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Altering open-world narrative for VR

Other Ocean Interactive's Marc McGinley details the sizable hurdles facing Giant Cop: Justice Above All, and how the team is clearing them

It's hard to make funny games. It's hard to make open-world games. It's hard to make VR games. Given all that, it should only have been expected that Other Ocean Interactive's Giant Cop: Justice Above All, an overtly satirical open-world VR game, would present a steep challenge. But as designer Marc McGinley told GamesIndustry.biz last week at the Montreal International Game Summit, the studio still underestimated exactly what it was getting into.

"This is our first VR game so we came in with a lot of expectations, a lot of judgment about how to do game design and how we've done it before," McGinley said. "I've been designing games for about nine years now so I like to think I know how we should do things, but VR's kinda shaken all that up. You really can't take any assumptions forward. You've got to experiment and try things. Often you'll try things they do in flat games, and most of the time they won't work. Sometimes they will work, but most of the time you'll have to invent your own solutions."

There aren't really any standards in VR for how to handle cutscenes or dialogue trees, and the premise of Giant Cop put further limitations on Other Ocean. The game has players serve as the abnormally long arm of the law in the diminutive Micro City, a 200-foot tall peacekeeper resolving civilian complaints and busting perps as they see fit.

"Our game is about control versus freedom," McGinley said. "How much control do you exert on the population while still letting them be free and protecting them? In order to do that, you have to feel like you're in control of the world."

It became clear early on that movement would be key to giving players that sense of control. In an early prototype of the game, players were confined to a few square blocks of the city. They could see the rest of it in the distance, but could never travel there, which could be a bit frustrating. Other Ocean experimented with more free movement and teleportation options, but eventually settled on a compromise.

"In the end, we found that actually a more limited system where you had teleport points all over the city made players feel like that could go anywhere," McGinley said. "But everywhere they went, we had absolute control over so we could make it a very tight experience."

It's not a fully open world, McGinley explained, but the game does borrow some of the structural hallmarks of the genre, like balancing story missions, side missions, and collectible content hidden around the city. But even then, many of the staples of open-world games have to be rethought for VR.

"We found that people who were taller would have more problems exerting themselves in VR over a shorter period of time."

"In Assassin's Creed, for example, your movement speed is the limit of what you can do mechanically, so that allows for all kinds of challenges in the game," McGinley said. "But we can't do that so much because you're you and you're able to run around your room or break the game in a whole bunch of ways so we have to be more restrictive."

Not every difference required new restrictions, as the developers in some cases were able to support differing playstyles rather than block them off. For example, the first VR treatments of Giant Cop (it was originally conceived as a standard mouse-driven PC game) were designed with the idea that the player would sit on the floor and play in the world like a child with a toy set. The game still supports that idea and McGinley is a fan of it because it's so unique to VR, but it didn't work for everyone.

"We found that people who were taller would have more problems exerting themselves in VR over a shorter period of time," McGinley said.

So rather than asking players to frequently crouch, sit down, stand up, and so on, the developers implemented a Darth Vader-style "force grab" that let them magically summon distant objects to their hands. They can still bend down to pick things up if they wish, but it's no longer mandatory. With Giant Cop having a narrative component, the process of storytelling in VR also had to be rethought, right down to the fundamental issue of how the premise is presented to the player. McGinley said they had nearly settled on a similar approach to the one used in Arkham VR, but ultimately had to tweak it so players weren't inhabiting a pre-existing character.

"If we say, 'Hey you're Bruce Wayne,' that immediately allows you to make moral decisions as if you're the character," McGinley said. "'Oh, I know how Bruce Wayne behaves. I know I fight crime, or I don't use a gun,' for example. And we didn't want that for Giant Cop. We wanted you to make decisions based on your character, and what your personality is."

That said, McGinley has a pretty good idea what those decisions are typically going to be.

"We talked a lot about whether the game plays out differently if you play as a good cop or a bad cop," McGinley said. "And we decided that was something we didn't want to do because we know everyone wants to play as the bad cop, right? That's the fun of the game, messing with the city. You can absolutely play as a good cop and we have mechanisms in the game to reward you if you do. But that's kind of not the point; the point is to mess up the city, and that's how we can tell you this satirical message. You're messing stuff up as you try to protect the city."

As for that satirical message, McGinley offered some reassurances that it will be a bit more substantial than the toothless commentary so often offered by games.

"Everything we've put out so far is pretty straight up, 'Haha, it's funny to pull up people and [mess with them],' but there is a deeper, darker story inside Giant Cop," McGinley said. "And a lot of the events in the last two weeks have drawn parallels to the stuff we're doing, so it's pretty interesting."

Disclosure: MIGS has a media partnership with GamesIndustry.biz, and paid for our accommodation during the event.

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