Appszoom for Developers

Build Your Own Afterlife: Oculus Rift Game Development and the Future of VR

Posted by on 07/14/2015

This time last year, John Torkington, Koriel Kruer, and James Steininger of White Lotus Interactive ran a successful Kickstarter to support the development of a first-person puzzle adventure game for the PC called XING: The Land Beyond.

The Kickstarter hit its reach goal of Oculus Rift support, so the trio’s spent a year now developing an environment-based world compatible with the latest in VR tech. I held an interview with them about what it’s like to put in days on end in a virtual world of their own design.

XING’s premise:

Your body may be gone, but your life has just begun. In death, you will find yourself on a journey across a series of mysterious lands. You will encounter perplexing puzzles, trapped souls, and the power to change the environment around you. Spiritualism, mysticism and logic come together in the land of XING, where you will traverse mountains, deserts, forests, volcanoes and more.

Obligatory: What’s your take on Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus?

Koriel: Well, we’re surprised by this turn of events, especially for what it might mean for developers — but we can see the benefits for VR tech that this new acquisition can make. Let’s just hope that Oculus doesn’t get too much of a big head and forget its loving indie devs.

John: We’ve enjoyed personal chats with Oculus employees in the past and certainly wouldn’t like to see that disappear with the new ownership. There are definitely a lot of negative responses to the acquisition within the current Oculus communities, but we hope that Oculus can use their newfound wealth towards the future of VR and the creation of fantastic products, while avoiding the negativity that surrounds Facebook in the tech community.

What demographic do you expect to have a Rift?

John: Right now, basically it’s enthusiasts and devs— anyone with an interest in VR prior to the Rift. There’s a huge lack of content for VR, because it’s really young. There’s a small and dedicated fan base for VR, but it’s not enough for any big company to step up and make a game. That’s going to be a big hurdle for the hardware guys.

One thing Oculus has mentioned is that they’re looking for a killer app to make it sell. Nobody really knows what this will be yet.

At the moment, Oculus seems to be focusing on the seated experience. For example, I’m sitting at a desk, and I can see something happening in front of me. They’re working right now with the Eve Online guys on Eve Valkyrie, where you’re seated in a cockpit and get you get to fly around. The focus is here because there’s the least probability of simulator sickness, because there’s not a discontinuity between your locomotion and what you’re perceiving in VR.

If you go onto the OR forums and look at consumers, it’s completely different. People underestimate the effects of simulator sickness; “We wanna explore immersive worlds.”

One game people are really excited about is Star Citizen. It’s a space fighting sim. People want to see the really grand scale, like a capital ship that stretches out in front of them for miles.

Koriel: When people think VR, they want to see scale.

James: Oculus as a company is very careful with the content they’re putting out there to demo. Palmer has this very robust vision of what VR could be, or should be.

Oculus wasn’t cold to us, but has kind of been careful about their relationship with devs in general, including us. That could be because of our smaller size, our lack of clout, whatever, but we understand they have to be very careful because they want VR to be awesome.

Koriel: Especially for their first launch, they want seated experiences. As things continue, there should be more games that have you just walking around. Devs who have been working for at least a year find they have their “VR legs” — this is probably how the public will be after the first couple games.

What’s been the most rewarding part of developing with OR? The most challenging?

John: On a technical level, it’s pretty simple. Oculus has given us a lot of tools and methods to implement basic head-tracking and more, especially paired with the Unreal Engine.

However, there’s a lot of hidden difficulties to working with VR. Yeah, there’s some rendering issues to be resolved, but the big bother is basically this little device itself [holds up Rift]. So you’ll be testing something, then gotta put this thing on, find your mouse and keyboard, run the tests, take this thing off, and set it down — try doing that for four hours, and your brain just starts melting from constant adjustments between VR, the computer screen, and reality.

Polished VR content is really beautiful…

…unpolished content is just frightening.

Something weird happens, and there’s a bug, and something clips into your head. Or the frame rate is off, and it makes you feel out-of-body. Sometimes after a couple hours devving with VR, I just feel kinda weird.

I’ve experienced motion sickness from boats before; you just feel bad for a little while, anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. It’s especially weird when you’re not actually moving. I mean, on a car or a boat, your brain knows why it feels bad — with VR, you get confused.

Koriel: As far as our development goes, we are making sure that the experience we create will be comfortable with the Rift. From movement speed to the lack of head-bob in Rift-mode, we are listening to all the issues that current VR games are facing and trying to make sure that XING will be a pleasant experience. Textures must be high-res, the HUD must be barely there or non-existent, and players must be allowed to take breaks.

James: The locomotion issue is key because you don’t want the vestibular system in your ears to freak out, so being in the cockpit of a fighter jet is a good scenario. When the fighter jet changes directions, the sudden shift in movement makes sense to your ears, because it’s the ship moving and not the player.

In first-person shooters, like Portal or TF2, I can actually turn my head to look all the way around, but when I use the handheld controller to do it, my body is confused.

John: This also happened with DOOM back in 1993— people got sick playing it, even though it was just on a screen. Our generation has been raised on 3D graphics, so we don’t have a problem anymore. Put someone older in front of Call of Duty and they’re going to feel sick.

How does the Rift contribute to the kind of experience you hope to give people with XING?

Koriel: We’re interested in letting people experience XING at their own pace. With VR, pacing is important, and XING embodies that. It’s probably gonna be a lot easier for people to handle [than FPSs].

What will the difference in experience be between Rift-XING and non-Rift-XING?

John: NONCULUS. Ehem. We’re on the cusp of VR tech actually being sound. Because we’re developing on brand new tech, it behooves us to make an experience that’s good even without it. Nine times out of ten, we play XING on a monitor, even though it’s designed with VR in mind.

James: That has to do with the logistics of how we develop too, though, since that’s naturally on a desktop. If Oculus or Sony nails hardware, if they make that experience as seamless as possible, the XING experience on the Rift will simply be more immersive. You’ll get that sense of depth and presence.

John: I guess the difference is like a movie being in 3D or not. Some people really like ‘em. I don’t, personally.

James: We had someone come over to the booth whose eyes were misaligned. When we gave him the opportunity to try our Rift; he declined, saying he “simply wouldn’t enjoy it” — but would buy our game anyway.

You guys were just at GDC. What were people most excited about/impressed by?

John: This is definitely the year of VR. There are so many companies doing things with VR; when we walked on the floor, you would constantly hear people mention Oculus in passing.

James: As far as XING goes, first they were intrigued by the booth, because it was a floral haven of awesomeness. Then by the game itself; people were impressed that the fact that it was done by a team of just three people — and that it was on the Rift.

John: For a lot of people, XING was their first VR experience, with what we thought was areally awesome demo. Not to pat our own backs, but we didn’t get any negative responses. I’d say that’s a pretty good metric to show that people are at least interested in VR.