Student Feature: In The Shade of VR

Markus Frei from School of Fine Arts (HBK) talked about his most recent project, which mixes UE4, VR and unusual gameplay.

Markus Frei from School of Fine Arts (HBK) talked about his most recent project, which mixes UE4, VR and unusual gameplay.



My name is Markus Frei. I studied Media Art & Design at the School of Fine Arts (HBK) in the city of Saarbrücken, Germany. During my studies, I became deeply interested in 3D Design and my first encounter with the Oculus DK1 in the summer of 2013 was certainly love at first sight. Since then, I have been working with this exciting medium and it is a big pleasure for me to present In the Shade to you in this brief overview.



About the VR project

In the Shade is a virtual reality game I developed in a three month period as my Bachelor thesis together with Programmer Pascal Ziegler. Seeking for an original experience within the big variety of virtual reality game concepts, I believe to have found a fresh concept. The first time I encountered VR, I reached out with my hands, trying to interact and connect with these new worlds around me. I saw this movement happening over and over again each time I saw someone trying out VR for the first time. Therefore, my main goal is to find a concept that fulfills this need of touching the virtual world. In fact, I think that regular gamepads take away one of the layers of immersion which all together create the holy grail of presence.


Basic Gameplay

You find yourself in the endless universe in front of a strange planet. From here you can slip into two perspectives. A fragile Snail and a weakened God-like force are connected and depend on each other’s abilities. In the game, the player gathers God-power, which is only obtainable in the sunlight. The Godlike force and the Snail are both vulnerable to sunlight. Only the Snail has the ability to gather Godpower but since the sun causes damage to the little animal, the God has to pave the Snail’s path as safely as possible. The controles of the God are designed for motion controller usability and provide you with the power to manipulate the environment with your hands. The Snail has a rail locomotion system with a look-at feature to aim for the next move. As the Snail, you have to stay aware of your speed and movement, so move wisely.



Inspiration and Art Design

The basic gameplay and the inspiration for the design started to evolve as one day I was walking in the woods to photograph trees for photogrammetric assets. There was this moment when the sun shone through the trees, resulting in an atmosphere in which the volumetric light was almost touchable. During my studies I learned how important “accidents” are in the design process and that we lay those foundations for these accidents with every step we take forward and even backwards in our projects.





For this project, we used the Unreal Engine 4. Coming from Unity 3D, to me, as a designer, it feels like an improvement in freedom. One of the few challenges we faced were the round planet and its gravity system. Fortunately, we could use a community plug-in called “Custom Gravity Plug-in” from mhousse124 which saved us a lot of time. Same goes for the “Razer Hydra Plugin” from getnamo. At the time we started the project, the only available motion controler was the Razer Hydras but it worked quite well, providing us with a precise control. An additional problem was that the whole UE4 foliage system did not work for dynamic objects (at least in version 4.10) so everything had to be placed by hand. The lightning was to be completely dynamic, which lead to another challenge especially in the case of VR where each and every frame counts.



For example I used the Quixel Suite for painting the top layer and a lot of the rocks on the planetsurface. But of course the 4K texture for the whole surface is still too low res for viewing it in close up, a smarter system which provides much more detail especially in the perspective of the snail is in development. I began to use photogrammetry the first time in this project. It is a realy interesting way of creating assets and particularly for virtual reality.


This project is still in early pre alpha stadium; things like the scale of the planet, and the whole LOD system, for example, are in developing stages. Imagine a whole solar system with several different planets, each with its own remarkable climates, vegetations, landscapes and even living creatures. Or a deep layer of water beneath the ocean of the actual planet. The game will offer a wide variety of gameplay and interactions with these worlds. All these aspirations require a small team which will be hopefully formed with the help of the community or an interested publisher. I am very convinced of the concept and plan to raise a crowdfunding campaign. Should there be a producer or publisher interested in supporting this journey, feel free to reach out to me. Same goes for everyone else, feel free to contact me and join this project.

If you are interested you can also visit me on

Markus Frei, 3D artist





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