Maureen Fan, Baobab Studios
Baobab discusses the difficulty of directing player attention, and why we need new terms for virtual reality experiences.
One of the biggest draws of virtual reality is its full 360-degree immersion, and the ability to drink in a scene from every angle.
As developers are discovering, the medium lends itself to more spectacular set-pieces or touching moments than could ever be contained within the four sides of a standard screen. Why watch a spaceship blow up in front of you, when you can experience it blowing up around you?
The trouble is if players can look in any direction they choose, they will. This in turn makes it difficult to direct their attention to set events you have programmed, be that the arrival of a new character or an important development in the scene.
It's something Baobab Studios, which specialises in short VR animations, has long since learned to deal with and while the firm isn't exactly a game developer (more on that later), there are still learnings from its two short features Invasion and Asteroids that can help studios get to grips with building unforgettable VR moments.
GamesIndustry.biz caught up with co-founder and CEO Maureen Fan at last month's View Conference in Italy to discuss how to keep players focused when the action calls for it.
"If something really exciting happens here, while we're talking now, we're going to turn and look at it because we think it's exciting enough," she offers by way of example. "If it's not exciting enough for us to look at it [in a VR experience], the director hasn't done a good enough job.
"So there's the initial [bit] going in where users want to look around and understand their surroundings, and as the story plays out you can choose to stare at the ceiling or watch as the birds fly by - but then you miss out on that story. The best way to describe it is like real life: it's not going to wait for you, life doesn't wait for you. If you miss something, too bad."
"Users want to look around and understand their surroundings, and as the story plays out you can choose to stare at the ceiling or watch as the birds fly by. If you miss something, too bad"
This is part of the reason why Baobab makes its users a character within the scene, rather than just a floating camera through which they can observe goings on. In Invasion, they soon discover that they are a white rabbit - same as the main character seen in the animation - while in Asteroids, they are a robot assistant that's actually called on to interact with certain events.
The best example of the latter is the climax of Asteroids where one of the two comical aliens, known as Mac and Cheese, is seconds away from death. Users are able to activate the machine that will revive the patient - or if they choose inaction, the other will rip off their robot arm and use it to save their colleague anyway.
Making users a bunny in Invasion ensured empathy for their long-eared friend. When the other bunny cowers behind them, users feel a sense of protection
Fan reports that most users opt to save the fallen alien because they have become invested in that character after just a few minutes in their company. The same is true in Invasion.
"Is [Asteroids] an interactive movie? That's a term I use sometimes because when you're marketing you need to explain what something is. We don't even have the terms yet"
"People in general want to succeed, they want to do the right thing," she says. "In Invasion, when people look down and see they are a bunny... they feel responsible for the other bunny. When the aliens have their lasers pointed at you, and the bunny's behind you, people are like 'Oh my gosh, I have to protect her because she's hiding behind me. I'm her bunny shield and I'm the only thing that can protect her'. So they feel this love and care for her because they are part of the experience."
With Asteroids, Baobab also learned a lot about environmental storytelling - largely out of necessity.
"In a game you can make it so players can only walk in a certain area, or in a movie you can frame things with a specific shot, so you don't have to design and model areas [the audience won't see]," Fan explains. "In VR, in order for us to let them feel like they're truly there and can walk wherever, we have to design every little detail."
As a result, the team modelled the entirety of the main chamber on Mac and Cheese's spaceship, including portholes that let players see into their bedrooms. Mac's room is extremely clean, revealing that he is "slightly OCD", while Cheese has adorned his room with unicorns and rainbows. In this way, Baobab is able to express the characters' personalities in a way that film directors or game developers might not think to - or even need to - include.
Baobab modelled the as much of Mac and Cheese's spaceship as they could to give users a complete environment to explore, even using it to reveal the aliens' personalities
Baobab's products are often referred to as VR animations, but the interactivity in Asteroids lends itself towards being classed as a game (albeit one without a score or other staples that many use to define the term), or perhaps a VR experience. And yet the firm wouldn't consider itself a game developer.
As virtual reality matures, classifying products built for it is becoming increasingly difficult and it's a problem Fan doesn't think we'll solve any time soon.
"You can't think of it in terms of previous mediums because it's so completely different," she says. "[Virtual reality] has the empathy of film, the agency of games, and the motivations of real-life. You can say that any interaction makes it a game - but now Netflix is testing out interactive stories.
"The definitions all get blurred, so it's easier to call it something different like a VR experience, rather than using old terms. We're going to need to come up with new terms to categorise things within VR. I don't think we need to use film or game, we need to come up with new names. Is [Asteroids] an interactive movie? That's a term I use sometimes because when you're marketing you need to explain what something is. We don't even have the terms yet.
"But then film didn't in the early days. It didn't have terms like cuts, pans or zooms, they took decades to figure out that stuff. We're still in the experimental phase."