No-Shooting Gallery

The Gallery: Six Elements by Cloudhead Games

Published: October 23. 2014

Oculus Rift
Windows

Cloudhead Games’ tackles virtual reality with The Gallery: Six Elements

Riding a wave of interest in its evolving medium, Cloudhead Games’ upcoming The Gallery: Six Elements reached its $65,000 Kickstarter funding goal well before its April 17, 2013 deadline. The project is a first-person adventure designed for the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset (though it will not be required to play the game), heavily influenced by the Myst series; players move through six painted portals representing the “core elements of life” on their journey through its mystical landscape.

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“We’re all long time virtual reality enthusiasts, but the technology didn't become commercially viable to the general public until Palmer [Luckey] and Oculus made it possible,” says Cloudhead president and creative director Denny Unger. “Having our heads in early hardware made us uniquely sensitive to some of VR's bigger challenges, and to the potential gains. Ultimately, being creative with game structure and having a good handle on VR's limits and strengths is key to making VR work in a way that is rewarding to the senses.”

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Of course, one of major challenges in VR design is evoking a sense of presence; a large number of perceptual cues are needed to deliver exceptional immersion and understanding of what drives that sense of truly being there. “Having body persistence and direct one-to-one control over your hands is a major presence-boosting factor in VR game design,” says lead programmer Christopher Roe. “When you couple that convincingly with a solid locomotion system, hyper-real environments and well considered sound design, you start to cross over the presence line. It’s a difficult mix to get right—but when you do, the sense of really being somewhere other than your office chair is profound.”

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To give the user the experience they desired, the team spent most of 2013 trying to understand what makes VR interaction and locomotion feel approachable and comfortable. VR Comfort Mode was their answer to a significant problem: to handle virtual rotation in VR that’s not directly driven by the user’s physical body. “Artificial rotations and velocities that aren't driven directly by the player’s physical motions tend to cause a vestibular disconnect between the ears and the eyes,” says Unger. “This results in nausea for a large majority of players.”

The answer came from thinking about how dancers mitigate dizziness while spinning. “As a dancer spins, they’re constantly spotting in the distance and visually locking onto a distant unmoving location,” says Unger. “We're essentially emulating this very quick head rotation during a body turn event to prevent vestibular disconnect. It looks a bit odd secondhand, but when you’re in VR the system feels very natural, and in some ways emulates normal saccadic eye movements that we all do every few seconds. Your brain is very good at filtering out speedy eye movements when we're processing normal reality, and we're taking advantage of that perceptual system.” He says that the approach seems to have resolved the issue for the vast majority of users.

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To bring its version of virtual reality to the Oculus Rift, Cloudhead turned to Unity. “When we started on the game, it was the only serious option,” says Roe. “Due to our collective familiarity with Unity, it was a natural, logical fit to work on a new game through it. We knew that it was an approachable platform with a lot of flexibility and support. We needed that foundation behind us to make a solid start on some highly experimental ideas.”

Getting up and running was reasonably easy. “Unity’s primary strength, from a developer’s standpoint, is the ease with which you can greybox and prototype the basics—it gives you a great start to build from,” Roe continues. “The other strength of Unity is the ease with which it can be extended by third parties. When Unity doesn’t offer a desired feature or tool out of the box, there’s often a third party willing to step up to the plate with offerings like Root Motion's Final IK asset and Audiokinetic’s Wwise plug-in.”

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Indeed, Roe says the team has gotten much use out of the Unity Asset Store. “The Asset Store adds a lot of value to Unity; we’ve used various assets to help mock up and prototype levels, as well as add new functionality that is specific to the kind of games we’re working on.” He points to NGUI as being especially well-suited to developing VR-friendly user interfaces, and Final IK as an invaluable foundation for bridging the gap between animations and motion control.” The team turned to model and particle assets for times when it required placeholder content. “It's tremendously liberating to be able to quickly iterate with placeholder content before committing resources and time to custom content,” says Roe. “Unity has a big leg up on other engines in this respect.”

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The process of attempting to create a high-quality game with a small team and limited resources has underscored this fact. “When you face the kind of challenges we’ve encountered, you generally will develop a deep appreciation and desire for well-crafted tools designed by people who understand the nature of game development and have been through this experience themselves,” says Unger. “It’s no fun fighting your tools, or constantly working around the shortcomings of your toolset, so when you finally find a tool that actually just works and lets you focus on the game itself, it’s an almost religious experience. With the tools out of the way, we can focus our energy on building assets that bring us closer to the original vision.”

Physics have represented interestingly knotty territory for the team. “The nature of the project put us up against some pretty stiff challenges with respect to [general physics],” says Roe, who points out that supporting motion control and physics integration in a hyper-real environment has been a constant challenge. “Realistically picking up and manipulate items puts some strain on Unity's native PhysX abilities, so solving situations like that requires careful planning,” he says. “Most game engines struggle with solid physics handling, so you kind of have to pick your battles and reduce the reliance on certain interactions if they create bottlenecks.”

When looking back on the challenges the team has faced in bringing its vision to life, Unger says it’s hard to single out any one triumph. “The bulk of the difficulties we’ve encountered, I think, are largely an issue of attempting to develop for a new medium known as virtual reality, in a landscape where game development tools and engines are struggling to catch up to the increased performance and fidelity demands of that new medium,” he says. “We’ve had to work around or compensate for some of those issues in the short term, as Unity continues to work on the necessary engine-side optimizations and features. I think that as virtual reality catches on and the various tools and engines out there have been updated with full support, it’ll become even easier to create and deliver compelling content.”

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“To be a VR developer in a year or two from now will be an entirely different experience,” he concludes. “Most of the key challenges will have been solved. We couldn't be happier to be where we are though, and every week brings new discoveries. That's the best thing about being in this space right now.”

 Six Elements Trailer

Uncharted Waters

“Probably the single biggest issue we've faced in virtual reality game design deals with the novelty of the hardware and the total lack of supporting knowledge in the space,” says Cloudhead Games’ president and creative director Denny Unger. He points out that while there are old points of reference from the 90's, they found that there was really no precedent for how to approach a “good” VR experience with modern tools. “Integrating motion control, gamepad, and a robust locomotion system into our game that felt solid was the single biggest challenge,” he says. “Not to mention that we were constantly running up against novel gameplay mechanics as a consequence of figuring out what was possible.” Climbing ladders serves as a good example: In every other game in history, ladder climbs meant pushing forward on a joystick or hitting the "w" key on the keyboard. “In VR, however, there was suddenly an opportunity for the player to physically climb ladders using their arms, and it feels amazing!” says Unger. “That's just one example of many that we've bumped into as a consequence of developing in the format.”

Getting Physical

The team at Cloudhead Games ran into some issues with inverse kinematics while developing The Gallery: Six Elements. Mecanim’s built-in IK didn’t have support for elbow and knee-bend goals, nor did it respect muscle constraints. “This made it somewhat ill-suited to the kind of realistic skeletal behavior we needed for a dynamic VR experience,” says creative director Christopher Roe. Luckily, they were saved by the Unity Asset Store: “Fortunately, we were spared from having to develop our own IK system when Root Motion’s Final IK asset became available.”

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