You only have to look at GTA to know that games based on real-world locations are an attractive proposition for players.
Get Even, a new title from the studio behind Painkiller, is recreating real-world locations. And for its other trick it's realising them as entire VR spaces.
Wojciech Pazdur, lead designer at The Farm 51, talks about the Polish studio’s decision to work on VR for its new IP and what challenges it presented.
Why did you choose to add VR support to Get Even? What does the technology allow you to do?
Actually, we didn't simply add VR support to Get Even, we rather wanted to build whole game utilising the idea of travelling through different levels of reality. Like in The Matrix movie, we try to create meta-fictional connection between the real world and the virtual world, and using the nested realities concept we allow players and game heroes to explore memories inside memories during their story campaigns.
To get this the in full, you need to imagine that real world where you live is just the highest layer of this construction, and putting the VR device on your head you aim to enter the other reality or someone else memory – what is basically the goal of every escapist experience in video game. But we expand this with allowance to use VR tools inside the game itself, being a game hero you can take the VR device as well and enter another world, then another, moving to deeper layers which all resemble your reality, but are influenced by the happening from other layers similarly to the idea of the Inception.
The other reason to use VR is our atypical world presentation technique. Instead of creating thousands of hand-modelled 3D assets, we focus on using real-world photogrammetrically scanned environments and their elements. It's a great way to play with this "what is real" question, but it also allows us to create amazingly detailed sceneries that are not possible to be shaped with any other technique. And on the other side, feeling of immersion with VR system in these sceneries is incomparable to anything else. You can really feel like you could touch all these objects and your mind behaves like you're there in real – in example you're truly scared of falling from the cliff as yourself, not because of emotional connection to your game hero and some camera tricks that tries to make you believe it's possible. We're literally putting player into game hero's shoes.
What are the biggest challenges of developing VR games compared to traditional ones? How have you overcome these?
There is a lot of challenges, especially on technical and design side, and to be honest I believe we still didn't even found many of them.
First, the VR technologies are not finally fixed. The parameters and the quality of devices still evolve, what is great cause we may expect that consumer versions won't suffer so much from latency or resolution issues as actual prototypes. But there's still much more to be addressed. How many people realize that male and female brain has different sensitivity to some parameters of 3D object tracking and adjusting the quality of perception for one gender may affect the experience of the second one? VR tech producers have a long way in front of them, but what new prototypes show is very promising and I can't wait until we can try the quality of final versions.
Second, the applications aimed at VR experience needs to be designed with completely different aspects in mind comparing to the non-VR games. I'd say designing VR game differs from designing classic 3D real-time app in similar aspects like designing 3D game differs from planning the movie. Our brain reacts to some inputs much stronger using VR device, so the speed and fluidity of movement plays a huge role, especially considering current devices imperfections. Even the head-up-displays like in-game messages have to be designed differently to not create perceptual artifacts.
There's many more of immersion breakers, for example cinematic dialogue cutscenes, so commonly used to tell the stories in the past, tend to look very artificial even if (or maybe because of) sense of presence can be much stronger. When you go to the cinema and watch the conversation between Batman and Robin, you'd rather feel strange feeling your personal body placed inside the bat-cave as an intruder. (Shouldn't alarms trigger some traps on you? Shouldn't Robin notice you and ask what are you doing there?) So for the VR games it may be better to avoid switching the camera from game hero's point of view to third person perspective and back, as well as not to notice you so often that it's some fictional character you're playing.
In Get Even, we're building completely different narrative model to let you experience the story with VR-friendly methods, that won't break the immersion, but rather move you closer to the emotions that we'd like to be passed. I used the words "experience the story” cause in VR game it's all about this – you're limited with options to tell about the events, you need to allow player to experience them. What is great in total, cause I believe for video games it's much better to make you a participant, not a viewer.
How accessible is VR development to developers? Is it easy to get a hold of dev kits, and get your head around the fundamentals of VR?
Well, everybody can order Oculus dev kit and even if there are some time-limited shipment windows, it's in range of not only development companies, but also hobbyist and passionates. As I mentioned before, it's tricky to develop a good VR application, but regarding the accessibility of hardware it's not a problem at all. The VR prototypes from Oculus' competitors are a little harder to get cause they're not being sold publicly, but so far Oculus on PC is still the most reasonable option to start with VR game development.
Does adding VR support have any impact on the overall development of the game? How do you ensure the experiences for both VR and non-VR players are of the same quality?
Using VR changes everything. It demands you to craft different player mechanics, secure higher framerates, even to design menu and HUD differently. So the only one certain thing is that VR is not an optimal technology for every game genre and every gameplay style. And even looking on the base assumptions, VR and non-VR experience can't be the same quality. So of course you should and you can design your game to be playable and fun in non-VR session, but the difference here is much bigger than when comparing stereoscopic 3D and non-3D movies or games.
I'd say that every design decision in Get Even, from the highest to the lowest levels, has to be made considering the VR and non-VR experience. What means that non-VR version also will be very different from classic action games – the pacing is going to be slower, the storytelling uses different methods of narration, the overall concept focuses more on exploration that on action. But, when we sum it up, it makes possibly to simply create a quite unique experience with non-VR version as well, cause it ends in very unusual game anyway.
There's a lot of hype around virtual reality at the moment, but is it justified? Is virtual reality taking of, or is it just a passing fad?
Thinking mostly about games, we'd be limiting the scope of possible VR's global impact. I see VR not as the better game interface, but as a tool to deliver many experiences not possible before. It doesn't have to be a game – I'd really love to feel like I'm diving 5,000 feet under the sea level or jumping with the parachute from the stratosphere, what is likely not to happen in my real life (well, who knows). There is too many exotic places on Earth to even try to visit them in real, so why not to go there virtually on evenings or weekends? Imagining how immersive it can be when we use 3D scanned locations and characters created with methods we're using for Get Even, I'm totally into this.
If only technical quality of overall experience will be good enough and the proper content is going to be available, I'm starting to be both extremely happy and a little worried as well – cause the dystopian world from The Surrogates is coming closer than anyone could expect few years ago.
What's your opinion of the Facebook/Oculus acquisition? What impact will it have on the rise of virtual reality?
I'm looking on it with hope, I was just a little surprised it happened so quickly – but this only means that revolution is near as never before. People tend to not remember that other revolutionary technologies have changed the world starting with visionaries like Steve Jobs, but then moving into hands to what many of critics call ‘greedy corporations’. I don't want to piss anyone, but it's simply funny when you realise that most of complaints are being made with help of iOS devices from Apple or Windows browsers running under the Microsoft Windows, transferred with Google accounts and displayed on Facebook.
So the Oculus acquisition by Facebook makes me a little bit worried, cause I'd like not to experience anything similar to era of Zynga's games, but as long as we can still design our games in the way we'd like to do it, I'm perfectly fine with all these billions which Facebook can invest into delivering VR devices with good quality and affordable prices.
Where do you expect to see VR in five year's time?
I'd like to see it everywhere - in schools, workplaces, living rooms, gamers places. But, talking honestly, I also hope people will start to create reasonable defensive mechanisms to keep their social lives out of virtual worlds. Virtual reality can be a great way to escape from the troubles of real life (like it's already with immersive video games), but it tastes really good and stay healthy only when you have a good place to go back after some time. I'm afraid this issue will start to play even more important role than actual addicting to Internet and social medias for many of us. But I'm also optimistic. If human kind survived the Internet, it should also survive the VR.
Want to get involved in our VR special all this week? Have something to say about virtual reality and what it means for developers? Email James.Batchelor@intentmedia.co.uk to find out how you can take part.