Virtual reality is a relatively new frontier for game designers, offering both tremendous potential as well as a bevy of problems to overcome. Matt Rebong and Sam Warner, founders of Well Told Entertainment and members of the Intel® Software Innovators program, are tackling one such obstacle: the motion sickness many users feel when moving through VR games. Some developers have sidestepped this issue by teleporting users between locations; however, to Rebong and Warner, that solution shatters the immersiveness that is one of VR’s chief qualities.
Their new project Vapor Riders ‘99, a multiplayer racing game where users cruise through what looks like the early internet to a very chill vaporwave soundtrack, seeks to mitigate the effects of motion sickness while maintaining, even accentuating, the immersiveness. Motherboard spoke with Rebong and Warner about their game, nausea, nostalgia, and the potential for augmented and virtual reality to bring gamers together again on one couch, where they can lovingly yell at each other, like old times.
Can you tell me how you guys started working together?
Warner: We both studied at Chapman University, graduating class of 2015. Afterward, we got a job developing VR and AR content for a client. We had worked together in the past, but in order to complete this job on time, we put together a team. In the process, we decided we really liked working together, so we made a company out of it, Well Told Entertainment. We’ve been operating for a year now.
Rebong: So the company started with work-for-hire, and we're still doing some of that stuff. But we soon decided that we also want to make our own games in this space. Vapor Riders is a direct result of that. We're looking at the VR market, thinking: ‘What are the issues?’ ‘What is something we can tackle and solve?’
So your starting point with this game was to find a problem to solve? What did you settle on?
Rebong: Locomotion. In VR, especially at the time, people were only teleporting around, since motion sickness was such an issue. The problem is teleporting is fairly immersion-breaking. So we thought, how can we have a game that is fun and doesn't have that movement scheme? We were drawn to track-based movement, because it helps you place yourself, and you know where you're going. That was where we started off.
Warner: We wanted to be able to create games that had more expansion to them: a little more length and depth, so you don't have that immersion-breaking every time you want to change position. A big focus of Vapor Riders was joining the audio, the motion, and the gameplay, into a sense of moving forward uninterrupted. It's kind of racing. It's also kind of chill, flying and gliding and bouncing. There's a lot going on.
What was the most difficult part?
Rebong: Like most VR developers, we are struggling with the limited points of data when it comes to input. For a skiing game, we would ideally be tracking more than just the head and hands. So we have to get creative with our assumption about what the user is doing with the rest of their body. Also, every person has a different threshold for VR nausea, so tutorialization and difficulty assessment is also a steep hill to climb. Lastly, networking, and making a scalable, multiplayer experience in a medium where latency and framerate must remain at least at 60hz is quite a juggling act.
When it comes to the motion sickness, how did you work around that?
Rebong: There are things we can do like getting people's height when they play, so it feels more like they're playing the game from their perspective, not disassociated from their body. We’re constantly learning from user experiences, and taking into account what people are saying about the game. It evolves with every play-test.
Warner: We've taken Vapor Riders to two conventions. We went to VR LA, and then we shared a booth with a few other teams in the Intel® Software Innovators Program at the Intel® Developer Forum. At the first one, we got lots of awesome feedback from VR vets.
But when we get to IDF, these are like businessmen, tech people, people who haven't played a videogame in like five years, maybe ten. So we asked, "Have you played with VR before?" And they're like, "I've played a video game before, son. I know what I'm doing." And then they put the headset on, and I kid you not, we had more than six people fall over completely, just laughing and waving their arms and shouting. So we pick them up and take the headset off, and not a single one of them was like, "I'll never do that again. I hated this." They were saying, "That was incredible! Video games are so different, woahh!"
The coolest thing was this Japanese guy that was playing. He just started yelling in Japanese. I had to hold him up, because he kept wanting to fall over backwards. He finished the whole demo, and then he took off the headset, and bowed to me. Then he just left. That was amazing. Those are high points.
As for low points, we for sure do encounter people who just in general don't really like where VR is right now. To answer your question, we're doing a lot of things to try and mitigate nausea, like constant forward velocity, little to no acceleration or deceleration, and a track to guide you.
What was the most surprising thing about developing this game?
Rebong: Maybe the game itself. It was kind of a stab in the dark. It really started with us in an empty landscape just pulling ourselves around in different ways. What we realized was it's actually really fun to just do that. That was kind of the inception of the game.
Warner: That's a core part of what we try to do: Find the fun in an experience first, so it's like a toy to play with, and then build the game on top of that. We put jumps in there. We put in a track. Then it started feeling like a game. Then we put some of our vaporwave soundtracks on, and we just started cruising. This is it!
What's next for the company?
Rebong: At the moment we're balancing Vapor Riders with some of our client work. Because we're still a young design company, we still have to build revenues by doing that kind of development. Last Halloween, for example, we took a little step back from Vapor Riders because we went to a game jam at the Titmouse Studios; Titmouse is an animation company that does a lot of Adult Swim stuff, things like that. The game jam was horror-themed, so we created this little simulator called Escape Bloody Mary. It's a VR experience where you're a little kid, and your friends push you in the bathroom.
Oh, that kind of Bloody Mary. I was imagining brunch in VR. So this is when you conjure a ghoul by saying “Bloody Mary” three times in the mirror...
Rebong: Exactly. It's a virtual escape room experience. It’s available on Steam now. The game marks our first VR title on the market and we couldn't be more excited, especially with all the positive feedback we've been getting.
How big is your team?
Rebong: It's 8 people: half programmers, half artists.
What kind of equipment do your games require?
Warner: Right now we're building for the HTC Vive primarily. We’re looking at Rift and PS VR in the future, hopefully even expanding this racing experience into brick-and-mortar VR arcades.
Vapor Riders is a multi-headset, single-setup experience; what I mean by that is using multiple Vives in the same room-scale setup, so there's only two lighthouses but there could be as many as four or five users standing within them. We’re trying to capture that local multiplayer experience, where everyone’s sitting together in the same room, on the same couch, yelling at each other, but in VR. That's the fun of multiplayer.
I’m sensing some nostalgia here. Does that factor into your creative process?
Warner: Oh yeah, definitely. We're huge Nintendo fans. There's even crazy nostalgia for the early days of Halo, Starcraft…
The epic LAN parties…
Warner: Counterstrike for days, man. There's just something incredibly powerful about knowing you're in the same place as people, playing the same game. We've been talking a lot about VR today, but as a company, we have a huge focus on AR for exactly that reason. Augmented reality and mixed reality allow you to enjoy visual content while still having the presence of another human in the room. That’s important to us.
One of the first projects we worked on was AR for a client in the kid's book space, for instance. A lot of these experiences you can see being expanded into classroom-sized groups of people, who are all enjoying the same content at the same time. So what we’re interested in is how to take this good user experience—which allows them to connect to characters, and connect to each other—and bring it into the mobile market, where people can enjoy it right now.