“If You Find Something That Works For Your Project, Just Go For It” — Colin Dwan, Prologue Games.
Knee Deep is currently sitting at 93% positive on Steam Reviews, which should come as no surprise to anyone whose had a chance to play the title itself. With an incredibly bold and colorful art-style that perfectly matches its swamp-noir storyline, Knee Deep makes a great first impression that only gets better when played in VR.
However, the original run of the game, which was released in 3 episodic chunks between June 2015 and March 2016, was built for standard PC play rather than a VR headset.
I spoke with Colin Dwan, the founder of Prologue Games and Lead Director on Knee Deep to get a bit of insight into the development process and what it was like updating the game for Virtual Reality.
“Early on, I was on the skeptical side of whether it’d work in VR, but my writer kept hounding me to try it. When I did, I was just like, ‘oh it works’… because of course it does”. -Colin Dwan
Dwan’s early trepidation was understandable. The team first began considering VR during GDC 2015, over a year before the release of the Oculus Rift or HTC-Vive. VR Dev Kits were showing well but it was still unknown exactly how much support these devices would receive upon official release. On top of that, much of the discussion surrounding VR development at the time circled around potential pitfalls of the burgeoning technology.
“Everybody warned everybody,” said Dwan. “Never move the camera without the player’s permission… don’t put a lot of text on the screen.” These early mandates for VR were problematic for a title like Knee Deep, which utilized a number of camera tracking techniques to create a cinematic feel for users. On top of that the title’s primary gameplay mechanic is literally text based. Similar to titles like Telltale’s “The Walking Dead”, Knee Deep presents users with a variety of unique characters and situations, and tasks them with choosing how their characters should respond (see below).
Choosing your path via text options is how you actively progress the story and change the world around you in Knee Deep
Fortunately, Dwan says that he and his team at Prologue “found ways of making these things work for us.” He explains that “we wanted to be aware of (nausea) triggers because they might affect some people, but ultimately we wanted to feel free to test things because VR is still the wild west”.
Knee Deep’s entire story is told to the user via a theatrical stage production. To maximize this conceit, the team has built some incredible set.
Prologue Games took their recently completed title and began fiddling, working out the best ways to convert their product to Virtual Reality.
“All told it took about two months with 2 or 3 people working to convert it to VR” and it was definitely trickier than the team had originally anticipated. Before beginning the VR update proper, Dwan thought to himself “we’ve made games, we’ve made great technology- surely we can just get in there and figure it out. But, there is a lot of user experience stuff that you just don’t know until you try it. Some things may look good on paper, but until you put the headset on and try it 100 times you’re not really gonna realize if it’s good or not, especially as you acclimate to using your own product.”
Two of the issues that the team was most worried about — the ever moving camera and the ability for VR users to read text — went through a number of iterations before the team got them just right. The text itself required a complete retooling to become a fully function VR UI. The team manually placed and updated all text, giving it a unique 3D feel that separates it from the initial launch and shows that this VR port “wasn’t just slapped in place”. The manual placement of text was by far the most-time consuming part of the process, according to Dwan, but it wasn’t all that needed to be done.
New features like peripheral masking, slower transition times between characters and sets, and the decision to never change pitch or yaw without user input were crucial in developing a quality VR experience. Interestingly, Prologue Games ended up making some decisions for Knee Deep that likely wouldn’t work in other VR games.
For instance, Knee Deep VR allows for very controlled, calculated camera movements without player input. Specifically, the title utilizes X-Y translation (left and right movement) and just a little bit of Z translation (moving forwards) without player input. While this type of unsolicited movement could likely lead to the dreaded “VR sickness” in other titles, there are two factors that help it work for Knee Deep.
- 1. The slow pace of gameplay allows Prologue Games to quietly adjust the user camera in VR without negatively impacting the users. Other VR titles with faster styles of gameplay would likely not be able to do this without making the player ill.
- 2. Knee Deep’s use of a high-contrast art style means there are a lot of pitch black spaces on screen, which limits a user’s points of reference during movement, thus giving them less inputs that could confuse the brain and, again, lead to wobbly VR legs.
Knee Deeps use of high-contrast and shadow allows for more comfortable user translation in VR
In porting Knee Deep to VR, Prologue Games has successfully demonstrated that VR rules are meant to be broken. Every game has facets and features that combine differently with the VR medium. So, if you’re building a VR title or porting an existing game to a HMD, try not to overburden yourself with all the the external rules and mandates about what works and what doesn’t.
In the words of Colin Dwan, “If you find something that works for your project, just go for it,” he says laughingly. “That is the best part and also the scariest part of working in VR.”
The beautiful swamp-noir Knee Deep is out on standard PCs, Oculus Rift, and HTC-Vive. It is also coming to PS4 on January 31st and Xbox One on February 3rd.
Dwan will be speaking and demoing this title at the next RTPVR Meetup, scheduled for February 13th, 2017. For more info or to RSPVR, click here.