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Q&A: Challenges, lessons in building a room-scale VR adventure game

Former BioWare developer Joel Green shares thoughts on developing The Gallery, an impressive upcoming virtual reality adventure game.

Adventure games could have an exciting future in virtual reality. This genre traditionally involves high levels of observation, problem-solving, and deliberately-paced interactions, all of which stand to benefit from VR immersion.

The Gallery, an episodic VR adventure game from Vancouver studio Cloudhead Games, was demoed at a recent Steam VR event on the HTC Vive. Producer and audio director Joel Green, formerly of BioWare, filled us in on challenges of working on a room-scale VR game, and tips on this new generation of commercial VR game development.

How long have you been working on The Gallery? Has it always been for VR?

Yeah, The Gallery has actually been around since the very beginning of the [Oculus] DK1. Cloudhead formed up and started working on it. [The game] has kind of seen all the iterations of the VR hardware, and we’re just excited that we finally have a platform to release it on.

So you’ve been developing on Oculus, but is it just HTC Vive right now?

Yeah, we started on Oculus, then we were working on Razer Hydras for a while, which are kind of these early motion controllers, which we used kind of as a proxy for what we were hoping was going to happen [in VR], which was eventually the Vive. So when Valve showed us the Vive, we were super happy, because it was the version of VR that we wanted to be developing for. So we’re on the Vive for now, but we’ll be shipping on the Touch as well. So we won't [ship with just the headset Oculus Rift]...but once the Oculus Touch comes out, we’ll be a launch title for them, too.

It’s been interesting seeing different ways of teleporting in VR. I’m sure that took a lot of iteration to figure out how to work that out.

Yeah, it did. We presented at GDC with Valve last year. It didn’t have any of the teleportation, it was just like you were in an elevator that was moving up and there was a big rock monster talking to you. That demo was basically done just to get a sense of room scale. We knew the exact size of that [physical] room, so we just built a demo to work with that size specifically. But when we got back from GDC, we knew we had to get the game to work with our larger worlds. You’re not just going to be in an elevator the whole time.

So we basically spent a fair bit of time just figuring out how to move in the game world in a way that’s not going to make people sick, that felt natural. We tried a bunch of different methods, and this is [what we came up with]. It’s pretty simple, but I find people get used to it pretty fast, and then it’s kind of out of the way, and then you’re just playing the game, which is ultimately what we really want.

Joel Green at work

Would you say that [locomotion] was one the main challenges, or just one of many big challenges, design or tech-wise?

There’s tons [of challenges]. Transportation or locomotion was definitely one of the hardest ones in terms of getting it right. It’s one of the things that a lot of people are skeptical about—‘Are all games gonna be in one room from now on?’ We wanted to show people that it doesn’t have to be that way. So that was one of the big ones.

Other things are just weird ones—like what do you do when a player walks into a virtual wall. It’s not natural to want to put your face in wall, but some gamer-types just want to break the game. So in our game, there’s a locked door, and you're not supposed to see the other side of it. What happens if the player physically walks through it? So we have a system in which if you put your head into geometry, your whole view blurs out like you went underwater. You still see enough to get back, but you can’t see what’s on the other side. And if you’re in there long enough, it fades out and resets you to a safe spot within the level. It works well enough to where if it happens once or twice it’s something they don’t want to do anymore.

The solutions are pretty simple, but it just took a while to find the right solution.

You have to find solutions for new problems.

Yeah, totally new problems. We obviously had to try all the different ways to find the one that felt right.

Do you have any tips, lessons, or learnings you can share with people who are getting into VR game development?

Yep. I came from BioWare before this, making Dragon Age and Mass Effect and those kinds of games. The biggest thing with VR development is, not throw away, but be very flexible with a lot of the rules that you're used to with game development. You have to be super experimental and be willing to accept that a lot of the old ways of doing things just do not work at all anymore. You have to go back to the drawing board. Everybody I see who came to VR development from the triple-A community, or just from non-VR development, they kind of go through this process of letting go of all the things they hold onto really tightly, because you spent your career learning all these things and you have a bit of pride in the fact that you know what you're doing. And then you get into VR, it's like, actually you don't [know what you're doing]."

"Everybody I see who came to VR development from the triple-A community, or just from non-VR development, they kind of go through this process of letting go of all the things they hold onto really tightly."

But having said that, there are parts of development, especially with a game like ours, that are the same as they’ve always been. The levels need to flow, you need to make sure peoples’ attention is getting pulled to where it needs to be, you want things to be intuitive, you want systems that are going to be flexible but also simple enough that people understand. All those things that are normal game development challenges are still there, too.

…We’ve been to a number of shows where we got to show the game, but VR development is tough right now, because there’s no playtesting. Nobody has a Vive. So we’re pretty much reliant on the other developers, and we all talk. We have a pretty cool little community of Vive developers and we chat every day about stuff. But it’s really hard to playtest. So events like these, and we went to PAX with this demo, are really valuable to us. So that area [shown in the demo] totally changes because of watching some playtesting.

Maybe the biggest tip I can give is to respect how overwhelmed people are when they first use VR. That won’t be as applicable a year from now. But for people just getting into it [for the first time], which is pretty much everybody right now, there’s something incredibly overwhelming about having almost all of your senses taken over, right? You’re really at the mercy of the game developers when you’re a player in VR, in a way that you’re not with just a traditional screen, because you’re totally inside of their vision.

…Understand that just being in an empty room with a cube in your hands is amazing right now, and it’s almost overwhelming for people, and you have to slowly build them up.

Where do you see VR in the next 2-5 years?

I don’t know how many people seriously think this, but I see people online who are worried that VR is going to take over from traditional games, and they’re not going to be able to play their traditional games anymore. I don’t think that’s true at all. VR is just a new thing that’s adding on. People are still going to be making great games for screens. [VR] is just a whole new medium.

In the next two to five years, I think it’s going to move very quickly…You don’t need a lot of people or a lot of money to try new ideas. I mean, this is as bad as it’s going to get, and it’s already pretty amazing.

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