What Cyan learned in taking FMV-rich Obduction from 2D into VR

Cyan Inc’s 2016 game Obduction is a funny fusion of old and new, a spiritual successor to the ‘90s hit Myst that populates a modern 3D adventure game with retro-future elements like fuzzy, live-action holograms.

During development, Cyan decided to take that fusion one step further and try to design the game so that it would also work well in VR. At VRDC Fall 2017 in San Francisco today, Cyan software engineer Hannah Gamiel gave an interesting talk about what the team learned in the process — and how other devs can make use of those learnings.

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According to Gamiel, in 2013 Cyan initially considered what the return on investment would be if they made Obduction as a pure VR game, and it didn’t look good; at that point, the market wasn’t big enough to justify a VR-only project. “So we decided it would be safer to make a 2D and a VR game,” said Gamiel. When the game was successfully Kickstarted, the team had to sit back and actually figure out: how are we going to become a game studio that can do VR?

Gamiel recalls that at that time (again, roughly four years ago) Cyan felt there weren’t enough resources out there about how to design great VR games, so the studio hired on what Gamiel calls a “VR champion” — someone with VR experience who could focus solely on building relationships with VR companies like HTC and Valve.

“I think this was really key,” said Gamiel, and she encouraged fellow devs to consider finding their own “VR champion” if they’re uncertain about taking the VR plunge.

Making an adventure game playable with everything from a gamepad to a remote to PlayStation Move

In the course of her talk there were a number of practical takeaways for VR devs, especially in terms of supporting a wide swathe of input options and performance levels. For example, one of the most complicated parts of moving from 2D to VR development, said Gamiel, was having to change the team’s approach to input support.

There are lots of different ways to interact with things in the environments of Obduction (running, picking things up, etc) and so the team had to make sure all of those interactions were possible on the simplest (supported) VR setup: the Oculus Rift and its accompanying remote. To make it work, the team focused on simplifying things in an intuitive way; so instead of using the keyboard to move and run, for example, in VR players can click and move through the environments of Obduction in a very Myst-like way.

“Hearkening back to our Myst days, you can kind of see a pre-authored node in the world,” said Gamiel, showing some animated images of Obduction in action. “You can use the Oculus Remote to point and click to that new area.” Another interesting problem was how to integrate hand tracking in a game that, on PC, had no support or expectation of any kind of in-game hand tracking.

To solve it, “we actually made both of your hands virtual cursors,” said Gamiel. “When you reach out and touch something, then drag your hand, it actually reads that as click and drag input.” Later in the talk, she emphasized that this very simple fix probably saved the team months of work designing and iterating more complex solutions.

The team didn’t get ahold of PSVR hardware until late in development, but when they did they decided to sort out how to get the game working with either motion controls or motion-tracked gamepad input.

“For our PSVR update, which is coming soon, we had to support two very interesting kinds of input: Move controllers (tracked input without any directional input) and, on top of that, the DualShock 4 controller can be tracked…so we can have a single hand in the game.”

It was at that point that the team made a significant realization: nobody had thought to design the game so that a one-handed person could play it in VR. I’ll admit, we just never designed our object system to work with a single hand” said Gamiel “And that was a huge mistake: what if someone is playnig with just one hand? We didn’t plan for that.”

The problems you run into when you try to make full-motion video work in VR

Cyan is known for seasoning its games with full-motion video, and that was a big problem when it came time to figure out how to make FMV work in VR.

“In VR you can stick your head around the camera, and kind of see the edges of the video,” said Gamiel. “Obviously that’s a no-no, so…we filmed all these videos in stereoscopic filming. So that way, with some shader tricks in our code, we can actually make the video pop out as if it’s an actual 3D body.”

In 2D, of course, the FMV doesn’t really have the same effect. Gamiel says it made a world of difference to the VR version, but there were also a lot of graphical headaches when it came time to get the base game up and running on various headsets. “Our biggest issue from 2D to VR was performance,” said Gamiel. “We had a rude awakening when it came to developing for VR after the fact.”

For example, in some areas, Cyan had built humongous vistas into the game — and those areas really chugged on certain VR headsets. To address this, Cyan spent a lot of time going back through the game to remove assets or built in objects that would block a player’s view, like big rocky outcropping to break up some of the more performance-killing vistas.

The same goes for a lot of the 2D camera tricks Cyan designed into the game — it can be neat when the player opens an elevator door and the camera smoothly slides in, but that slide can be nauseating in VR.

“We don’t want to move the camera in VR,’ said Gamiel. “So a ton of those cool animations we built for 2D just weren’t compatible with VR, and unfortunately we had to remove them.” However, the team decided that it would be wrong to just disable all visual or gameplay effects that might make people sick, since it would limit the options players had to play the game.

Give players the freedom to make themselves sick if they really want to

“So we decided that it’s best to just set defaults that probably won’t make people sick,” said Gamiel. “But also give them the authority to make themselves sick if they want to.” In closing, Gamiel reflected on the project and suggested Cyan would continue doing such 2D/VR projects in the future. However, “none of us are excited to make the same mistakes again.”

“Cyan is only going to be making 2D and VR games,” she said, acknowledging that VR was exciting but the 2D game market is highly valuable. “If we’d made this game VR-only, we probably wouldn’t be in business anymore.” Gamiel suggests it might be a good idea for VR-curious devs to do the same — if (and she acknowledged this is a big if) they have the resources to make VR and non-VR versions of their games simultaneously

This article originally appeared on Gamasutra. Make sure to follow Gamasutra’s coverage of VRDC 2017 here!