The ‘Monument Valley’ team has created a dream of a VR game

21 Sep 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

Land’s End Is Monument Valley Maker ustwo’s First Careful Foray Into VR Gaming.

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 team started out simply by sticking a VR camera into Monument Valley, thinking that just looking around that world might make for a compelling experience. But they soon learned that VR is a very different medium. “We quickly realized that there was this whole new language to be developed,” says lead designer Ken Wong. For instance, the impossible architecture of Monument Valley didn’t make sense in a 3D VR world, where players could control what they were looking at, ruining the illusion.

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. Wong describes it as “like a hike, where someone has gone ahead and plotted the best trail throughout this landscape.” The islands are deserted, surrounded by gently crashing waves, with strange architecture dotting the landscape. 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. You can explore at your own pace, and, as in Monument Valley, there are moments of wonder, like when you slowly drift across the sea between two islands, floating quietly among the birds.

Land’s End won’t serve as a sequel to Monument Valley—players can look to the Forgotten Shores expansion for that—but the new title is reminiscent of its predecessor. 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. It feels like Monument Valley, but the process of designing it was very different. “It’s the difference between painting and sculpture,” says Pashley.

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. With Sony readying their virtual reality efforts with Playstation VR and companies like Canon joining Oculus, Samsung, and HTC, actual reality is set to have some intense competition. Ustwo’s Ken Wong, Peter Pashley and Dan Gray spent more than a year developing the game, with many stops and starts and do-overs along the way. “It took a long long time to reinvent all these fundamental things about how you move around a world and how you interact,” says Wong. Things like navigation took some toying with. “We spent a lot of time trying to figure out the best way to let people move around these worlds in a way that felt kind of almost subconscious,” says Pashley.

You make your way through the levels by glancing at “lookpoints,” shimmering spheres of light that burst open and propel you forward when you look at them. 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.

Another interesting observation: “Humans don’t tend to tilt their heads back very often, especially us city dwellers,” Pashley says. “If you ask users to do that, it’s like putting them through an exercise routine.” To avoid this, players rarely need to focus their gaze on anything above eye-level. 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.

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. The complexity slowly ramps up in the early stages, with later puzzles having you connect beams of light while moving blocks around, and I’m excited to see where things go from there.

With platforms like the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR (formerly Project Morpheus) yet to make their commercial debut, we still haven’t seen the defining VR experience that will sell non-enthusiasts on the technology. You must unlock these puzzles to proceed through the game, but central to the experience—right down to the interface through which you play—is the act of simply looking around. 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.

Wong explains that it’s this dissonance between familiarity and bewilderment that makes virtual reality so compelling. “It’s not like you’re going to Italy or Iceland,” he says of the game’s landscapes. “But they’re reminiscent of real world places. 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.

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 you can use that method to drag these big, heavy, swinging blocks of stone or whatever around the world.” “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. 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…). 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.

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. But I think you can design experiences which are much better for motion sickness.” “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? 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.

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. 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? 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.

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