Alone in a Sandbox
Updated 6 months ago
What to do in a deserted space station?
How many times in recent years have you played a nice adventure game and saw something interesting you wanted to pick up and examine closer? You try to collect it, but it is glued to the table. Or you try to examine a poster on a wall, just to find out that the texture quality is so bad or the camera is so far away, you actually can’t read the texts. There are games which allow you to interact with almost everything (like Skyrim), but it is not very common in modern adventure games. Most of the times you can interact only with the items related to the story or progression. Other items are there just for aesthetic and mood setting reasons.
As some of you have already heard, our company, Mindfield Games, is working on an exploration adventure game P·O·L·L·E·N. It is a first-person sci-fi story, which is developed as “virtual reality first”. The game is fully playable on a normal PC and screen, but the experience is designed for maximum immersion when played with Oculus Rift or other VR devices.
At Mindfield Games we think that when you are playing a VR game, you really should be able to interact with the environment as much as possible. When your vision and hearing are fully immersed in the virtual reality, it feels rather artificial if you cannot pick up the coffee mug on the table, or the buttons on a control console don’t respond to your actions. Thus, we have almost thousand items in the game you can pick up, examine closer and throw away. This makes the research station M on the moon Titan a huge sandbox.
My accuracy is a bit off. Need more practice.

For Playful Players

This emergent playfulness, made possible by Unity’s physics engine, enables high level of player creativity. While observing people playing P·O·L·L·E·N in a test session, we found it very common for people to like to throw items around. And not just throwing basketball or darts, but also books, photos, food cans and everything else found in the station. But after a while of goofing around with the items, some players started to experiment with creating something new instead of just making a mess.
As we have seen with other games, after simply testing how objects can be interacted with in their new environment, players tend to start experimenting with the emergent possibilities provided by the game world. It starts with small things, like attaching a photo of a guy in the middle of a dart board, or throwing baskets with flashlights and cameras. Causing mayhem and disorder is fun, but later on some players take the playfulness a step further.
When alone in a space station, it is somewhat easy to get distracted by the large amount of tools and items and all the possible interaction they have to offer. How about building a row of dominoes from the books in a library? Or maybe making a pyramid from tomato soup cans, and then crushing it with a basketball? Spending a lot of time in the game lets your imagination fly.
Row of book-dominoes with atmospheric lighting and photo projection

Extra thrills

Usually explorative adventure games don’t allow the player to fool around with physics. Moving is restricted to certain areas and it is very common to block unwanted behavior by adding invisible walls and colliders which protect player from falling to imminent death. We wanted to give back the player’s responsibility of herself. Thus, players can fall down from ledges and get ripped apart by certain tools.
This brings a certain level of excitement and danger for players who want to spice up their gameplay by walking on handrails or trying out the limits of the game (and own stomach) by jumping down from higher floors. A high level of freedom means high levels of responsibility so when fooling around and taking risks players will need to be ready to handle the consequences. Remember: when you die, you have most probably been warned by the game or your own common sense (something especially apparent in VR where your presence necessitates an air of caution).
This sandbox-like freedom and physics-based playfulness also brings with it challenges in designing story progression and gameplay. For example:  at one point there are some huge cargo crates blocking the player’s progress. There is a proper “designed” way to handle the situation, but some players found out that if they throw a heavy item towards the crate, it will slowly move enough for the player to get past. A clever and funny solution but unfortunately it affected the pacing of the story too much so we had to fix the weights and forces of throwing.
On the other more positive hand, the physics sandbox has generated some good alternative solutions to game’s puzzles. Sometimes people are more willing to use fifteen minutes to carry items from all around the base to build a way across an obstacle than a couple of minutes to examine the surroundings and find out the original solution. We think that is excellent! This is the type of emergent behavior we want to encourage wherever it makes sense, so there will probably be an achievement for doing this.
Yes, you can take photos with the in-game cameras. So why not to take photos of photos.
After all the free-from roaring and rampaging I’ve done in my own testing sessions, I came to a revelation. I looked back at the mess I left behind me and suddenly realized that what I had just done had a strong connection with our game’s story. But you’ll need to learn more about that in the game itself.

Mindfield Games