A few months ago, Owlchemy Labs followed up its success with Job Simulator by releasing Rick & Morty: Virtual Rick-ality, a VR game that expands on Owlchemy's stock-in-trade ("pick up and play with things") while also incorporating elements of Adult Swim's hyper-popular animated show.
At VRDC Fall 2017 today, Owlchemy's Alex Schwartz and Devin Reimer hopped onstage to talk a bit about what they'd learned in making the game, which was actually born before Job Simulator shipped.
“We were mid-development on Job Simulator when we noticed that the co-creator of Rick and Morty, Justin Roiland, was tweeting madly about how much he loved it,” said Schwartz. “So we had this plan to pitch Justin on, what if there was a Job Simulator sort of game, but set in the Rick & Morty world?"
According to Schwartz they arranged to meet Roiland and came ready with that pitch, only to discover Roiland was ready to pitch basically the same thing. Arrangements were made with Adult Swim, and the game was greenlit.
“It took about a year and a half total,” said Schwartz. “We started with a very skeleton team and then we dovetailed into a team of 15 people, at the most. Keeping it small in the beginning was really important.”
It was important because, in the eyes of Owlchemy, small teams of passionate devs are ideal for solving the problems that come with working in VR and figuring out what you can (and can't) do with someone locked into a headset.
The pair said they approached Virtual Rick-ality with the same mindset and tools they used to make Job Simulator.
Building upon the foundation of Job Simulator
“In working on Job Simulator, we ended up building this underlying tech that we call Owlchemy VR,” said Reimer. But Job Simulator is designed from the ground up to be a game played within discrete, confined spaces. Virtual Rick-Ality had to be designed so that people could explore iconic locations from the TV show -- so what's the best way to let players move from one location to the other, believably and seamlessly?
“People who have watched our talks before know that we are not fans of artificial locomotion; it is very important for us not to make people sick,” said Reimer, explaining why they didn’t go with “point-and-teleport” locomotion, which Owlchemy calls “granular teleportation.”
He believes that "people stop physically moving around in their own playspace; they tend to plant their feet" when your game has "point-and-teleport" locomotion in a big open space. “This actually leads to more fatigue...your legs aren’t meant to be locked for long periods of time.”
Instead, Owlchemy implemented a “zone-based teleportation system” which divides the Virtual Rick-ality environments (including a mostly authentic version of the show’s iconic garage) into discrete areas that players can highlight and hit a button to instantly move to.
It's very similar to "point-and-teleport" locomotion, but since each “zone” is a safe space which is larger than the player, they can freely move around and play with things in the zone without worrying about hitting game boundaries or stumbling over anything in the real world.
There were significant challenges in working with the Rick & Morty IP, as well; for example, Schwartz explained that the dev team got a “bible” from Adult Swim which stipulated exactly how interdimensional portals work in the show.
The team had to work around that, and so to do something like include a portal players can pass through to move to another world, Owlchemy had to make sure the portal appeared a certain way on a vertical surface (a wall, for example).
To make that happen in a limited space (which must also be double-rendered to give the players the ability to move back and forth between two spaces) they designed a special portal lever that the player must pull in order to make the “portal wall” pop up beside them.
Since the player has to reach out and pull the lever, the game knows that they’ll be standing in a certain space and thus positioned to step through the portal without accidentally running into a wall in real life.
And, as mentioned, just replicating Rick & Morty’s iconic portals proved tricky for Owlchemy, since you have to render the portal and double-render two worlds at once, in a way that looks good to the player.
“In VR this is really challenging because you can get really close to something as you walk through it,” said Reimer. “We ended up using a method of multiple cameras and depth masks, to basically layer the world.”
Taking the fear out of death in VR
The risk of death is evidently also quite high in the Rick & Morty show, so Owlchemy wanted to make sure Virtual Rick-ality players could die at any time, in any location in-game, without taking control away from the player or making the experience feel punishing.
To solve the problem, the team designed a whole separate "death world", a sort of stark, scarlet-hued purgatory.
“We did an instant cut to another location, this different-colored ‘death world’” said Schwartz. “It’s an empty world so it’s not very jarring, and we teach the player about it early on.”
The player also has agency in choosing when to come back from the dead, since they have to interact with an object in order to do so. Schwartz believes this further minimizes the player’s disconnect from the VR world since they’re in full control of how they travel and when.
Making Rick and Morty feel like living, believable 3D characters
One of the biggest challenges of the game, as you might expect, was accurately modeling and rigging the titular leads of Rick & Morty in 3D. To make them feel natural in VR, Owlchemy ensured that they would always be looking at the player.
“If they don’t look at you, it actually feels weirder than if they do,” said Schwartz. “We also learned that dynamic pointing at objects when describing is really great, like if a character points and says 'hey pull that lever' almost 100 percent of people will find that item and go right to it, versus ‘find that green lever and pull it.’”
Surprisingly (or not) one of the first things Owlchemy discovered was that most players instantly wanted to slap Rick and/or Morty; when they couldn’t, they got discouraged and felt separated from the game world. So Owlchemy tried to implement a slapping system, replete with believable physics and dynamic reactions/VO (“stop hitting me in the face!”); doing believable physics on 3D cartoon faces proved much harder than anticipated, and the team was only able to get it into the game late.
Another big challenge, according to Schwartz, was the VO process -- Roiland voices both Rick and Morty, and since the show is meant to be funny and offbeat, when he got into the booth he would often improvise jokes. This, said Schwartz, was a ton of fun for everyone involved but wound up being kind of tricky when it came time to implement the VO in-game.
Sometimes, early failures become late-stage successes
At the beginning of development, the team prototyped a holographic watch that would help guide the player -- but at first they threw it out, because it seemed relatively pointless, slightly annoying, and “hard to use.”
But then near the end of development, the team was stuck: playtesters were sometimes having a hard time figuring out where to go or what to do next. Owlchemy wanted to add some VO prompts from Roiland to help players figure out what to do next, but the team couldn't figure out a good, believable way for players to trigger the prompts.
Eventually, someone said "what about the watch?" and so the team brought the watch back and reconfigured it so that when players would look at it, a bit of VO guidance would play.
“It also solved this problem we found in Job Simulator, late-stage,” said Schwartz. “They would get to a point where they felt like Job Simulator was their life now," and would focus on completing tasks rather than taking time to mess around in the environment.
But when Owlchemy put in a ticket system that required players to pull a ticket when they wanted to move on, they became more comfortable killing time in the environment and playing around with things without worrying that they were missing out on the game itself.
Owlchemy also built a crafting system into Virtual Rick-Ality, and “it ended up being the best and worst thing we built in the project,” said Reimer.
“In our games in particular, we believe everything needs to be interactable. If you can see it, you can interact with it,” he added. There are a lot of things in Virtual Rick-ality (just like in Job Simulator) and thus, adding a crafting mechanic would A) be a ton of work and B) be potentially tiring, since in a VR game (unlike most games with crafting systems) you have to move around a lot.
So instead Owlchemy came up with a “Combinator”, something that would reward players for combining items in interesting ways. Reimer said it was a small nightmare to implement (during his presentation they actually displayed a sample spreadsheet of item combinations that appeared to have several thousand rows and columns) but it paid off because it proved to be a very rewarding mechanic “that ended up making the game feel more alive.”
It also, incidentally, inspired a lot of goofy Let’s Play videos.
As you might expect, in a VR game all about picking up and playing with things, people tend to lose things. To address the problem of players occasionally destroying critical items or throwing them out of reach, Owlchemy also added in a simple recycling system: players can use a nearby terminal to order replacements at will.
Another fun solution to a common problem was to build inoperable doors with fake door knobs. Schwartz acknowledges that it’s bad form to put a door in a VR game that the player can’t open, but if you don't have the resources to give them more rooms to explore, the least you can do is make the door itself an object of play -- by, say, making the door knob slip off to reveal “fake door knob” inscribed on its interior.
“We knew we weren’t going to be able to match the style of the show exactly...so we figured okay, let’s just see what we can do for VR,” said Reimer.
It seems to have turned out well for the team, and in closing the talk Schwartz and Reimer acknowledged that despite all the missteps they'd made, they wouldn't change a thing.
"That watch...we threw it away, it was terrible, but when we started running into those problems, we were like ‘should we bring back the watch?’” Reimer said. “So every step in this process was very important to getting where we did.”