Land’s End is a five-level puzzle game for Samsung’s Gear VR headset, which uses Oculus technology. Like Monument Valley, it presents players with a series of pastel-hued landscapes, which they have to navigate by solving puzzles and moving obstacles.
There is no silent princess or ominous looking crow people, and puzzles are less complex than the Escher-style illusions in Monument Valley, but Land’s End is a similarly engrossing (and oddly calming) experience. In level one, I am transported to an uninhabited rocky island, pink waves lapping the shore, and glide silently from place to place simply by moving my eyes.
While Land’s End takes visual cues from Monument Valley, however, it is not a VR adaptation. Instead, ustwo’s games team has spent over a year crafting a new game that is designed with the Gear VR’s merits and limitations in mind.
ustwo started work on the project last year, just two months after releasing Monument Valley. “It was only supposed to be a quick project, but it just sort of snowballed,” says ustwo’s technical director of games, Peter Pashley. “We kept putting time into it and deciding that it didn’t quite work, then going back to the drawing board, and doing stuff again and again. There’s nothing left of the original version of the game – in fact, we probably had two versions before this one.”
When designing Monument Valley, ustwo undertook a 55-week process of prototyping and user testing, discarding dozens of puzzles and levels that didn’t feel quite right. The team followed a similar process when creating Land’s End but this time, the focus was on user interaction and ensuring players wouldn’t feel sick, exhausted or just bored, says Pashley.
“With Monument Valley, it was just puzzle designs that we decided didn’t work. With Land’s End, we’d only realise that the way we were doing interactions didn’t work until we’d put quite a lot of effort into building levels. Until you have some relatively nice environments to look around in, you’re ascribing anything wrong with it just to the fact that there isn’t good enough artwork…and it’s especially hard to tell if the pacing is right,” he adds.
The original vision for Land’s End was to create a game of endless exploration; a series of vast landscapes that players were free to explore, stumbling across puzzles or tasks along the way. In user testing, however, people would either get lost or tire of it too quickly, says senior designer Ken Wong.
“We had to adjust our vision of the game to be a bit more like a hike, so you imagine you’re in this landscape with kind of obstacles to pass and someone’s gone ahead and laid down a trail, the best route for this particular island,” he adds.
This is a real challenge for game designers working with VR: the potential to explore endless environments is surely one of the biggest draws of the platform, but it also places some limitations on how levels are laid out. Movement has to be slow and steady to avoid motion sickness, yet players wont cover much ground walking at such a pace. Over the course of the game’s development, Pashley says levels were scaled down to ensure players would have something to do every 30 seconds, and a flying motion was introduced to help speed up moving from island to island.
Designing levels and landscapes for VR games is a very different process to creating them for a TV, tablet or phone screen. Designers have to consider the appearance of objects and landscapes from every angle and with no control over where players will be looking, it’s harder to determine what their eyes will be drawn to. “That was a big challenge for the art team, to adjust to telling stories using a 360-degree environment rather than a flat graphic canvas,” says Wong.
It can also be difficult to gauge depth in VR. In the real world, we judge this by comparing objects around us, and how they look relative to each other. In VR, however, there are considerably less cues, so our perception is skewed. “That is another thing you have to think about in level design. You can build something in a 3D modelling tool, and it will look massive, then you go into the game and it looks like a cardboard cut out about four metres away. You cant tell how big it is because you have no markers,” says Pashley.
While some VR experiences use motion detection to give players hands and arms, interaction in Land’s End is done entirely by eye. While this does create a sense of detachment – being able to move a rock just by looking at it feels particularly odd at first – it also makes the game fairly intuitive, and it’s an interaction that took a long time to get right.
“We wanted people to be able to figure the game out on their own, and we didn’t want to have to use words, so we put a lot of emphasis on user testing,” says Wong. “We’d put someone in the game but not give them any instructions and if they got stuck or couldn’t do it, it was our fault, not theirs. We tried out a lot of different mechanics and eventually we thought, ‘OK, what is VR good at?’ One thing that does work really well is being able to look wherever you want, so we thought about how to turn that into an interaction, being able to look up, then down, then one way and another to solve puzzles. But even that went through many iterations,” he adds.
Before working on Land’s End, Wong says he was wary of doing anything with VR – partly because the medium is still in its early stages and because it had failed to impress him so far. “The first time I tried it, I felt like I had a phone strapped to my face – it didn’t feel particularly immersive,” he says.
“I also had commercial concerns, because we don’t know how big a customer base there will be, and there’s so much that’s not proven about it yet. It smelled a bit like a fad, like something that was going to excite people for a couple of years and then go away, but Pash was quite adamant about experimenting with and researching it, and I came to see that there are a lot of interesting things you can do with it that you can’t do in traditional media.
While VR experiences are becoming more common – Bjork, Squarepusher and Foals have all created VR music videos, production companies from MPC to Unit 9 and Framestore now have their own VR units, and brands in every sector seem increasingly keen on commissioning VR experiences – the headsets have yet to become a mass market product. Google Cardboard has proved popular, but all too often, VR projects aren’t made widely available, and many of them simply fail to live up to the hype.
So why invest in this technology when it’s still in its early stages? “That’s why I felt we had to contribute,” says Pashley. “Because we can bring our way of looking at VR, which is less from a traditional games background and more about trying to make things that everyone can play. In mobile VR especially, I think the success of it wont be dependant on making games, but doing things like looking at a hotel room, or the view from somewhere you’re going on holiday, so I want us to push the games side of things in a direction that will suit those people better, and hopefully it will lead other people to create things that aren’t just remakes of existing games or aimed at ‘hardcore gamers’,” he says.
Land’s End has yet to deliver a return on ustwo’s investment (Monument Valley, in contrast, made $5 million in revenue within just a few months), but that’s perhaps to be expected, given that this was an experiment with a new platform, rather than a game created for one of the world’s most ubiquitous devices. “It’s not going to make its money back in the next six months, but hopefully if we’ve done it right, it has the potential to be a slow return,” adds Pashley. It’s also a useful experiment for the studio, which has worked on VR projects for clients and advised Google on guidelines for Cardboard.
Many games studios are now looking at adapting their most successful titles for VR, but Wong and Pashley are critical of releasing something that was originally designed for (or would work just as well on) another platform. “I don’t think that works, because there’s such a hurdle to be overcome from putting this thing on your head and cutting yourself off from the world. It might be a fun novelty, but if it’s a game I’m going to play for five hours, wouldn’t I rather play it on a TV?”
“It’s not comfortable to stay in there for too long – even for us, who are used to doing this, it’s quite exhausting, because you’re actually using a lot of your attention to do it, even if the game is intuitive and relaxing,” adds Wong.
“It’s an interesting experience because the usual psychology of video games is all about addiction – how can we get people addicted to a game, and how can we retain them….this was much more fulfilling, as your focus is on creating these short experiences that people will enjoy and want to share, and that combine art and science. You’re not looking at addiction but how the eye works, how motion affects us and how we perceive things,” he adds.
While Wong and Pashley are optimistic about the future of VR, they don’t agree with predictions that it will replace or destroy other forms of gaming.“It’s a totally separate thing as far as we’re concerned, there’s almost no crossover in the way you interact and experience it,” says Pashley. “It’s a bit like when e-books came out,” adds Wong. “People didn’t stop selling books, it just offered a different way of consuming content.”
Where the pair do see huge potential for innovation, aside from gaming, is in industries such as architecture, tourism and interior design – allowing designers to mock up realistic environments for clients to explore, or customers to walk around a city or an apartment before they visit it – or for training, giving students and apprentices realistic environments and lifelike situations to learn in.
With developers now able to create VR experiences using programmes like Unity, they also predict a rise in more experimental short form content – “people putting a lot of effort into making quite small experiences, like music or film shorts, that are different from what is already out there and made to test the latest thing,” says Pashley.
“I think you’ll see a lot of crossover in industries too,” adds Wong. “Right now, there are people who make TV ads, people who video games, people who make visualisations for architecture and they’re quite separate but as the tools get better, I think you’ll start to see more crossover.”
“I don’t think its going to blow up, but it will just intersperse itself into peoples lives,” says Pashley. “There are going to be professions where VR becomes an everyday thing, and I think I will just creep out into the world.”
Land’s End is released on Samsung Gear VR via Oculus Home on October 30.