Don Rowe speaks Seth Luisi, co-founder of Impulse Studios and lead developer on Farpoint, the first legitimate AAA title on PSVR.
Read Don Rowe’s Farpoint review here.
Don Rowe: I’ve played through the game and I was very impressed, particularly around the locomotion. While I understand there are certain things you can’t control around latency and so on, what have you done on your end to mitigate the nausea that can come from VR?
Seth Luisi: That’s something we spent a lot of time on for Farpoint. Really we started with that, and the basis of how you would use the controller and how you would move through the environment and really sort of focusing on that core moment to moment experience as you’re moving and aiming and shooting. And so a lot of what we’ve been able to do with that has to do with how the Aim controller works with the game. So the fact that you have the controller and you can independently move it around separately from your head and where your head looks really helps separate a lot of those things that cause unintended movement or unintended motion in different directions. That really helps a lot with making it so that you don’t have the sense of nausea that you get in other games. Having that controller, having the movement completely separate from your head and which direction you’re looking, and there’s a lot of other sort of tricks and things that we do in there as well to keep it as comfortable as possible.
When you say that, it seems so obvious and I absolutely didn’t consider that at all. That definitely takes away a lot of stress when it’s the gun moving and not necessarily your entire head. With that gun, can you tell me a little bit about designing a game with that in mind? Obviously it’s not already on the market, it’s not tried and tested like the Dualshock is, so what was the experience like designing with that gun in mind? And what sort of things did you have to take into consideration?
That’s something that I’ve been working on for a number of years so it kind of goes back to the old Sharpshooter from the PlayStation 3. I worked with that with the team at Gorilla and we were developing that motion control for use in games and how we would utilise that for a shooting title. When VR came along that sort of came out as one of the first things that I thought would really bring the immersion to a whole new level. We prototyped that control and how you would utilise it and sort of proposed it to Sony and the team in Japan and they’ve been great working with us and building out the Aim controller and it sort of all started from the controller in creating the type of game that we wanted to make.
I was quite blown away when I first saw the controller as it doesn’t actually look that much like a gun. But then in game, looking down at my hands, it felt incredibly natural and exactly like the weapon that I was holding – which is interesting considering I’ve never held a laser rifle. With the design process, where were you drawing influence from in terms of the shape and things like that?
That was intentional. The sharpshooter looked much more like a real gun and that was mainly because you played holding it in your hands and you were looking at it as you were using it. With the Aim controller we wanted to go away from that because when you put on the headset and you look down, we can show whatever gun you want to be there. Whatever we want that to be. So it didn’t actually have to look like a real weapon in any way. So instead, working with the team in Japan, we kind of focused on not necessarily having it look like a gun but instead have it look like the PS VR and look like it’s a part of the family and look like it belongs with that.
And it was really important for us as well to make sure that all of the buttons are within reach so you don’t have to look at it when you’re using it and so we went through a lot of iterations making sure it could be touched with your fingers without having to move your hands at all, and then making it fully ambidextrous as well so if you’re left handed you have no problems using it and everything is totally within reach and so a lot of those things were in the design process.
There are certain limitations to the gun considering it uses the Move technology with a light on the front, and that means that there are certain things like turning your back on the camera that you can’t do, but where there any positives that resulted from that creative constraint?
Absolutely. We looked at the overall game experience and how we would best utilise everything that we would have there from the controller to the direction you move to the environments and the enemy AI, a lot of that feeds into the overall experience, so while there were certainly some limitations around turning away from the camera, we designed the game around the fact that you didn’t necessarily have to do that to walk, so we really designed the levels and the enemies and everything to sort of focus on the direction of the camera rather than the direction the player is facing. There were a lot of things we did under the hood to make things work as seamlessly as possible.
A lot of the earlier VR games felt – out of necessity – like a totally on-rails experience. The problem is that a lot of the time it literally felt like you were on rails, whereas with Farpoint I didn’t get that same impression but I haven’t been able to pinpoint exactly why aside from maybe a little bit of lateral movement. In your opinion, why does Farpoint feel like it isn’t on rails, even though essentially it kind of is?
We absolutely allow you to move in any direction you want to move, so you turn around and go backwards, you can go to the left, you can strafe to the right. We have full range of movement, where a lot of other VR games don’t. Some of them are literally on rails. So our game, we do allow you some freedom, and when we were designing the levels we kept everything in a certain direction for best tracking. But again, we do try to allow you as much movement as possible as you are moving through the environments. I think that really shows when you’re playing it. We also do a lot to line the levels and add some turns in there so that you’re not just going in a straight line, you are sort of going and it feels like you’re turning and navigating through this virtual space, rather than having it be so linear.
One thing that blew me away is maybe seven or eight minutes into the demo I felt my back starting to sweat, and there’s a certain physiological response to the kind of game that it is. Were there any concerns around perspiration clouding the headset or anything along those lines?
I think the team at Sony did a great job designing the headset, having it well-insulated and it’s a really the most comfortable headset and really the only one that works with glasses. That really goes to a lot of how the PSVR headset itself was designed. But yeah, we are providing a very immersive experience and certainly when you have these freaky spider things jumping straight at your face, it can get intense and so it’s one of those things that we’ve pushed as far as we can, and we want to have a sort of thrilling, immersive experience, with everything being natural in the world.
Do you see a point where VR is potentially the dominant medium in which games are consumed? Is that even a goal for VR devs?
For me the big thing is that VR is it’s own medium, and so the way in which you experience everything and the way you play the game is so different. And so when you play Farpoint and you see the narrative we have there, it really does show where VR as a medium can go, and some of the new types of things that we can do in VR just can’t be done in regular games. So while I don’t think that regular games will go away and everything is just going to be VR, this is the very beginning of VR and we are looking at the first generation of it. It really does show you how much further we can take it.
As a developer and someone who has been involved in the design of the hardware itself, what excites you about the near future or even the distant future of VR technology?
There’s so many things that I could go into, but I think the important thing is that it’s a great experience now. We’re really happy with the type of game that we can get out there now, and we’re really proud of the overall game experience. Certainly we’re looking towards the future and some of the things that new technology will bring us – there’s always a want for higher definition screens and higher frame rates and everything else, and those will make the games further down the line more realistic, but again just having a game like Farpoint out now and really showing people what can be achieved in VR is really exciting to us.
The only thing that might potentially keep it away from the hands of a lot more people is the price point. Do you personally see a future where VR is more accessible to the average consumer?
I think it’s one of those things that early on in the industry for VR there is a lot of thought about how much do we evolve it versus bringing down the price, but the PSVR really offers the best value that you can get out of any of the VR systems out there. I’m not too familiar with the pricing in New Zealand, but it’s extremely competitive in North America and it really does offer the lowest price point and barrier to entry. We are an independent developer and so we look at Oculus and Vive and some of these other systems but really PSVR has the biggest, most solid base with all the PlayStation 4 consoles as well as the lowest price point offering that high-fidelity VR experience.
With your studio itself, how many developers or designers are from the more traditional gaming industry, and in what ways have you had to change their thinking when working in a medium like VR?
All of our team is from traditional game studios but when we were building the team we wanted to find people who are very interested in VR and what can be done in VR pushing it forward, so the first thing we had was everyone playing the prototype we put together and really seeing what their thoughts were on that and what their feeling is and how that could be brought forward. We wanted to make sure that everyone we brought on was really passionate about VR, but there is a tonne of new things that we had to learn about VR as far as how do you tell a narrative, where do you place the camera, how active do you make the participant when they’re going through some of these narrative scenes, not to mention UI, navigation, enemy design and how the AI adapts to the VR world. There’s certainly a lot that we learned along the way, there’s a lot more that we still have to learn as well.
It certainly seems like a realm in which you have to make it up as you go because there’s no precedent to the sort of things that you’re trying to achieve. But are there sources of inspiration or guidelines as to where you should go next?
We do a lot of iteration and prototyping at the studio. Any feature that we put in or things that we try out, we try to keep a very open mind towards ideas that people have, and we’re very committed to prototyping them and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. There really isn’t anything that you can point to at this time outside of VR to things that work really well inside VR, so it is a lot of prototyping and trying things out to see what works and what doesn’t work and moving it forward from there.
I understand Farpoint is around 5-6 hours long, whereas a lot of games like The Witcher are endlessly long. Where do you draw the line on length and quantity vs quality? What do you base those decisions on?
A lot of that comes down to the size of our team. We’re 15 people, and so we’re not hundreds of people so we couldn’t make a game of that size and scope. We really want to focus on what we could do, the amount of content we can create, the experience we can create to really have a full game experience in VR, but something that as a studio we could do and do really well. That shows a lot of the initial scope, and then we develop the narrative around that. We really have a very different narrative in the game. Instead of focusing on your standard action game narrative, we did want to do something very different and we have a much more personal narrative. It is much more about the characters in the game and how they relate to one another. We’re able to utilise that feeling that these characters are actually there and close to you in that game world to sort of get across an emotional feeling in the narrative that you just don’t normally get from a game.
There are obviously a lot of ‘firsts’ in Farpoint with the inclusion of the Aim controller and creating a VR game with that sort of narrative, but what are you personally most proud of about the game?
There’s so much there. I guess the basic answer would be the controller because it is something that I’ve been working on for so long so to finally see it come out and be realised in the game goes back to when I was working on previous shooting games and I really wanted to find a better control method than just having dual analog sticks or a mouse and keyboard. I wanted something that was more intuitive, more accurate, more precise, and then also much more immersive and so we’re able to achieve all of that with this controller. It’s more accurate even than a keyboard and mouse, you’re able to look at things and aim very quickly and very accurately, so there’s a lot that the controller brings to the game.
Beyond that I’d say the narrative. We’re doing something very special with the narrative and we’re really excited to see what people think as they play through it, because it isn’t your standard video game narrative, it does get more emotional than even a lot of people probably realise at this point. We’re really excited to see how people react to that.
Read Don Rowe’s Farpoint review here.