Building VR with Modern Tools
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Building VR with Modern Tools
12 May, 2016
Interview

I first met Mike Murdock (mjmurdock.com) at a GDC 16 event, where he talked passionately about his experience building virtual experiences. His new company TriHelix is currently working on a number of VR-projects, including an RTS Nimbus Knights and a horror game Sisters. In this interview he talks about various ways he approaches VR and the tools he uses to build his amazing experiences.

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Introduction

I’m a Virtual Reality Director. I’ve worked on a wide variety of immersive media projects: everything from designing interfaces for Oculus’ mobile platform to multiplayer arena-scale VR games (and everything in between). My undergraduate studies were in Communication Design and Illustration at Washington University in Saint Louis and I got my MFA degree in Interactive Media and Games from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts. I worked for a number of years in commercials and film (VFX, motion graphics, and animation) before moving into the VR space.

The World of VR

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VR’s recent explosion in popularity is largely due to the amazing research work being done at USC. When I was there, I studied under VR geniuses / legends Mark Bolas and Scott Fisher, (Researchers at NASA Ames’ VR lab) and got a glimpse into the future of where it was all headed.

For me, VR is the point where computers have to start speaking fluent “human”. If my designs are well thought out, all the technology simply vanishes and the audience is transported to a magical place that their brain believes is real. As a designer, I get to connect directly to the senses of the audience..

Working Tools

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I primarily use Houdini and Maya in my work. Maya is good for making individual objects (environment objects, buildings, plants, et cetera). And Houdini is great for building procedural pipeline tools. On the texturing side, I’m a huge fan of Substance Designer / Painter. Paired with Houdini, Substance allows me to crank out a ton of unique assets quickly.

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Simply put, Nimbus Knights wouldn’t exist in its current form without Houdini; it’s the backbone of my pipeline. That’s where I solve the really hard CG art problems. (All the floating islands in the game are made procedurally with Houdini) The idea is I have to make a bajillion islands for my game. (That’s a real number, right?) So instead of making every single one by hand, I make a ‘“recipe” in Houdini that removes all the tedious work. Then I just draw the basic outline of the islands and get a game-ready island with minimal tweaking needed.

I really like this procedural approach because once I’ve created the Houdini tool recipe, I can go back to focusing on the game design. It allows me to see everything in context in the game, rather than staring at a grey box level and trying to imagine how it will look when I finally do the environment art pass.

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If I decide the shape of a level needs to change, I simply adjust the original outline drawing and all the changes flow down the pipeline in Houdini. Revisions are a lot less scary now and I spend a lot more time doing the interesting stuff and a lot less time worrying about UVs and retopology.

Building Worlds for VR

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In VR, everything is in 3D. The player wears a headset with screens that allow them to feel like they’re in the game, so my art is aimed at helping the player understand the 3D space they’re in. I use tricks like pooling lights, converging lines in my texturing, and clever scene layout to maximise the 3D experience. Additionally, I use a full Physically Based Lighting / Shading pipeline. When you get materials and lighting right, it’s pure magic.

It’s little tricks like this that really make the player feel like they’ve been teleported into this magical world and not just watching it on a flat screen.

VR is really fun as a designer because I get to build a game world from inside it. I love thinking of my game as a real place that the audience can visit, so I design spaces that relate to the personal space of the player.

Tools That Change Gamed

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Game development tools are the perfect fusion of art and technology. I believe that art and technology belong together. There was a time when putting oil paint in tubes was a new technology. That tech advance allowed the impressionist painters to paint quickly on location rather than in a studio. The affordances of the technology enabled a new style of painting to emerge.

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I love CG art and games because there’s always new toys and tools to play with. I get to “paint” with polygons and code now. Modern game development tools have allowed me to scale my ambitions to create more and more amazing believable (and unbelievable) worlds. I love that they’re always changing and I constantly get to learn new things.

Mike Murdock, Virtual Reality Director

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