The VR landscape is changing and developers need to think more creatively about how games and experiences are created, as well as refine the fundamentals of virtual reality, that’s what Seb Bouzac, Creative Director at Archaic tells me, when we sit down to talk about the state of VR.
The best VR headsets you can buy right now vary in power and approach to delivering virtual reality experiences. From PSVR 2 to Meta Quest 3 and the HTC Vive, there’s a wide variety of ways to get involved, and each brings its own set of challenges.
Archaic’s latest release is Journey to Foundation, a game based on Isaac Asimov’s novels and thought to be a tie-in experience to Apple TV’s epic Foundation series, and yes, an Apple Vision Pro version was muted. The way the team approached their Foundation game is interesting, they pulled away from an Apple tie-in and instead created their own style, and I feel a sense of relief in Bouzac’s eyes when he tells me that they were able to design their own look and feel for Foundation, based on the limitations of aiming at the lower part Meta Quest 2 (it is compatible with Quest 3).
Journey to Foundation embraces the “hard sci-fi” aesthetic of the novels’ descriptions, grounded in the idea that the technology has been around for so long that it just works, without anyone really knowing how. “We really tried to be true to what we thought was the vision back then in the books,” says Bouzac, “to create a world that would be believable”.
The game’s art direction focuses on creating a world that feels both futuristic and aged, with a mix of interior stations, expansive space vistas, and abandoned architectural wonders. The challenge lies in balancing the visual ambitions with the technical limitations of VR hardware, especially when developing for platforms with varying capabilities.
Why Apple Vision Pro is important
Bouzac is positive about Apple Vision Pro, saying, “having another player in the game is actually good because it expands the market in general, but it also adds a new set of limitations for developers because now you have two spectrums to deal with, the low low end and high end unfortunately you have to aim for the lower hand first because if you start with the higher resolution and have up to 30 people on the screen and all these cool things then you try to drop to Quest and you realize ‘oh I can only have five people on the screen, so you have to change the design completely”.
With a string of great VR games behind them, including Freediver: Triton Down and the VR edition of Doom 3, Bouzac and Archiact have a track record of making the most of the technology. He mentions how making Doom 3 had an impact on his approach to VR development and managing the expectations of the technology being used.
“When we looked at the code and the game, there was no way we could do everything we would have wanted to do if we had the mandate to, say, redesign Doom 3 from the ground up for VR. We would have changed everything,” he reflects .
The experience of making Doom 3 VR taught Bouzac that the VR-ness of the medium is most important, and for that game the team focused on changing the user interface and how players interacted with the world to try to rework the core gameplay. He also explains how making a game for the lower end of the VR spectrum and then upgrading graphics and features is a better approach than going all-in on the best technology and working backwards; for Bouzac Meta Quest 2 is the base from which new games are created.
He riffs on this point and advises all developers by emphasizing the significant changes in VR technology, particularly with the introduction of affordable mobile headsets like the Meta Quest 2 and 3, have changed the user base and expectations. But, he says, “For the developers, it becomes more limiting because now you have to make sure that the game works on and is suitable for all kinds of platforms in general”. He adds that the result could likely lead to more platform exclusives, and we know Sony has it in the bank, just look at Horizon: Call of the Mountain.
Making sense of space in VR
So the technology shapes the game design, and it’s not necessarily the leading innovations of the PSVR 2, Quest 3 and Vision Pro, but instead the limitations of older headsets. This is the reality of game development, managing budgets and making compromises. For VR, Bouzac explains, it’s about convincing a space real. He emphasizes the importance of “creating spaces that feel relevant and believable, taking into account the player’s natural expectations in a three-dimensional space (…) Everything must be thought from the first-person perspective”.
He explains how VR challenges traditional level design, requiring developers to think not only about the initial staging of a scene, but also how it evolves as players explore. The balance between indoor and outdoor environments, large-scale and intimate spaces, adds to the complexity of designing for VR. Bouzac explains, “In VR, a space has to make sense, it has to feel relevant to an existing or fantasy space, but it still has to give the player the right proportion, the right distance, the right staging, the same when you walk into a room (in real life) “.
Designing spaces for VR prompts Bouzac to offer some advice to artists looking to work in VR game development. For starters, he explains how VR development is “10% creative and 90% problem solving,” which may sound harsh, but he adds, “you have to be creative to solve those problems.” He continues: “You spend more time figuring things out and then applying the rules that you’ve learned before, so it’s really a balance of understanding what you’re trying to achieve and what’s the best way to achieve it.”
VR art and development isn’t about set-dressing environments like you would in platform games; i VR players expect to be able to interact with everything, “If I see something in VR, I probably want to interact with it (…) and if you don’t plan to let yourself interact with something, it’s better not to even show it, because otherwise you are misleading or you are creating expectations that will not be fulfilled”.
When it comes to concept artist portfolios, there are a few things he loves to see, and key to this is an understanding of space and immersion, and possibly more 3D artwork or a consideration of how space and the player’s viewpoints are viewed.
Bouzac explains: “The moment you create a world that you want to be believable, it doesn’t have to be realistic it just has to be a believable world. Our concept artists, if they don’t initially have that experience, will gain that experience through iteration. It’s really about this idea of a 2D screen or 2D concept in VR. You almost need the other point of view, like your point of view right now (Bouzac gestures to me and looks at him), versus my point of view. You have to have two sides of the point of view because that’s how it’s really going to feel in the game versus a 2D experience.”
Start perfecting your hand animation
The same approach to VR environments plays out when it comes to how that world is interacted with, and this has meant that hands and hand animation has become a new art form. What seems simple actually evolves into something very complex to get right, and can be a “combination of work between interaction design, animation and sometimes engineering teams,” says Bouzac.
The simple act of grabbing a door handle and pulling up or down requires planning and finesse. It needs to feel genuine and look obvious and natural in how, for example, door handles work. I learn from Bouzac that good VR design and animation is about observing the real world and breaking down how interactions work.
It’s about understanding “UX design in general, outside of games,” says Bouzac, revealing that Archaic has animators “dedicated to simply creating a player’s hand, the hero’s hand, to understand the interaction” and this ensures that the “realism” never breaks, “the moment it breaks, that’s where you start to lose that immersion versus when you stop thinking you’re in a game.” He adds, “Definitely, hands and work and working around the hands, it’s a big part of creating VR interactions in general.”
The focus on hands and immersion means that animation in VR has a subtle change in approach, as the usual cinematic sequences are discarded for moments in the world, and how hands are animated for character development as much as realism. Bouzac laughs and explains how the attention you usually pay to a character’s animation is now focused on it happens and it can get complicated because the hands are intricate.
“So it gets complicated,” he says, “but the good thing is, as an animator, all you have to do is look at your hand grasping something to understand what it is that I’m trying to achieve. The simple that you can use your hands as a test area for a tester to see if it actually looks good or not.”
Brings characters to life
Just as developers need to create for the lower end of headsets, Bouzac also reveals how upgrading to newer technologies can bring with it the opportunity to create new gameplay ideas and visual concepts. One such development has been Archaic’s take on facial animation in Journey to Foundation. The team has created an in-house tool that can generate facial expressions based on tagging specific words in the game’s script, using pre-made emotional responses.
Bouzac says, “which means if you play the game, you’ll see in some of the conversations that the character when they’re talking and lip-syncing is actually animating their face in a way that matches the feeling that we put into the animation.”
Again, it comes down to the realistic constraints of game development and deciding where to put the most effort. Bouzac tells me the team could have put more focus on combat but for Journey to Foundation, a narrative adventure, the focus was on character interaction. So the character interaction, how we interact with characters, regardless of the art style, whether it’s realistic or stylized, what’s important to us is that we feel like they seem believable”.
Journey to Foundation is available to purchase now for Meta Quest 2, Meta Quest 3, Pico 4 and PSVR 2. Visit the game’s official website for more details.
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