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From Triple-A Games to VR: The Artist’s Journey

Don Poole, Design Lead at Studio Roqovan, looks at VR/AR from the perspective of a game designer.

As an artist and designer with many years of experience in Triple-A game development, the move to VR is, in many ways, like traveling back in time. In the early days of game consoles, you had to find creative ways to deliver gaming experiences when there were no standards – or even audience expectations – for how things would work. Being in VR right now is very much like those early days; we’re still finding a universal language for VR, and everyone is making things up as they go.

I am currently working on World War Toons, a PlayStation VR game by Studio Roqovan that was recently released as an open beta. The founders of the company come from Infinity Ward, and wanted to leverage that experience to create a first-person shooter experience for the PlayStation VR platform. As a hands-on game designer, I’ve been involved in everything from character development to modeling to environment building, as well as interface, map, and mission design.

World War Toons Logo

The game environments, characters, and music have the look and feel of a Saturday morning cartoon, paired with the gameplay of a first-person shooter. You can pick a character class and weapon, and play in a variety of modes to achieve a set of goals per level. Playing this game is like walking around in a vintage cartoon world: it looks fantastic and the soft-shaded feel of this type of environment reduced the pressure of conforming to the bandwidth limitations of VR.

Optimizing Assets for Small Pipes

Prior to coming to Roqovan, I was at Naughty Dog working on game franchises like “Uncharted” where you’re dealing with very powerful console hardware, and are building environments with lots of detail and lush geometry. We simply can’t do that in VR. With VR, you have to go back to your roots and relearn how to squeeze as much visual fidelity as possible into the narrow bandwidth capabilities afforded by the current platforms.

This type of development requires artists to be very efficient when building assets. On World War Toons we employed tricks like wrapping verts, combining texture pages, and assigning shaders in ways that maximize a look while minimizing polygon count. Whether or not you have a background in games, it really behooves VR artists to have an underlying knowledge of what is going on with the game engine, and how to optimize your art, because ultimately you have to push 90 frames per second through a very small pipe. You can’t get away with being a sloppy modeler, and have to be very frugal with the data you’re creating.

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VR Tools of the Trade

The most important skill for a VR artist is to be a creative problem solver. That, along with a good strong eye for natural symmetry, dimension, scope, and scale are also essential. Since our current approach to VR production is so new, there are no set guidelines for bringing projects to life. While the workflow is most similar to video game development, the skillset for artists requires substantial CG and visual effects experience as well.

When you’re hired as an artist in video games, the art part is only half of what you’re doing. There is also an important art to the technology side of maximizing what you’re building. The same applies in VR. You need to have the ability to get incredible results regardless of the limitations of your hardware platform.

We authored World War Toons using the Unreal 4 game engine. It’s fairly straightforward and the folks at Epic have adopted a very clean integration pipeline. It only takes moments for me to take assets from Maya and export them as FBX models into Unreal to view in a VR headset. We used to have so many dependencies to get assets into a game, but with the maturity of the Unreal engine and Maya pipeline, it’s almost seamless. While VR artists need to know the ins and outs of Autodesk tools like Maya or 3ds Max, they also need to understand the fundamentals of composition and design, and old-school principles of art.

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Scale and Interactivity in VR

When you develop console games, you’re approximating a world that will make sense to someone sitting on a couch, looking up at a flat screen. But if you take those same cameras and scale applied to VR, it will feel very different. For VR, you pretty much have to retain one-to-one dimensions for what exists in the real world, because your audience isn’t sitting back and watching – they’re in it. Reality is the best guide for CG spaces in VR. We also have to design for the fact that there’s no guarantee a player will follow a set path, and everything in a scene has to be ‘camera ready’ because you have no control over where the viewer is going to be looking.

Once you get over the conceptual hurdle that your player is inside the experience you’re building, you need to figure out how to engage them in gameplay. We have a pretty well established language for how to interact with players in traditional video game HUDs (heads-up displays). However, inserting a floating 2D screen doesn’t work in VR. The UI elements of VR are very tricky. It helps to have design elements be intuitive.

One of the visual cues we used in World War Toons happens when a character gets knocked out: they turn into an angel and float into the sky, informing the player where a battle is taking place so they can get there. Another cool gameplay element unique to VR is the ability to see, and physically dodge, incoming projectiles by moving your head around.

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Looking Ahead

We are just scratching the surface of VR and AR, and the potential of these exciting new platforms. Today everyone in VR game development is going through a process of intense trial and error. We’re all essentially guinea pigs figuring out what the best practices are. It’s a very exciting place to be, and whenever anyone says something doesn’t work, it just means that they haven’t figured it out yet.

The promise of VR is huge, and I’m hopeful that early adopters of PlayStation VR, along with World War Toons as one of its first titles, lead the way for whole new world of immersive entertainment.

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