My Week with PSVR

Full disclosure, I’ve had a PSVR devkit for some time now, so this isn’t my first experience with the device. However, this certainly is my first taste of most PSVR launch content. I figured I’d post my impressions after a week with my PSVR launch bundle.

Best Optics In the Business

PSVR does not use fresnel lenses, thus you don’t see any god rays and glare on high contrast screens. Vive and Rift both suffer from these problems, which makes PSVR look a lot better than the competition. Many cite the lower resolution of the PSVR display as a problem, but I don’t think numbers tell the whole story. The screen door effect is not very noticeable, and I suspect there’s some way PSVR is packing those pixels together that make the slightly lower resolution a non-issue. PSVR looks great.

Fully Integrated With Sony’s Ecosystem

The great thing about the platform is they are combining a mature online store and gaming social network with VR. In many cases PSVR is ahead of the competition in community features. When you first don the PSVR headset, you’ll see the standard PlayStation 4 interface hovering in front of you as a giant virtual screen. Thus, all current PSN features are available to you in VR already. You can even click the Share button and stream VR gameplay live. There’s also a pop up menu to manage your friends list, invites, etc. inside any VR experience. The only weird thing is when you get an achievement you hear the sound, but don’t see any overlay telling you what you did.

Tracking Issues

PSVR uses colored LED lights for optical tracking–essentially the same solution Sony created for their PS3 Move controllers in 2010. In fact, the launch bundle comes with what seem to be new, deadstock Move controllers as its hand tracking solution.

Tracking is iffy. It seems that lamps, bright lights, and sunlight streaking through windows can throw PSVR’s tracking off. I find that it works much better at night with the room lights visible to the PS4 Eye camera turned off. I also replaced my original PlayStation 4 Eye camera with the V2 version in the launch bundle to no avail.

Even more annoying is calibration. Holding the PSVR up in precise positions so that the lights are visible to the camera can be quite a pain. Not only that, but many games require their own calibration involving standing in a place where your head fits inside a camera overlay representing the best position to play in.

The hand controllers are jittery even under the best circumstances. Some games seem to have smoother tracking than others–probably via filtering Move input data. Still, given the price of the bundle, Move is an acceptable solution. Just not ideal.

One advantage to this approach is PSVR can also track the DualShock 4 via that previously annoying light bar on the back. Having a positionally tracked controller adds an element of immersion to non-hand tracked games previously unseen.

The Content

Despite PSVR using a PS4 which pales in power compared to, say, a juiced up Oculus-ready PC, the PSVR launch experiences are second to none. Sony is an old pro at getting together strong titles to launch a new platform. They have made some great choices here.

Worlds

The amount of free content you get with the Launch Bundle is staggering. In addition to the new VR version of Playroom and a disc filled with free demos, you also get Worlds–Sony London’s brilliant showcase of VR mini games and experiences. The Deep is a perfect beginner’s VR introduction–a lush, underwater experience that rivals anything I’ve seen on Rift or Vive. London Heist is my favorite, combining storytelling and hand-tracked action in what is often compared to a VR Guy Ritchie film.

Arkham VR

This is the single coolest VR experience I’ve ever had. It’s really more like a narrative experience with some light gameplay elements. Some are complaining that this barely qualifies as a game and is way too short for $20, but I disagree. This is the gold standard in VR storytelling–a truly unique experience that a lot of developers can learn from. It combines puzzle solving, story, interactive props, and immersive environments into a VR experience that makes you really feel like the Caped Crusader. This is the game I use to showcase PSVR and nobody has left disappointed.

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Battlezone

Battlezone is my other favorite launch title right now, if I can find other people online (a definite problem given the small, but growing PSVR user base). This is a VR update to Atari’s coin-op classic in the form of a co-op multiplayer vehicle shooter. Guide a team of futuristic tank pilots over a randomly generated hexagonal map as you journey on a quest to destroy the enemy base. This game requires great teamwork and voice communication, which makes it all the more immersive. The positionally tracked DualShock 4 adds to the immersion in the cockpit as well.

Rigs

Guerilla does everything wrong (including uninterruptible tutorials) in VR here, defying all conventions. I have no problems with it, but this makes almost everyone I know violently ill. Apparently I am immune to VR sickness. Rigs is probably unplayable by the vast majority of players even with all the comfort modes turned on. If you want to test your so-called “VR Legs”, then try this game. If you can manage to play this without puking, you’re in for a great competitive online experience–that is, if you can find other players easily.

Wayward Sky

This game started out last year as a Gear VR launch title called Ikarus, which was pulled from the store shortly after its release. Uber’s small mobile VR demo has now reappeared on PSVR as the expanded and enhanced Wayward Sky–an innovative take on point-and-click adventure games in VR. The first stage is essentially a remixed and remastered version of the short Gear VR demo that came out last year. Once you complete this stage, the game opens up with a lot more levels and an all new story line. This is another gentle introduction to VR as it doesn’t involve a lot of movement or complicated mechanics. It’s largely point and click puzzle solving affair, with a few areas that require you to use your hands to manipulate objects.

In Conclusion

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My dream VR platform would be PSVR’s optics, Vive’s tracking, and Oculus’ controllers. Until that singularity happens, we’re stuck with all of these different systems. PSVR is incredibly compelling, and the platform I recommend to most people. It’s cheap and surprisingly good. Most of my current favorite VR games are on PSVR right now. I personally don’t find its limitations a problem–but it will be interesting to see how the average gaming public responds. Initial sales are promising, and there is way more high profile VR content on the horizon. Dare I say Sony has won this first round?

Why I’m All In On Mobile VR

Last month I released Caldera Defense, a Virtual Reality tower defense game on Gear VR. This is the second Gear VR title I’ve worked on, and the first I’ve built and published from the ground up. (Not including my Oculus Mobile VR Jam submission) Caldera Defense is a free early access demo–basically a proof of concept of the full game–and the reaction has been great. Thousands of people have downloaded, rated, and given us valuable feedback. We’re busy incorporating it into the first update.

Caldera Defense featured on the Gear VR store

Originally I planned to use this as a demo to fund an expanded PC and Morpheus launch version of the game with greatly improved graphics, hours of gameplay, and additional features such as multiplayer and second-screen options.

However, pitching even a modestly budgeted console and PC VR game experience to publishers, or even the platforms themselves, is a tough sell. I’m sure at E3 next month we will see all sorts of AAA VR announcements. Yet, many traditional funding avenues for games remain skeptical of the opportunity VR presents.

Since the Caldera project began last year, mobile VR has morphed into a unique opportunity. With over a million Google Cardboards in the wild and new versions of the Gear VR headset in retail stores worldwide, there will be millions of mobile VR users before there’s comparable numbers on Oculus desktop, Vive, and Morpheus.

Is it possible that mobile VR will be a viable business before it is on PC and consoles? Most of my colleagues are skeptical. I’m not.

The economics work out. Due to the mobile nature of the experience, games and apps for these platforms tend towards the bite-sized. This greatly reduces the risk of mobile VR since assets optimized for mobile are simpler and casual VR experiences require less content to be built overall.

I can make a dozen mobile VR minimum viable products for the same budget of one modestly scoped Morpheus experience. From these MVPs I can determine what types of content gains the most traction with VR users and move in that direction. I can even use this data to guide development of larger AAA VR experiences later.

By this time next year it will be possible to monetize these users significantly, whether through premium content or advertising. It may be more valuable to collect a lot of eyeballs in mobile VR than breaking even on a multi-million dollar AAA launch tile. As we’ve seen in the past, acquiring a huge audience of mobile players can lead to tremendous revenue streams.

Being on the Oculus desktop, Vive, or Sony’s Morpheus deck at launch is an enormous opportunity. In fact, I’m still searching for ways to produce the console and desktop version of Caldera Defense. However, if you lack the capital to produce at that scale, smaller mobile projects are much easier to bootstrap and the upside is huge.

Adult Contemporary Video Games

One of my favorite Combat Jack podcasts of 2014 is when they interviewed legendary hip hop producer, Marley Marl over the Summer.  Marly Marl invented the modern hip-hop sound most take for granted and created the Juice Crew, one of the most important groups of MCs ever.

The Juice Crew

Before producing hit records, Marley had a career as an on-air DJ, starting on Mr. Magic‘s show on KISS-FM in New York.  In the ’90s he went on to host “Future Flavas” with Pete Rock on Hot 97.  Marley Marl was also still producing hit albums for the likes of LL Cool J and Lords of the Underground.

Times change, and Marley Marl isn’t producing music for 20 year olds anymore.  While many DJs desperately hang on to their fading youth, Marley tried another tactic.  He moved over to WBLS which plays old school hip hop for a mature audience.

it just so happens, rap fans in their fourties and beyond have far more disposable income than those in their teens and twenties.  His WBLS show has gone on to be a great success.  It turns out that despite being a youth-powered movement, there’s plenty of advertising dollars in hip-hop appealing to older rap fans.

This got me thinking about video games.

A lot of veteran developers are debating about the decline of AAA games in the face of the disruptive waves of free2play and mobile.  Many gamers in their demographic agree.  If that’s the case, why not appeal to this older audience?

The challenge to monetizing these gamers is that although they have the same taste in games they may have had over a decade ago, their play styles are vastly different due to lifestyle changes.  If you’ve got kids or a demanding job, perhaps you no longer have 120+ hours to spend playing an RPG. However, you might digest the same style of game in shorter episodic bursts on a tablet or smartphone.

Some developers have caught on to this and produce what I call Adult Contemporary Video Games.  A good example is the 1980s pencil and paper RPG, Shadowrun.  Microsoft’s attempt at AAA shooter based on Shadowrun was an abject failure (although I quite liked it).  Five years later, Harebrained Schemes went from a surge of support on Kickstarter for “Shadowrun Returns” to a series of popular mobile and PC downloadable games based on the franchise.

Shadowrun for iPad

This is a smart strategy–delivering content aimed at an older audience on newer devices.  Those of us who grew up not on just the original RPG, but the SNES and Genesis games were ripe for a new entry in the series.  This model has also seen success with Wasteland 2, and surely the upcoming Bard’s Tale sequel will continue the trend.

It remains to be seen if you can develop a new IP targeted at this audience.  A lot of what you hear on Adult Contemporary radio is old artists making new music.  In games it may be the same. So far, the genre seems to bank on nostalgia by resurrecting classic franchises for an older audience on new devices with updated play styles. Especially if you include teh current wave of retro remakes. While some veteran developers excel at creating games for the new mobile f2p masses, others may be more suited for this viable slice of the market.

Samsung Gear VR Development Challenges with Unity3D

As you may know, I’m a huge fan of Oculus and Samsung’s Gear VR headset. The reason isn’t about the opportunity Gear VR presents today. It’s about the future of wearables–specifically of self-contained wearable devices. In this category, Gear VR is really the first of its kind. The lessons you learn developing for Gear VR will carry over into the bright future of compact, self-contained, wearable displays and platforms. Many of which we’ve already started to see.

The Gear VR in the flesh (plastic).

The Gear VR in the flesh (plastic).


Gear VR development can be a challenge. Rendering two cameras and a distortion mesh on a mobile device at a rock solid 60fps requires a lot of optimization and development discipline. Now that Oculus’ mobile SDK is public and having worked on a few launch titles (including my own original title recently covered in Vice), I figured I’d share some Unity3D development challenges I’ve dealt with.

THERMAL ISSUES

The biggest challenge with making VR performant on a mobile devices is throttling due to heat produced by the chipset. Use too much power and the entire device will slow itself down to cool off and avoid damaging the hardware. Although the Note 4 approaches the XBOX 360 in performance characteristics, you only have a fraction of its power available. This is because the phone must take power and heat considerations in mind when keeping the CPU and GPU running at full speed.

With the Gear VR SDK you can independently tell the device how fast the GPU and CPU should run. This prevents you from eating up battery when you don’t need the extra cycles, as well as tune your game for performance at lower clock speeds. Still, you have to be aware of what types of things eat up GPU cycles or consume GPU resources. Ultimately, you must choose which to allocate more power for.

GRAPHICAL DETAIL

The obvious optimization is lowering graphical detail. Keep your polycount under 50k triangles. Avoid as much per pixel and per vertex processing as possible. Since you have tons of RAM but relatively little GPU power available–opt for more texture detail over geometry. This includes using lightmaps instead of dynamic lighting. Of course, restrict your usage of alpha channel to a minimum–preferably for quick particle effects, not for things that stay on the screen for a long period of time.

Effects you take for granted on modern mobile platforms, like skyboxes and fog, should be avoided on Gear VR. Find alternatives or design an art style that doesn’t need them. A lot of these restrictions can be made up for with texture detail.

A lot of standard optimizations apply here–for instance, use texture atlasing and batching to reduce draw calls. The target is under 100 draw calls, which is achievable if you plan your assets correctly. Naturally, there are plenty of resources in the Asset Store to get you there. Check out Pro Draw Call Optimizer for a good texture atlasing tool.

CPU OPTIMIZATIONS

There are less obvious optimizations you might not be familiar with until you’ve gone to extreme lengths to optimize a Gear VR application. This includes removing as many Update methods as possible. Most update code spent waiting for stuff to happen (like an AI that waits 5 seconds to pick a new target) can be changed to a coroutine that is scheduled to happen in the future. Converting Update loops to coroutines will take the burden of waiting off the CPU. Even empty Update functions can drain the CPU–death by a thousand cuts. Go through your code base and remove all unnecessary Update methods.

As in any mobile game, you should be pooling prefabs. I use Path-o-Logical’s PoolManager, however it’s not too hard to write your own. Either way, by recycling pre-created instances of prefabs, you save memory and reduce hiccups due to instantiation.

IN CONCLUSION

There’s nothing really new here to most mobile developers, but Gear VR is definitely one of the bigger optimization challenges I’ve had in recent years. The fun part about it is we’re kind of at the level of Dreamcast-era poly counts and effects but using modern tools to create content. It’s better than the good old days!

It’s wise to build for the ground up for Gear VR than to port existing applications. This is because making a VR experience that is immersive and performant with these parameters requires all disciplines (programming, art, and design) to build around these restrictions from the start of the project.

Towerfall: The Re-Return of Social Gaming

Social gaming was hot.  Then it ‘died’.  And now it’s hot?  The fact is, video games have always been social.  In the earliest era of computer games there weren’t enough CPU cycles (or CPUs at all!) for AI.  Players had to move everything themselves–Steve Russell’s Spacewar being the earliest example.  But just look classic coin-ops like Pong, Warlords, Sprint, etc.  Same-screen multiplayer was just how things were done.  Arcades in the ‘80s weren’t solely the domain of nerds–a broad spectrum of people showed up and played games together.  Imagine that!

Towerfall

Local multiplayer ruled well into the ‘90s.  Games like GoldenEye, Mario Party, and Bomberman ensured there was always something to do when you had people over your place.  Yet, once Internet multiplayer hit in the early ‘00s, console games became strangely anti-social.  Today when someone comes over my house and wants to play a game with me–well, it’s complicated.  There really aren’t many games people can play together on the market.

That’s why Towerfall Ascension is so interesting to me.  At first I thought it was yet another pixel-art indie game over promoted by Ouya due to a lack of content.  After playing it with others its significance dawned on me.  Finally there’s something to play with other people!  It had been so long since I’d had a local multiplayer experience that it took actually playing it for me to recognize this one fact:  the local multiplayer brawler may very well be where the MOBA was when DOTA was merely a Warcraft III mod.

At GDC I noticed the beginning of this trend.  There were a few Towerfall clones already in progress or on the market.  In fact, some similar games even shortly preceded Towerfall.  Not to mention Towerfall’s release on the PS4 and Steam has been highly successful.  I really think a new (old) genre is born.

 

From Bits to Atoms: Creating A Game In The Physical World

Some of you may recall last year’s post about 3D printing and my general disappointment with consumer-grade additive manufacturing technology. This was the start of my year-long quest to turn bits into atoms. Since that time there has been much progress in the technology and I’ve learned a lot about manufacturing. But first, a little about why I’m doing this, and my new project titled: Ether Drift.

Ether Drift AR App

A little over a year ago, I met a small team of developers who had a jaw-dropping trailer for a property they tried to get funded as a AAA console game. After failing to get the game off the ground it was mothballed until I accidentally saw their video one fateful afternoon.

With the incredible success of wargaming miniatures and miniature-based board game campaigns on Kickstarter, I thought one way to launch this awesome concept would be to turn the existing game assets into figurines. These toys would work with an augmented reality app that introduces the world and the characters as well as light gameplay elements. This would be a way to gauge interest in the property before going ahead with a full game production.

A lot of this was based on my erroneous assumption that I could just 3D print game models and ship them as toys. I really knew nothing about manufacturing. Vague memories of Ed Fries’ 3D printing service that made figurines out of World of Warcraft avatars guided my first steps.

3D printers are great prototyping tools. Still, printing the existing game model took over 20 hours and cost hundreds of dollars in materials and machine time. Plus, 3D prints are fragile and require a lot of hand-finishing to smooth out. When manufacturing in quantity, you need to go back to old-school molding.

You can 3D print just about any shape, but molding and casting has strict limitations. You have to minimize undercut by breaking the model up into smaller pieces that can be molded and assembled. The game model I printed out was way too complicated to be broken down into a manageable set of parts.

Most of these little bits on the back and underside would have to be individual molded parts to be re-assembled later--An expensive process!

Most of these little bits on the back and underside would have to be individual molded parts to be re-assembled later–An expensive process!

So I scrapped the idea of using an existing game property. Instead, I developed an entirely new production process. I now create new characters from scratch that are designed to be molded. This starts as a high detail 3D model that is printed out in parts that molds are made from. Then, I have that 3D model turned into something that can be textured and rigged for Unity3D. There are some sacrifices made in character design since the more pieces there are, the more expensive it is to manufacture. Same goes for the painting process–the more detailed the game texture is, the more costly it becomes to duplicate in paint on a plastic toy.

We're working on getting a simple paint job that matches the in-game texture.

We’re working on getting a simple paint job that matches the in-game texture.

So, what is Ether Drift? In short: it’s Skylanders for nerds. I love the concept of Skylanders–but, grown adult geeks like toys too. The first version of this project features a limited set of figures and an augmented reality companion app.

The app uses augmented reality trading cards packed with each figure to display your toy in real-time 3D as well as allowing you to use your characters with a simple card battle game. I’m using Qualcomm’s Vuforia for this feature–the gold standard in AR.

The app lets you add characters to your collection via a unique code on the card. These characters will be available in the eventual Ether Drift game, as well as others. I’ve secured a deal to have these characters available in at least one other game.

If you are building a new IP today, it’s extremely important to think about your physical goods strategy. Smart indies have already figured this out. The workflow I created for physical to digital can be applied to any IP, but planning it in advance can make the process much simpler.

In essence, I’m financing the development of a new IP by selling individual assets as toys while it is being built. For me, it’s also a throwback to the days before everything was licensed from movies or comic books and toy store shelves were stocked with all kinds of crazy stuff. Will it work? We’ll see next month! I am planning a Kickstarter for the first series in mid-March. Stay Tuned to the Ether Drift site, Facebook page, or Twitter account. Selling atoms instead of bits is totally new ground for me. I’m open to all feedback on the project, as well as people who want to collaborate.

My Week with the XBOX One

A mere week after the outstanding launch of the PlayStation 4 comes Microsoft’s XBOX One with a similar success story. Hey–time for some bulletized observations:

Quick!  Where's the games??

Quick! Where’s the games??

The interface is hideous. I’m not a huge fan of Windows 8, but I do think Windows Mobile is pretty snazzy. Yet, Microsoft’s implementation of the “Metro” tile interface on XBOX One is bewildering. You’re constantly getting lost in a sea of scrolling tiles with no context. Especially considering the sheer number of panels on the screen at once, navigating with the controller is a pain. The XBOX One main shell seems designed to be used with a mouse or touch instead of a control pad.

Voice control is a neat trick, but not quite ready. I have to speak in hushed tones around my console because if I dare mention its name, I’m not sure what will happen. In my house, “XBOX” is a killing word.

TV Integration is probably awesome–if I watched TV. I don’t watch much TV, and I certainly don’t watch live TV. So, all of these DVR features on the XBOX One are lost on me. Still, the ability to hook in your TV’s HDMI feed and use the XBOX One as a DVR and cable box is pretty cool–especially when using voice control to search for content. It’s the dream of Google TV realized. I guess. This really isn’t a feature I care much about. I do love the universal IR blaster feature–shouting “XBOX On” to turn on all my equipment is a neat trick!

The actual box is ugly. It’s nowhere near as bad as the original XBOX, but can’t touch the beauty of the gleaming white original XBOX 360. That’s still among my favorite consumer electronics industrial designs. The XBOX One is huge and seems to resemble a 1980’s VCR.

The launch title lineup is strong. By far, Dead Rising 3 is my favorite next generation exclusive. Granted, I’m a huge fan of the series. I’m not a big racing game player, but friends of mine who are love the new Forza–especially with individual button feedback. Even the free2play Killer Instinct has defied expectations. Unlike the PlayStation 4, there aren’t many smaller indie digital exclusives–likely due to Microsoft’s recent reversal of their self-publishing policy. Regardless, the XBOX One currently has better games–the most important point!

Overall I’m quite pleased with the XBOX One. The hardware specs are a bit lower than the PS4 and it’s a little more expensive, but so far the games are strong and the platform shows a lot of promise for growth. Microsoft has also swerved a bit to avoid total disruption, but the verdict is still out. You can’t go wrong making either choice, but if you were to evaluate both the PS4 and XBOX One purely on games alone–I’d have to give the edge to XBOX.