Games allow players to fill the virtual shoes of a limitless number of exciting characters, from fantasy adventurers skilled with a blade and bulletproof action heroes to historical figures and even otherworldly beasts.
Yet, when developer Owlchemy Labs was considering what it could bring to the new medium of virtual reality, it settled instead on comparatively dull tasks. Instead of slaying dragons, scanning and bagging groceries. In place of escaping explosions, filing paperwork. Conquering the world replaced by making a sandwich.
It may seem bonkers, but it works – and it’s all thanks to the immersive power of VR.
“People don't expect it, because it doesn't really read as something that would be a mind-blowing experience – ‘why would I go back and work on my job?’” explains CEO Alex Schwartz.
“It turns out that interacting with your hands and having those physics moments that really feel realistic feels magical.”
"We can’t tell whether a VR game will be fun until we try a prototype."
Alex Schwartz, Owlchemy
Like any trick, creating Job Simulator’s magic is more than meets the eye.
Virtual reality throws up a host of new considerations for developers, both in-game and back in the real world. One universal problem, whether building for the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift or PlayStation VR, is the presence of the headset’s cable. Largely innocuous, the lead can cause problems for those ‘wrapped up’ in VR’s physical nature if left unaccounted for.
“One thing we do is we try not to encourage people to have to spin in place a lot,” Schwartz says of Job Simulator’s design. “We make it so there's a 'forward' where the window is – that's kind of your home base. There are things to your right and left, and minimal things directly behind you. It doesn't encourage you to 'go over here', 'go back there', 'go around again'. There's a natural forward and, with that sense, people don't start to twist themselves too hard.”
The platforms have their own specificities, too. Moving from the Vive’s traversable room-scale VR to the static standing experience of the Rift and PlayStation VR can result in huge gameplay differences – and must be accounted for by games hoping to hit more than one headset.
“We use Unity, so the way that we develop– they've almost removed some of the technical hurdles of porting and it's become more of a design hurdle,” Schwartz reveals. “When you look at the differences between the shape and the ergonomics of the buttons and the inputs on the controllers across all three, you've at least got motion controls on all three and you can move around a bit using some kind of tracking solution, but the tracking solution is different on all three. With all those ways, you've got to adapt your game from a design standpoint to work in all these different environments.”
With players’ comfort potentially on the line and complete platform parity an impossibility, making the transition between setups as smoothly as possible is critical. But Schwartz says that, in the best-case scenario, users won’t even realise something’s changed – even when it has to.
“We port across all three and make platform-specific changes to how it should work on each platform and little adjustments to the environments,” he details.
“Then we auto-adapt the environments to the size of your tracking space, which is another crazy thing we're trying to pioneer. It's invisible to the player, but it's a lot of work for us. We wanted to do that so that everyone has a proper experience and doesn't have this moment where they see a thing and want to reach it, but it's just behind a physical real wall and their controller's hitting the wall. Can you imagine how frustrating that would be? You forget about what the real world is when you're in VR, so when it comes screeching to a halt and you hit something, it's very disappointing. We want to avoid disappointment at all costs and make a fun experience.”
Not every VR experience will be a success. But titles like Job Simulator embodies VR’s penchant for turning traditional game design on its head, opening up the opportunity for developers to uncover unexpected genius.
Schwartz advises studios seeking the next surprise hit to stop overthinking – and simply get started.
“When you try VR and you play with it, there's not enough time in the world to make all the things you want to do,” he says.
“The key for us is that we can't ever know whether a game is going to be fun in VR until we try a prototype.
"People are like: 'What's the idea for your next game?' It's like: 'We have a couple of things on paper, but we're going to try, like, ten of them and then build, like, one-day, two-day prototypes of each and try it, and see what's magical.' Because if anyone spends too much time ahead of time writing a design doc, it's going to fall on it's face.
“You just don't have that core nugget of what's going to be fun yet, until you try it.”