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When making VR games, don't just whitebox -- grab cardboard and ‘brownbox'

Veteran game devs Robin Hunicke and Jesse Schell expressed a shared love of using physical objects to prototype VR games (what Schell calls "brownboxing") during a dev panel at Oculus Connect today.

After years of hype, funding and prototyping, this was the year that modern VR hardware made its debut. Now that the year is winding down and the Rift and Vive have been out on store shelves for months, it’s a good time to ask: what’s the state of VR game design?

A panel of notable game developers took the stage at Oculus Connect today to try and answer just that, and fellow devs may appreciate some of the insights they shared.

One of the most interesting was a shared appreciation for using physical objects to protoype VR games before you even start to build things out in VR. 

“Whiteboxing is really common in the industry -- you mock up a level in grey or white boxes in Maya before you build it for real, to get a sense of whether the psatiality is right,” said Schell Games' Jesse Schell. “We realized you could do that, or you could do something much faster, something we call brownboxing.”

He’s talking about using actual cardboard boxes to build out your VR game levels, something that he alluded to doing during a reflective talk at GDC earlier this year about the development of Schell Games' VR escape-the-death-trap game I Expect You To Die

“You can mock a level] up in afternoon and change it 20 times, and then if you like it, then you make it digital,” added Schell.

“Yeah, we did that for Luna too,” chimed in Funomena cofounder Robin Hunicke, explaining how Funomena used odds and ends (like a bowl from Target and some clay) to protoype its upcoming "tactile VR puzzle game."

But one of the promises of VR game design -- of all game design, really -- is the freedom to explore concepts, systems and mechanics unfettered by the limits of the real world. So is it possible that using real-world objects as prototyping tools might limit a dev's possibilities?

“For us, no,” said Hunicke, responing to a question from the audience  “We knew we wanted people to feel like they were transforming a space. Like, a clay potter's wheel or a turntable became the metaphor."

And unlike Schell Games, Hunicke says Funomena went beyond bits of cardboard and got a bunch of toys to play with in order to figure out what elements make for a satisfying tactile experience.

"We definitely figured, what’s the cheapest way to protoype this? Lets just buy a bunch of toys," Hunicke recalled. She went on to note that Funomena physically prototypes all of its games, and almost always uses toys like stackable blocks and Playmobil figures.

“I just ended up going to the art store and buying pipe cleaners, paper clay, foam clay,” she added. “There were so many options that narrowing it down to just the toys we had actually helped.”

In a similar sense, Schell said he and his team appreciated using cardboard to "brownbox" VR games because it limited the scope of their design space, helping them to understand the limits of a player's ability to comprehend and interact with an in-game space.

“Obviously it doesn’t do everything, but it answers so many questions so quickly in terms of what the player is able to comprehend just by looking at, what can people actually phyiscally reach -- because when you care about what people can actually reach in physical space, you can tell that with cardboard. You have to use your imagination a littlebit, but if you have a good Dungeon Master leading them through it, a little cardboard and imagination goes a long way.”

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