What Asobo Studio has learned from designing games for HoloLens
The French developer Asobo Studio recently revealed two titles it's working on for Microsoft's HoloLens: the platformer Young Conker and the mystery title Fragment.
Asobo CCO David Dedeine says the opportunity to do trailblazing AR development with Microsoft arose due to the studio's string of successful work on games with Pixar licenses, culminating in a partnership with Microsoft for the game Kinect Rush: A Disney-Pixar Adventure. He adds that the designing for augmented reality is unlike anything else he's ever worked on.
"It's the first time in my life I have worked on a game where experience was sometimes a trap," he says. "With HoloLens, you have to be very careful because it’s not the same paradigm. You can make huge mistakes if you don't double check your gut reactions. If you’re smart and fresh, you might be as good as a super-experienced video game guy."
He describes some AR development challenges that teams working in VR also face. "You cannot decide where camera is pointed, because the user is the camera," he says. "It's just not possible to force the user to look somewhere. All of this freedom generates lots of interesting constraints."
But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
"Everything is different with HoloLens," says Dedeine. "You need to be able to adapt your game to each player's environment to create a good experience.The architecture of your assets needs to be revamped. The way your engine runs assets has to be revamped. Even the way you visualize the game while you work is different."
One key tip: Dedeine highly recommends that you use a stereoscopic monitor during development. "If you don’t have enough kits to make everyone work with OLEDS on, a 3D screen is the only way to recreate the stereosopic nature of this device," he says.
To fully make use of what HoloLens can do, you need to be able to map out the player's surroundings. "Since you need your application to work everywhere, you need to test a huge amount of room contexts. The best way to do this is a classic video game technique--create potential room configurations representative of 99% of real situation, and apply it in virtual world to test how the game behaves."
Another tip: you have to give players plenty of time to acclimate to this amazing new reality. "When you put this thing on your head and see a hologram for the first time in your life, you have a smile on your face," he says. "We can talk about tech specs, but when you see Young Conker running across your coffee table and everything in your brain tells you that he’s actually there, you're blown away."
"It's all about this 'oh my god' moment," says Dedeine. "You need to give players time to accept this new thing and get used to it before you start the experience."
One of Asobo's games is built around Rare's IP Conker. It stars a recognizable character engaging in some familiar platforming action and coin collection. But the character just happens to be racing around your living room, climbing the walls and clambering over your furnishings.
Dedeine stresses that the game's protagonist is not Conker per se, but young Conker, whose size and body type have been completely reimagined for HoloLens.
"Before the character existed, we made lots of prototypes, tried lots of different character shapes to understand what was the right size for this type of interaction," says Dedeine. "Is the character big enough in relation to the player? But if it's too large, it will take too much room, and not leave enough space to make the game happen."
Young Conker is so aware of his surroundings that he will switch to a vertigo/teetering animation when he reaches the edge of a coffee table, and he will bounce around on springy surfaces like couches.
"Fragment is a completely different approach to AR--an experience with actual human-sized characters," says Dedeine. It has a lot of inspirations, from investigative TV shows like NCIS to the HUDs and interfaces in Iron Man.
The premise in a nutshell: the player has been contacted by an agency that specializes in investigations based on memory exploration. The player will realize that he’s pretty good at it. In collaboration with this agency, the player will have to investigate and solve "a very special mystery."
Dedeine estimates that it will take players six or seven hours to unlock its secrets.
It's not enough for the developer to make sure that these human-size characters stand on the player's carpet naturally and sit in the player's chairs naturally. They have to behave like natural humans, too.
"It's very difficult when you try make something behave naturally, in the real world of the player," Dedeine says. "For example, everyone knows that there is this universal thing called personal space--come too close to someone, and it makes them uncomfortable. You don’t know why, but it's a real thing in the real world. It’s not technology, it’s psychology."