When Playful announced
a partnership with Oculus VR to make the third-person platformer Lucky's Tale
exclusively for the Rift, I thought they were nuts.
First-person games make up the lion's share of VR showpieces for a reason: adapting to virtual reality seems easiest when you’re inhabiting a vaguely human-shaped avatar that moves the way you would in real life.
Hell, Oculus’s best practices guide
for developing VR games includes a direct recommendation to give the user a body because, as you might expect, “looking down and having no body is disconcerting.”
But Playful founder Paul Bettner believes his team has figured out how to make it work.
“I was like, ‘you guys gotta trust me,’” says Bettner, recalling the hard sell he made when presenting a (very rough) prototype of Lucky’s Tale
to Palmer Luckey and his team. “I think this is the first [VR] game where I’m going to be able to move a player smoothly through the environment and not make them sick, the way an FPS would.”
After playing a build of Lucky’s Tale
during E3 this week, I’m inclined to agree. The third-person perspective is remarkably comfortable; it feels as though you’re sticking your head into an elaborate diorama and guiding a tiny creature through the world. I found the gentle movement of the camera as it automatically follows the protagonist to be a bit off-putting, but it works well enough, and the the fact that it works at all flies in the face of contemporary VR game design principles.
Stumbling upon the sweet spots of VR design
And yet Playful seems poised to pull it off, apparently by accident. Bettner claims that many of the most important design decisions made during development of Lucky’s Tale
were based on what he calls "happy accidents" that happened while engineers were fiddling with the game’s parameters to try and figure out how to make a third-person perspective work in VR.
"We literally took your eyes and moved them so they’re like, eight feet apart. You basically turn into Godzilla."
For example, Playful initially built the game to human scale — the cartoonish protagonist was roughly one and a half meters tall, and everything else in the world was built to match. But when Bettner put the Rift on and started playing, everything felt wrong.
“The character was huge, he was creepy-looking,” says Bettner. “His head was giant and he had to stand like ten feet away from you for you to even be able to see what he was trying to do,” which made the whole experience feel remote and uncomfortable.
Bettner figured that most people, consciously or not, imagine Mario to be about the size of a toy, and so the team started experimenting with scaling down the world by scaling up
“We literally took your eyes and moved them so they’re like, eight feet apart,” says Bettner. “You basically turn into Godzilla, and the effect that has is the whole level shrinks and everything you’re playing with ends up in that sweet spot.”
He’s referring to what Playful calls the “VR sweet spot,” the space that’s between one to eight feet from your eyes. The studio has found that people playing VR games are often most satisfied when they’re interacting with objects in that zone, presumably because it’s an area that’s comfortable to focus on for prolonged periods of time. So when Playful changed the scale of Lucky’s Tale
so that Lucky appeared to be about ten inches tall and just about everything he needed to do — from smashing monsters to jumping on blocks — would take place in that sweet spot, it instantly became far more enjoyable to play.
“It instantly felt so much better,” says Bettner. “Like, this is what it should feel like if you told me I could go inside a platforming game.”
More importantly, at least for those who suffer from motion sickness, was the unexpected side effect that scaling up the size of the camera had on player comfort. As Lucky
grew smaller in relation to the player he had to travel farther before the camera would automatically move to keep pace, which meant that Playful’s troublesome third-person camera suddenly began to move at a much smoother and more sedate rate.
"[VR camera] design is so hard, because it's so subjective," says Bettner. "We've literally gone through a hundred different versions of the camera, and it's still not one hundred percent comfortable. But it's fundamentally more comfortable than just about any other VR experience we've seen before."
Bettner claims part of that comfort stems from Lucky's habit of looking directly at the player and following them as they move their head around the level. It's another accident-cum-feature --
"This is what it should feel like if you told me I could go inside a platforming game."
one of the Playful programmers started experimenting with making Lucky's head follow the movements of the Rift ("I think he was trying to make it so that if you leaned to the side, Lucky would also lean to the side," says Bettner) and accidentally made it so that when the player looked at Lucky, he looked directly back at the player and kept moving his head (within reason) to maintain eye contact.
When I write that out it comes off as creepy, but in my experience it's actually a very natural-feeling effect, one that makes Lucky seem a bit more like a real creature and affords your eyes something to stay focused on as you swivel your head to look at the surrounding level.
"The moment I saw that, I immediately had this gut-level emotional response like…I'm not him, you know?" says Bettner.
He's referring to his experience watching people play games like Mario
, where -- over time -- players start to identify with Mario and the gap between player and protagonist disappears. Most of us, for example, don't say "I can't believe Mario made that,"; we say "I can't believe I made that!"
But not here, not so much. In trying to develop a third-person platformer that's viable in VR, Bettner thinks Playful may have created something that can't be neatly described with contemporary game design language.
"It actually feels like more of a cooperative game, but between you and this toy you're playing with," says Bettner. I counter that it feels more akin to a second-person game; your control over the actions of another creature feels more akin to barking orders than exercising omnipotence, because that creature has a semblance of personality and you're inhabiting the world alongside him.
Or perhaps I'm just overthinking it. Bettner, for his part, just seems excited to be figuring it out as he goes along.
“I’ve never had this much fun,” he says, when I ask about how VR game development compares to the years he spent working at Zynga, Newtoy and Ensemble Studios. “People like John Carmack, who were there at the birth of 3D games, I think they got to go through something like this — where all these rules for making games were literally thrown out the window. I feel like we’re back on that frontier again.”