Ustwo Games’ Peter Pashley discusses how the studio built a VR title free from confusing controls and motion sickness
UK studio Ustwo Games, best known for hit mobile puzzler Monument Valley, has taken its first step into virtual reality with the release of Land’s End.
The first-person puzzle game, built specifically for Samsung Gear VR, sees players exploring beautiful environments that, according to technical director Peter Pashley, have been inspired by “the islands of the Hebrides and their Neolithic heritage”.
Given the stark contrast between Land’s End and Ustwo’s previous title, it’s no wonder the team opted for a game engine with which it was already familiar.
“We knew that making a good VR game for the first time would be an incredibly iterative process; Unity’s ease of use for level design and short design-build-test cycles made it the perfect fit,” says Pashley.
“We were also aware that Unity was committed to supporting VR from a very early stage, so we were confident the engine wouldn’t get left behind in the rapidly-changing VR software environment.”
Pashley reports that setting up Unity for a VR project is very quick – especially in Unity 5, where it can be done by simply ticking a box. The ease of building for Android platforms in Unity made the Samsung Gear VR a smart choice when it came to end device, although the Oculus Rift can now be used with the Unity Editor to test features as you work.
"With VR, you quickly find out that that any first assumptions are usually wrong."
Peter Pashley, Ustwo Games
As this was the first time Ustwo had developed for VR, the initial work on Land’s End was highly challenging.
“You quickly find out that you have to re-learn all your previous design principles, that any first assumptions are usually wrong, and that VR rendering is extremely intensive for a mobile phone,” says Pashley.
“The biggest challenge was that no-one had ever done a game like this before. When everything you’re doing – performance, input, level design, audio design, art style – is new, it takes a long time to fit all of your new approaches together into a cohesive whole.”
The team quickly discovered that people have very different reactions to VR, which increased the need for thorough testing. Ustwo was also determined to avoid the biggest peril of virtual reality development: causing motion sickness.
“The first thing we did was to make sure we had a motion mechanic that was comfortable for players,” says Pashley. “This took a long time and a lot of user testing and iteration, but we got there in the end and created something that is comfortable for most people, even the most motion-sensitive.”
Control was another issue. While VR studios around the globe are experimenting with using traditional gamepads and brand new motion controllers, Ustwo opted for a far simpler solution.
“We didn’t want to assume that players would be familiar with a gamepad and found that using the Gear VR’s side-mounted touchpad could be tiring and distracting, so we decided to do all of our interactions purely using the direction the player was looking in – so-called ‘gaze’ controls.”
Player comfort is one of the many reasons why Pashley stresses how important testing is in VR development. He urges devs to try new features and content via the actual device as often as possible, and to test them on people from outside the dev team.
“Designing and building VR is hard but don’t give up,” he says. “Be creative with your solutions and you’ll find something that works. Don’t be precious about ideas –if it just doesn’t work in user-testing then try something else.
“VR is a totally new medium which will have new genres that have never existed before. This is your chance to create something entirely fresh and define the standards of the future."