + AKAI-LPD8 MIDI controller combo, which debuted at alt.ctrl.GDC last month, and why using a foreign device is "super important."
Can you discuss how and why you selected the controller?
B(ronson): Part of the reason we selected that controller was because I already owned it, but actually I own several midi controllers so I'll tell you why I picked this one over the others. I picked this one because it has a very simple, barebones layout. We didn't actually iterate on other possible controllers.
GP: I just remember I was really stuck on this idea of seeing what it would feel like if you sat down in a chair with some weird control panel in front of you, and it was recreated in the game relatively accurately. The MIDI controller was a great fit.
S(aleem): yeah the simplicity of this MIDI controller struck the perfect balance between being unfamiliar to players, but easy enough to feel your way around.
B: Since part of the experiment was to force players to interact with a controller without being able to see their hands, we needed it to be quite simple to orient yourself on. Another reason is that this controller looks like how I might imagine a spaceship console, the only thing that's missing in that regard is some sliders.
GP: I thought it would be great to custom build a spaceship control console but that's a lot of work and pretty unnecessary.
What exactly is the MIDI device, and when and where was the first exhibition with it?
B: The MIDI controller is actually a drum / sampler pad, that is, its intended use it to trigger drum, or other various samples, not to pilot spaceships. The first exhibition was at alt.ctrl.GDC! (Although it was supposed to be at the Bizarro Controller portion of Concordia's Arcade 11 but we ended up showcasing other games of ours instead. )
Oculus on its own now doesn't allow players to see their hands moving through a virtual space. Is this partially why you went your route of putting in a foreign device in your VR world?
B: I think that using a foreign device is super important for a couple reasons. On one hand, I think it adds to the overall hectic nature of the game by adding another layer of confusion for players. On top of that, the unfamiliarity of the controls forces the player to completely invest in the game world. I think because of this, some of the players will feel alienated by the game, but then those that "get it" will feel ever more immersed in the world.
GP: Taking the controller and putting it in the game world provides an anchor for the player. Normally developers try to erase the presence of the controller from the mind of the player, but if we actually put the control panel in the game it gives them something to make sense of what their hands are really doing in the context of the game.
Tell me more about your design goal of "breaking the idea of immersion and embodiment in the game."
GP: I think it's more that everyone else is doing immersion wrong and it's not good. Moving your body around with a controller but your face around with your head feels very unnatural. So far the best Oculus games I've tried have been ones where you really just move your head in the game.
S: I thought it was funny how the marketing pitch of VR is how immersive it is and how you feel like you're in the game, but we designed a game that constantly reminds you that you're not there by virtue of every time you look down expecting to see your hands, you don't. I think there was a surprising effect at seeing the game played at alt.ctrl.GDC where people were telling us that was the best and most immersive VR experience they had so far, which we did not see coming.
Do you think VR helps players familiarize themselves with new schemes any more than regular games? I found myself looking down but... I was still "looking" in the game, instead of away from the game at the new controller.
GP: Well everybody knows how to look around and that's the one thing in VR that at the moment 'just works.' Past that point I think you deal with the same design challenges as with any game in terms of trying to explain how it works to the player.
Care to discuss some of the possible games you might make with this scheme?
B: Moving forward we plan to build our own controllers, instead of using an off-the-shelf one, allowing us to experiment with wild new control schemes.
Why is it important for the industry to highlight these hardware experiments?
GP: Exposure is always nice but it's not like we look to the games industry for validation. Experiments like this provide a resource for other game makers though, so the best thing we can hope for from being highlighted is to be seen by other creators. We all benefit from the shared knowledge that's discovered by people chasing after their weird ideas.
What are your thoughts on the standard controllers for all current game systems?
GP: I have no strong opinions on them. Game pad design has been greatly refined and kind of cemented itself in its current form. The Wii U controller is really funny to me. It's unwieldy but I like how you can use it as a window into the game world, like the camera mode in the new Pikmin.
S: I think there's a very obvious need for standardization between controllers, but I think there's also a downside of game makers emulating control schemes to what's popularly known for reaching a broader audience. One of my favourite games by Smilebit/SEGA was Gunvalkyrie which was a third person shooter for the original Xbox. It had a really unique control scheme that involved clicking both analog sticks to manoeuvre your jetpack. It was really difficult to grasp, but once you did it was a blast and I haven't really played anything like it. It feels like no other 3rd person shooter and it's amazing because of that, but it was also a commercial flop. I think standardization closes us off from experimenting and inventing new models of control for the sake of wider commercial accessibility sometimes.
[If you are making an alternative controller or device, be sure to reach out to IndieGames EIC John Polson. *GDC photo by Kert Gartner.]