Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Getting a new smartphone is SO SO SO much fun.

I know this is typically my blog on games and development... but please forgive me a quick personal rant.

Things told directly to me before I bought my Samsung Note 5

1) People trading in an iPhone and swapping over to Samsung get a $200 Best Buy card.

2) Until the end of the year, Samsung will pay your mobile bill.

3) Since you're coming from an iPhone, you will get a $100 Google Play credit to use in their app store.

4) When you register a Samsung Pay account we'll send you a free $50 wireless charging pad.

5) The trade in value on my old phone is $95.

Sounds like a pretty hefty amount of discounts, I really dig the Note 5 stylus setup... yeah!  Lets do this!

Number of those claims that actually came true after the transaction?  None.  Zilch.  Nada.  El zipporooni.

1) $200 gift card?  Oh hey, that's not valid for AT&T customers, even though I was standing there specifically looking at an AT&T phone when told this, and the $200 special is printed ON the phone tag right next to the AT&T logo.

2) Bills paid for 3 months?  Yeah, no.  I signed up for it, and for *precisely* 15 days I checked in with the Samsung site that tells me "your bill pay program is being processed".  This morning, I get an email that says nope... not for AT&T users either.  You know why I got the email today?  Yesterday was the last day I could change my mind about the contract I signed.  This is no coincidence.

3) $100 app credit?  Nuh uh.  Not actually true.  Again, related to being on AT&T apparently.  No $100 credit to use on apps, which involves no physical goods or cost to honor.

4) Free charger base pad thang?  Ha.  Signed up, even though it only takes 4 specific types of cards.  Days later, received notice that my "order" for the charger was indefinitely backordered.

5) $95 trade in value?  Despite one associate looking at my old phone and telling me that was the case, when I returned the next day, after swapping my info over to my new phone, I'm told the trade in value is $23.  Twenty three.  Despite being a completely functional phone and not cracked or anything, there are "some scratches" on the back... changing the value from $95 to $23.  Obviously I didn't go for that.

It gets better!

I threw my old phone on eBay, it sold for around $130.  Yay!  That person tells me it arrived with the package ripped open, and somebody in the mail service literally stole the very well packed phone.  After a whole day of basically being accused of being a scam artist, who clearly must have... like, took a ripped up empty box to the UPS store and they mailed it with no questions asked.  That's the thought here.

I refunded the money they paid, and so now I'm completely out of pocket for everything, didn't actually get a penny from selling my old phone, and have to wait for some postal system bureaucracy to see if they'll even cover the insured cost of the old iPhone.

Oh and hey!  I cracked my screen on the new phone when it slid out of my pocket in a theater and fell less than a foot to the floor.  The phone case I ordered earlier arrived that night.  I ordered the Best Buy protection plan for it... tomorrow I get to find out why that clearly must not be valid either.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Sad news, writers and gamers... you might test positive for Storium. I'm so sorry.

Hello, I'm Doctor Perry, how are we feeling today?  Good good... let's have a look at your chart here.

Lets see here, vitals look good.  Uh oh.  Symptoms include a history of interest in pen and paper role playing games... that's not conclusive in and of itself, but we should run a few more tests.  Sit back on the table please.

OK, have you ever had an interest in writing, short stories, blogs?  Unfinished book perhaps?

Yes?  Fiction.  Noted.

What about reading, especially fiction?  More than, say, one book a year at least?

Yes?  Noted.

Ok, breathe in and out normally...

Would you say you're imaginative?  Looking for small creative outlets?

Yes, and yes...

Lastly... how are you for a sense of community?

Generally like that sort of thing... ok.

OK, I've got some good news and bad news.  From these answers it looks like you're a strong candidate to contract Storium.  Don't worry... there are lots of people out there living vital and normal lives while dealing with a Storium condition.  You'd probably not even notice, if it weren't for their propensity to talk to people about how awesome their Storium campaigns are.

But ultimately, all you can do is manage this condition... at present, there's no known cure for Storium or Storium addiction.  You may need to discuss this with your loved ones.

*The above is meant for the purposes of humor only.  For actual advice and to find out if Storium is right for you, seek professional help.  Not valid advice for residents of some states.


SO!  What the hell is Storium?  The best elevator pitch I seem to muster is that Storium is a bit like "Multiplayer story writing, with a dash of pen and paper role playing".

Basically you've got 3-5 people, one acting as Narrator.  The Narrator sets up a scene with a couple challenges in it, and the "players" all have a character who plays an action card from their hand, and then writes the next couple paragraphs of the story, describing what their character is doing exactly.

There are stories being ran for damn near anything you can imagine.  There's traditional D&D type things, sci-fi space opera out the wazoo... but there's also a HUGE array of game that are romance novel settings, humor, Napoleonic era war stories, all female pirate crews, a high school story with completely normal kids, anime, Lost fanfic, even some NSFW intrigue and espionage in a high fashion company like some kind of Ally McBeal meets Fifty Shades PR firm.

You can hit "browse games", then sort by "looking for players" and just flop around among the options available to you.

There are literally games happening in Storium that would be impossible to create in any other known gaming format, and that's tremendously exciting.

I really can't recommend it all enough.

Here's the bottom line... if you enjoy actual pen and paper role playing, the kind that really encourages talking to NPCs and imagining fun interactions beyond casting 'Magic Missile'... and yet you find that you're becoming a real adult with a life and obligations and can't seem to get the old gang together reliably enough to run a role playing game...

Storium is for you.

It's asych, you can take your moves when you want, games have different paces (set by the narrators as to how many scenes are expected to happen over weeks or months even), it's easy enough to be a player in a handful of games so you don't have to pick and choose like you're making huge investments in time.

For me, it's a fantastic little creative outlet and a way to get better at writing and improv, and have a blast doing it.



So, Storium had a great Kickstarter a while back, and they're in a Gamma state right now, and already have a really healthy population of players.  All the options to support it are on the site.

Right now, to view stories you need to sign up for an account and become a member, but I'm told that when the game fully launches you'll be able to read all these great stories people are coming up with even if you're not a member.  So, you can send out links to your works and such.

Right now the game is crazy robust, with internal messaging, forums, feedback, bios, etc... it's ridiculously posh.

The site is:


and here's a fantastic video about how it all works.

Storium is ran by Stephen Hood (@stilhood) and of course there's a Twitter addy at (@Storium)

There's even a swanky little blog called StoriumArc where guests discuss their games, styles, etc...

If you enjoy character work, writing, etc... get in there!!!

Good luck, fellow patients.

P.S. If you happen to join up, check out my user profile at MrLeePerry on the site, and you can see what games I'm playing in and running.  It's always awesome when people are reading your work!

Saturday, July 11, 2015

Vive impressions Part 2 : What can we do in VR that we can't elsewhere?

My first post a moment ago was about the experience of setting up the Valve / HTC Vive dev kit, and in short how blown away I was.  This post I'd like to ramble a little about how it has affected some of my VR design instincts and assumptions.

First up, there's a lot of conversation out there about how to adapt various game genres to VR... and I get that.  I've been working on VR prototypes nearly exclusively since a bit after the DK1's became available.  I've tried loads of little "danger rooms" to feel out the concepts of "what if I took genre X and adapted it to VR".  There are some major wins to be found in that logic, as it truly does profoundly affect a game to have this sense of scale and immersion layered into the batter.  That, and generally speaking, it's important to have these comfortable foundations and languages as we try out new things.

But the positionally tracked hand held controllers... man.  I can't emphasize this enough... this changes a lot.  A LOT.

There are experiences here just begging to be made that are hard to even classify as video games, simply because they're so based in physicality and agility.  If I made a VR raquetball - Tron multiplayer head to head game, and you're swinging around a virtual racquet... is that a 'video game', or an actual 'sport'?  Is virtual dodge ball where you're actually moving out of the way of a projectile a 'video game'?

I think the world of VR design is on a pretty exciting crash course with learning a whole new set of skills.  We have expectations of "cyber athletes" based on their responsiveness and tactics with a controller and interfaces full of shortcuts and macros... but if you're physically standing there, and your opponent is flinging fireballs at you, this ain't the same old same old.  It can be the best of both worlds.

From the first moment you're in the Vive setup program, and a dialogue box menu materializes over the controller in your hand, and you wave it around, it's unavoidable.  At least in VR, no longer will you be pressing A,A,B,A to execute some combination of sword slashes.  In VR at least, there's not going to be an artificial gameplay construct like a golf power swing meter.  Say goodbye to 'adding 5 points to your accuracy stats'.

When technology allows you to literally play Table Tennis with another player across the country, that's incredible.  When that same technology allows you to make Table Tennis with multiballs, force fields, poison traps, slow motion, super bounce balls, moving obstacles, an AI backup wingman, or just Yoshi bouncing around on the table while you play... and yet you're still physically swinging around a paddle with the expected simplistic controls and muscle memory... that's something entirely more than incredible.

What can we design with these controls that you truly could not possibly have experienced before?  That's the question we can explore now.


I don't care to fire up some heated "VR will fail because blah blah and blah" debate.  Will enough people want to dedicate an 8 foot x 8 foot (or whatever it ends up as) space to a VR corner?  I don't know.  Will AAA publishers make $80 million dollar titles for VR?  Shrug...  Zero fucks given beyond ecosystem health.  Will they be manufactured cheap enough and run on enough hardware to make Sony and Valve and Oculus billions of dollars... time will tell... and I'm indie anyway so frankly all I want out of it is a thriving ecosystem of players looking for awesome inspired unforeseen games that they're willing to pay more than $1 for.

But I know this.  When I hear people talk about how limiting VR is to design for... when I hear that you "can't make real games in VR"... when I hear that it's only truly for real estate and architects because you can't easily port Call of Duty to it...  when I hear "lack of design possibility" as a specific reason for why VR can't be a real thing... I know I'm hearing the opinion of either the creatively bankrupt, or at least profoundly unadaptable.

After (important word there) you have stood in the center of this virtual space, waved around these unbelievably responsive "hands" that can literally resemble or summon anything you can think to create with modern development tools, after you have felt the possibilities of clever haptic feedback that the controllers offer... and you still honestly have NO ideas for what you'd like to try with this technology.  You need to be selling carpet or something.  If nothing else, send me a few grand and I'll give you some ideas :)

Before you've had that experience, I get it, I do.  It's really hard for some to visualize this, or try to cram their square peg into a round hole.  But *after* exploring what these can do... that's an entirely different story.

My enthusiasm is honestly tempered with sadness right now knowing that my bandwidth as a small developer means that the lists of possible gameplay scenarios I want to prototype right now can't possibly happen in time to beat others to market.  But holy crap is that exciting at the same time!


I'll wrap this up...

This industry *needs* new frontiers like this.  We need more actual design outlets, more platforms, more untested creative canvas on which to sketch, paint, experiment, and play.  Hoping for VR to fail wholesale is counterproductive... it's like hoping a great expedition (that costs you nothing personally) ends up producing nothing, merely because you chose not to support it.

VR was already promising, but these control possibilities bring it to an entirely new level.  It absolutely breeds creativity, possibility, and inspiration... and I'm endlessly grateful for the people pioneering this attempt.  Even if it fails spectacularly in financial terms for the big players, they put their money where their mouth is, as every member of this industry owes them a giant collective handshake for this effort.

One final note:

"Where's the killer app?"  I guarantee you, there will be one.  These tools are landing in the hands of many devs now, and I simply can not imagine a scenario where inspired and unconventional things don't result from this.

Let's not forget that the "killer app" for the Nintendo Wii was 'Bowling'.

Vive VR impressions, part 1 : Setup day!

Forgive me, I'm in a ridiculously heightened state right now after setting up the Valve-HTC Vive kit that arrived earlier.  Allow me a post to talk about that initial experience, then I'll post a 2nd time with some more important broad thoughts on what it means for VR IMO.



I spent most of my day setting up the kit.  Valve has made an insanely slick document detailing the process, and it has an amazingly Portal-esque vibe to it that just makes even the daunting task of setting this up actually a pretty cool and enjoyable process.

The "camera" positioning (not really cameras, I mean the two laser array lighthouses that give the VR parts their location tracking reference points), I found to be incredibly forgiving actually.  I had mine up on shelves I had around, and expected to have to fiddle with them and do some detailed alignment... but no, they just worked.  Valve was meticulous in including all necessary bittles for different mounting options.  When you're in the room-setup and calibration app you can walk around in your room and see the cones that represent the "view areas" the lighthouses provide, and honestly I think it would be pretty hard to screw those big cones up if they're at all semi-logically placed nearby.

I ended up making a quick Home Depot run for an extension cord to reach the top of the shelves, but other than that, it was very well packed with nearly anything you could need in order to set it up.

The lighthouse units themselves are truly just... cool.  The clear front means you see these high end looking electronics with spinning lasers and LEDs and displays... it's utterly sci-fi when you power them up and see them kick in.

Excellent visualization of how the lighthouses work

The actual head mounted display unit ("goggles") are excellent as expected.  I didn't weight anything, but it feels to me like it's maybe VERY slightly heavier than the DK2 maybe, but far from an issue.  I find it more comfortable than the DK2 personally for my face, but I imagine this is just something everyone will find based on their face geometry (and the DK2 isn't a shipping thing anyway, so, don't mean to start some comparative speculation).  I found the Vive seems to block out light really well, especially around the bottom.

The two hand held controllers are ridiculously light; I can't possibly imagine these things will cause you fatigue, at all.  Despite being significantly larger than something like the Wii controller, they actually feel even lighter to me.  They came with two complete sets of rechargeable batteries, and alternate hardware in case you want to run the controllers off USB cables... although I admit that sounds utterly insane to me (I'm sure someone has a compelling development reason).

The various bittles and adapters are all incredibly well laid out in packaging, and overall I have to say I kind of enjoyed the whole process so far.  Yeah, I know... freaky.



The Software so far has been pretty damn cool.  The step by step manual walks you right up to this point, where Steam comes in.

The basic calibration and room setup application is pretty posh.  There are some rough edges, but they took the time to add all kinds of excellent user feedback that immediately made me think "HOLY SHIT, THIS IS BANANAS!"

From the moment I fired up the room calibration program, things were pumping.  I hadn't in any way bothered to meticulously arrange my head unit to be in the view of the lighthouses or anything, and I wasn't really anywhere near what I thought to be my usable "VR area".... but, BAM, the goggles are totally oriented sitting on the desk next to me.

The screen says go to the middle of the VR room area.  I walk over there and put the goggles on.  MAN it's responsive!  Just, no discomfort at all.  In the setup VR space there are floating items that represent the lighthouse objects, and it's really cool lifting the visor and seeing these realspace objects in that same representative location.  Reality and VR space were really blending even in this simple little setup app... and that got even nuttier next.

It said to hit the button on one of the controllers.  I hadn't brought the controllers with me... but they were there floating in the distance on top of my desk, oriented haphazardly as they were really laying there.  Without giving it a second thought, *WITH MY HEADSET STILL ON* I casually walked across my office, reached for the controllers with my invisible hands, and picked them up with no real world vision at all.  It was the most utterly natural thing possible to my brain.

Only a second later did the impact of that even register, that there truly is this blurred line between this 3D model of the controller in my hand, and the corresponding real world controller in my hands.

I hit a button and this dialogue box / window popped up over the controller.  I waved it around and just busted out laughing like a maniac at how fucking cool such a goofy little interaction is when it has this much presence behind it.  There will literally be a hundred damn lightsaber games for this thing a month from now, mark my words.

The real thing that has stuck with me as I started to call it a night though was how excellent the subtle vibrations ("Haptic" feedback) coming through the controller was.  Valve has utterly *nailed* making things in the world feel truly physical.  As you wave the controller's floating pointer over buttons on your menu, there's a subtle bump on the controller, like it's embossed in floating space.

You start in a kind of dotted line box, and click and drag these little handles out to designate the room dimensions you're standing in, and where the floor is.  As I clicked the little handle sphere, and started pushing it down to the floor, the controller is providing this extremely well designed feedback as though I'm pushing this physical thing that has resistance to it.  It was definitely another moment of giggling maniacally.  Pushing the walls out to match my physical room was just... damn this is unbelievably cool... I can't say it more simply than that.

It's nearly pointless to even try and describe, it's operating on such subconscious levels...

But overall a great takeaway was simply how forgiving the whole setup was in terms of spatial requirements.  I had envisioned these distinct shadows and treacherous dead zones where controls blinked out of registration, or meticulously needing to arrange the lighthouses 'just so' to cover the play area.  Nope.  Looking around in the setup app, it's clear that the lighthouse fields of view can cover a very generous area, and my first impression at least is that it's just not that picky.  This bodes well IMO for people concerned about such complex hardware being used by general consumers... it's far more forgiving spatially than something like the Kinect was IMO.



It's not pure rainbows shooting from my rear though, it is still a prototype dev kit after all.  I spent a good deal of time working with an issue I still haven't tracked down.  The controllers would work like magic for about 10 seconds, then abruptly drift off across the room and freeze before coming back to me another random interval later.  I removed some glass covered posters in the room, thinking the reflections might be an issue, but that didn't appear to be the cause.

Online some people mentioned they switched off one of their lighthouses completely and it solved some tracking issues.  I tried that and it worked, although obviously it's suboptimal and affects the fidelity of how things are tracked as they're obscured from the single lighthouse box.  So, I worked with that for quite a while to no avail before deciding to sleep it off and see if I can sort it out with a clear head tomorrow.

I also have a fairly constant stream of "USB connection" messages, like there's a loose USB or power cable somewhere despite checking everything meticulously.  Tomorrow I'll buy a USB 3.0 hub and see if I have some better luck.

UPDATE: If you get to this point with a dev kit, it's entirely likely you simply need to plug the wireless controllers in via USB and update them.

Anyway, they're minor issues that I'm sure will be sorted out tomorrow, grabbing the latest firmware or so forth.  The Valve developers look to be extremely active on the forums as well, which is beyond awesome.  Overally, for a dev kit experience this has been a stunningly impressive ride so far.  While it's working... it's just... it's truly some science fiction moments.  You freaking need this in your life once the rough bumpies are polished off.

I'll talk more in my next post about what this all has done to my head :)

Now, I need to sleep and dream in room-space.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

My tactics for NimbleBit's game Capitals

The ridiculously prolific Marsh brothers (better known as NimbleBit, maybe better know as "The Tiny Tower Dudes") have just released their latest game on iOS, Capitals.

If you enjoy word games, indeed if you've ever enjoyed a word game, you should check this bad boy out.  It's a great balance between a word game, and a hex based war game.  I constantly have about 6 games going at once.  I'm addicted to it, no way around it, it's just a fantastic clean little game!


A quick summary!  In a nutshell, you have a hex based board, with two colored land masses for the two players.  Along the "borders" there are tiles with letters on them.  Use the letters on YOUR border, and you expand your kingdom, often pushing into the enemy territory.  The goal is to shove your border all the way into the enemy's capital, which has their little icon in it.  It's really straightforward to understand the basics by the time you've taken a move or two.

Since I've been enjoying the heck out of it, and it's multiplayer, I figured I'd try to help foster a little community love for it by posting a bit about my tactics with the game.  These are just my opinions, and I imagine people will have all kinds of personal playstyles of course.  If you're a new player, these might help that first handful of games go easier... and if you're playing another new player with these tips in mind, you're likely to hand them their buttocks.

1) The biggest word is not the best move

This is what sets the game apart for me.  There are times (lots of times in fact) when you can put together an amazing 12 letter word from the tiles on the board, and immediately after that get smashed in the face by the word "CAT" because none of your 12 letters were actually important real estate.  It's a balance of finding a good word, but also finding the word that will push your borders in a good direction.

Keep your eye on the goal, the enemy's capital.  A good way to facilitate this is to select the handful of your border tiles that would really smash the enemy, and only then look at the top of the screen and try to find words you can make from those tiles.  Letters on the back of your kingdom, or letters that are only in enemy territory, they can be used, but they don't actually accomplish much.  Generally, the main purpose of those ancillary letters is to allow those few important attack tiles to be used.

Remember, select your best letters according to position, THEN try to make a word from that.

2) Go for that extra turn

When you use a tile that is right next to your enemy's capital, you take their capital, yaaaay! You didn't win quite yet, but you did earn an extra move.  Getting that extra move, getting to go twice in a row, that should be your ultimate goal.  Play ridiculously aggressively if it means making that happen.  With two moves in a row you absolutely mangle any enemy stronghold.

After you play your second turn, if there are any remaining enemy owned hexes, that will become the new enemy base.  That second free turn is your chance to mop up the countryside.  You only get one shot at that blitzkrieg, remember rule one here!

3) Never leave your capital vulnerable

The only thing more important that pushing aggressively at the enemy's capital and trying to get that extra move, is never ever EVER leave your capital open.  If there are letters adjacent to your capital that can be chained together by the enemy, you have absolutely got to use those letters and reclaim the immediate "moat" around your home base.

4) Initial contact is massively important

I almost hesitate to post this one because it's so important to how I play.  It's almost downright abusive to understand this when your opponent doesn't.  But, here goes.  Cat leaving the bag...

To me, the most important aspect of the first few moves is who makes first contact.  Put simply, you DON'T want to be the person that connects the two kingdoms first.  Here's an example.

I'm the black spider, in these shots.  At first (frame 1) the gulf is intact, and the enemy plays "FOG" which connects our two kingdoms.  Now (in frame 2) we both now have 7 tiles, and it all seems pretty even steven.  It's not.  For all intents and purposes, THIS is the first meaningful turn of the game.  Make a single aggressive move blasting through the newly shared border (in frame 3 I play the word "WRECKER"), and end up with a huge advantage and the enemy reeling back on their heels.

When both players start playing towards this logic though, you can end up with some hilarious opening dances going on as players decide where best to connect.

Remember, try to avoid being the one to connect your lands.  (Now my win streaks will crawl to a halt, but at least I can sleep soundly)

5) Flank, don't just push push push

When you're in the thick of it, it's easy to keep just shoving back and forth down the middle of the map, repeatedly trading a space or two with the enemy.  Usually though, there's a long chain of letters down the sides of the field, and putting them together can dramatically swing the tide of a game.  Think of these attacks as your big right hooks when the center area gets all "jabby".

6) Don't ignore an "insignificant" enemy hex

Sometimes you might isolate off some little enemy hex in a corner of the field.  It's worth tying up that lose end when you can, because they can sometimes launch aggressive attacks from those.  Just because it's not connected to their capital, doesn't mean it's not potentially lethal.

Conversely, try to keep control of your loose hexes and launch those great attacks from them that can act like a dagger through the center of the enemy field.

7) Buy a custom icon and color

First, it supports the devs, who are truly awesome people!  The game is free, it's not predatory and spammy, it doesn't throw ads at you, it's ridiculously generous to the point you can play a TON without ever spending a dime...  take a moment and show that you appreciate this model.

As an added benefit, customizing your icon and color makes it WAY easier in your games to remember which side you are.  Without a personalized color and icon, I often see (and have done!), moves where one player forgets who they are.  They end up making some theoretically awesome word, but it's all using tiles that were enemy controlled, so it's a completely wasted turn.  That's not good.  Go spend a buck and make yourself look awesome!!!

Monday, March 9, 2015

Sticking with a vision, for better or worse

I don't know about you, but I admit I have an issue sometimes when executing an idea and finding that it's veering off course, even though sometimes it's for the better.  Generally I'm speaking of something that happens when I'm working on a game, but this goes for all manner of creative venture (from drawing, running an RPG campaign, or even customizing a car or motorcycle).

There's a magic that happens in the moment an idea comes together.  Sometimes it's a fresh bolt out of the blue (usually right as I'm waking up in the morning), and more often than not it's a series of older inspirations that click into place in a complimentary way to work with some new development.  However it happens, there's that moment of, "holy shit, that can work!" followed by a romanticized implementation in one's head where everything is polished and perfect and in soft focus and angels are singing and slow motion soccer cheers echo through the background... good idea moments are like the purest form of drug.

But there's also a magic that happens during the act of executing an idea.  The vision is clarifying on the screen, things pictured in the newlywed stage of the concept are becoming sweet reality, and amazing things are simply getting the hell done.  Writers speak of how characters seem to come alive as they write, of how a story can take on a will of its own as events flow onto page after page.  Those moments for a game developer happen with every new technical bump and design hurdle we encounter.  We adapt to unforeseen challenges and flow around the obstacles dozens of times a day.

So what happens when one of those course adjustments creates something that simply doesn't jive with that original hazy blissful vision?  What if the new development is kind of awesome, and you're consciously aware that it *could* be a much better path forward, even though it's not what you pictured originally?  If we stay the course and throw out the new hotness are we bold visionaries sticking to our creative guns, or are we being rigid and unable to adapt?  If we change our minds to see where it leads are we adaptive and resourceful, or are we floundering around with no clue what the hell we're trying to achieve?  The answer to those judgements are as much about internal authenticity as it is about how we're perceived by those around us, but for both, can only clarify in hindsight (and even then, only if you're lucky).


I don't think it's an overstatement when I say these moments are among the most difficult moments a developer can encounter.  A key branching point for a project can impact you (and those you work with) for years, like some cruel sliding door puzzle eating at your confidence.

One of my personal examples was dealing with issues in Gears of War that revolved around cover combat.  We built the game to be tactical, a metaphor of a wild west shootout with players hunkered down behind "techno-barrels" poking up to blast hyper-lethal lead at each other.  The reality of multiplayer online evolved into something very different though.  Players quickly mastered the art of nimbly flinging themselves about the battlefield, forgoing cover in favor of rolling around their opponents in order to get close enough for point blank shots.  It was like someone invited Neo to the O.K. Corral, and it blew the doors off our vision of how the game was "supposed" to be played.

Even though we still made something pretty damn legendary, and took huge pride in our accomplishments, it's impossible to not play a rousing game of, "I wonder if we should have tried something else?"  I think it's a fair assessment to say we never really picked a firm side in that battle, and who knows?  Maybe that was exactly the right move?  Maybe not?  It's a tough thing to quantify.

Another example is this VR game I'm working on.  It focuses on this miniature world in front of you, and was built entirely around the positional tracking of the device allowing you to physically move your head around at your self and get up close to these cool little objects all around you.  You sit at your desk, but leaning around and craning your head around naturally feels downright amazing. It's like the essence of awesome VR to me.

Earlier this week I made a little test mode where I can move the world, rotate it as a whole, and drag it around.  After playing with my original game for the last 2 months, my initial reaction was basically, "Woah! This is awesome and different! Score!"  About a day later I realized something... I had completely stopped moving my head around while playing.  I no longer poked my head upward to investigate an object flying right over my head, I never bent forward slightly to look around an obstacle... I would just hit the lazy key to rotate the world around instead.

I had actually solved something I had been wrestling with in an earlier prototype, and it felt pretty natural and easy to use, but it absolutely dumped all over the sense of immersion that was my original inspiration.  I turned it off by default, buried it like an easter egg, and kind of think of it as this "feature that must not be named".  In some alternate universe I probably just solved VR movement controls and made history... but in this one I stuck to my guns damnit (let's hope not wrecking everything in the process).

Sure, there's important decisions being made that affect projects all the time, but often those come down to logistics or practicality... often there's a "better" or more efficient choice.  It's the subjective ones that pull the game notably away from your first inspirations... yeah, it's those that can really haunt you.

The thing is (for my money anyway) there's not a "right" answer for these moments.  In fact, I truly never feel any wiser about these dilemmas, even after 20 years of regularly encountering them while working on games.  They're just such a case by case issue that I'm not sure there's benefit in a strong philosophy one way or the other.  I've tried different approaches in many cases, and without fail it's a classic case of feeling damned if you do, or damned if you don't.  Those moments seem a likely culprit for the self doubt that so many game developers feel, especially with impostor syndrome so common among us.


Things get even more complicated as team dynamics come into play.  Ideally we want to surround ourselves with amazingly talented people working together for a common vision, right?  So what happens when one of those awesome partners shows you something they're insanely excited about, and yet that thing clearly wasn't in your glowing sacred bolt of initial clarity (please note sarcasm)?  I actually do have more of a tendency in these cases, although I know designers who absolutely disagree on this.  What you're seeing at that very moment is what we *should* be looking for if we truly value how our teammates actually contribute to the project, instead of simply being pixel monkeys.  To me, that person's excitement alone has a load of value, and that enthusiasm can fuel them creatively through weeks of otherwise boring work that may be critical to shipping.

Stifling a respected member's contribution can create all kinds of long lasting issues, and if not handled well can absolutely breed resentment that negatively affects the entire project.  Sure, not everyone can simply do whatever they want on the project, but it's a critical skill to see something and really evaluate, "ok, so, this clearly isn't how I imagined this feature... but honestly, it's pretty goddamn cool right?"

Think back in your own experiences and you're guaranteed to find some moment when you pitched something you just knew would be a huge contribution to a project.  Recognize when you're on the other side of that table and give it the consideration it deserves.  To many devs, that consideration is practically everything.  Recognize that it's also a pretty linear scale.  The larger the organization, the less room there is for that sort of adaptability.  Get down to one or two people and you should be absolutely hemorrhaging personal vision into a project.

So, I'd love to hear wisdom on this topic, different philosophies, etc.  I wish I had an easy formula, in the unlikely event you have one, perhaps I can learn from it.

As always, thanks so much for reading my super late night ramblings

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.


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:


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 :)