A conversation with Ru Weerasuriya, Co-Founder, Chief Creative & Executive Officer of Ready At Dawn, and Dana Jan, Studio Design Director of Ready At Dawn and Game Director for Lone Echo.
The Making of Lone Echo and Solving the Issue Locomotion in VR
There were a lot of factors as to why we made Lone Echo. One was just the sheer opportunity to try and create a VR experience. From the outset, we had no idea or comprehensive plan on exactly what we were going to build. Development started with experimenting with a few things in VR but it was only when we went back to some previous research we had conducted that revolved around the issues of locomotion systems that development began to pick up pace.
We looked for a way to circumvent locomotion issues and zero-g was a natural solution to that issue, it also seemed like a good opportunity to pair that with our studio’s long-held desire to do something more sci-fi oriented. It seemed like both of those light bulbs went off simultaneously and our reaction was: “cool we could slam those together”.
We like to make games with stories and characters, that’s where our expertise is. Our dream of what we thought would be compelling in VR came from this idea that VR offers true escapism, you can go anywhere, explore in a completely new way, and do things that are impossible. A key component of that was the ability to actually get around when you explore and so that’s what motivated the bottom up movement exploration.
The fact is, this project spawned from trying to solve something that many people thought was unsolvable in VR. Our research and the information we came up with spawned the idea of making a game-play experience an immersive experience, and because it had legs we began building an IP around zero-g or possibly deep-sea movement.
Getting to Grips with VR Game Development
Early on this idea emerged that emotions could be created through other characters and not through your own character. We wanted to create a character that put the player into an empty shell, an AI, and the human character was the NPC. In a lot of games, the roles are reversed where the NPCs are the AI and you are the human player. That became crucial for the narrative and lended itself to a really interesting dynamic between the player and the character: it developed into a relationship where you could create an emotional connection with something that was artificial.
The project took two years and 50 people to complete. One of the challenges early on was that we didn’t know what we were doing on day one. We quickly realised that design for VR is completely different from designing a regular game. Everything that you take as preconceived notions of game design and avatar interactions with the world are no longer valid when you’re actually the avatar.
We also didn’t have final hardware when we started. We didn’t have Touch controllers, so we didn’t know we could have hands initially. We didn’t know how to make a game in VR, we built our studio around making console action adventure games and this was a dive into a more narrative focused simulation/role playing experience. Less gamey and more experiential, that was a huge difference. There’s so much more you can rely on objectively about genre games in a traditional sense with consoles. By immersing you in the game, you feel present and your feelings about what you’re doing are very subjective.
Measuring Success in VR
Everyone is different and while in traditional game development you can generally assume what a player will do because there’s less autonomy afforded to the player relative to VR, so finding a way to test the game and measure our successes and failures against extremely subjective data was very new.
Understanding that success in VR is measured very differently than success in traditional games is key. What you expect out of a player’s reaction and what they give you, even if it’s wildly different from what you might expect, is still a success. We started off thinking that there were certain goals that we wanted to hit with a certain moment but realising how many people reacted differently to the same exact thing we put in front of them made us realise that it wasn’t about just a single outcome, it’s multiple outcomes and they’re all valid.
Trying to Make a Widely Accessible but Challenging Game
The number one thing was to let the truth of the focus testers be our truth as much as possible. That’s something that is true for every game but developing Lone Echo made that premise really hit home. When you make a game, you have a target demographic and a lot of the time you choose to make that fairly narrow so you can be specific about the kind of choices you’re making. Here we intentionally made a game with a broad scope, the aim was to be inclusive and have as many people as possible enjoy the experience.
With that goal driving development forward, we made a conscious choice to accept all the feedback we received and try to tweak the experience so that the vast majority of people were happy. That was a big challenge.
We quickly found people have very different levels of comfort and abilities for problem solving in VR. When you think about regular games that have puzzles or fights, your target demographic tends to be fairly similar in their competence but when you start putting people into VR, with problem solving and challenges, the variance there is significant. Trying to find a way to make those experiences hit the pacing beats and the level of difficulty we wanted while maintaining the goal of making the game widely accessible was hard.
Ergonomics, Comfort and Guidance from the Oculus Team
Comfort is something that is another really important point that influenced development of Lone Echo from the outset. The Oculus team made it very clear that ensuring the experience was comfortable needed to be a top priority. We took that advice very seriously because, as a relatively big studio creating a project for a platform in its infancy, we felt as though we had a responsibility to avoid jeopardizing the trajectory of the platform.
If you make something that is uncomfortable in VR then people will say VR is not ready or that VR makes people sick. We realised we wouldn’t get too many shots at this, so we spent crazy amounts of time on all fronts, like lighting, textures, locomotion, UI, everything. We zeroed in on this to make sure the experience was as comfortable as it could be.
One way we worked to overcome these challenges was to approach the development and design of this project not as a continuation of what we had done in the past, but as a new endeavor. We had to be humble about the things we did and that came very early on. After the first few tries you realise that you don’t know as much as you think you do. The only way to overcome the challenges are to be open to change and open to understanding that you’re going to come up with solutions that feel completely foreign to your natural instincts.
Shelved Features and Cut Content
Many features we discovered during development were eventually shelved but we did it in a way where we didn’t sacrifice on the overall experience as we tried lots of things, evaluated them, and moved away from them early on for the right reasons. We pushed forward and maintained the features that we absolutely had to have as we went along to make sure we didn’t jeopardise the cohesive set of systems and experience features that we thought we needed.
Obviously, time plays a huge component rather than practicality. There were prioritising moments where we said “we’re running out of time, do these really matter?” As you start getting more into the flow of development and the game is starting to take shape, it’s easier to determine what things you can start cutting. With the time that we had, which was only 2 years, we tried, as much as possible, to only sign ourselves up for features that seemed practical.
Though this sounds like a clever, streamlined plan in theory, we got to a point where everything seemed impractical. For every single thing we would do, we would have counterpoints and try to find different ways to do it. When you don’t have set rules, everything seems impractical. But you can’t do that. You can’t expect the player to interact one way because you’re not playing an avatar, you are the avatar.
“When you don’t have set rules, everything seems impractical. But you can’t do that. You can’t expect the player to interact one way because you’re not playing an avatar, you are the avatar.”
The Team’s Favourite Moments During Development
The Oculus Touch controllers were an absolute game-changer for us. We were climbing around with L2 and R2 on a console controller for a long time and it was clunky and impractical. Then someone brought in the Razer Hydra controllers one day and we hooked them up but the improvement was still marginal. When the Touch controllers suddenly happened, it was a huge catalyst in the development process.
One of the biggest decisions was to make the game touch only. The tracking fidelity on the Touch controllers with the headset and being able to climb around on the space station interior was probably one of the most transformative days on that project, and that’s why we made a video of it. We were just so blown away with how fluid that was and how much agency you had. That spark carried through a lot of what the team saw as the potential for the project.
What we saw at that moment wasn’t just what the game was, but it was opening the door to a whole bunch of things that have happened since. Like the game jam that spawned Echo Arena among other things. It opened the door to something that was kind of there but as soon as that jelled, it felt like we could make so many things.
The Goals of Lone Echo
One of the core goals of the project was to build a movement model that was for VR and only made in VR. One that literally cannot exist anywhere else. That was a huge step forward for what VR could be when it’s not just an offshoot of everything else we know. It was something that made VR so distinct because you couldn’t get that experience anywhere else.
Immersion was another goal, proving that you could tell great stories in any medium you want. You could create human emotional moments between you and an artificial avatar, an NPC. We called it a virtual companion, in our pitch for the game we said, “have a meaningful relationship and go on an adventure with a virtual companion”. That’s amazing, that’s something that you don’t think of when you’re first starting, when you realise that those memories are, as many people say, as real as your “real” memories. That’s when we realised we were breaking boundaries we’ve never done before.
We wanted to give you untethered freedom to explore space. We thought going on trips or journeys are more fun when you’re not alone and VR is very isolating. So, what if we build someone you could believe is real and have some type of interactions that were meaningful? Those were two big pillars of the project.
Implementing “the Body” Into the Game
Another major moment was finally getting the body in the game. After months and months of debating and worrying about not being able to make that work, getting some traction on it and seeing people’s minds change on the topic was huge. Previously there were a lot of best practices saying “don’t do bodies”, but when we look down and don’t see ourselves it’s a huge presence breaker. To tackle that with respect for other people’s subjective comfort and their self-awareness of their own physicality was a big topic of debate at the studio. After accepting that challenge internally, launching the game, and then having it be somewhat successful in that regard was a big deal for us.
Preparing the announce demo and showing that at Oculus Connect 3 was another big moment during development. That was great because nobody knew about the project. Press were coming by and didn’t know what to expect. Seeing their reactions validated the hard work the whole team had invested in the project, and it was nice to come out the other side of that with kind sentiments and appreciation for what we had tried to pull off.
“I’m pleasantly surprised every week that I get an email saying your app has new reviews and I read positive things. Of course, every now and then you get somebody who ran into a technical issue or they’re in that percentile where comfort-wise almost anything we try to do we couldn’t help them and that sucks and it hurts to read those.
When I started seeing reviews and I had to translate them because they are in Japanese or in some other language I can’t read, I’m excited to see what people have to say about it still to this day. Even when we started seeing people play it on YouTube and stream it, I think watching them delight in certain moments, both the planned and unplanned, has been heartwarming and validates some of the crazy things that we did.” – Dana Jan
Advice to other VR Game Developers
The biggest thing for any VR project, is to not make assumptions. You must try things. Inform your team that you are going to fail a lot. This is true with all games, but maybe more so with VR and tackling new things in VR that you may not understand. Be open to failing, fail fast and fail often. You cannot look at VR as being an offshoot of something else or tacked on to something else. You have to embrace the medium to make something great on it and not look at it as just a display device. It’s not just a different way of displaying entertainment, it is a different type of entertainment.