Double Fine Productions wants to level up the quality of virtual reality games with its latest release: Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin for the PlayStation VR. The $20 title debuts today on Sony’s VR platform for the PlayStation 4, and it will show that VR is starting to grow up.
Double Fine applied its usual high standards in making Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin, which takes place in between the events of Psychonauts and the upcoming Psychonauts 2. Raz, the hero of Psychonauts (which debuted in 2010 and ran on multiple consoles) returns in this game. He is preparing to to a camp with his father when news arrives that his friend Lili’s father, the Grand Head of the Psychonauts (who have psychic powers such as telekinesis), has been kidnapped. The Psychonauts team flies into a mysterious place called the Rhombus of Ruin to rescue him.
I played a couple of levels of the game, which is a point-and-click adventure in VR. You teleport from one place to another and try to solve 3D puzzles using a different point of view. I talked about the design of the game and the studio’s first experience with VR in an interview with Chad Dawson, project lead for the game, and Tim Schafer, CEO of Double Fine, at the company’s headquarters in San Francisco.
Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Chad Dawson: We try to mix it up a little bit between areas that are more puzzle-focused, where you’re moving stuff around, and then something like the path with the fish, where it’s more exploration and narrative. A little bit of Raz reflecting on his mission. You’re seeing a bigger space. It changes the pace for the player a bit.
GB: How long have you been working on this now?
Dawson: About a year and a half now. The total experience length is about three hours.
Tim Schafer: It’s not an experience. It’s a game.
Schafer: Lot of things out there are called experiences, and they’re more like tech demos. This is a game with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Puzzles, an emotional arc, story arcs for all the characters.
Dawson: Good point.
GB: Is this the first VR thing you’ve done?
Schafer: Right. Our first VR game and our first Psychonauts game in 10 years.
Dawson: We developed some stuff for the Microsoft Kinect and the Leap Motion back in the day. Some of the technology has similarities. But VR is its own thing, as you know. It’s funded by Sony. Psychonauts 2 was crowdfunded with Fig.
GB: How did you want to approach this?
Schafer: We knew we were making Psychonauts 2, and we had this piece of the story we just weren’t going to tell. Then the talk came about making a VR game. What can you do in VR, and what can’t you do? I don’t like moving around in VR because I get sick. If you’re standing still, how do you control the world? Well, psychic powers work for that. Making a Psychonauts game was a great opportunity to tell that little story that we couldn’t tell before, in between Psychonauts and Psychonauts 2. You go on a secret mission to rescue the head of the Psychonauts. It seemed like a great way to approach that story.
GB: It felt very comfortable to me.
Schafer: Yeah. I really sick in VR if you’re not strapped to a chair. There are very few VR games where you move a lot that I like. The ones where you teleport are much better. Our teleportation is contextualized in the game. It’s not just that you’re teleporting because you’re some magical creature that can teleport. You’re a psychic who can enter the brain of someone else and see the world through their eyes. Then we use that as a storytelling device where we show the world in different ways. Mia sees those guards on the bus as children, because that’s her point of view and she’s having a delusion.
GB: What else was involved in making it more comfortable for people to sit for a long time?
Dawson: That’s been a guiding principle. We knew we wanted it to be a seated experience. Obviously we talked about going into someone else’s mind as our kind of locomotion, moving around the world. We also wanted, when you use telekinesis to pick up objects and move them, for you to move them by moving your head around with your gaze, so it would feel like a psychic ability.
In designing it, we found that by using that motion to go around, you could place a character who was looking at a television screen, with their face aimed at the screen. But if you went into that character, you wouldn’t be able to see any other character to go to. You’d have to turn around in your chair or look around in 360 to look at that guy behind your shoulder. That’s not particularly comfortable either. It started to change our level design a bit, to where we would pair characters up, always giving you a character in front of you. Our design goal is that you never have to look outside about 120 degrees of view. There’s always something to interact with or another character to go to. That influenced us as we went along.
We also changed some of our puzzles to be less frustrating, less timing-based. Some of the initial ones where you move your head around, you had to do it very fast. You only had a few seconds. People would be swinging their necks around and they’d get tired after a few minutes of playing the game. So we shifted our puzzles to be more about figuring out what to move and where to put it, how combinations of things work.
GB: Did you have a lot of puzzles designed before you did that kind of testing?
Dawson: We were lucky enough to find that out early on. Some of our initial prototypes were that way. As developers you’re sometimes in the headset for eight or more hours a day, so you pick up on it quickly, especially if you’re sensitive. Any time we ran people through and asked people what we could change to make it more fun—ideas would come up like, “Let’s make the player have to do it in three seconds! Let’s make them have to be super precise!” But we backed off from that design a bit and tried to make it more forgiving for players.
GB: Did you have ideas around this before VR started to become more popular? Did you ever envision Psychonauts as a more three-dimensional game like this?
Schafer: We never thought of it as a first-person game. We thought we were always going to do another third-person platform game. But when we started thinking about a VR game, that’s when it turned into more of a gaze-and-click adventure, kind of like Broken Age, a point-and-click adventure. It seemed like the most natural genre for this technology.
GB: Are you able to take this to other platforms beyond PSVR?
Schafer: We’re focusing on this platform for now. I like the PlayStation VR because of the price point, the ability for a regular consumer to understand what they’re buying. They don’t have to build a special machine just to do it. They just need a PlayStation Pro. It’s a comfortable headset, the way it has a crown, how it sits on your head. You look cool when you’re using it, because it’s got lights on it. [laughs]
GB: Did you do much testing to see people’s reactions?
Dawson: We did. There was a lot of internal testing when we were starting out, but as the game started—we showed it at E3 last year, and at Sony’s PlayStation Experience last fall. Those were both great. We also bring a lot of people into the studio. We probably had more than 20 or 30 people come in to play through it and give feedback. There’s nothing better than seeing someone get stuck or not find something to let you tweak it. Also, a range of ages helped. That’s something we’ve noted with VR. Older people maybe don’t want to move around as much. Tim jokes about his back.
Schafer: My neck, too.
Dawson: The range in which people are comfortable moving their heads is different.
Schafer: I would have thought, when VR started—let’s take advantage of what VR can do. It’s a full 360 world. You’re in a sphere of stuff you can look at. But in practice you don’t really want to crank your head around to look behind you all the time.
Dawson: Or looking up for extended periods. We started thinking we could put in all this stuff above you. That’s nice to glance at, but if you’re looking up for a long time, you get sore. Different VR headsets are pushing a different field of view, but there’s also your field of focus as a player. Until eye tracking tech and things like that come online, you’re going to have to turn your head to look. In real life most people look with their eyes more than their head. Learning to look with your head—your head isn’t built for that. It becomes sort of like a tennis match, looking back and forth. You want to be wary of that. You don’t want to make people do that very fast or for a very long time.
GB: Is there anything you’ve figured out that’s particularly good for an immersive experience in VR?
Schafer: We definitely felt that your connection with people is really strong in VR. When Mia is first talking to you and she’s bending over and making eye contact with you, it’s really necessary to—if you move your head, characters have to track your eyes. Otherwise you’ll really notice it in VR. You have to make sure you’re doing it better than before, but at the same time, it’s much more impactful. Characters looking at you, facing you, is more intense. You notice more emotional cues from them than you would when you’re normally playing a game.
Dawson: And the 3D positioning audio, the more you can use that, the better. Even if it’s just something like ambient drips behind you. Hearing a character make a sound and using that to draw your attention—most games would put a big flash there, something graphical, but in VR there’s so much to look at.
In the jet we have a tutorial monitor that’s flashing at you. It didn’t have any sound at first, but we thought people would see it flashing. But no, because there’s so much else to look at. Hearing a sound over there, though, people will turn their head. That was much more effective than we initially thought. We worked with our audio team to put a lot of cues in the world. When people hear that for the first time – “It’s coming out of this ear. No, it’s coming out of that ear,” picking it up as they turn their heads. People haven’t experienced that as much in most traditional games.
GB: It felt like it took me a little longer than usual to get through the tutorial.
Dawson: We designed that a bit to let you play around. It’s not super gating. With any person coming into a VR world, particularly people trying VR the first time – and I still think there will be a lot of people experiencing VR for the first time – you want to give them a bit of space. You don’t want to make them feel rushed. You want to give them a chance to explore. With most games there’s a sense of, “Okay, let’s get players through this fast,” but most people buying this game and playing in their own home will want to sit back and relax and get used to the space. It’s something developers should take into consideration, easing players into VR a bit.
GB: Do you think this is something that’s going to catch people’s attention?
Dawson: It’s unique. There aren’t a lot of games that focus on this sort of art style, or even this sort of gameplay.
Schafer: And that have a lot of interesting characters and humor in them. It stands out.
Dawson: I’m glad there’s a wide range. There’s a lot of action-focused, or more mechanical-focused puzzle games in VR. It’ll be great to see more games coming out. But this game has its own unique spot, a story-driven game with these characters. There are a lot of Easter eggs, hidden things you can find if you look.
Schafer: References to both Psychonauts and Psychonauts 2. We keep those threads going for people who are paying attention.
Dawson: A lot of people in VR, because you can, they like looking at the underside of a table or a chair, or peeking into a cabinet to see what’s inside. It almost becomes a natural thing once people figure out they can find stuff. Once they figure out they can move their head around and look behind things ….
GB: Seeing something from another point of view is a big puzzle-solving technique.
Dawson: It is. Our main mechanic in the game, when you’re moving around, is seeing things from different people’s viewpoints. As you saw a bit, going into Mia and seeing the children differently, it’s something we can use to tell a story or give a different perspective or set up a puzzle room. Maybe se can see some things other characters can’t. There are a lot of opportunities.
GB: PSVR seems to be getting widely deployed out there. You might have found a better time to launch than the very beginning.
Schafer: I think the launch games—there was a heavy push to get games at launch. Now there’s going to be a second wave of titles that had different timelines, where hitting the launch day wasn’t the number one priority.
Dawson: Hopefully a bit more variety out there. We’re seeing different styles of game come along. I’m excited to see what’s out there.
GB: How hopeful are you about VR in general?
Schafer: It’s interesting, because people are still figuring out what to do with it. I think it’s going to be around for a long time. Someone’s going to catch on to something that’s super compelling. On the one hand, the intrinsic magic is going to fade a little bit. Remember when the first 3D games came out, like Alone in the Dark, something like that? Star Fox? Seeing something from multiple sides was magic. It was magic to see Battlezone, with the tank rotating. Then that faded. The novelty was gone. Tank’s rotating, big deal. Then someone had to build a really compelling experience with it.
That initial, “Whoa, I’m in a 3D space” is going to go away. But then people are going to figure out things you can do in VR that you can’t do in any other game. In our game, it’s the emphasis on emotion and character. Someone will figure out something else. There will be some—not to use the phrase “killer app,” but something that people haven’t thought of yet that will drive it forward. And if they can make the headsets light and comfortable.
Dawson: It definitely feels like we’re at the very beginning of it. The promise of what’s coming next—not just with better hardware, but also developers understanding what works and what doesn’t work. Everyone working on it has surprises along the way, things they discover in a game they’re making that they didn’t think would be any good, but that end up being the best part. Or stuff that they thought would be amazing based on previous experience, but that just doesn’t work as well in VR.
When I talk to people about it, the initial thinking is, “Oh, I’ve seen a 3D movie in a theater,” and they assume that’s going to be the feeling. But once you get in VR and realize that it’s more than just a little-bit-better version of 3D – that it actually puts you in a space – it’s a really neat medium to develop for.
GB: How big was the team on this?
Schafer: Maybe 15?
Dawson: The average size was around 12 to 15. We ramped it up a bit. It started as a small team of five or six, just getting the technology working and trying out ideas. But a relatively small team.
GB: What might be next in your experimentation with VR?
Dawson: At this point I think we’re mostly excited to get this out in people’s hands and see their reaction to it. It’ll be out on February 21, so very soon. We’re eager to get people playing it and see if they like it. Like we said, it fills a different spot in the VR landscape.