Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Solving the "unsolvable" issue of mobility in VR


To hear many people talk, virtual reality has an unsolvable problem.  To some, it's an issue that cripples the entire VR effort and leaves all the effort and investment dead in the water.  I'm speaking of course about handling player movement (and rotation) in VR.

Some people have a natural unease when wearing a VR headset if their character or camera(s) are not stationary in an environment.  Early demos on the very first Oculus Rift Dev Kits (commonly referred to as a "DK1") often resulted in users being queasy or dizzy... we all know about this or have experienced this by now.  It is known.

Fast forward to Oculus Connect a week ago, and the unveiling of the newest prototype, dubbed Crescent Bay.  It's very hard to find someone who tried the CB demo and wasn't blown away by the quality, and for all intents and purposes it crossed the threshold where basically everyone is comfortable and natural in those worlds.  People who were immediately queasy with earlier VR devices are right at home when the frame rate is so high, precision is so excellent, latency is so low, etc.  Users were able to literally walk around the demo room, freely exploring a bit of virtual space, poking their heads against objects and truly immersing themselves in the world.  It's absolutely magical, and that's not hyperbole.

(Again I applaud the Oculus team for striving to make the first consumer version such a highly tuned experience.  If you see that demo, you get it.  You only get that first impression once)

There's a catch.  Of the ~10 demos on the Crescent bay units, only two scenes had the camera moving within the world at all.  Epic's excellent "Shootout" demo had a slow steady linear camera path through a paused Matrix-like firefight.  It was like standing on a moving walkway in an airport, moving through a 3D mural of powered armor, debris, and mechs (and it was beyond gorgeous).  The other movement demo was a similar straight track through an abstract Tron type world, but yeah, only two demos with the most basic and uncontrolled movement possible.

Clearly player movement and camera controls within VR worlds is a huge issue to basically everyone with a stake or opinion on VR.


To discuss this issue I prefer to think there are actually two problems that are often rolled into one.  They're absolutely related, but in my mind they're very much two distinct problems.  (I am sure there are more established terms for these, but I'm no academic, so I'm going with these)


Problem One - "Comfort"
How players instinctively feel when the world around them moves or rotates.

Problem Two - "Controls"
The control scheme for how the players control that movement.


When people simply say "movement in VR makes me ill", it can be any number of facets of either of those problems, or both.  Comfort is very much affected by technology improving, latency and such, but it's not entirely about tech.  Some people are naturally more sensitive than others in this regard, and there's less that we can do to impact that.  As a designer I'm extremely interested in Problem Two, Controls, the actual input scheme for making a character or camera move through an area.  Controls are what we need to nail in order to escort as many people as possible across the threshold into VR.  It's the ultimate test of making something "feel" right, and it's what I'd like to talk more about.



*Allow me a slight tangent before I continue.  Personally, I don't believe that we will see in-home treadmills, or hamster balls, or slick sock trackpads, etc as a solution for control devices.  To me it's a mass market non-starter, a great way to get VR skeptics thinking you're completely out of touch with reality, and an excellent way to have casuals happily dismiss all subsequent opinions from you.  Some demo could change my mind, I'm just stating my current opinion on this.  I'm not trying to create a Holodeck; It's ambitious enough just wanting to navigate an avatar around a 3D world instead of just set pieces.


_____________________________


On a topic with opinions flying fast and loose it's nice to know there are at least a few absolute truths.  Here's one such truth: people have extremely individualized issues with VR.

A month before Oculus Connect, I set out to make a demo that focused on mobility.  This particular prototype was about zero gravity grappling hooking around an asteroid cluster, using head tracking and only two buttons.  I thought it felt excellent very early in development.  I would say around 70% of people who tried my demo felt comfortable with it (not awful, but not a slam dunk by any stretch).

At one point I showed it to someone and it didn't go well, they didn't care for the method by which I controlled rotation of the character, and they gave me some good feedback on my deadzone settings and sensitivity.  As he walked away I fired up my editor and created a different build on the spot with several aspects modified.

Two of my old Epic buddies, Nick Donaldson and Nick Whiting swung by to check it out next.  Nick D tried my original version and had nearly identical feedback to the prior player.  I fired up my newer "low responsiveness" build, and he too found it much easier to use.  I considered for a minute that maybe I needed to swap all to my settings to that mode and rebalance for it.

Nick W picked up the headset, still on the "low responsiveness" build and again I heard the comment of, "I don't care for this turning scheme".  For the hell of it I fired up my original build for him.  The result was night and day.  He was zipping around, interrupting grapples in mid move, behaving instinctively how I also was with my very early builds.

The line between, "Ew, I don't care for this", and "Holy shit, don't EVER touch these controls again, they're awesome!" is a very fine, and very individual one.


People's opinions on VR Comfort are very polarized because we are acting on deeply subconscious levels.  What we believe, we believe strongly.  You can't debate with someone that they're not actually uncomfortable, if they're uneasy, they're uneasy damn it.  How people feel in VR is not really opinion, it's a personal fact, it's how they're wired.

In VR some people don't like open spaces, some people don't like lateral movement, some people can't go down stairs, some people don't like being close to large objects, some people can't handle yaw rotation, some people can't handle HUD elements, etc.  I've done a lot of caving in real life, but found my personal VR Kryptonite is moving through tight corridors for now (alas, no Space Hulk from me).

Some people quickly get their "VR legs" and adapt, some simply don't.


"OK, Lee, we get it!  People are snowflakes, move on!"  Yes, yes, ok!  Chill out, I have a point...


_____________________________


Time and again the conversation comes up that people are waiting for "The solution" to VR movement control schemes.  Why would we assume there is "a" solution to a problem with so many personal variables?

Must there be a magic bullet that flips some binary switch where suddenly every living person can leap about in Minecraft or TF2?

While that's a noble goal, I think many are holding VR up to a far higher bar than any other platform when it comes to expectations of a single universally accepted control scheme.

It's possible that "The" solution looks more like an array of customizable options and control schemes that will naturally evolved as industry standards.  Look at nearly any random first person game and you'll find options for sensitivity, auto assist, dead zones, reversing both or either axis, auto sprinting, etc.  I'm not giddy and clapping at the idea of option screens (they're a pain in the ass and the majority of players don't even open them) but for the players who need them to flip a critical switch that makes the entire game playable to them, it's a huge deal.  It's not perfect, no, but I don't see why it's any worse for VR to have option screens or alternate control schemes than all the other games we play on all the other platforms.

IMO, a "one size fits all" control scheme prerequisite may be unrealistic, unnecessary for the platform's success, and it might be a distraction keeping us from finding an array of suitable individual solutions.  I would love nothing more than to see an uber-scheme emerge, don't get me wrong, but we can't wait for every light down the street to turn green before we hit the gas.

Not every game, every genre, and every control scheme has to serve as an ideal first experience for completely inexperienced casual VR users.  It's possible that some people are going to have Comfort problems even under the best of cases, it sucks to admit that.  Do we not create things because of that factor?  Designers obviously don't want to create something that is incompatible with a chunk of people, yet we readily accept that practically every modern game is meant to appeal to a specific subset of customers.  Ideally we make what we want to play, and there's no crime in that.

Racing games, fighters, RTS, shooters, adventure games, puzzlers, etc all have dramatically different expectations of control systems; in five year's time I will be very surprised if we don't see a variety of genres within VR that have very different expected control schemes as well.  Consider that high character-mobility games could be a genre within VR that some people love, and some people can't tolerate.

One guy at Oculus Connect was showing this swanky Descent-style rogue-like horror indie game.  It flies in the face of quite a few assumptions about what can work in VR, and I have to say it was extremely cool (check it out! www.nulloperator.com).  I thought, "you go, dude!  I want to play your game, I handled the motion really well!"  I can imagine some wouldn't handle it so well, but why shouldn't he make a game like that if he's following his passion?


_____________________________


I'm reminded of a moment around 1999 when everyone was passing around videos of this ridiculously slick looking PC FPS shooter named Halo.  The announcement that Microsoft had scooped them up and it would be an exclusive for their first console was... let's say "dramatic".  People following Halo absolutely flipped. the. fuck. out.  Would they ship a mouse and keyboard with the Xbox?!  They'd have to, because the idea of a FPS with a controller was nothing short of repulsive!

Obviously that turned out well.

The thing to consider about that example is that MS and Bungie did a truly mind boggling amount of work to get the original Halo controls to feel as awesome as they did.  Their acceleration curves, adhesion, reticules, movement rates... all of it pounded through usability tests and forged until they ultimately laid the groundwork for literally nations of gamers to enjoy shooters on their TV.  It was a huge investment, and it paid off (options screen and inverted mouse testing and all).

Oculus is in the position of trying to launch this entire VR movement.  Their reluctance to push out demos that might alienate a segment of players is understandable.  They need to appeal to as broad an audience as humanly possible.  They have a ridiculous amount of pressure on them to make that first experience for random users be an awesome one that feels completely comfortable.  Given the Herculean tasks ahead of them with launching Gear VR, a platform, the Consumer Version of the Rift, etc. it seems highly unlikely that they're going to put the kind of effort into tackling "mobility in VR" that MS and Bungie did with Halo.

But.

This isn't 1999.  Back then it used to be impossible for small developers to create and distribute content for consoles, the job had to fall on the shoulders of MS and Bungie.  This is not the case now.  Dev kits from Oculus are pretty easy to score, and Unity and Unreal Engine 4 both make it incredibly straightforward for devs to experiment with these devices.  The unsolvable "Problem Two - Controls" is now a challenge distributed among many tens of thousands of people with dev kits and know-how.  It's a hell of a thing to vote against that amount of intuition and passion.


_____________________________


There's another interesting truth about all things VR.  The solutions are often incredibly unintuitive.  Things that feel like they should be smooth are actually jarring, and vice-versa.  Things that seem like they should help immersion like camera shakes or walking bobs actually break immersion.  Some really great tips sound kind of horrible on paper.  Really until you just try something, you can't know what the outcome of an experiment in VR will be.

Allow me to list everyone who is an absolute authority on Virtual Reality:

1)

How cool is that?  How about the list of people who can say conclusively that your idea won't work?  Pretty much the same list.  There is not a single person alive right now who can say conclusively what can't work in VR.  Sure, we know a good deal about things that do work, but the amount we don't know is a vast wilderness comparatively.

If you're a designer, what you can not afford to do right now is listen to everybody who believes their name should be on that list above here.  Too many people have decided "VR is not good for X".  Don't buy into it.  They are coming from a different set of preferences, and you should counter those preconceptions with your personal instincts.

Oculus has an amazing document listing their best practices.  I encourage you to really study their points... then intelligently and consciously push against them.  They are first people to tell you (even within that document) that the points are only well founded suggestions and helpful hints.  Know the rules before you break them.

Even if someone has tried something themselves and tells you it didn't work, it's worth considering that they might not have tried it the same way you would.  Perhaps they're in the 20% of people who didn't like what they created, but you really might have loved it?  The industry is littered with people who tried and discarded something that was incredibly successful for someone else.


_____________________________


I doubt that it will, but I hope that VR does not become just another format for the exact same games we've seen on all the other platforms.  The point of better VR controls is not simply to play Skyrim as-is in VR, it's about making something with even more immersive potential than Skyrim.

I have no doubt that there are some extremely cool game concepts waiting to happen in VR while still coloring within the lines of the Best Practices document.  Some great games could happen just expecting the players to stand up and walk freely around in the sensor area, like the Crescent Bay demos.  That said, I still can't imagine that in 5 years everything in VR will be chair simulators and "experiences".  At some point players are inevitably going to want what we think of casually as "games" now.

Designing within parameters is a critical skill for a designer, but so is pushing the boundaries.

Imagine what VR can be like in 5 years, hell, even skeptics often say "VR needs more time".  The problem is that time isn't what solves problems.  That future version of VR doesn't just manifest itself because the calendar says "it's time".  Experience and developers experimenting will be what solves these problems.  People playing early games, getting used to them, getting their VR legs, that's how we slowly erode at these "unsolvable" issues.



To summarize!  VR is a far more personal game experience than anything we've ever seen, so don't be afraid of in-game control options.  Solutions are often crazy unintuitive, so instead of listening to why things theoretically won't work, try things!  If something seems magical to you, run with it.


Thanks as always for reading!


P.S.  If you're doing things in VR that involve interesting approaches to character or camera controls, I'd love to check it out and compare findings, please comment.  I plan on putting a build of my grappling demo on the 'share' site as soon as I'm done with GDC China and GDC prep.

P.P.S.  I'd love to see someone put together a "VR mobility jam"!  I have zero experience with organizing such things, but I'd damn sure participate :)


Friday, July 11, 2014

Pen and paper RPGs aren't just bloated boardgames

This is a nerdocity level 17 rant, you've been warned ;)


I absolutely love boardgames, I've got a walk-in closet loaded with my collection and for most of the companies I've worked for I try to have weekly gatherings to drag out new games.

I absolutely love pen and paper RPGs.  Again, at most companies I've been at I'd run a weekly RPG for coworkers, and often spend as much time planning and prepping as playing.

I love both for very different reasons.

My issue with the vast majority of pen and paper games that call themselves RPGs are that for some reason they seem to be focusing on being, well, boardgames.  To me at least, playing an RPG (like D&D) is not about how many spaces a character can move, or how many spaces your magic missile can reach, or having a small deck of preprinted abilities you get to add to your standard nicely printed full color character template.  To me, RPGs aren't card games.  To me, RPGs aren't about stat leveling and getting a +1 on your sword.  To me, RPGs aren't about a modular set of modeled and painted rooms on your table or other boardgame component porn.

Obviously for companies based on selling you components, it's easy to see why they focus on making games glossier and "higher end" looking.  But, it's coming at the price of the game experience itself.

After any RPG session you should be able to ask yourself "what happened in tonight's adventure?"  If the answer is, "we moved through 6 rooms and the players struck down 23 Orcs and 7 Trolls and earned 1400 XP to get a new fire bolt spell card"... well...  Look, if *you* enjoyed the session, that's great, and that's really the bottom line... but IMO, there's better dedicated combat-heavy boardgames out there you could be playing if that's your bag.  That's a post-game summary you could have had after playing Descent, or HeroQuest, or the D&D boardgames or any number of other tile based games.  (Honestly you should just go play Diablo or Dark Souls and enjoy a hellaciously polished dungeon run, where that summary describes like 5 minutes of gameplay instead of 5 hours)

I can't wait to... uh... walk across that.  Weeee!  I'm role playin y'all!

______________________________


When I'm running (or playing in) a good RPG the end of the night should culminate in everyone laughing and talking over each other excitedly about how hilarious or unlikely it was when player X did Y or reacted to Z.

"Holy shit, Andrew was playing a convicted (technically pacifist) Nigerian internet scammer and ended up tazing an infected zombie howler monkey and handcuffing it to an unconscious guard!  Hey, remember, THEY MIGHT BE FRIENDLY!"

"OMG I can't believe when we were stuck in that groundhog day time loop on that island that Josh forgot to explain himself to the kid's father yet again that morning; then he thought he could lock himself in the room with that kid without the rest of the town wouldn't think he was a pedo freak and attack us!  Not to mention we already accidentally set the fields around the town on fire!"

"What the hell guys?!  We were supposed to bring peace to this island, and ended up setting loose an angry group of centaur dwarves on their oppressors and were helpless to watch as, well, they kind of murdered everyone and we fled.  Good job, all!  We're true heroes!"

"Nice job rolling so high when you cast 'Fear', James.  Don't mind the village kids around that you irreparably traumatized.  It's cool, they'll just grow up terrified of cat-people and maybe, um, house cats."

"OK, which of us is going to try to convince Sook, the North Korean defector who only speaks english learned from business motivational courses that the militarized zombies might actually be curable if we can somehow make caffeine airborne?"

(Those are actual examples that happened in the normal course of play during the last games we played at Epic)


Remember this one sentence, if nothing else...

RPGs are an opportunity to interact with characters in ways that absolutely no other method of gaming allows.

There's an unprecedented amount of freedom in well run RPGs.  That's what saddens me with the state of pen and paper RPGs and motivates me to bother writing this.  This rant is not about, "get off my lawn, all you kids are playing wrong", I'm just bummed that a generation of gamers are going to have to rediscover that RPGs are an amazing playground for imagination and storytelling that doesn't fit on hexes and squares and blast templates.  RPGs happen in the possibility space of our heads and imaginations, and I don't want to lose that to pretty dungeon components.

______________________________


If I have tips for people who want to run a better RPG, it's here:

First and foremost... make it about interacting with NPCs.  Come up with situations where players have to make interesting decisions and cause events to occur based on how a conversation with a key NPC went.

Be ready to adapt to anything and don't be daunted by it.  If you need to take a minute to organize your thoughts because a player suddenly decided, "I'm going to jump on that nobleman's coach and see where it goes", or a player decides, "Ya know, I'm going to cause the death of someone you thought would be vital to the game", cool.  This is the one game invented by man that allows that kind of completely open ended spontaneity, don't be the douchebag who thwarts everything your player's choose to do.  If they want to try something inventive and amusing and plausible, LET THEM DO IT.  You're all creating stories here.

You're running an RPG session, abandon all hopes of being "cool" and just fucking *get into it*.  Do a little voice acting for your NPCs, bring life to your world in any goofy memorable way you can imagine.  You can't be self conscious and be a great GM.

Make a list of people you know in real life, or characters that stand out from movies, and keep those jotted down somewhere.  When a player randomly strikes up a conversation with someone you weren't expecting, grab a "personality" you're familiar with for that person.  Odds are they're not going to notice, "Hey, the inn keeper seems an awful lot like Steve Buscemi".

Be careful not to make everyone you encounter be a jackass or adversarial to the party.  If the trend is you, the GM, being a sneering punk challenging their interactions, they're simply going to stop interacting and revert to caring about initiative rolls more than their charisma checks and so forth.

Have fun and break the 4th wall creatively sometimes.  I had a villain who could "read the player's minds" once by basically having the villain respond to the table talk the players were making.  I didn't let them discuss their plans verbally in private during the situation.  Good times ;)  Hell, I've got a whole planned "Ghostbusters" campaign based on that trick.  I realized the table talk between players was just getting hilarious with our group, and think we could pull off a game where all table talk is literally what their characters are saying... no carefully planned prepared answers, etc... just players being players and NPCs reacting to it.  (I warned you in the first sentence about the nerdocity here!)  In our first Epic campaign I had players make "criminal mastermind" characters, then started the campaign off with them in a prison work camp as a zombie apocalypse started.  Yaaaay twists!

Keep the game off physical maps unless you really need a combat to break out.  Don't track where people are in a tavern, don't draw that out, just describe it vividly and know that it's cooler in your player's heads that anything you're going to create.

When I need maps, I typically run games on a couple roll-out wipe-off Chessex hex battle maps with a load of colored overhead markers nearby.  If a player wants to deviate from what I expected and explore in some way that calls on me to improvise, there's nothing easier that scribbling out some walls and doodling in some new areas.  This is something you simply can't do with a well assembled dungeon tile setup that funnels your players into a series of planned out combat encounters.  Don't worry about what it looks like; again, just use loads of good verbal descriptors when you introduce a place.

When mayhem breaks out, have a red marker on hand

Don't get caught up in figure mania.  Trust me, you will never own enough.  If you want, order some blank white dice in different sizes and use the overhead markers to squiggle characters or icons onto the dice.  This also lets you flip a dice and make a frowny face or so forth on the other side to show a stunned enemy.  Otherwise, use regular dice showing the same number as figures, "all sixes are guards" etc.

The infamous Cpt Scraw and the scary ass invisible prisoner

Manage player expectations.  Hell, have your players read this.  Let them know you're not about to run a combat simulation.  Make them aware that they're about to play a session that is not about hoarding and cataloguing loot while making their XP increase.  Sure, reward people with those things and keep them around as a means of motivating them if that's their bag, but avoid players who are so hardcore about the game that they actually suck the fun out of it.  Your players will get into the swing of it.  When someone tries something cool, and you let it work out... others are more emboldened and invested in the actual events of the game.

Lie.  Lie through your damned teeth as often as you want to make a story flow at critical points.  Roll your dice behind your DM screen and if something is extremely important, bullshit freely about what you're rolling or who survived with 2 HP left, or how 3 enemies actually fled in terror from failing some morale roll, etc.  For real drama in moments where it could go either way, break the pattern and roll it in front of everyone.  When something verifiably unexpected happens in front of people... it's magic.  Ooooh theatrics!

Sometimes if I'm at a loss on how to react to a situation I'll roll a single die and ask myself, "how screwed are the players right now?" and use the result to broadly decide if I should do something really shitty to the players, or give them some amazing lucky moment.  Hell, when someone does something you didn't expect, but it's awesome... pause for a second and just roll some dice for dramatic effect.  The players will wonder WTF you're doing and get all amped up.  Don't forget to giggle or grimace mysteriously for effect.

When things get boring, change it up.  If a fight is going on too long, have the enemies retreat, etc... not everything needs to feel like a slog.  If a situation is not coming off as you would have liked, and players don't seem to be into it, recognize that and fast forward a bit.

Keep a little paper around where you jot down a note about amusing moments that happened in your campaign.  Bring that stuff up again later for continuity.  Someone accidentally caused the death of a random villager?  Three sessions later have a posse of angry inbred cousins show up looking for revenge.  A player did something crazy in front of onlookers?  Have some random bard singing a boastful song about the events a month later in a random Inn (but give a different player the credit).  Give those actions long lasting personalized repercussions and it brings a world to life like no other game can.

Keep a list on your phone of, "situations to put into a campaign".  I can't tell you how many random interesting moments come to me while I'm driving around, remembering them later helps when you're grasping for interesting campaign material.

It's not about big powerful enemies and world saving big scale moments.  Low level interactions are a blast too.  When you're just getting started, and your character is frail and could actually die if some yahoo stuck his table knife in your belly... that's some of the absolute best role-playing moments there are.  When players are terrified, there's magic in the air.  It can be hard to challenge the players as they get really "powerful" and lose their fear of Gargo the stocky stableboy with a pitchfork and a sneer.

This should be basic game running 101, but... do not kill your freakin' players because dice told you to.  Unless you've made it DAMN clear that they're about to do something horrifically stupid, and even then had to roll very poorly, don't do it.  Maim them, take something they care about, knock them unconscious and make another player carry them for drama, etc... but recognize that the rules are there to create a story, and it's up to you to interpret the gameplay.  Having someone sitting out or leaving a game session or rolling a new character is full on ass-hattery... don't act like 14 yr olds playing their first game.

Lastly, everything you do should serve to create amazing stories that players will tell at the end of the night.  But equally important is that they're an integral part of those stories, and they feel it's their own.  Don't get so caught up with what you WANT to happen that you stifle players or make them feel like a passive participant in your grand tale.

______________________________


I'll give a completely unsolicited plug here...

My current RPG system of choice is "Savage Worlds".  It's a generic rule system with lots of sourcebooks to flavor campaigns in all kinds of ways.  There are Deadlands dark western sourcebooks, sci-fi stuff, pulp horror adventures out the wazoo, and of course loads of fantasy (shattered worlds we played a lot of), Weird War II, etc...

I love savage worlds, I describe it as an engine for making cool shit happen.  Even the language is like you're creating a screenplay in realtime.  Characters are called "actors", and NPCs are called "extras".  It's a system that seems to really value the same things I do... my time being one of them.


Combat is fast... like VERY fast.  It's not bogged down in minutiae and management.  Leave that junk to boardgames and video games.  A single combat in some systems will take up your entire evening game session, but Savage Worlds handles fights with a dozen actors (or dozens sometimes) easily.

As an example, enemy peon lackey "extras" have only three states for the most part.  They're on their feet and swinging, they're stunned, or they're dead.  Players and important NPC actors all have essentially three hitpoints, with every damage meaning a -1 to all rolls.  If you're under that, you're unconscious and up to the discretion of the GM (who is acting in the best interest of "directing" the story along).  Actors only have a couple basic stats... which for the most part are "which size dice do you roll for this thing?".  Jot down a couple numbers, pick an special ability or two, and you've created a load of random henchmen to toss at your players if needed.

It's a pretty simple system.  Pick a night before you kick off your game and have a little battle with premade characters, and in one night (for the most part) everyone will know the game well enough to make characters and start a campaign.  Even running the game I started off knowing little about the systems and was learning along with the players.  That's a nice counter to the often daunting stacks of tomes you're expected to know in order to run something like D&D.

It's also cheap.  The generic player's rulebook is like $10.  I bought one for all 5 players ahead of time, even hauled them to Kinkos and had them spiral bound because the binding is better, ahha.  Honestly if you've got a few dice and some paper, that's all you really NEED for savage worlds.  Oh, and a deck of common playing cards, for how they manage some mechanics with large numbers of participants.

https://www.peginc.com/store/savage-worlds-deluxe-explorers-edition/

______________________________


So anyway, I hope that's not all too ranty and "Old Man Perry".  To me, those are the foundations of an amazing game session and having a blast with your friends.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this post results in even just one game group becoming a little more spontaneous and interesting.

Thursday, May 8, 2014

A less discussed but very compelling side of VR


I've been spending a chunk of time working on virtual reality prototypes and found something pretty unexpected about the format.  Forgive me while I just geek out for a second.

When gamers think VR, they tend to immediately picture first person views inside environments both vast or cramped.  Cockpits, ship interiors, dungeons... you know, the classic standbys we've dreamed of immersing ourselves in for decades.  I expect we'll see loads of those environments (and I'm as psyched as the next geek about that!) but there's a facet to VR that doesn't really fit that mold.


__________________________________


Let me back up a sec.  There's this Marcus Fenix statue in the Epic office.  I can't express enough how ridiculously detailed and lifelike that statue is... it's simply beyond nutty.  When it came into the office after E3 years ago we were all just aghast at the quality of it, we would lean in really close to the head and stare at the detail of the eyes, eyebrows, skin, hair, etc... and it was hellaciously strange.  It's like any second he's going to go "BOO!" and scare the shit out of you, he's so lifelike.  It's like the "truest" form of that character.  Being close to something in VR can easily feel like that, and it doesn't even require the levels of detailing to achieve that sense.  An item is in your space, you're equally in its space, and that's enough.




It's even a little hard to put a name on what I'm getting at, but it's this... It's not always about the environment you're in, it's about what's in your environment.  It's about an a object in front of you to investigate and manipulate.  Even in a boring virtual room I can drop in a model I've seen a billion times on a screen and am very familiar with, but when it's there in front of you it's like seeing it for the first time, and this time "for real".  Stand in a room with a life-size Samus, Ryu, Minecraft dude, or a 5 foot tall Mario and it's quite a shift in how you view those well worn characters.  Things we stopped "seeing" as jaded gamers can be fresh again.

Something you don't get with most gaming is that sense of personal space.  It never really felt like you were "there" before, so you didn't care if you were awkwardly standing three inches from another object.  In VR it's a different story.  It can be uncomfortable yet interesting that a "thing" is close enough that it doesn't entirely fit in your field of view.  If it's a character specifically, your brain assigns it all kinds of anthropomorphic characteristics.  You can suddenly feel like you're being invasive or vulnerable based on proximity alone.

I modeled a robot this week and dropped him in a map, but it wasn't until it was in my 'Danger Room' VR map and I walked up to him that I really "met him" and could evaluate what I had created.  For 3D artists it's a lot like how we used to hit "render" and wait for the authentic version to be born.

One of the things I appreciate most about being in a VR world is how much scale affects the experience.  I don't just mean running around in a cathedral sized chamber or tiny crawlspace either, again, it's about the objects around you.  We have a powerful new tool to affect how something "feels" with relatively minor adjustments in overall size.  When I walked up to my robot guy, a size difference of just 10% entirely changed my perception of the creature.  One second he's some target droid peon, the next second he's taller than me and looks like he'd rip me in half without so much as noticing.  A couple inches in the height of a character's eyes as it relates to the player is a powerful thing.

We used to be able to fudge scale all over the place; it's a standard part of the smoke and mirrors toolkit to have something like, "hey, that gun on the ground is 3 times the size it is when it's in your hand, but the player doesn't notice".  Those days are firmly in the past with VR.  Walk up to a 9 foot long weapon on the ground and it absolutely looks ridiculous.

But regardless of my mech dude's scale, it's just interesting to be in a room with this thing.  It's fun to just walk around it, study it, imagine it tracking me, imagine what gameplay would fall out of interacting with this beast.


If you have an Oculus Rift DK1, it's not really fully "there" with what I'm talking about; those are pretty rough units as you know (but they still pull it off sometimes).  The effect is ridiculously better once positional head tracking is in place though; that's something that really set in with the GDC hands-on demo of the next DK2 units.  The ability to stoop down a bit or lean to the sides and get the ultimate sense of parallax as you move your head around was something I really wasn't prepared for.  It just "works" for your brain, and instinctively reinforces curiosity and that sense of feeling out your surroundings.  I was even about to prototype some awful mouse driven head location offset so I could experiment with the possibilities of "snooping around" an object even before we have the new kits.  (If someone beats me to it, send me that code will ya! ;)


__________________________________


So what sort of games is all this useful for?  Well, put simply, the unexpected.  The last concept you'd ever consider designing for a VR game might be something like a virtual cardgame or boardgame, a small 3D dungeon on a table, manipulating a complex HellRaiser puzzle cube in front of you, playing with a virtual pet, etc... but there's a lot to be said for those concepts.  Consider how some people don't deal with motion sickness well and there's even more to be said for a more contained "virtual toy" experience like that (even though I'm strongly of the opinion that newer tech almost entirely wipes out those negative experiences).

Consider, if the table in front of you could project a realistic hologram in the airspace over it, what would you create for that format, games or otherwise?  Odds are, that's equally compelling in VR.

Contrary to many, I haven't really been all that interested in controllers that mimic your motion or try to bring you into the game... I generally expect I'll be sitting in a chair, and that's not the most exciting thing to try and have a game replicate.  I like the familiarity of a 360 controller, dual sticks, buttons with immediate response, not having to hunt for a keyboard, etc...  the experience of a modern VR headset is unique enough, I don't need to complicate it with some sort of Kinect type miming of what I want to do.  But, for a game that's more contained inside my forward view, I kind of backpedal on that issue and suddenly I get excited about the possibilities of true presence and 1:1 control schemes.

It's all another aspect of what's so intriguing about the future with VR.  In spite of random claims about what "it's only good for", for every perceived limitation that comes up there's something else unexpectedly promising to balance it out.  These are the parameters that can shape a huge possibility space of new designs and gameplay conventions waiting to become our new "normal".  Games that take advantage of what the format does well and pull off the unexpected can set a whole new generation of gaming trends.  That's what has me geeking out.


As always, thanks so much for reading!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

All aboard the VR train!

Some of you may know I'm doing a "I'm going to move abroad and create some solo projects" kick right now.  (Previous 2 blog posts are on this topic)

As I'm finding out, an interesting thing happens when you ask yourself “where would I move to if I could live anywhere in the world?”  It’s an awesome opportunity, but I hadn’t quite weighed just how daunting that question would be.  There are SO many choices to consider.  The only obvious way to answer the question is to truly nail down what is important to you.  Warmer winters?  Nearby travel?  Culture?  Beachy hammock town?  Affordability?  Walkable downtown?  Food?  You have to narrow it down and focus.

An interesting thing also happens when you ask yourself “what games would I create if I could make anything I wanted?”  Again, an awesome opportunity, but just as daunting of a question.  There are SO many choices to consider.  The only obvious way to answer the question is to truly nail down what area you’re looking to participate in.  Quirky retro PC games?  Downloadable console titles?  Casual mobile?  Tablet games?  Adventure games?  You have to narrow it down and focus.

Like any designer should, I have decades of compelling game concepts that I’m dying to prototype and dive into, but at this last week’s GDC (Game Developers Conference) I landed some much needed clarity with regards to a starting point.  I have to thank the Oculus VR team, and the Eve: Valkyrie demo for that clarity.

(Background info just in case - Oculus is a company that has been making a run at creating a truly effective virtual reality goggle setup… a dream initiated in the 90’s and basically abandoned until more recently where technology is finally catching up to the dream of really immersive virtual reality headsets)



______________________________


The Eve: Valkyrie demo put you in the seat of a classic sci-fi space fighter cockpit.  I have the earlier version of the Oculus at home, but the new version on display at GDC was the first time my suspension of disbelief was so completely entrenched.



(This is what many gamers have wanted for so very long.  In high school I even flew to Chicago once to try out the very first generation of the Virtual Worlds Battletech cockpits.  They fully enclose you, have a couple monitors, etc… but they don’t even scratch the surface of how far this has come.)



When I first put on the new headset they were pimping at the show, I was instantly transported to the pilot seat of every kid’s dream who wanted to be Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star from his X-wing.  I looked down and saw this pilot’s body exactly where mine was in my chair.  The chest was exactly where mine was in space, the legs were right… it just felt utterly *spot on*.  The audio was well done, with filtered breathing in a tight chamber, you could practically smell the dashboard floating in front of you.

When the launch button is hit you’re blasted out of the fighter bay down this long launch tube, and again visions of Vipers from Battlestar Galactica flood to mind.  Whooom!  Then you’re in space, and it feels exactly like it should!  As I turn my head around a missile tracking reticule is in the center of my vision, like a cursor.  An enemy fighter streaks by and I turn my head instinctively to track it as it passes over me.  I’m literally looking backwards over my left shoulder while banking around when I acquire lock on and fire off a shot.  I think I broke my face grinning so hard, and it wasn’t some mechanic that needed so much as a tutorial to implement.  It just felt natural.

Nearby there are huge capital ships that we are weaving around.  That’s a great thing about VR over any other format, scale suddenly REALLY matters.  I’ve got a missile tailing me at one point and I fly under the capital ship and start pulling up in a long loop around the giant ship… the whole time I’m staring straight up and seeing the detail of the ship passing over my head, meters from the cockpit glass.  I complete the loop and renew the order for the stupid grin I must surely be wearing.  I throw in a quick spinning roll for the hell of it, and my stomach goes “HHHURRRRRRR” for a second.  The dizziness isn’t because the hardware is somehow to blame in this case, but because my brain totally believes I just did a freaking barrel roll at some ungodly speed.

I’ll shut up about the specific experience now, but suffice to say it delivered in spades on the promise of the premise.

______________________________


If there’s anything certain about the games industry, it’s that things evolve quickly, and it’s only getting faster with each year.  I often talk about trends as “trains leaving a station”.  I have close friends who had tickets on the “small mobile games” train, friends on the “Facebook casual games” train, and generally I think Gears of War was on the “next generation console gaming” train as it pulled away in all it’s normal mapped glory.

VR feels to me like a train about to leave the station.  There’s enough major players throwing chips on the board that I don’t think that’s an unfounded opinion.  At GDC Sony unveiled their VR headset for the Playstation 4.  Several other companies are in heavy R&D in the market… it’s exciting.

Even better, VR is exciting for several reasons.  It’s a movement that’s passionately about giving the player a more in-depth visceral experience, realizing an authentic geeky holy grail.  It’s not a movement that focuses on business models and methods of turning game designers into marketing analysts.  It’s a movement with loads of room to grow in quality and execution still, with loads of interesting issues to work through.

Counter intuitively, one of the most fascinating things about VR is something often stated by naysayers as a mark against it, “loads of the most popular current games don’t work particularly well with it”.  YES!  Exactly!  You mean we’ll have to shake shit up?  We can’t just slap a standard first person military shooter on it and start leveling up our MP5s with ACOG sights and extended clips?  How ever will we cope with having design challenges and interesting parameters to consider?  What horrors await when designers have to rethink what will be accessible on such devices?

There’s room for so many new design solutions and innovative concepts.  Long neglected genres like flight sims might become areas for designers to revisit and continue evolving.  We’ll probably see a rash of early games focusing exclusively on very 'known' actions that feel fresh again based on the device; but right out of the gate there are aggressively creative designers and indie developers who have long been discouraged with the current status of the industry, and they’re going to be pushing envelopes.

______________________________


No, it’s not a “sure thing”, but, what is?  We’re an industry full of skeptics, gifted at looking back and explaining why things turned out how they did, yet fairly poor at predicting future results and placing interesting bets.

Naysayers have loudly proclaimed issues with VR headsets since Oculus first started gaining traction.  They say:

“You look like a dork with that thing on”.  News flash, you look like a dork sitting at your PC and playing WoW as well, but several millions do it.

“It isolates you from your real environment”, aaaand?  That’s the point.  It’s escapism dialed all the way up.  Exactly how worried are you that someone is breaking into your home while you’re plugged in?  Again I’ll throw the image back of rows of gamers with headphones on in front of their PCs.

“It’ll never be mainstream”, there’s different definitions of mainstream I believe.  Will every kid who plays Minecraft have a $350 VR helmet?  Probably not, but holy hell I’d love to play Minecraft with a state of the art VR headset!  Maybe it’s the “not mainstream enough” argument that will see indies support such devices?  Personally I think that’s one of the problems mitigated as hardware becomes higher quality and cheaper.

“It makes people feel woozy after a while”.  Yes, but this is also a factor of quality and experience.  These side effects are a large chunk of research at the companies working on the devices, and the developers who are establishing best practices for games running on them.  We’re on pre-launch hardware currently, and we’re already seeing major strides towards less unwanted side effects of extended use.  Have some faith ;)

“VR is limited in the types of games it can support”.  I have to call bullshit; in fact I have to double down and call classic overly conservative naysayer developer bullshit.  I have to assume these people didn’t see the “Couch Knights” tech demo a friend at Epic put together.




We don’t KNOW what these devices have to offer yet; at least we don’t know any more than we predicted the designs and success of Flappy Bird, Clash of Clans, Candy Crush, Puzzles and Dragons, Angry Birds, Infinity Blade, or the whole F2P and microtrans boom back when Apple said “hey, we’re gonna make a phone with a touchscreen y’all!”.

Hell, prior to GDC, I saw some merit to the general sentiment that you couldn’t make a real “gamer game” with VR because you can’t make a player look around quickly or interact with fast moving objects.  The EVE: Valkyrie demo had loads of quick elements and fast reaction situations, and it was holding up really well.  While the relaxed pace of something like Dear Esther or Gone Home might be a positive on a VR device, I definitely no longer see that as a ‘requirement’ for design in that area; it’s merely one consideration to balance.

I know there's potential snags still, but nobody wins from crapping on the potential of an entire array of future devices.

______________________________


Long story short, I experienced this demo and in two minutes knew instinctively that I needed to dedicate my solo indie career to supporting these devices.

As gamers and devs, we win when there are new frontiers to explore.  We win when there’s competition between players like Sony and Oculus to drive those advances and offer different options for distribution.  We win every single time a “train leaves the station”.  I’m excited to see one is boarding right now… ticket for one please!

Now I just have to find a place to live...

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Update on crazy solo project progress

Hey all!  So, it's been two weeks since announcing that I was learning to code, going the route of some solo projects, and that Gab and I are moving the family abroad.  So, here's quick bulletpoint updates for those who care:


We leave Thursday for France and Spain

No, not for a permanent move yet.  We're still trying to lock down the region we want to move to.  We're about to spend two weeks driving in southern France, and four days in Barcelona to see if anything in those regions captivate us enough to move there.  Fingers crossed, I'd love to get the move underway.  If not though, at least we will have gorged on amazing food and seen some stunning visuals.


I'm learning to code in JavaScript (UnityScript) with Unity

After loads of research and suggestions from knowledgable friends, I picked JavaScript (UnityScript, potato potatoe, the buttons say JS for a reason) and Unity as my jumping off point into coding.  I found a fantastic series of video tutorials that are laid out like a college course with sample projects to create, and I dove in.  It's kind of staggering the amount of educational material out there for people who want to learn this stuff... it continues to come down to a person's motivation to learn this stuff.  It's pretty much all free if you have an even halfway decent computer.

Here's the series I've been going through.  If you want to learn game creation, this is as fine a leaping off point as I could suggest.  The Walker brothers used to teach at SMU Guildhall and posted this massive chunk of tutorials.  They're excellent for someone with a bit of background in art or production who wants to learn the coding side:

http://walkerboystudio.com/html/unity_training___free__.html


Nope, haven't started a specific game yet

Despite nearly busting at the seams with enthusiasm and inspiration for different prototypes, I am not starting a specific game just yet.  I know I could start creating artwork for a game now and be off and running, but I want to do this right, methodically.  I want to get a more broad exposure to coding first, and complete the series of tutorials and test projects before allowing myself to leave "tutorial mode".  If I sat down over the next month and created a ton of art assets, it would be a crutch, the 'safe' stuff I already know how to do, and at the end I'd be no closer to being a self sufficient game creator.


I'll be at GDC

A matter of days after returning from Europe, I will be heading to San Fran for GDC (the Game Developer's Conference).  Not working in an office around friends means it's always going to be a challenge to feel connected to the industry.  Damnit, I couldn't skip my favorite event this year, even though I'm only heading out for Wed-Fri instead of the whole week.


Work space is set up

I've got my office set up and purring along again in the original BitMonster offices... otherwise known as my basement.  I won't lie, I'm basically high on having the flexibility of home life and being productive on my own schedule.  As many clever managers could tell you, if you remove the mandatory structures to people's work, often they're much more productive by holding themselves to their own yardstick.  I want to be down there more than I know is healthy... it'll take a while to learn balance and how to live life focusing on work when I'm working, and not working when I'm not.  But, that's a must.


Oculus Rift

I'm all aboard the VR train.  I've got a snazzy Oculus Rift VR setup going, and I'm loving it.  I have pretty poor vision in my right eye, and perhaps that is somehow beneficial because I'm experiencing none of the nausea or discomfort some people have claimed they feel in a full VR goggle rig like that.  I absolutely love the technology and immersion this technical direction offers, and plan on supporting the hell out of it with my future projects.  I don't think I'd make something yet that *requires* VR goggles, but I'm damn sure willing to bias towards projects that can take advantage of them incredibly well.

I think the companies that are creating all this VR potential are doing a huge part to stoke gamer's and dev's imagination in a time where it's easy to be depressed about various aspects of the gaming industry.  I absolutely want to be part of this stage of gaming.  Yeah, it's not perfect... yet.  I'm not one to wait for all the lights to turn green before moving forward though.


Thursday, February 6, 2014

Life changes in 3... 2... 1...



Hey all!  I'd like to use my blog this once to post a bit about what's going on with my career and family rather than random game design thoughts.  (if you have no knowledge or interest in game "stuff" and only want the family info, feel free to skip to the 2nd half)


Over the last 20 years (good lord) at some point I've professionally done damn near everything technically related to developing games.  Modeling, animation, texturing, level / track design, audio work, UI design, campaign event scripting, writing, lead roles in most of those… pretty much everything *but* actually programming a game.  As many designers can attest, that last component (actual coding) can often feel like what separates 'making games' from 'desperately wanting other people to make your games'.

(Much of my work on Gears 1-3 as Gameplay Designer was creating the playable prototypes for most of the weapons, creatures, game systems, lots of campaign sequences, etc... but often those were essentially 'playable design pitches' and seldom were final shippable features.)

No matter how far I can take prototypes and assets, at some point I feel that I'm ultimately a peddler of ideas spending more time pitching and discussing than implementing.  Without writing code, as a designer, every concept I'm excited about is tempered with the inevitable concern of, "would I be able to find people who would build that with me?"

Often it fundamentally comes down to 'find someone willing to give you a team to create it, or learn to do it yourself'.  That's a key aspect of the indie games movement, people realizing there's that second viable option.

I have an ache to truly become self sufficient as a game creator and break my reliance on others to fulfill my creative intuitions.  It's clear we're living in the golden age of making that happen with available resources and tools online.  So that's my path.  I'm going to take a good long time (if needed) and dedicate myself full-time to learning anything I need in order to truly author my own game projects.  I can't say I won't collaborate with others or try alternative methods to bring projects to life along the way, but my goal is to not depend on those options.  At bare minimum I need to be able to participate in game jams like Ludum Dare 48! :)

If you've ever shipped a solo project, or dove into coding recently, I'd love to hear about your experiences.  I've had the great fortune of working with some of the most talented people in the industry, and have gotten some great advice so far (and found some role models in the process).  My friend Kent Hudson was among the first to get my head leaning in this direction, with his successful release of The Novelist on Steam (while learning to code along the way).  His passion for that project shows through every time he speaks about the game, and his courage is truly inspiring.


__________________________________________



The second aspect of this decision is... geographic.

With an enthusiastic family, savings to run on, and an internet connection we could live pretty much anywhere.  We plan on taking advantage of that.  Big time.

Last year at GDC there was a pretty drool enducing presentation from Colin and Sarah Northway (two respected indie devs who travel the world while each making their own solo games).  When I saw this stunning slideshow of this adventurous married couple in 1000 random amazing settings, I had to wonder why we don't live somewhere with a hammock full time.  We are fixing that ASAP.  We're moving abroad!

Where specifically?  It's being narrowed down.  So far we've visited swathes of ('House Hunter International' favs) Costa Rica, Belize, and Merida Mexico as potential move locations.  In march we're spending two weeks driving from Lyon south along the French coast, over to Toulouse, then down to Barcelona, Spain (although our interests are primarily the towns in between).  Gab and I have been doing steady French lessons for a bit over a year now, so, it'd be fantastic to use those skills.  We may hit Panama after that if we haven't decided by then.

Yep, we're taking the kiddo of course, and no, we don't think it's an education issue.  We're of the opinion that exposing a 12 year old to the WORLD, is a great thing.  If we move somewhere with a good international school, awesome.  If not, there's great online school options now that would make amazingly memorable trips even more simple logistically.

If you're afraid we'll be kidnapped and murdered the moment we step off a plane outside the US, we don't really need to hear your opinion on the topic ;)  I was actually told by someone we shouldn't visit France right now because "all the stuff going on there".  When asked what they meant, they said "you know, Syria".  Sigh.  Yes, Syria, which is apparently just west of Paris before you reach the North Korean drug cartels.  Sigh.

So yes, Gab and I are crazy excited about the prospect of an international move and dramatic lifestyle change.  If you have visited some mind bogglingly cool town anywhere in the world, with a warm/mild climate that we should consider, I'd love to hear about that as well!  We're extremely grateful for what our success in North Carolina with Epic and BitMonster is allowing us to do, but we're a pretty nomadic couple craving a heavy dose of new experiences.

It's a terrifying leap into a void, but, such is life!


(Naturally I plan on posting significantly more about my projects and the learning process here as well.  There may be fewer real articles and more "WOAH, CHECK THIS OUT!" moments... hope that's cool!)


Thanks so much as always for reading, and especially for all the support!

Monday, November 18, 2013

Sometimes millions of people like something… because it's really good.

Back in '99 I was working at ION Storm in Dallas.  I saw a trailer for The Matrix and came back to the office raving about this movie to coworkers; it looked insanely good.  Of course when the movie came out everyone lost their minds and everyone saw it at least 3 times in the theater.

Months later some Matrix discussion came up and one of my close friends kind of pulls a face and tells us he hasn't seen it and doesn't want to.  He made a comment about, "there's no way THIS many people like something and it's actually good".  It was kind of a joke comment, but it was also his case for not wanting to see it.

When the DVD came out, we basically dragged his ass into the nutty expensive THX equipped theater that ION Storm Dallas housed.  He absolutely loved it.  After being forced to watch it, he watched it again several more times over the next couple days, and went so far as to start making low poly models of the Matrix characters on Polycount in his free time.  Now he too could join the rest of us in, well, seeing the series crash and burn after that.  I digress!
________________

In the 14 years since, I've accrued many nearly identical stories about a broad array of games, books, and movies.  Oh man, Call of Duty multiplayer is actually a blast!  Who knew?  Wow, ALL my friends weren't wrong about Minecraft!  It really is awesome!  Why did I wait so long to try a GTA game?!  Woah!  Everyone who wouldn't shut up about Game of Thrones knew what the hell they were talking about?!

Here's one for you… hey, guess what?  Candy Crush Saga is actually pretty stinking fun!
________________

I know, we all imagine we have super refined tastes, particularly as we're neck deep in the age of frowning on AAA and cheering on indie games with artistic merit.  When Twitter is lit up with praise for "Papers Please", who wants to be the guy saying "Holy crap, the new Assassin's Creed game is freaking mind blowing"?  We want to be seen as the person who introduces friends to great new stuff and build up our credibility as a 'true connoisseur' of rare subject matter X.  It's part of striving for validity, and a huge factor in social media.  Surely our tastes are too refined for the likes of a game enjoyed by 15 million other people!?

Welcome to "Green Eggs and Ham" territory.  If you tried Animal Crossing and for the life of you can't understand WTF people see in it… cool.  No harm done!  But you tried it.  Even in the indie world, if you didn't care for Dear Esther, so be it.  But try it, and form your opinions based on experience instead of ultimately petty social pressures.

As a developer, you're doing yourself a huge disservice by actively blocking out games that you view as "too mainstream".  Surely the biggest current MMO has at least one cutting edge mechanic that could influence and improve your current project, even if it's seems unrelated?  With so much to learn, you can't afford to arbitrarily limit yourself like that.

Saying "a billion people can't be wrong" might sound like I'm saying "get out there and make a bunch of mass market bullshit! Weeee!"  I'm not.  I'm saying it's ludicrously unlikely that anything with critical success has done so with no actual merit behind it.  It might not be obvious, but something had to work incredibly well even if you believe they just "fool" millions of players.  You can really improve yourself by trying to understand those successes.


Far too many people take pride in their willful ignorance on various topics.  I'll resist the urge to make political or religious jokes to follow up that point.


As always, thanks for reading!