Q&A: Modern Zombie Taxi Driver, the VR game that stormed BitSummit

Gamasutra reaches out to Modern Zombie Taxi Driver developer Vitei Backroom to learn a bit about the process of developing a fun, fanciful slapstick comedy game for the Oculus Rift.
Frequently compared to Sega's Crazy Taxi, Vitei Backroom's Modern Zombie Taxi Driver is a colorful slapstick driving sim designed for the Oculus Rift. Several weeks ago, when Oculus VR's acquisition by Facebook remained a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg's eye, Modern Zombie Taxi Driver won big at Japanese games festival BitSummit, garnering it some well-deserved attention overseas. Gamasutra reached out to developers Chris McLaughlin and Peter Traylor to learn a bit more about developing a fun, fanciful taxi game for VR. Gamasutra: Is this your first project for the Oculus Rift? What are your impressions of the hardware? Chris McLaughlin It is our first Oculus project. The hardware itself is amazing, but its limitations are immediately apparent. The first time you put it on, it’s magical, you’re transported away and you are actually in a video game world. However, you quickly notice the low resolution and pixel-smearing, but provided the game or demo you’re playing is engaging, you can forget about it and let yourself be absorbed. Peter Traylor: When viewing a first-person game through your monitor, it’s similar to viewing the world through a small window a small distance from your eyes. Moving the player around quickly and constantly looking around allows the player to get a better sense of depth and understanding of the environment. However, with the Rift you already have that depth information and the window to view your world is approximate to your natural field of view. Like Chris said, the developers kit is obviously pretty low resolution, the pixels smear and the color reproduction is pretty bad, but all those issues will be addressed in future revisions. The new types of experiences that can now be created because of the 3D and relatively low latency head tracking is already amazing. What was the concept you had for Modern Zombie Taxi Driver going in? CM: Make something stupid. The game actually was sort of an accident! I had a little demo of a car with some fun, bouncy physics driving around a very simple scene that I’d made to help out a colleague with for a kids art-workshop that he was running. I took that, dropped in the Oculus components to see how complicated it would be (not very!), made a couple of tweaks (like “modeling” the interior of the car) and started driving around. It really changed how the game felt, despite the only real difference being the viewpoint. We put some little ragdoll passengers in the car, then the moment anyone tried it, they turned to see someone in the passenger seat, drove forward, and burst out laughing as the ragdolls flopped into their lap. PT: There was this moment, when half the staff was standing around Chris’s computer and slapping their knees in laughter, that we knew we had to make this into a real game. Everyone who played it laughed, and not through the use of scripted jokes but from genuine surprise and enjoyment. The characters in the car would awkwardly rest their heads on the players’ shoulder. When the car crashed, the characters would fly out the windshield. By feeling like you have a physical presence in that world, the slapstick humor of ragdoll physics is amplified.
"There was this moment, when half the staff was standing around Chris’s computer and slapping their knees in laughter, that we knew we had to make this into a real game."
With the hook of the experience in place, designing the actual game was a challenge. In our game design, we tried to give the player a reason to enjoy those comical moments. We wanted the gameplay to complement the fun of being in that world. This choice initially lead to a much more simulation-like game, where finding NPCs in the world was a much more involved process of picking up your phone, checking your messages, choosing a customer, finding them on a paper map, and finally driving to their location. Of course, all these objects also bounced around the car, so sometimes finding the map meant searching the seats behind you. This really drove the idea that you were playing in a physical world, however explaining how all of the objects work and why you use them was very difficult. This was not the style of game that we were going for; the game was best when someone could quickly sit down, play and enjoy themselves without anybody explaining what is going on. We wanted the player to quickly get to the hook, which is having characters bounce around their car. Chris and I decided from the start that we never wanted to simply pop up a box of text in the world, we wanted everything to have a place analogous to real life. The comparison to Crazy Taxi is an obvious one. I mean, the taxi “genre” really hasn’t been explored much, so any taxi game is going to compared to the one that everyone knows. The gameplay is totally different, however, because we aren’t focusing on speed, we want the player to experience the space they are in and interact with the world by smashing into things. A fundamental difference is that there is no time limit. There is no way to “lose” the game. A lot of Rift games seem to be pushing for very 'realistic' graphics but Modern Zombie Taxi Driver is very bright and cartoony. What drove you toward this aesthetic? CM: The demo that the game grew from had big blocky graphics, out of necessity as I’d made them all from Unity primitives, but at the Oculus’s low resolution they looked nice and clear and readable. So we wanted to try to stick to something that would look good on the Oculus. Peter took those restrictions and made something that looks incredible and really distinctive, not just for an Oculus game, but for any video game. PT: There really were a bunch of factors that culminated into that decision. The need for objects to be easily readable from a distance was crucial. The dev kit version of the Oculus leaves a lot to be desired in pixel resolution. Large, simple silhouettes and colors help mitigate that limitation. Second, being a two-person team, building out an interesting city requires a lot of variety. Not having to worry about normal maps for every single objects saved a lot of time. Personally, I like the challenge of not using ‘realism’ as a crutch when designing a game’s aesthetic. Considering also that VR is a very new medium for most people, I think realism might actually be a bit intimidating, especially for a person who is not hardcore into ‘gaming.' With a non-photorealistic aesthetic, we are free to create something that is more visually inviting for a larger audience. Many folks who were familiar with VR considered realistic graphics to be the only viable way of creating a VR experience. We received a lot of feedback remarking on how surprised they were that the style worked as well as it did. There is a perception -- justified or not -- that Japanese audiences aren't too big on VR. What is your impression? CM: I’m not aware of that perception, but I if it exists, I think a major cause of it is probably the language barrier -- all the developments in VR seem to be coming out of the West, America especially, so all the technical information and publicity is in English. However, I think that that also goes the other way: the interesting VR projects that are happening in Japan don’t make it to the West, because all of that information is in Japanese! Although it’s starting to get out, for example here. As far as the game's reception goes, the Japanese people at BitSummit seemed to enjoy themselves just as much the non-Japanese that played the game. The Japanese definitely asked more questions about what the Oculus is, where to get one, how much it costs etc., which reinforces the fact that VR is an even smaller niche out here. The gameplay seems like it could do quite well as a non-Rift title. Would you consider releasing a non-stereoscopic version commercially? CM: We’re not concentrating on that at the moment. Whilst the driving around and smashing things gameplay will work well without stereoscopic 3D, as proven by Crazy Taxi, what makes Modern Zombie Taxi Driver really enjoyable is having that 360° view in your car. Being able to look around and see the passengers falling around in the back seat, to have them getting uncomfortably close and breathing down your neck, and to interact with all the bits-and-bobs within arm's reach. We want to take that and iterate on it so that we have a really compelling VR experience where the inside of the car is as much of a world in itself as the outside level is. Are you planning to demo the game at other events? CM: Yes, we’ll be showing it at Ocufes in Osaka and Tokyo on the 29th and 30th March respectively. We were at GDC last week. We weren’t exhibiting, but we took the game along and gave private viewings to basically anyone who asked us nicely. PT: During GDC, we literally showed the game off in an alleyway next to a VR party, so we are willing to go pretty much anywhere! How did you react to the news of Oculus VR's acquisition by Facebook? CM: There's a lot (a lot!) of speculation of what their plans might be, but aside from a few comments about virtual tennis seats or doctors appointments, the details about how they see VR as a "new communications platform" are quite light at the moment. The most interesting thing to me, is not about whether Oculus has sold out, or if Facebook are, or will be, the bad guy or the benevolent dictator or whatever, it's that this deal has already changed how people are talking about and looking at VR. Overnight the (tech) world has gone from talking about VR as a cool but niche advancement in video-games to looking at it as the start of some sort of internet-plus, like the Metaverse from Snow Crash. This conversation is no longer confined to academic halls or sci-fi convention, it's now a serious consideration for our future, and the near future at that. PT: Like anybody, it was the sudden association with Facebook that threw us off. Within a day, for Oculus to seemingly go from the scrappy underdog in the new VR market -- as a grassroots company that relied on crowd funding to achieve its dream -- to now being a part of the juggernaut that is Facebook, with all of its money and resources; I guess it is kind of sad for those of us who had spent so much time evangelizing the platform. We kinda felt like we had some ownership in the company and that our actions were shaping the future of VR. It felt like that personal connection and involvement was being taken away from us and we no longer had any autonomy. However I don’t feel that is actually the reality anymore, at least not after thinking about the situation for a while. Truth is, if the hardware stays as open and versatile as it is now, we content creators will only benefit from Facebook acquiring Oculus. Prior to Facebook purchasing Oculus, VR was still very niche and the only suggestion that the platform might be legitimate was when Sony announced their Morpheus. With Facebook involved now, the likelihood of VR turning into a legitimate platform is much greater, and that ensures that those of us that want to make VR content will be guaranteed to have a market to sell in. Perhaps even more companies, such as Razer, might even come in with their own version of a VR headset. As long as there is good feature parity between the headsets, it will be easy to adapt our content to the platform that best suits us. We all certainly benefit from multiple companies making monitors, VR headsets should be the same. You can learn more about Modern Zombie Taxi Driver from Vitei's website.

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