© Visible Realms, illustration by Eliza Jäppinen.

That One Review That Made a Difference

There’s always a turning point in a story. A point where the character may or may not recognise the beginning of the conclusion of all hurdles.

Last time I promised (mainly to myself, I believe — I doubt that many read these ramblings of a non-famed game designer) to write about how we solved locomotion in a VR game where you drive a wheeled cat.

However, the best choice of words — or response to this promise— is in the review behind the title of this entry. To cut things short for those who are allergic to reading too much of my words, the title of the review was: Racing on rails built by you!

You can jump down to “Racing On Rails Built By You — With Half-Cat-Half-Vehicle -Beings” to read the locomotion solution, if you’re in a hurry.

Utter Lack of Perspective and a Mistake That Could’ve Been Avoided

Sometimes things that are too close to you are too hard to put into words. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that your project is going anywhere. Making games is hard. Making successful games is near impossible, especially when you lack momentum and have no idea where to place fulcrum of your lever.

First reviews that we got were horrible. The reason? I had by mistake left a screen capture script into the Unity -project, which made Unity then in return (because of the magic of automation) compile the permissions manifest of the game to ask for microphone and camera access on Android. This alone is not a big deal, it really only prompted the player to respond to the query. But …

… a certain combination of an Android version and Unity had a bug that some other developers had also suffered from; the query in the beginning of the game only produced a dark screen, leaving the players in a void.

© Visible Realms, animation by Krista Erkkilä.

It took us a week (and some help from Oculus — thanks again for that) to understand what was going on, but although we fixed it, in life, you don’t get second chances (or in one case a third chance, since I hastily asked the reviewer to try again before we made an update); the few 1/5 reviews are still there to be marvelled by people surfing the Gear VR and Oculus Store. And just to be certain there’s no misunderstanding; it is not the reviewer’s fault, they are in no way obligated to go and change their reviews no matter what; it is my fault for making the avoidable mistake.

How did we miss it in the first place? Well, the devices that we reserved for developing the game did not support the new Android version.

You probably understand that I’ve been mulling over the what-if’s of this mistake for a good while now … Being that type of a person that demands the best performance from myself, this type of a thing can drive me crazy. Luckily other activities in life, such as intense Brazilian jiu-jitsu -regime helped smooth things over.

But then eventually came that day, when a person had played our game and managed to verbalise what our game was about, way better than we could.

We had tried all sorts of different word combos (like a beginner trying to luck out a combo flurry by smashing buttons in Street Fighter, Virtual Fighter or Mortal Kombat) — but last Friday, there it was, the perfect combination of words (along with 4/5 stars): Racing on rails built by you!

As I tweeted, this user review might have altered the course of my career. So whenever you play an (indie) game that you enjoy; do review it. Sometimes the effect of one review might be huge.

Racing On Rails Built By You — With Half-Cat-Half-Vehicle -Beings

So “back in the day” I attended a few GDC talks by then true second coming of virtual reality content -pioneers (ok, sure: in 2013 I made my first Unity+Kinect+Oculus VR prototype with Taneli Korri when Oculus was still called The Rift DK1, but these were people who were developing with PSVR when it was called Morpheus; so there) and their biggest problem was locomotion in VR. To me they were kind of visibly “shook” by it; locomotion (moving around) made people ill. However;

What they had figured out was that the human experience in virtual reality is less cool when the inner ear is not synced to the visually cued motion.

In other words; if you move in virtual reality without sensing the motion with your inner ear, like you’re used to in reality, the result can be a “dizzy” feeling and to some their system thinks that they’re poisoned and you can guess what the body’s extreme evacuation reaction is to poisoning. (Read more about Virtual Reality Sickness here.)

(During our adventure in the world of VR we’ve even bumped into past trauma’s being triggered by VR with certain themes … And that’s why we play it safe by making cute games for VR — for now.)

As a solution they talked mainly about teleporting the player, but I noticed something, a detail (and maybe they said it too in some of the talks and I was just dozing off); and based on that detail an assumption started to form in my mind — if you knew where you were going and understood how you were going to get there chances were slimmer to get sick in VR.

After all, teleportation can be considered a big leap to somewhere; so how about smaller leaps for cueing the motion? Something like mini-teleportations?

© Visible Realms, animation by Krista Erkkilä.

A few years after that conference, I found myself dead tired. Entrepreneurship combined with bad habits had driven me to the edge of sanity. After kicking the bad habits, I realised that I couldn’t do the work anymore. All the constant proving through endless palaver. The business politics. The emotions of others. At minimum, I needed a break and I needed to do something of my own. So, me and my wife figured out a way to let me do that project and we figured, why not do it together.

So I started to work on a game concept: Kitten Rally. I made a block prototype where you first drew a track with a ball (representing yarn) with physics and then drove the track with a cube, also affected by physics. You only had one control in this game and it was braking by tapping.

From Mobile To Mobile VR

First we were thinking about making a mobile game. But the mobile game market was to us a one huge “blegh” due to the current monetisation culture; the market realities (which both of us, Eliza and I, had studied intensively) made us take a risk and opt for the new and upcoming mobile virtual reality -market.

After testing the game prototype in VR it felt surprisingly good. I realised that saving points into an array was like doing mini-teleportations; as long as the player was visually cued correctly and not disoriented, the player knew where they were approximately going.

We paid a lot of attention this, why? Well …

Since we wanted people to feel good instead of feeling sick while playing our game, we paid extra attention to locomotion to eliminate all things that would induce VR -sickness, while holding on to the idea of Mario Kartish third person movement in VR.

The assumption of benefits provided by drawing-first-race-after grew into a sort-of-a-theory; since by drawing a line you know where you are going next (again; approximately, since we used physics in the game making it not strictly rail based, but that seemed enough) and since we opted for third person view the player could see the character in front of them; there was a point of reference for the player and thus the VR sickness wasn’t that bad. We also noticed that tweaking camera follow latency (as our game camera’s follow the player’s cat), especially on rotations, reflected on how easily a player would experience motion sickness — so, we spent a lot of time tweaking the motion and testing it.

We introduced binary throttle, tilting the controller to lean and swiping as control methods to make the driving even more thrilling and again reduce sickness; we wanted the player to have more options to control the cat in a game with twists and turns instead of less.

And so the game developed from Kitten Rally to Cat ‘S’ Trophy. (We love a good pun.)

As you might guess, from there on the process of working on a game for a year and a half started, refining the controls and getting feedback on the gameplay up to the disheartening polishing phase of the game. In the previous text I wrote about Cat ‘S’ Trophy, I tried my best to give credit to all the amazing people who worked on the game, but again; majority of the credit on testing the game and hunting bugs goes to FullXP’s crew that worked tirelessly on the game (I don’t know that many people who spend hours in VR looking for bugs).

By working hard, we got the game to a point that it feels good to play; I can only write for myself in this case, but each time I play it, I’m positively surprised by the polish we did.

Certain Type of Loneliness

I don’t do this stuff for the fame or money — although there’s nothing wrong with money itself; but if it’d only be about money, I’d be doing something else, since to my experience there are faster and more reliable ways of making money than trying to sell games you’ve made.

Throughout my life, I’ve felt a certain type of loneliness. The particular type of it has been hard to explain even to myself and I’ve confused it to many other things— although I think right now, I might have a clue to as of why I’ve felt the way I have felt.

Regardless of the reason, this feeling of loneliness is related to why I make and want to make games.

To me the goal of game creation is to connect with others indirectly. The type of connecting I’m talking about is private and person-place-time independent. Different than going out to meet people directly — and again, nothing wrong with that either.

What the Racing on rails built by you -review did was exactly that; somebody, a person completely unknown to me, understood what our team did and described it better than I could. I guess my bucket list is a bit shorter after last week’s Friday and thus, this probably is a turning point in my story as a game designer.

This text was illustrated with the Cat ‘S’ Trophy Stickers: go get ’em for your iOS -device. And don’t forget the actual game for Oculus Go and Gear VR!

Until next time, Your’s truly,

Teemu, the game designer and programmer of Cat ‘S’ Trophy at Visible Realms.

P.S. See below. Because I wrote about locomotion, I just had to.