Necessity is the mother of invention, so they say, and so it proved for FuturLab in its first taste of VR; a young medium so replete with challenges one can only marvel at the number of indie studios eager to add those to the daunting number they already face.
For James Marsden, tackling and overcoming obstacles is central of the appeal of running an indie studio, which he has done since founding FuturLab in 2003. "Over the years I've learned how to massage chaos into some kind of order," he says, but coming to terms with the opportunities created and (just as importantly) restrictions imposed by VR proved a stern test for FuturLab's problem-solving abilities.
"You name the problems you can have as a game studio, and we've had every single one with this"
The game Marsden is describing is Tiny Trax, a stylish racing title modelled on the Scalextric toys that were ubiquitous in the Eighties and Nineties. When we talked back in April, Marsden wasn't able to disclose many details beyond the invaluable contribution of Dave Gabriel, a production assistant and QA tester at the studio who stepped up to become the project's main source of both ideas and solutions.
Now, with the 20 month process required to "get it in the bag" finally over, Marsden and the rest of the team at FuturLab can reflect on what appears to be a job well done. "It has been the most exhausting project," he concedes. "You name the problems you can have as a game studio, and we've had every single one with this."
But hard problems demand smart solutions, and what FuturLab learned in developing, balancing and polishing Tiny Trax has left only the desire for more.
Player movement should be rewarded, not required
The first issue FuturLab encountered with VR is also the most well understood; what Marsden describes as "human interface limitations," before clarifying with, "the inner-ear being a bit fussy."
In the hands of a careless developer, VR can make almost any user nauseous to wildly varying degrees. FuturLab abandoned an early drone racing concept - in which the player's viewpoint would follow behind the vehicle - for exactly this reason, opting instead for an experience that the player observed from a seated position. However, Sony was keen for all PSVR titles to showcase the medium's unique qualities, setting FuturLab the task of getting "as much VR-ness into the mechanics" as possible.
"The player shouldn't have to move. It was more satisfying when you rewarded movement rather than required it"
"It became pretty clear in the early prototypes that it's fun to move your head around and your body around," Marsden says, "but not when it's mandatory." The Tiny Trax concept offered solutions for both sides: a fast-paced racing game where movement wouldn't make the player feel sick, and one with cars and tracks of a size that could potentially reward players who experimented with leaning in and looking around.
FuturLab developed concepts similar to those used in games like Fez and Echochrome, where shifting perspective is used to open up paths and solve puzzles. "We played with the track not lining up until you look at it right, but it's too fussy, too gimmicky," Marsden says. "We decided that the player shouldn't have to move. It was more satisfying when you rewarded movement rather than required it."
The majority of levels in Tiny Trax can be played from a seated position, with VR adding only a unique sense of depth. However, you can peer around and under stretches of track to get a better view of distant corners, you can gaze skywards to follow your car as it rides the curve of a giant loop, or, in one memorable instance, you can plunge your head below a body of water to get a better view, muffling the game's audio and music as a result.
"You can see everything you need to see without moving an inch, and you can trust that the car is going to disappear at that point and reappear at that point," Marsden says, referring to the track with the loop. "You can sit there and be happy with that, but you can also get the edge, and make sure that nobody's going to get past you at that moment. It feels natural."
The player's area of focus is tiny - use it to your advantage
A great many of the most pleasurable moments in Tiny Trax arise from that allowing the player to voluntarily use VR to increase the spectacle or gain the upper hand. However, the biggest surprises come from the occasions on which FuturLab allows itself to overstep that boundary of the comfort it so skilfully creates; as Marsden puts it, "invading their sense of personal space, but in a really charming way."
"Your area of focus is very, very small," he continues. "We have peripheral vision, and on a 2D screen peripheral vision is very, very easy to achieve with HUD elements and stuff. But in VR, where the field of view is relatively small anyway, your area of focus and what you actually pay attention to is miniscule. We found that the player literally doesn't see anything that's on the track apart from the car."
"In VR, your area of focus and what you actually pay attention to is miniscule"
FuturLab experimented with dropping traffic cones onto the track, requiring the player to switch lanes to avoid a crash. However, no matter how much time the player had to prepare that evasive manoeuvre it would generally end in a collision - "the area where you concentrate is that tiny," Marsden says.
Ultimately, FuturLab used that tunnel vision to its advantage, designing the tracks so that certain stretches capitalised on the player's inability to anticipate what's ahead. With attention focused solely on a car and the small space around it, the moments where it turns a sharp bend and seems about to drive straight into your nose only to sweep away at the last second never fails to surprise. In VR, even the most restrained flourish can have a big impact.
"Really early on we had a car coming down a tunnel and turning [just before the player's head], and we thought, 'That's the game'," Marsden says. "The rest of it was just fleshing out different ideas based on building the player up to those experiences."
When it comes to skill depth, check your assumptions at the door
The way VR inhibits the player's ability to anticipate obstacles had major implications for the way FuturLab thought about skill in other areas of the game. In the vast majority of racing games, the focus is on taking corners at the right angle and, crucially, at the right speed. FuturLab started from this assumption, handing control over the car's speed to the player by mapping acceleration to the trigger buttons.
"It just didn't work," Marsden says. "Players just couldn't work out where the threshold for failure was, and they'd go flying off the track. They'd end up just trundling around, really scared of coming off. We spent months and months trying to solve this problem."
Ultimately, it was Dave Gabriel, the QA tester, who pushed to shift the gameplay away from control over speed and towards control over steering. "He just played around with Unity and tried something different," Marsden says. "That's when we discovered the overturn idea, where if you overturn the car you skid to a halt. It completely removed the idea of speed from the player's control. As long as you're turning properly you'll make it round the corner. It was a 'Eureka' moment."
"This would have been a much simpler game to make if we could have just made Super Offroad, where you've got full steering and control"
It was a better solution, but still far from perfect, and its weaknesses were exposed by no less a figure than Shuhei Yoshida, president of worldwide studios for Sony Interactive Entertainment. FuturLab was showing a new build of the game at GDC this year, where player after player had run into issues finding the "sweet-spot" that would allow a corner to be taken cleanly - push too hard on the thumbstick, and the car would come to a grinding halt. However, despite careful coaching from Marsden and Kirsty Rigden, FuturLab's development director, Yoshida approached Tiny Trax as he would any other racing game.
"It was painful to watch him struggle," Marsden says. "This is the man you want to impress... Kirsty was hiding behind her hands. We were all just sitting there going, 'Help!' It's what everyone does, because every racing game you've ever played is steer to the maximum, and then pare it back."
Ultimately, a HUD element giving the player visual feedback on the force and direction of steering was enough to eradicate the problem, but FuturLab's struggles speak to the myriad ways in which VR can turn relatively simple mechanics into design problems with no clear solution.
"This would have been a much, much, much simpler game to make if we could have just made Super Offroad, where you've got full steering and control," Marsden says. "But because the resolution [in PSVR] is low, when you travel so far into the distance you become a speck and you can't tell how your car's rotating. That would just be a nightmare. You'd constantly be hitting walls trying to re-steer."
Low price, high value - just make it to the second game
Having started Futurlab almost 15 years ago, Marsden has seen the emergence of many new platforms and marketplaces. In each case, the early days are defined by confusion around how much games should cost, and what represents value. "We were at the launch of PlayStation Mobile, and our first game was 40p," Marsden says. "We felt that for the size of the game and the depth of it, that was a fair price."
When it comes to new platforms with no fixed conventions around pricing and an audience of enthusiasts, it is tempting to charge more money for less content - an accusation that could be levelled at a number of games on the VR market. However, after seeing the potential of VR firsthand, Marsden is adamant that Futurlab wants to play its part in helping PSVR to succeed.
"We have vastly more ambitious concepts that would take serious AAA budgets to realise... The market just needs to mature a bit"
"We need to put content on there that's affordable and fair," he says. "Tiny Trax will probably be under £10; anywhere between £5 and £10 would, I think, be a reasonable spend."
Tiny Trax doesn't have the depth of a game like Motorstorm, Marsden adds, but that is in part down to the nature of VR at this stage in its evolution. Instead, FuturLab has emphasised spectacle, production value, and a polished multiplayer experience in a marketplace with few alternatives. "There aren't that many - if any - synchronous multiplayer VR games," he says, and the potential for players to keep returning to the game is where FuturLab believes it will stand apart in terms of value.
"Our goal really is to have an opportunity to make the next game, and for us that's about demonstrating that we understand the platform and we understand Sony's goals. We have to get the price-point right for that whole ecosystem.... I mean it would be lovely to sell shit-loads of units, but the installed base isn't huge. It's about finding a price-point that's fair for the amount of value you get."
Moving on to the next game is crucial for any studio in FuturLab's position, and not just for commercial reasons. The first attempt at VR development is always a learning experience; few developers come out of it with a game as sprightly and polished as Tiny Trax, but all emerge with the insight necessary to hit the ground running on a second project. "It's important to be here now," Marsden admits. "We've had to go through some hard learning, but we've had the opportunity to do that early."
Ideas certainly aren't in short supply. Indeed, Marsden says that no sooner had FuturLab's team "started to understand what you can do with this round of VR, ideas just came pouring out. As soon as this finishes we're going straight onto another one with Sony, which has the same hallmarks but is more ambitious. And we have vastly more ambitious concepts that would take serious AAA budgets to realise.
"The potential is there to do it right at scale. The market just needs to mature a bit. VR needs a mega-hit, and then people will follow."