London-based digital product studio ustwo made an aesthetic splash last year with Monument Valley — a touchscreen game that was more minimalist moodboard than standard mobile gaming fare. The paid app garnered more than a million downloads and caught Apple’s eye, going on to win one of Cupertino’s coveted 2014 design awards.
So what has ustwo’s 11-strong games team been up to since then (beyond crafting an appendix of extra MV levels)? Turns out they’ve been experimenting with virtual reality. For eighteen months, no less. And the result of their exploration is a forthcoming game for the Samsung GearVR headset called Land’s End. It will be launching on October 30 (via the Oculus Home portal), and is — befittingly for a first move — something of an investigation of the VR medium.
I say game, in fact ustwo’s games team talk of Land’s End more as an immersive experience with “game-like elements” when I ask them about what they’ve been building. The game’s main focus are its landscapes — which take inspiration from isolated regions such as remote parts of Iceland and the windswept coastlines of the Hebrides, as well as neolithic sites and artifacts, including Stonehenge. The narrative path is about finding out what happened to the ancient civilization whose relics you are encountering.
“It’s kind of what we think of as a spiritual cousin to Monument Valley. It has some things in common,” says ustwo’s Ken Wong. “We think of it a bit like going through an art gallery or a museum. You’re seeing beautiful, amazing things.
“It’s something that everybody can play — not just experienced gamers. But it’s custom designed for VR. In the way that Monument Valley was designed to be the best touchscreen experience possible, we wanted to make the best VR experience. So we spent a long time learning about VR, and researching, and finding out what VR is not good at and what its strengths are.”
Spend any time playing Monument Valley and its preoccupation with aesthetics and encouraging a meditative mood are instantly evident. Sure, there were puzzles to unlock with your fingertips, but the app is far more focused on intricately designed visuals and a gently unfolding story than on elaborate gameplay mechanics. The same appears true of Land’s End — firstly because ustwo’s games design team remains interested in creating ‘leftfield experiences’, given their design-led strategy to stand out in a packed (and often unsubtle) mobile gaming space.
But also — in this instance — because of the limitations of the VR medium. Specifically the risk of making players feel sick. How do you design a VR game that’s less likely to make a player’s stomach churn? Turns out you need to put some pretty strict limits on how they can interact within the alternative world you’re inviting them to step into. At least with current gen VR tech.
“We initially thought Land’s End would maybe take three months to do, and then we’d put it out into the world. I think we underestimated how much we would have to learn about this new medium. And it really is a new medium,” says Wong. “Video game development up until this point has all been for screen, and you’ve been controlling the game in some way with your hands. And here comes VR and instead of a screen everywhere you look around you is the virtual world.”
“To take advantage of that we had to go through a lot of prototyping. Kind of re-learning these basic lessons of how are we going to move around in the world? And how are we going to interact with objects? That took a lot of experimentation,” he adds.
Land’s End gameplay uses head-tracking — what ustwo is calling a ‘gaze-based mechanic’ — to allow the player to move within its virtual landscapes, although that means they are effectively constrained to pre-defined rails. To move around, the player looks around to locate points of light, called “look points”. From there looking at one of these points automatically — and steadily — moves the player towards it. The team describes the result as a “meditative movement” but the underlying design aim is clearly to avoid any rollercoaster lurches that might transform Land’s End into, well, Lunch’s End.
“We want this to be as comfortable as possible, and so we’ve designed it from the start for sensitive people,” says Wong. “One of the things we found, that we discovered very early, was that allowing people free motion — allowing people to just walk wherever they want and do whatever they want, they’re quickly going to make themselves sick.
“So we said we’re going to try limiting their movement a bit but then designing the levels around them so that they’re not even aware of these limitations… It feels a bit like you’re hiking through a really beautiful landscape. And you’re not really aware that there isn’t a lot of option. You can’t wander around freely. But in general there are only certain paths and ledges that are inviting to explore.”
There’s more to the game than just hiking along pre-set paths, though. Wong shies away from labeling Land’s End a puzzle game per se — saying that during testing the team found people didn’t want to solve “really complex puzzles in VR” — yet there are some puzzle elements which do require the gamer to interact with aspects of the landscape in order to progress the story. So how have they managed that, given there’s no hand-held controller?
Again this involves using head-tracking as a method to manipulate objects in the world. The team describes the effect they’re going for here as a sort of telekinesis.
“We found very quickly that just exploring isn’t enough. It doesn’t help the player get into the mindstate that we wanted them to be in,” says ustwo’s Peter Pashley. “We found that being able to interact with that environment, and affect that environment is really important in how people actually think of that world, and how they think about that world — how their mind engages with the reality that’s presented to them.
“We’ve been through a lot of different methods of doing that but what we’ve settled on is one mechanic for moving parts of the world around — so it’s a way of picking up giant blocks of stone, for example, and moving them around from A to B. The way that works is you look at a point on the stone… And once you’ve looked at it, it becomes attracted to where you’re looking. So you can use that method to drag these big, heavy, swinging blocks of stone or whatever around the world.”
Immersion — that feeling of I am in somewhere, I’ve gone somewhere — for me that’s the most exciting thing about VR.
“It kind of feels like using the force,” adds Wong, with a laugh.
“The second form of interaction is a mechanic we describe as star-lines,” continues Pashley, describing a feature that lets players weave a line of light from point to point, connecting up glyphs they find carved into rocks in the landscape. “A bit like a connect-the-dots puzzle. If you connect all of these stars then the puzzle that is triggered by that is activated and there will be some kind of reaction — whether it’s parts of the world shifting and rearranging, or something else triggering.
“These two mechanics play into each other because you can use your telekinetic powers to move parts of the world around which have got some of these star points on them in order to make it possible to complete one of these star constellations,” he adds.
“We’re not looking to get people having huge adrenaline rushes or getting really confused or held up by puzzles. We’re looking to create an experience where they have this — I’m not sure relaxation is quite the right way of putting it but an immersion in this world that feels exciting and relaxing at the same time.”
The result certainly sounds more immersive than adrenaline-inducing (to be clear, I haven’t tried it out myself, but given Minecraft gives me motion-sickness I’m in no hurry to don a VR headset…). Which in turn sounds more appropriate for the VR medium. Wong says he finds the game generates a similar feeling to watching a well-produced nature documentary, narrated by the soothing tones of David Attenborough, say.
But whether VR is appropriate for anything much at this stage of its nascent development remains a moot point.
The paradox for VR — or at least current gen VR tech — is that spending time within its immersive environments can quickly feel tiring (if not downright nausea-inducing). But the core proposition of VR is exactly to transport you to ‘other realities’. So not being able to stay in the virtual world you’ve been conjured into for more than, say, 10 minutes does seem a tad contradictory. The risk is VR ends up its own self-defeating contradiction because the technology’s own shortcomings suspend your disbelief in the trick it’s trying to make you believe in.
I make this point to ustwo’s games team and they argue that in part it’s down to limitations with current gen VR tech — remaining hopeful that future generations of VR will smooth out at least some of the unpleasant side-effects people are experiencing with VR right now.
“It is a bit of a contradiction in that what you’ll often find if you as a developer have done a good enough experience, people will want to stay in your experience for hours but at the moment there’s definitely improvements to be made in terms of the actual hardware… I don’t think we’re that far away — where the problems with stimulating the visual part of your brain, or the things that aren’t quite right with the way that it’s done at the moment, when we start to beat those problems then a lot of that tiredness, the fatigue of being in VR is going to go away,” says Pashley. “Motion sickness is going to be the biggest obstacle because that’s never going to go away. But I think you can design experiences which are much better for motion sickness.”
Motion sickness is going to be the biggest obstacle because that’s never going to go away.
“It’s not designed for hours and hours of play,” adds Wong, talking specifically about Land’s End. “This is the kind of thing where you might play it for 10 or 20 minutes at a time.”
What about other design challenges they’ve encountered during the dev process? Pashley describes VR as “amazingly holistic”– in the sense that it’s a “tightrope to walk” in terms of balancing all the various elements needed to ensure an experience that is neither under- nor over-whelming.
“You kind of have to get everything right, and everything is hard to get right,” he says. “As well as that just the whole concept of what you’re actually doing and experiencing in this game, and the pacing — I suppose it all comes down to pacing.”
“It’s this weird storytelling that again — taking lessons from Monument Valley — we had to tell stories using architecture,” says Wong. “We’re telling a story using the landscape, so instead of building everything out of bridges and hallways and doors, we have ledges and cliffs and arches. And that’s been really interesting… It is holistic. How can we use just rocks and grass and the sounds that they make, and what interactions we overlay on that — how can we use that to construct this narratorless experience?”
“It may be a bit like designing a fairground ride, in a way. Like a haunted house. You know that people are going to progress through the world by going A, B, C, D and you just want to pace it out so that they’re constantly looking forward to what’s going to happen next,” he adds.
“Ultimately it all comes down to the player’s state of mind. There’s a hard to articulate [state] that we’re trying to get people into… It’s a form of immersion, I guess. We don’t want to do things that pull people out of the experience,” adds Pashley.
“There will be and there are ways of interacting with VR that are going to be great… there will be physical controllers that are going to provide amazing VR experiences. But I think that the base, the lowest common denominator for all VR experiences, is being able to open your eyes in a new world, and to look around at it, and to look above and behind and all around you. So I think immersion — that feeling of I am in somewhere, I’ve gone somewhere — for me that’s the most exciting thing about VR.”
Monument Valley fans might wonder whether ustwo at least considered doing a VR, first-person perspective version of their beloved title. One where they get to walk around in Ida’s shoes. And this was something they played around with very early on during their VR explorations, says Pashley. However it was obvious the core MV game mechanic would not translate to VR. And in any case he says they were keen to build something new — albeit with a few thematic overlaps.
“If we were going to make something for VR we wanted to make something that was designed to be great at the things that VR is great at — not just doing a port of something,” he says, adding: “Monument Valley’s a forced perspective game, and all of the impossible puzzles would just not work in VR in the same way that they don’t work in real life… As soon as you start making people walk on the walls of buildings and rotating them and moving them then they’re going to feel sick.”
As for why they chose the GearVR as the platform for their first careful foray into virtual reality, Pashley says they wanted to aim for something with the widest possible appeal within the space — which meant eschewing higher end headsets still in the works (such as Facebook’s Oculus Rift, which requires a gaming PC also in the loop, or the HTC/Value Vive joint venture). The GearVR is powered by a smartphone, which slots inside the headset, so is a lower budget option for a consumer VR experience
After spending a year and a half exploring VR, what does ustwo’s team think of the technology? Is VR poised for the big time — for mass consumer adoption — or does it seem more like something that will remain of niche or specialist interest?
Pashley’s view is that VR is going to play more of “a supporting role” — as a peripheral, rather than a central focus for most consumers. Certainly in its mobile flavor.
“If you’re booking a hotel room and you want to know what the view from the window is, you’ll be able to just stick your phone into a headset and just have a quick look at what it’s going to look like. Those kind of everyday uses of VR will be how it progresses to the mainstream, if it progresses to the mainstream,” he says. “And in terms of entertainment, the kind of thing that we’re doing, that will obviously be part of the appeal of these things. But I think the killer app is going to be something else.”
ustwo’s games team is certainly not about to start churning out lots of VR titles. But then sausage factory production has never been part of their philosophy. And while it says it may revisit VR again in future — and talks about having laid down a foundation of VR expertise over the course of developing Land’s End — there are clearly lots of other technologies catching their eye right now, whether it’s the new 3D Touch pressure-sensitive screens on Apple iPhones, or Apple TV with its Siri-enabled remote control.
“It’s definitely part of the same drive for us as a team — the same drive that made us want to do something for VR is certainly driving me to want to experiment with both of those two things,” says Pashley when I ask what’s next. “The really exciting thing about GearVR, 3D Touch, Apple TV is that they’re not niche; they’re things that are available to everybody. And that’s something that’s really exciting for us — is that we get to do this, play at the forefront of technology but also be able to show it to our mums and have them enjoy it.”
Returning to VR as a consumer technology, it strikes me that at the end of the day Land’s End depopulated, remote and slightly forbidding landscapes might stand — for the moment at least — as something of a visual metaphor for virtual reality itself. Intriguing, sure. At times a little breathtaking. Yet still sequestered away from the mainstream, either by stomach-churning waters or a lack of a clear reason to go there.