A friend asked me to write what it takes to make a virtual reality game. I tried to figure out a good answer and I found myself writing this … answer?
Short answer: 20 years.
So it’s going to take a bit of reading to go through, but if you want to skip the prose and my personal history in video games, just scroll down to Virtual Reality, but you’ll be missing a lot of … text. This is either good or bad depending on your own personal nature.
Also, instead of hyperlinking the crud out of this text, I’ve arranged the most essential links in the end as references.
The 1990s and 1980s
In 1998 I made my first game that ever got played by more people than just myself. It was amazing and I’m still on that path — after a few deviations from it.
Since I got my hands on a PC I’ve loved adventure games. I was a fanboy of LucasArts & Sierra and since I was 7 I was looking for love in all the wrong places as Larry, tried to solve crimes in Lytton as Sonny Bonds, out in space trying not to get killed by the Sariens or Vohaul as space janitor Roger Wilco, went on a Hero’s Quest and Quest of Glory, wanted to be a real pirate with Guybrush Threepwood and did some freelance policing with Sam & Max (thanks Al, Jim, Mark, Scott, Corey, Lori Ann, Jane, Roberta, Ken, Ron, Tim and Steve). To be a true hybrid gamer of my time I played Nintendo(s) and plethora of games published for it (thanks Shigeru-san, Keiji-san, Hideo-san and of course Satoru-san) and I also spent endless hours on Friday and Saturday nights playing PC games like Transport Tycoon, trying to craft a profitable transportation company (thanks Chris). And then there was Wolfenstein 3D and Doom (thanks + live long and iddqd, Johns). And a bunch of other games by many other developers. And then more.
True story though, adventure games (especially the Sierra games where you had to read and write to play) and Transformers (via Sky Television) have played a significant role in addition to top class Finnish education system to my grasp of the English language. They were edutainment at its best for me. My father understood the power of this and in his cunning ways tried to boost my German skills by buying me Leisure Suit Larry 6: Shape Up or Slip Out! in Deutsch (Reiß Auf Oder Schieb’ Ab) as a present and handing me a Finnish-German Dictionary! Was zum Teufel, Vater!
So, in 1998, with my limited time and resources (I was still in junior high and I wasn’t the relaxed Ferris Bueller -type nor was I the super intelligent Doogie Howser -type) and with sheer grit I managed to create a short adventure game with C for DOS in the time frame of the course. In the game you had to direct the protagonist to escape the mundaneness of a small town to a bigger city.
Mixed Bag of Movies, TV, Games and Comics
Other than games there was also comics in my life; in the 1990s I attended an after-school comic book club in the Art School of Northern Helsinki, where under the direction of a few artists, I learned how to write stories, draw and self-publish comic books. I even sold my comics at the Helsinki Comics Festival at the age of 14–16 (1996–1998).
The last comic book fair I attended selling my work I did something different; instead of just selling comic books of my own making, I also sold the game I had made, to which I had designed and printed covers for. Since there was no digital store option, I distributed the game on diskettes and it ran on DOS. Amazingly I sold a few copies of the game.
Even though the game had no chance at all in financial success, due to it I still hold my most treasured piece of paper; a diploma stating that I have made a computer game with the signature of my then principle on it. It’s still on my desk at work. See image below.
So time passes, life and education gets in the way of game creation, but some 12 years later, after playing the role of a young adult in life and being fantastically distracted by life from my true calling for over a decade, I founded my first game company, making animation, apps and games or parts of them for clients and trying to figure out a game I’d love to make.
Six years forward from there I had had the chance to work on apps, mobile games, money games, co-directed animated cutscenes with Eliza for a RedLynx / Ubisoft game and worked on some interesting custom built games. I had tried to create a fun game of my own making for the iOS, but I think it’s completely fair and safe to say I failed to do so. I guess there were too many distractions in life.
Now twenty years since I made that game as a school project and after stopping the whole gig-economy-make-games-for-others -business, I have managed to build a game that I find fun to play that has interesting characters and an original world of its own.
There you have my short history in game development and the reasons I drifted towards it naturally in life. Now that the scene is set we can move on to the real stuff.
Virtual Reality, A Pile of Milliseconds, Draw Calls and Vertices
Like I mentioned, a friend asked me to write what it takes to make a virtual reality game. Technically it doesn’t require a lot of skills, but a handful, especially if you’re doing it alone. I don’t recommend doing anything alone (I’ve tried doing a lot of things alone and it just wasn’t that great since almost everything in life is more fun with more people) and I don’t label myself as virtual reality authority or consultant in any sense, but here’s a quick cheat list I made to paint you picture of what it takes from you or your team in general to make a VR game:
- You need basic understanding over modern game engines, like Unity. Native can be hassle to port, and I’ll make a remark on that later in this list.
- You also need to understand the technical and biological limitations with VR; such as possible feeling of motion sickness in some people caused the lack of physical motion while being fooled by imagery into thinking there is motion.
- You need to know how to design a game and game’s narrative.
- You need to know how to write a game in code and make your design come alive on the chosen VR platform.
- You need to know how to create assets for the game; models and or 2D presentations of the game characters and environments, animations, audio, visual effects and the list goes on.
- All of the above you need to be able to optimise to perform in the VR platform of your choice. This means that your assets and code have to run at steady 60+ fps (frames per second) on mobile VR and 90+ fps on PC VR. This might sound like an easy thing to do with the computing power these days, but in VR you render everything twice, for both eyes. There are “asynchronous warps” in Oculus tech to help with keeping the experience intact even with slower frame rates, but it is still a good rule of thumb to try to keep the frame rate above the 60/90 fps -mark with means of optimisation and knowing how the technology works.
- You also need to be informed enough to pick the correct VR platform for your game.
- You need to be able to think in a set of new standards and constantly assess where the technology is going next, since VR is an emerging field. See what works and go with that. Nobody knows what a universally great VR experience is as of yet.
- Understand the risk of VR flopping as a mass market device (again) — an obvious vaccination for this is to make your VR project possible to port to other mediums even within the VR. This is where proper use of tools like Unity come in handy and smart asset creation and why I started with recommending it instead of native development. Also this in mind, keep your team and project cost-efficient. But don’t do it alone. Please.
- Whatever you do, DO NOT BUY THE SNAKE OIL OF EASY SOLUTIONS SOME INSTANCES ARE PROMOTING. And if you for some reason happen to buy it DO NOT DRINK IT AND DO NOT RUB IT ON YOURSELF.
- Understand that lists like these are more or less useless, unless you put in the work. You’re going to need to go and invest yourself in this, if you’re going to do something great.
- That leads to the fact that you will need passion. Look up the word and study it’s meaning for a while. You’ll find a link to it’s origin in the links below.
- You’ll also need grit to control that passion.
The reason we picked Gear VR as our platform was simple in the end; it can scale to other mediums even within VR, and we’ve optimised it for mobile running two cameras for both eyes so it’ll surely run on PC VR, console and mobile, if we would choose to port it. Also mobile VR is and will be a lot cheaper for the consumer.
To further learn about VR and game development, recommend attending as many GDC -talks as possible. I did that. And even though the Game Developer’s Conference -events I attended have come and gone (and they don’t even have GDC Europe anymore), there’s still the GDC Vault and YouTube. I highly recommend for everyone John Carmack’s 2015 talk about mobile VR. Being present there in the San Francisco Moscone Center in 2015 was quite a thing; it made me walk out and order the Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition.
Oh, did I mention even though there’s obvious limitations for a mobile VR device, we still made the characters look ultra awesome. Image below.
The more interesting question in my opinion is; what does it take to make a good game? I’m not sure I know yet (but I’m guessing all you’ve got and then some) and I’m not comfortable publicly labelling our game good (and what is a good game anyways?) since there are no reviews as of yet, but to me personally it is an important game, and it plays well and feels good — and I love our game characters and the world we managed to create. It brings me joy and I hope similar pockets of joy are activated in other people too when they play our game.
What I do know is that it took me 20 years to make a (VR) game that I can be happy about. And it took massive amount of talent of other people to make it a reality; not only in our team, but considering the technological developments of Unity, Unreal, Oculus, HTC Vive, the smartphone industry, gaming industry.
Twenty years is a long time and the journey can be humbling (and yes, that’s a good thing, it should be humbling). It’s important to keep in mind that there are no shortcuts to making a fun game (which could be the very definition of a good game, hmm). No doubt some are quicker to get it right and some have more success than others, but the way I see it these days is; as long as you can breathe, time is your friend. Sometimes time is all you’ve got, so enjoy it while you have some since most likely sooner than later you’re running out of it.
But more important than understanding time is understanding that friends are your friends, so don’t forget them.
The game, Cat ‘S’ Trophy, is about five cats trying to please Catgod by collecting star crystals by racing in half-cat-half-vehicle form on a track laid out with the Yarn-of-Destiny. You, the ‘hooman’, choose a cat of your liking and use it as an avatar racing against other cats, but the catch is that you draw the track first with the Yarn-of-Destiny. But enough words; we have a trailer for the game. Observe below.
That’s It — Well, No, Not Really
The game has been available as of 4/4/2018 in the Oculus Store for Gear VR. And yes, we’ll be making an Oculus Go port of Cat ‘S’ Trophy as soon as possible.
To wrap it up, take this advice from a xennial still on a long journey; no matter what try to be happy. If you don’t have happiness in your life, find it. Immediately. That way the actual price of fulfilling your dreams won’t be so huge.
If for whatever reason you or someone you know aspires to become an (indie) game designer, do check out Jake Birkett’s GDC -talk titled How to Survive in Gamedev for Eleven Years Without a Hit (or The No Hit Wonder as he has it titled in his slides). Also again look up the word passion and the origin and meaning for it, study it.
In the beginning of this text I thanked the creators of games I played as a child, so I’ll finish with a huge thanks to the people who made this game possible; thank you Eliza my wife, creative lead and CEO of Visible Realms, FullXP’s Nikolina, Paula, Olli, Kim and Ana, our team’s Essi, Mike, Juho, Andreas, Andrew, Sanni and Krista for creating this game and making it shine.
Until next time — when I write a long-winded text about how we solved locomotion in virtual reality while making Cat ‘S’ Trophy.
But before I go, remember these wonderfully insightful words of a great gamer:
“On my business card, I am a corporate president. In my mind, I am a game developer. But in my heart, I am a gamer.”
–Satoru Iwata, 4th President and CEO of Nintendo
On my card I’m definitely not a corporate president of a great and established game company (right now it says Chief Game Officer at Visible Realms, whatever that’s supposed to convey), but in my mind I am a game designer and more importantly in my heart, I am a gamer.
Teemu, a game designer
Links to all the stuff I was writing about