Today we’re happy to present an awesome talk by PlaySys. This small indie company from Milan is currently working on a new game called “QB”. In this post the developers talked about their VR-journey, described some of the technologies they have used and showed, how they managed to solve some of the biggest challenges during production.
Luca Deriu, founder of PlaySys and lead developer: PlaySys has been founded in Milan during late 2007 with the goal to develop and produce realtime applications and games. That time the team was formed by five people: me as founder, with strong interest and some experience in realtime development, and four collaborators with different skillset: from modeling to VFX mattepainting.
During the years many people joined the realtime cause, while many other left. This change in PlaySys skillset created a special mixture of ideas as well as cultures.
PlaySys moved from project to project, experimenting with publishing, 3D animations, advertising and commercials, voice-over for some product localizations, technical book writing, software and app development, thousands and thousands hours of CGI lectures…and even papercraft design!
Among these 9 years of activity one thing never changed: the passion for realtime research, education, storytelling and game development ambitions.
Today PlaySys counts on the value of eight talented contributors such as 2d and 3d artists, animators, programmers, PR, marketing and business development specialists…and there’s me, with my – people says – spooky-crazy ideas on what may be the next game or project the agency will work on.
VR is at the moment one of the natural technological consequences in our business approach. As I was doing some experiments and test with something like DirectX 5 or 6 at the end of the ’90, we at PlaySys, were testing anaglyphic stereo 3D methods back in 2008 to enhance the depth perception in bunches of pixels, rendered on flat monitor screens.
In my opinion, VR was actually inevitable for three main reasons: 1st is the customers and market demand, and as PlaySys, I want to be able to deliver the maximum of technology when this technology becomes reality; 2nd is the curiosity in a new series of expensively-affordable hi-tech devices; 3rd is a series of well done marketing strategies of the various actors on the market, making you really feel that you need to buy a device today.
Challenges and Solutions
There are many things that I love to do during my days and developing (or simply testing) with VR is one of them. Some years ago I was thinking to buy the nVidia 3D glasses and 120Hz monitors but something was telling me that I (or the device) was not ready yet. Still I had so strong sensations that something new was arriving and yes, VR appeared. To be sincere, I have some childhood memories of me and my family visiting some tech conferences, maybe in the end of the ’80, and I remember these long queues to try some fligh simulator with full head helmet, or something like that. I don’t remember if I was too young or the queue was too long, fact is that I had my first VR experience some years ago with the DK1 on Museo Nazionale della Scienza e Tecnologia di Milano…fun fact is that after that event Oculus released DK2 and the Museum asked me if I could let them use mine for an exibition related to VR and eros.
Back to VR, as one can expect there are different challenges, as it happens with technologies, expecially when they are new and there are no real-standard. If you give a look to the various devices on the market today, you may notice different approaches: some are rendering on a computer and transfering the image on the screen, some are rendering on a mobile phone, some are constructed with cardboard, some have external head traking sensor, other are mounting a sort of super gpu on the rear of the helmet, other are available for console and rumors says you have to buy a new hw upgrade for them, but what is more important, in my opinion, is that all of them are worth to be tested. This is a new era for experiencing realtime stuff and I feel like the beginning of the dot-matrix printers, what I only hope is that these devices are not going to be evil-as-printers and scanners are: devices that you never know if they are going to work next time you turn them on.
Main challenge in VR I think is the “now what?” part after connecting it to the computer. I don’t mean the technical challange, that arrives just later, what I mean is the concept challenge. Imagine this: you have surprising technology, possibility to render many pixels and give the illusion of depth of field via real stereoscopy and with all this you have to create something. But something what? Your mind starts having ideas on ideas, you start with the concept of a virtual tour, then you add details, more details, then the movement of objects, more animations, then the interactions, your only limit is imagination. Soon or later you’ll start feeling this power so strong and wide that your ideas are going to start being small, sometime insignificant that you desire to restart from the beginning, dismantle your design document (if any) and re-think all the experience.
I wrote books in the past and the feeling is more or less the same: you, the “paper” and the “pen”. The only difference is that “paper and pen” – let me say: laptop – is a well known technology, with centuries of proven functionalities, while in VR everything is virtual, in the real sense of the meaning: polygons, textures, shaders, lighting methods, bone scheletons, programming environments, audio files, certificates, stores, approvals, hero images, icons…there are so many unexpected technical challenges.
What I’m trying to say is that the first main trouble that one can encounter is related to the concept of what to do, while the second one is technically based.
The sum of these two aspects is the real challenge, especially because the idea may be improved during the development of your VR experience or game and vice versa.
Production of the Art
Saija Ketola and Sandra Järvinen, game designers and developers: We joined the development of qb game when the base elements were already there. All the graphics had been done and it was our job to make the game interesting and fun to play with those given elements. qb has a pretty minimalistic artstyle which suits the atmosphere of the game perfectly. The level design was a key part of making the game interesting and diversed without having complex 3D models and photorealistic textures. Each level is unique with their own challenges and we think it’s better to prioritize gameplay over graphics especially in a game for VR. Most of the level design is inspired by the upgrades possible to obtain in the game. We created new functionaltites by doing small modifications to the elements we already had in use. We didn’t change the way they looked but the way they behaved. In this way we could create levels with different themes and challenges.
Adapting the Gameplay for VR
VR is an exciting device to develop games for. It has limited controls and yet the gameplay should feel natural and immersive. We wanted qb to be easy to learn but hard to master. The whole project was an interesting challenge which included many hours of testing and optimizing so that the game would run smoothly on VR. Developing games for smartphones creates certain limitations but real creativity derives not from unlimited freedom, but from overcoming the obstacles.
Engine and Tools
Luca Deriu: I still remember the old days when I was experimenting with Blitz3D and Dark Basic Pro. No editor, small community reachable with a slow 56k modem connection, no tutorials. Just me, the IDE and the code. Personally I can’t explain to myself why today I’m still so attracted by this business. Not blaming mentioned softwares, they were cool, just the technology was underdeveloped in comparison to what we have today – and I wonder what Turing would have said about this sentence.
In 2008, we bought a license of Unigine, an amazing technology developed by Unigine Corp. in Tomsk, Russia, while in 2011, attracted by many positive reviews and mobile possibilities, we bought some licenses of Unity. My opinion about this software changes many times during the day: sometime I really love it, other time I feel so frustrated. Actually the average opinion is absolutely positive, I know that Unity is simplifying the development a lot, giving me some great possibilities and short-cuts, although from time to time, I have the feeling that something is missing in the toolset.
Fact about Unigine is that the enormous amount of power – can be compared to CryEngine or Unreal Engine – is difficult to manage for a small, independent studio like PlaySys. Nevertheless, what I like about my team is that everybody knows more or less what other people do and can contribute, at least with suggestions, in the development. This creates the real Engine behind our productions.
Technically speaking the toolset is pretty the same as of other studios: 3ds Max, Photoshop, Quixel, Unity, V-Ray or Maxwell Render and hundreds of plugins, scripts, utilities, macros, droplet actions, git and documents.
I’m quite proud of a couple of tools we developed for lighting, image partitioning, private account management and a system to perceive stereo images using static renders, that I introduced in 2013 and I better explained in 2014, during ViewConference in Tourin with the support of Chaos Group. This method was the result of my research on how 3D artists, generalists and architects could easily port their own creations in VR without having to learn about realtime technologies.
Elena Kartseva, user experience & spatial designer, business development director: One thing is quite obvious in the current trends – technology becomes more accessible and affordable, look at the free-to-use render engines or cardboard glasses, for example. This probably would lead us to its implementation not just in hi-tech or entertainment industries, but also in architecture, engineering, medicine and so on and so on. This, of course, creates a growing demand as well as growing possibilities for developers and probably new specializations on the market. We can say that sci-fi future that was predicted in the movies and books of our childhood is already here. Besides developing and experimenting with VR technology ourselves, we create the space for competent discussion and education on the subject with two other projects of ours: 3D Architettura, digital architecture magazine and international community of CG professionals and Render Academy, online learning platform, supporting new generations just starting their way into 3D, rendering and VR field of expertise.