This is no ordinary car. It comes equipped with lasers, a ticking timebomb, and more than a few secret weapons and anti-theft devices. All you have to do is steal it and drive it off of the airplane.
And so begins I Expect You To Die, a super spy game, made for the Oculus Rift. In this game you are an elite agent battling the evil Dr. Zor. Using your wits, cunning and very few resources, you must complete your mission and live to fight another day.
This virtual reality game is brought to you by Schell Games, a 100 person game studio run by Jesse Schell. Jesse has been working with VR in some capacity since the early nineties. So now, with VR technology on the cusp of becoming a not-so-uncommon sight in our homes, it seemed only natural for Schell Games to start working on a few VR titles.
So grab a martini and sit back to learn why we made this game and some of the challenges we faced in the process.
Getting Sick Isn’t Fun. Go Figure!
a roller coaster prototype that made us all sick
After a bit of experimentation, we came to the conclusion that people won’t enjoy VR experiences that make them feel sick. Makes sense! We found that we could eliminate motion sickness almost entirely with a high enough frame-rate and by limiting motion. We found a few tricks for moving the player around that reduced sickness. For instance, linear motion makes people much less sick than acceleration does. Rotating the horizon makes almost everyone sick, so don't do that! But nothing works quite as well as simply letting the player stay still.
Embracing the Constraints
We weren’t initially thrilled with this limitation. We wanted to make an experience where the player would feel cool and powerful. That seemed at odds with keeping the player still at all times. Then one of us came up with it: “That happens all the time to Batman or James Bond. They’re tied up and they have to outwit some kind of deathtrap… just like that scene in Goldfinger where the guy says, ‘I expect you to die!’”
a classy office for a classy spy
Right away we knew that we wanted to go with an early sixties spy fiction theme. Our first attempt at this game made it very explicit that the player was immobilized either by being tied up, or injected with a neurotoxin, or some such thing. We had the player trapped in a room with a bomb while being mocked by an arch-villain type of character. Incidentally, we later discovered that players didn’t seem to want or need any explanation about why they couldn't move, so we dropped the immobilization thing, since it was a bit contrived anyway.
Affordance and Why It Matters
We learned a few things from the first version of our puzzle. The most important lesson was that object affordance is critical in making the player feel present.
According to Wikipedia:
An affordance is a relation between an object or an environment and an organism that, through a collection of stimuli, affords the opportunity for that organism to perform an action. For example, a knob affords twisting, and perhaps pushing, while a cord affords pulling.
Basically, if there’s an object in the room with you, it has to behave the way you expect it to. If you hit a glass with a hammer and the glass bounces around the room, you know you’re playing a game. Every time your player has to explain something away as “because it’s a game,” you’ve pulled them out of the experience just a bit. Every time that happens, immersion is broken and your experience is a little less good. Similarly, objects in your experience should never appear to be there because they’re part of the game. Here’s an example.
There’s Something Weird About This Room
Our first puzzle had a trap door in the floor of the room which, when opened, revealed water. Now, you’ve been in a room or two in your time, and we have too. We’ve never been in a room that had a door in the floor that opened to water. That’s just not a thing. So when players encounter it, they’re forced to think “that must be part of the puzzle.”
our first puzzle, a room with a bomb
They’re not thinking like a spy anymore, they’re thinking like a player playing a game. That’s not what we want. In our car puzzle, which you can download from Oculus, we were much more careful to only place things in the scene that would logically belong in the scene. We also tried really hard to make all of the objects behave in ways that wouldn’t defy our players’ expectations. When we couldn’t, we found some other object to place in the scene.
Watch and Learn
How did we know what our players would expect? Basically, we watched people play the game…a lot. We set up a table at a mall near our office and had shoppers try it. We had people play it on laptops in airports and coffee shops. We took the game to Unite, Oculus Connect, and IndieCade and watched countless people play it. All the while, we made changes to the game objects so they’d behave the way people expected them to. We made sure that most players could do what they wanted to do in our experience. In the end we had a game that we were proud of, and that people generally seemed to enjoy. You can try it for yourself. There is a link to the demo on our website: iexpectyoutodie.schellgames.com
But wait…There’s more!
Back when we started working on I Expect You To Die, we were very unsure about what the future would be for controls inside VR. We went with a mouse-based control scheme, which made sense at the time. That’s not where this story ends though.
coming soon… your hands!
The team is working right now on a new full version of I Expect You To Die with hand controls and with a few new puzzle levels to go along with the revamped car level. If you’d like to keep up with what we’re doing, follow us on twitter at @ieytd or sign up to receive our newsletters at iexpectyoutodie.schellgames.com.
If you were wondering who wrote this post, it’s me...Mike Traficante. I’m a Senior Engineer at Schell Games and Project Director of the I Expect You To Die demo currently on Oculus Share. If you want to tell me how wrong I am or know what I ate for dinner last night, you can reach me on Twitter at @vitekim.
For more information on the making of I Expect You To Die, check out Jesse Schell’s Gamasutra article from June 2015.