Luna, due out next spring, is a fable about recovering from mistakes by Funomena. A baby bird gets tricked into eating the last of the waning moon by an owl and is immediately swept away by a storm. When the bird, named Luna, awakes, it's forgotten everything and must populate the terrarium around it with life to regain its memories and find its way home.
The game is currently in development for PC and PC-enabled VR, and Funomena's Robin Hunicke shares her thoughts with us about creating a touchable world with juicy feedback that can serve as an ambassador for the the magic of VR.
"I've been drawing the Luna bird in my notebook for years," says Hunicke. "Initially, when I designed it, it was a side-scrolling musical platformer. Now it's a musical, 3D sculpture-toy creativity game. It was transformed by the technology."
Originally, Funomena was developing Luna for Intel's gesture-enabled RealSense cameras, but the introduction of special controllers for VR struck the team as an opportunity to create a touchable world.
"The overarching feeling on the team was that being able to look down into the terrarium and rotate it and feel the space the same way that you do when you're building it in, like, Maya, was just such a beautiful way to share the experience with people," says Hunicke. "Always looking at different spots to be able to see the whole thing, just like a little toy world."
In the interest of creating their touchable world, the Luna team prototypes environments with physical objects. Most of the game takes place in a bowl-shaped terrarium, so they bought a big serving bowl and built a little landscape of sculpted hydrophobic sand, Playmobil toys, and an assortment of odds and ends made from materials like pipe cleaners.
"We use them to sort of play the space, and actually we've found that that's been a very instrumental part of the development cycle," Hunicke explains. They build an environment physically first before making a rough version in the engine, testing it, and iterating again on the physical prototype. "It's very fluid compared to working on a more standard process."
Sometimes, the developers also use the physical props in discussions of how the individual pieces of the game should act. A pipe cleaner representation of a flower is useful for testing the arrangement of objects in the terrarium space, but flicking it and watching it jiggle can also give the team an idea of how that flower might react to player interaction while they play.
"The whole idea with games like Journey or Flow or Flower, for example, that we always talked about at GDC was this idea of juicy feedback," says Hunicke. "Martin Middleton and I really believe that that's core to the experience of a really well designed game that has less to do with, like, rules and achievement and more to do with experience and the sense of accomplishment through exploration. So with VR, it's like ten times as important."
"The best example that we have in the game right now is rocks," she continues. "We made a pile of rocks; you could throw the rocks around and they would sail through the sun and there'd be no sound effect. Or they'd land in the water and there were no ripples or splashes. Right now, you can balance them on a lily pad and the lily pad doesn't sink. You have to start to physically simulate all the interactions between the rocks and every other object in the environment."
Hunicke compares the problem of having throwable rocks in VR to that of adding something like rope or a deck of cards to an adventure game. In reality, these objects are very versatile, capable of enabling many solutions to problems. A game designer, however, only has the resources to implement a limited number of possible uses. "People's imaginations will just run wild, and then they'll only feel the edges of the game," she points out.
One big issue the Luna team is facing is making the player's in-game hands feel as real as possible. The player's hands can go through everything, but none of the objects react to that happening. There is no audio or sound to go with it. The player's hands in the game look kind of like flowers opening and closing, but there's no feedback for when the player's hand completely closes.
"I want to put in a little sound," says Hunicke. "Just a tick to let you know know that it's fully closed. It's like when you're a baby: once you learn to snap, you'll do it. Once you learn to clap, you'll clap, because you're engaging with the idea that this pressure and the sound is you hitting you. It's VR; you're new; that's all new."
Another challenge they've faced is in wrestling with the sharp contrast between the power grip that controllers, both VR and traditional, are made for and the delicate grabbing motion Hunicke wants for Luna. "Both the Vive and the Touch controllers are built for a certain engagement," she says. "It's kind of like a strong posture. It engages your arm and your hand in a way that makes you feel a certain way and I really want them to be a grabbing, pinching motion."
Even with the feedback not being as juicy as Hunicke wants yet, PAX attendees who tried the game had no trouble understanding the controls. Funomena had about 500 people per day try the game that weekend, many of them women and children. Many of those players had never used VR before.
"We had a girl who said, 'It's the kind of game you want to play when you're having a bad day,' " Hunicke says with a laugh. "A lot of kids would get in the headset and immediately dive in and look all around and put their heads inside of everything, look underwater, and make all these excited remarks. We had one young boy, like a nine year old, who, as soon as the turtle appeared at the end of the demo, dropped the controllers and hugged it.
Hunicke was pleased with how the game resounded with women. "A lot of women would just take the headset off and say, 'I didn't think that VR was for me. It seems like it's an intense experience. I was a little afraid to give it a shot, but it was so relaxing and calming. This is exactly the kind of game I would play!'"
"I want it to be an expander title that someone can download and share with someone with very little experience and go, 'This is why VR is magical.' It isn't all shooting stuff or things flying at your face. It can be kind of a chill, creative, meditative experience," Hunicke continues. "That's what I wanted to build, and so to hear that, we were just thrilled."
The team had been nervous about showing the game at PAX, unsure if it would be as well received as they hoped. Players' reactions gave them a confidence boost, making them feel like they were on the right track in spite of their mistakes along the way. And that, says Hunicke, is really what Luna is about.
"A lot of games are about getting revenge or going back in time to fix mistakes, but that's not how it works in the real world," Hunicke says. "In the real world, when you make a mistake, you have to kinda learn to talk about it, share your story with other people, and then by listening to their stories realize that you're not alone.
"And that's pretty much what the game is about. It's about the idea that we grow every time we push forward, even if we don't always get the outcomes that we expected, and that that's how you learn," she continutes. "I really want this game to reinforce this idea that by acknowledging and sharing the things that you're not great at or that you didn't do right or that weren't so great that happened to you, you can make real, positive change. The more we talk about the challenges that we face, the more likely we are to heal those challenges and to move forward as a society."