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This is the second and final post covering our key takeaways from Unite 2015. Click here to view the first post.

Greg Rogers, Design and Narrative Lead; Perspective
Virtual Reality
VR is a major buzzword in the game industry right now. Headsets, including the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Google Cardboard, and Playstation VR (among others), are ramping up to flood the market and usher in a new age of immersion in games. There were several talks (almost too many) at Unite 2015 focused on virtual reality and how this new subset of the gaming medium presents challenges that have not yet been encountered by designers. The most attractive feature about VR headsets is, obviously, that they completely immerse players in the game world; no longer are games on a flat screen, but instead players are made to feel as though they have been inserted into the game space.

Out of the many talks one of the most prevalent themes was that as a game designer, one must understand (and in some cases relearn) techniques and tropes that many gamers take for granted. Being totally immersed in a 3-D experience plays tricks on the mind. A poorly designed experience can cause bouts of motion sickness due to the conflicted messages received by the brain between the eyes’ visuals and the body’s physical experience. One phrase that stood out to me was that moving VR game design forward will require “Design leadership, not Design management.” What this means is that designers cannot simply recycle old experiences into headsets; instead they must come to terms with a new set of design techniques that specifically take advantage of the VR sub-medium. Most of these techniques revolved around creating a “natural” environment for players. This includes many techniques. If a User Interface or Heads-Up Display must be present, embedding it into the game’s space (sometimes using this to naturally frame the center of the “screen”) helps players to accept immersion and can give them a frame of reference. Providing control schemes that allow players to make natural motions with their arms and hands helps avoid a disconnect of signals between what the body is feeling and what it is seeing.

And often it is better to prefer subtleness to bombastic display, both in the level space players explore and the visceral nature of violence. Many games and demos that I saw featured the player either being stationary or being moved along a predetermined path; the focus of interactivity was not necessarily on where the player goes, but what he or she chooses to interactive with in the game space. It was also mentioned that events appear and feel more real in VR; for example seeing a dead body in virtual reality is much more likely to trigger psychological phobia than seeing it on a screen (however this same principle can be applied to the opposite side of the spectrum with therapeutic and stress-reducing effects).

I was able to play a demo on the Playstation VR that really impressed upon me how this new type of interactivity could drive new types of immersion. In the demo, I assumed the role of a passenger in a car locked in a high-speed, shootout pursuit. Motorcycles and ominous black SUVs surrounded my vehicle and fired bullets that felt and sounded like they were whizzing right past my head. Amidst the chaos, the car’s driver tossed an uzi onto the dashboard in front of me and told me to fight back. Using Playstation Move controllers for input, I was able to manipulate each of my hands independently, truly making me feel like I existed in this blockbuster-esque fantasy. I reached forward and grabbed the gun by pulling a trigger on the back of my right-hand “control wand” and began to fire back. Soon, however, I was out of ammo and as I continued to pull the trigger, nothing happened; the game didn’t hold my hand and automatically reload for me. I looked around the car desperately and found a bag of ammo clips sitting between myself and the driver. I reached to the side with my other hand, picked up a clip and then brought my two hands together to reload and continue fighting. It was an extremely natural motion, an experience I’ve never quite had in all my years of gaming.

Chloe Costello, Art Director; Perspective 
Virtual Reality
Unite 2015 brimmed with presentations and buzz about virtual reality games. I love the prospects of VR, and I ended up being pleasantly surprised by the new content developers presented. I especially enjoyed a wonderful talk covering Owlchemy Labs’s new virtual reality game Job Simulator. The game takes place in a world where robots have replaced all jobs. Humans realize that they miss the experience of working, so Job Simulator is a way to address their nostalgia. Or, perhaps, give them a fantasy world in which they can throw hot dogs and shoot staples across the room.

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However, I did not get to demo Job Simulator, so I still wonder if my struggle with motion sickness would be an issue while playing. Similar to many other players, I emerge nauseated from most VR experiences, especially the ones where I have to move around with a joystick or pad. Therefore, it’s extremely important that VR designers figure out how to solve this disconnect between visual and bodily perception of movement and create nausea-free “presence” or immersion for their audiences. Keeping a 1:1 relationship between actions in physical and virtual space helps this a lot.

Owlchemy Labs had a few suggestions for achieving this. Using Job Simulator as an example, they recommended that designers keep experiences pretty restricted with respect to movement within space, because most Oculus Rift setups require the player be relatively stationary, and the cord behind the head restricts full rotation. You can see this in the design of Job Simulator, where players stand behind a counter and can’t fully turn around. While this sounds restrictive, it makes for a more immersive VR experience, since it’s safe to move your body within the space.

Art-wise, it also seems worth noting that the art for Job Simulator is very stylized. Since the visuals are designed to be less intense for the virtual reality hardware, the game will be able to run with no lag or jitter, reducing the chance of motion sickness. Furthermore, the art stays in the realm of the symbolic or schematic, still believable for the human mind, but not sickeningly close to real, which could be nausea-inducing for some folks. Staying out of the uncanny valley proves to be an even bigger problem for virtual reality designers.

So, while it’s sad that I did not get to demo Job Simulator at Unite, I thoroughly enjoyed another demo that was in the exhibition hall: the VirZOOM controller, a stationary bike that you can ride to move you through virtual space. The booth’s setup allowed you to put on an Oculus Rift headset and ride a horse or drive a car in VR. While I wasn’t much of a fan of the car, I really enjoyed the horse demo. It felt wonderful moving my legs and riding the horse. They had a fan running that felt like air movement, and this helped even more. When I emerged from this experience, I had no motion sickness or dizziness. I had gotten some good exercise, too. Overall, I think the VirZOOM has a lot of potential as a controller. My experience with it marks the first time I’ve been in VR and I haven’t gotten sick.

Unity’s 2D tools
At the conference, Unity announced that in a future update they will be including a new suite of 2D tools. I do not work in 2D as much as 3D, so I’m more excited for these tools because of their applications to the 3D workflow. Near the end of Unity’s talk on these tools, the presenter Andy Touch starts discussing the power of the new tile maps and brushes!

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These maps can be rotated to fit any plane or axis, and they can contain both 2D and 3D objects. He uses them to paint 3D trees onto a plane and to snap roads to a grid. This new brush and tile map capability within Unity has so much potential for speeding up a 3D modular workflow! Take a look; it’s really cool. I look forward to knowing how robust these tools will be and if they will be useful for modular maps that work in three dimensions.

Keenan Cole, Technical Director; Perspective
The official Oculus Rift arrives for consumers first quarter of next year and everyone — and I mean EVERYONE — is revving up for what analysts are expecting to become a 15 billion dollar industry by 2018. Unity especially wants everyone to be prepared for this event and this was reflected at Unite as every other session seemed to be about VR. Was this too much? Probably. Did it take away from the furor? Not in the least.

Owlchemy Labs, makers of Snuggle Truck, Jack Lumber and Dyscourse, are throwing their hats into the VR ring with their game Job Simulator. Owlchemy immediately sets themselves apart from the crowd by going all in with VR by using roomspace. They purposely have their game interact with the floor and be entirely hand driven. Currently, with most VR headsets, you only have a small window where the body is trackable (if at all), but this limits the full capacity of what virtual reality can do. Owlchemy Labs wants to expedite this process. In their research and experiments, they provide some tips for VR development:

1. Virtual Hands must have a 1:1 tracking relationship with real hands; players must know at all times where there hands are in virtual space.

2. Realism is going to be SUPER HARD in VR, since the human mind is very critical of anything being slightly off. This is why Owlchemy, like many other studios, makes use of a cartoon style — the human mind is surprisingly forgiving in such an environment.Screen Shot 2015-12-03 at 10.48.21 PM 3. For full room tracking, you will need to have at least 2 positional trackers. Oculus only comes with one, but you can supposedly connect a 2nd one. Just be sure to place them in such a way that one hand doesn’t occlude the other. The HTC Vibe will be using laser trackers that purposely take an entire room into account in terms of trackable space.

4. Playtest like you have never playtested before. Since VR in still in the wild west phase, you cannot assume or be dogmatic about what you think will work or doesn’t work. Try Everything! Get your ego out of the way. Case in point, Owlchemy discovered almost by accident that they could have the virtual hands disappear when they grab an item so long as the item itself tracked the hand positions. This means Owlchemy does not have to create a variety of hand grabbing animation allowing them to prioritize their time in other areas.

To bring the point home even further for how important hand tracking will be, I got to test out the Playstation VR (formerly Morpheus) in a car chase scene. It was a great visceral experience being able to use your hands in virtual space. But it’s only the beginning. We can certainly be looking forward to some excellent unique experiences as VR technology grows and matures.

Looking forward to future UNITEs, our hope is to see more in-depth content that illustrates Unity’s features through concrete examples from published games.  It’s fine if some of this is quite technical, but it should not primarily recycle what’s in the Unity User’s Guide.  There is an array of great resources on basics through Unity’s site alone (http://unity3d.com/learn), so UNITE sessions should be used to spotlight underutilized resources or especially helpful (but not obvious) workflows, and show inventive work by indie developers.  We’d also like to see a wider variety of topics covered–VR and AR are significant, but too much focus on these, with some overlapping content between sessions, narrowed the scope of the conference a bit.  Paradoxically, we feel that Unity could benefit now by dedicating sessions to great level design, narrative, music, and art direction first, and allowing the supporting role played by Unity in making it happen to peer around the edges, rather than command center stage.  Might it also be time…god help us…for a UNITE in Austin?  Or…Chicago?