VR's level playing field is an open door for aspiring developers
"VR is an opportunity for studios to rethink things," says FuturLab's James Marsden, "but it's also an opportunity for their staff"
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For most developers, the appeal of virtual reality is the myriad creative and technical challenges it presents. The medium demands that years of assumptions and best-practices around what games are and how they work be set aside, and that's just to ensure that the user won't become nauseous simply from playing.
Making a great, immersive experience takes time, then, but for the indie studios that comprise the vast majority of the VR development community, time is a luxury that few can easily afford. Take the Brighton-based studio FuturLab, which is working on a game for PlayStation VR. Like so many indie studios it is always pitching ideas, and often actively developing more than one project. According to James Marsden, the company's director, that was the situation when it successfully sold a PSVR game to Sony's strategic content team. FuturLab had a close working relationship with Sony from Velocity and Velocity2X, but its workload was such that starting the project - a "drone racing" title - had to be delayed for six months.
"Through VR, Dave discovered his talent. And, basically, he saved our asses"
"Our executive team had very little time," Marsden says. "We were working on another project. We actually had a few problems, which were design related, that we were just banging our heads against the wall about."
At the point in time, Marsden's experience with VR was more or less limited to a few queasy encounters with an Oculus DK2. Recognising the need for in-depth market research, FuturLab turned to Dave Gabriel, its production assistant and QA tester; he was given an Oculus Rift, a well-funded Steam account, and some fairly concise instructions. "We just said, 'play everything you can, take shitloads of notes, and work out what VR is,'" Marsden recalls. "We were just too busy."
It just so happened that Gabriel shared Marsden's sensitivity to VR experiences that played fast and loose with the inner-ear - "a good thing," Marsden assures me, as it allowed Gabriel to easily spot what doesn't work in VR. The problem was that Gabriel quickly recognised that FuturLab's drone racing pitch belonged in that very category.
"We were friendly with the team making DriveClub VR, and they were throwing a lot of people at the problem," Marsden says. "We're a very small team, so we thought we'd let the big team fix the motion sickness problem, go in a completely different direction and just avoid it entirely."
The question, then, was which direction to go. FuturLab turned to Gabriel again, drawing on the experience he accrued over his weeks of playing with VR to establish criteria for a comfortable and satisfying experience. Gabriel observed that the user's view-point should remain relatively fixed, allowing the action to come to the player. There was also a great sense of agency to be found in being positioned above a world of smaller objects or characters, with the freedom to explore by leaning in and looking around.
"This went on for a couple of weeks," Marsden says. "It looked like our other project was going to have some issues, so we knew we really had to make sure the VR game would work. But it was playing on my mind that what we had currently was going to cause problems."
"Dave had tested out the VR, suggested the concept, and designed most of the levels... This was becoming his game"
The breakthrough came from Gabriel, who pulled a delightful new concept out of the air while talking with Marsden in the FuturLab kitchen; a concept that avoided the pitfalls of drone racing, while encompassing what he'd discovered about fun VR experiences.
Later, when the project hit a major issue with perhaps its most important gameplay mechanic, it was Gabriel's experiments with Unity that finally revealed a solution. Marsden describes it as a "Eureka moment" - one of several that had come directly from FuturLab's tester, and this one on the very day of beta submission.
"When you've been working on something for a year, basically, you think you've exhausted every possibility. Your brain just shuts down on creative thinking," Marsden says. "Fortunately Dave just kept plugging at it, because he didn't think it was good enough yet.
"Dave had tested out the VR, suggested the concept, and he designed most of the levels - again, we were so busy with something else. This was becoming his game, whereas normally it's me that gets intimately involved with moment-to-moment mechanics and the way things feel.
"He had a greater understanding at that point, when we were struggling."
Gabriel is no longer FuturLab's QA Tester, though Marsden says he was entirely devoted to mastering that profession. Instead, his fine work resulted in a promotion to designer, and Gabriel is still one of FuturLab's foremost experts on finding solutions to VR technology's many creative problems.
As I ready myself to leave, Marsden recalls Gabriel's own description of life a professional QA tester: "You see the world in a slightly different way when you're trying to break things all the time." Well, VR breaks a great deal of what we know about the best way to make games, and Gabriel was the right person at just the right moment for FuturLab.
"VR is an opportunity for studios to rethink things, but it's also an opportunity for their staff," Marsden says. "We were in a situation where we couldn't make the most of an opportunity, so we trusted our least senior member of staff. If we didn't have Dave, and if we didn't stay open minded enough to let him run with it, we wouldn't have this game.
"That's an important message... Through VR, Dave discovered his talent. And, basically, he saved our asses."