November 23, 2016
By Tom Deerberg,
Lead 3D Artist
When the concept of non-linear gaming first began to emerge in the '80s, the possibility that players would one day explore game worlds without boundaries was a distant but beguiling dream. As technology advanced, and 3D environments took over, that possibility became much more of a reality and the push began to turn those worlds into ever more realistic virtual playgrounds – living, breathing realizations of new universes, where you couldn't just go anywhere, but could also do just about anything.
Today, VR represents the next logical step in the evolution of immersive game worlds. Just as the jump from 2D to 3D once gave players a more authentic impression of being “in the game," VR turns what we're used to experiencing on a flat screen into something much more enveloping. Now, the sense of scale is inherent. You feel physically present in the game space, and those planets hanging on the horizon serve to underscore the vastness of your surroundings like never before. You'll tilt your head to take in the full grandeur of a dinosaur or pull back as you assess the danger of a chasm below – and it all feels boundless in an entirely new way.
It's been fascinating then, that one of the key focal points for us as we've been developing Robinson has been thinking small before zooming out to work on progressively larger elements. That microscopic approach to the art direction rings true for level design as well.
There are two main reasons for that, one of which is simply the comfort of the player. In VR, you have to orchestrate the environment very carefully to make sure gamers don't experience motion sickness. In something like a sandbox shooter, you might not give a second thought to changing the undulation of the terrain, or having multiple vantage points a player can hop between. VR requires more care though. We have to know that every step the player takes is within a carefully composed setting that won't lead to discomfort.
And that feeds into the second reason we take such a detailed approach to level design – because if we're making certain restrictions about the physical form of an area, and the pace a player moves through it at, we also need to make sure it feels incredibly rich, realistic, and worth exploring.
In the first instance, the team set about striking this balance between comfort and gameplay “density" in Robinson by handing responsibility for individual areas to individual designers – allowing us to focus on crafting a smaller part of the world than we typically would in the development process.
For me, that area was a tar pit that Robin will happen across on his journey. Of course, creating it was still a team effort, but from a personal point of view it was certainly the most intensively I've focused in on a single area whilst making a game. On top of conducting the usual research we would for a game level – such as looking at reference images and videos – VR demanded that we invest much more energy in creating things like surface textures.
On a flat screen, there's always something of a barrier between the player and those textures, but in VR they can lean right in to see what a plant or rock really looks like. You can get way closer, and that demands a new level of detail from our side to make sure the world feels as authentic as possible.
The same is true for the overall layout of the area. The positioning of something like a tree becomes a big deal, because even though you're creating a small area, you need to make sure it always feels connected to this vast universe you want to immerse the player in. Does the tree you just dropped in the level block the view to the horizon? Then move it! I must have agonized over the position of 300 different trees, tweaking things to make them perfect. You're constantly rotating the environment to view it from every angle. And when you're satisfied with one aspect, it's on to the next – grass, rocks, you name it. On one hand, it's quite a god-like experience, but it's also very labor intensive. There's just so much detail required to optimize things in VR, but the constant polishing is worth it in the end.
Of course, working this way doesn't mean the overall world has to be small. You can definitely create vast worlds in VR. This is just a specific approach to maximize the immersion the medium allows for. By building these highly detailed areas one at a time and placing them side by side to gradually create a larger universe, we can ensure that the experience of touching down on Tyson III feels as real and compelling as we want it to be.
One key aspect in emphasizing the connectedness of the world is creating a natural flow between each individual area. To do that, we've thought carefully about how the world evolves visually as you move through it. So, for example, the area right outside Robin's pod – the first area you'll see – is quite lush and bright, with sunny yellows and greens. As players move on, those bright, open spaces will slowly give way to the denser foliage of the jungle. Further on there are chasms so deep you can't see the bottom, and bleaker, darker areas like the tar pit – right through to a kind of desaturated, visually nightmarish final environment. So there's a cinematic quality to the progression that emphasizes the changing mood of Robin's journey. That serves to make the whole world feel seamless and draws players deeper into the story every step of the way.
The need for this intensely detailed approach overall is just one of many aspects that sets VR development apart from what we've been used to before. So it's been a learning process to bring the world of Robinson to life, but as we get closer to the end of that process, we're getting more and more excited about sharing what we've created with players. We hope you'll agree that our obsession with the little details adds up to create a universe that delivers on the promise of VR and feels as alive and boundless as the worlds our gaming forefathers once dreamed of!