Air travel can be particularly nightmarish during the holidays. But indie studio Out There Entertainment has found humor in one of the many indignities you’ve been forced to endure: Going through airport security. In its debut virtual reality game TSA Frisky, you play as a frantic Transport Security Administration employee, tasked with scanning harried passengers and their luggage as quickly as possible. A demo should hit the HTC Vive headset in January, with a port to the Oculus Rift to come in the future.
Founders Remy Bustani, Preston O’Bryan, and Christian Willet met while they were students at the Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD). After graduation, they were accepted into the inaugural SCAD+ program, an incubator to help alumni develop all manner of games.
“We’re extremely fortunate to be part of the SCAD+ program,” said Out There art lead Bustani in a phone call with GamesBeat. “While Savannah is trying to expand and really set itself apart as an indie game hub on the East Coast, that’s still very much in a foundational phase. Because we’re a part of that foundational phase, we’re going to be able to reap the benefits as Savannah continues to expand.”
Out There takes its cue from Owlchemy’s Job Simulator, and it shows. TSA Frisky is a timed challenge where you must survive until the end of your shift. It’s got bright colorful visuals, but it’s meant to be hectic fun.
“[The team] liked the idea of taking mundane tasks and using VR to really exploit the fun in that,” said Bustani. “In VR, you take a simple action like opening a drawer, that can blow your mind just because it’s such a new medium. The most basic interactions fill people with joy.”
Developing TSA Frisky was both a creative and technical challenge. Out There’s designer O’Bryan said that optimization was one of the things they had to keep in mind. They had to employ little tricks to make sure the game performed well, such as lowering texture resolutions and poly counts and adjusting the way they designed the lighting.
“What we’ve had to do is—initially the majority of the lighting was dynamic, meaning that it was casting shadows in real time and doing light bounces in real time, depending on the [non-playable characters] walking into the scene,” said O’Bryan. “I had to constrain that down to one area, where everything around the actual play space had fake lighting. Only in the center of the play space does it cast dynamic shadows.”
Here is an edited transcript of our interview.
GamesBeat: Can you tell me a bit about yourself and what your experience has been in SCAD and SCAD+?
Remy Bustani: I’m from Washington, D.C., or McLean, Virginia, right outside of DC. I went to SCAD and graduated last spring with a BFA in sequential art and a minor in concept art for games. I had a blast during my time there and made a lot of amazing connections, which is how I ended up in the SCAD+ program. Because of my major, I wasn’t involved with the game originally, but I was fortunate enough to know all the people on the team. They were all my friends. I’d seen the project progress throughout their time in school. It was easy and natural for me to hop on the team.
GamesBeat: Is it just the three of you working on TSA Frisky, or are other folks involved?
Bustani: We’re the three founders — me, Preston, and Christian. We’re the ones who own the company and are officially part of the SCAD+ program. But we have various artists and technical people and coders and others helping us out to various degrees.
GamesBeat: Can you talk about the inspiration for the game? Once you joined, how did that evolve?
Bustani: At the very beginning, the team was inspired by Job Simulator. They liked the idea of taking mundane tasks and using VR to really exploit the fun in that. In VR, you take a simple action like opening a drawer, that can blow your mind just because it’s such a new medium. The most basic interactions fill people with joy. They wanted to capitalize on that. They went through a list of items for two weeks, throwing ideas up on the whiteboard, and the one that stuck with them was TSA Frisky. They had that name on the board, and it really popped out to them. It made them laugh. It made everyone on the team 100 percent on board with the idea, which was key.
Originally there were eight people on the team, or seven and then Christian joined a bit later. During school, they did it as a two-class project. It was studio two and then post-production after that. At SCAD we’re able to do those group projects within our major and really fine tune our skills and produce proofs of concept like the ones that came out of this. After that, we were already in contact with [Scott Brown, the current creative director of the SCAD+ program], and he was interested in having us be on the trial run for SCAD+. We were already in on the ground floor, and then before the program, we needed to have a prototype, so we presented a class project.
Upon doing that we realized that the game was more of an experience than a game. It had all the groundwork to be a game, but there was no real goal. There was no sense of progression. We had to take a good look at it from the conception and really build a good foundation to go off of from there. We started reworking the narrative, reworking the progression systems. We incorporated new levels, lots of new items, and we even started revamping a lot of the art and the characters. While it was a great foundation to start from, the program has really allowed us to develop this idea into a full-fledged game.
GamesBeat: How long have you been working on the game? Or when did the game first really start coming together?
Bustani: The program started around early August. It was on and off before then, while they were setting everything up, because it’s so new. We were still laying all the groundwork for the program. We were working with everyone to get everything rolling, get all of the contracts together. I started around mid-August. I’ve been working on it since then. But I’ve done work on it a bit beforehand. Again, they were all my friends on the project, so they had me do storyboards. Because I was sequential art, I was able to do those fairly quickly. I storyboarded the live-action portion of the game, for the trailer at least, that they presented to take the game to E3.
GamesBeat: You mentioned the narrative and character. Is there a story to TSA Frisky, or is it mainly about finding contraband and completing these tasks in a certain amount of time?
Bustani: The way we have the gameplay set up right now, at least, it’s all subject to change. We have playtest sessions coming up soon and we’re going to fine tune all this stuff. But the idea moving forward will be that it’s more of a survival thing. You’ll have a set amount of time to survive your shift and the idea is to not black out. Your stress will build up every time you mess up, or every time you stop doing your job, so you’re meant to keep working, keep going.
The narrative is mostly there as a reason to progress. You’re going to be working for a supervisor, and he’ll be the one that walks you through the tutorial and the intro sequence. And he’s going to be the one walking you through the narrative throughout the game, and giving you your upgrades as well. At least for right now, the working narrative is going to be that there are the top 5 TSA’s most wanted, and it’s your job to find them throughout the three levels we have set up. As you catch these culprits, you’ll be earning upgrades in order to make your job easier, and in order to get through more people and become more efficient.
GamesBeat: That sounds like it could go in kind of a dark direction.
Bustani: Oh no, it’s very light-hearted. [laughs] They’re very goofy characters. We have a crooked politician, and you frisk money bags off of him. We have a model who’ll strike poses while you’re trying to pat him down. Things like that. Very light-hearted and funny.
GamesBeat: Did you help design the characters? How many different characters are there that come through?
Bustani: I did help design the characters. I’m the 2D and 3D artist for the game, so I’m helping with the 3D, and my predominant role is 2D, because that’s where my background comes from. I’m acting as the concept artist. I designed what the characters would look like, and we wanted to strive to have a modular system for the characters. They should be able to be randomized. Everything from the proportions of their bodies, their limbs, and their hands to the clothes that they wear should all be interchangeable by the final game.
For the demo we’re trying to get our vertical slice together, which is essentially just a thin slice of the game, but that shows what most of the mechanics are going to look like in the final version. We’re only going to have three or four characters in the demo, but in the final game there should be a huge variety of constantly changing characters.
GamesBeat: Why did you decide to join a VR project?
Bustani: Me personally, as soon as I got my hands on a VR headset, I was captivated. The medium as a whole just brought me in. I was fortunate that my SCAD professors were so understanding about that. They would let me bring my headset to class and show everyone what it was like. My senior project professor allowed me to, instead of doing a comic book, make a VR comic book. Honestly, for the past two years I’ve just been headfirst into VR.
We were all part of the Collaborative Learning Center (CLC) program at SCAD, which is where we met Scott. In those programs you’re allowed to work with a group of students from multiple majors in a very professional setting under the direction of a real company. Through those I got to dabble in VR a bit more, and that’s really where I got my hands into it and realized this was a path I wanted to go. Because I had known Scott, it was a very natural shift to go from doing the 2D art and comic books to the 2D art for VR games.
Preston O’Bryan: Me and Christian had the chance to work with our director here at the SCAD+ program on a CLC project called Dialect Effect. We utilized VR, specifically the HTC Vive headset, to create a learning experience for students. We used voice recognition to communicate with the NPC in a game to learn and communicate Mandarin Chinese.
I’m originally from Houston. I came to SCAD in 2013 and I graduated this past year with a major in interactive design and game development, with a minor in sound design. I got introduced to VR while I was in the Introduction to Game Development curriculum, learning about who coined the term “virtual reality” for using the actual technology. The first time I really got my hands on doing VR, and specifically sound for VR, was in the CLC, which was a really awesome experience, to be able to get on a project like this in an emerging, booming tech that was just now hitting the market again. And so I never thought I would be in VR at the start. I just really cared about game design. I love game design. VR brings a new way—even, I would say, a different form of game design that I’ve never really practiced. It’s really interesting to learn about taking real-world actions, even just opening a drawer, and bringing that into a virtual space.
GamesBeat: What were the challenges in creating a VR game? Was it design, or technical, or both?
O’Bryan: The biggest challenges were, one, like I was speaking about earlier, it’s designing for VR. It’s a totally different process than designing a traditional game. It’s really cool, because it’s unexplored territory, finding out what’s fun in VR. We always use the example of opening and closing a drawer. In real life you would never think to put that in a game, but when you put in VR, it just blows people’s minds, for whatever reason. That was one hurdle we had to overcome, but it was a good one, because it really changed our design minds, essentially.
Another one with VR is—with traditional games, it’s fairly hard to optimize, but not too hard. By that I mean, being able to make a game run at a certain frame rate so players can have the best experience. In a traditional game, it’s much easier than in VR. You’re rendering to one screen, while in VR you’re rendering to two screens. Also, with VR you have to take into account motion sickness. If you’re dropping frames, it’ll start making the player sick and the experience isn’t worth it.
As developers, we’ve had to find ways to make the game perform better, lowering texture resolutions, lowering poly counts, making sure the sound bites are optimized for a short length of time so you can loop it, like for a music file. Optimization for VR games has been a big hurdle that we’ve had to overcome, but it’s really good for us.
GamesBeat: Did you start with one art style, or one set of mechanics, and then you had to tweak that and throw some of that out? What was that optimization process like?
O’Bryan: Take, for instance, AI, the people who are walking in and out of the airport and having a directional light that casts dynamic shadows on the player and these AI. What we’ve had to do is—initially the majority of the lighting was dynamic, meaning that it was casting shadows in real time and doing light bounces in real time, depending on the [non-playable characters] walking into the scene. I had to constrain that down to one area, where everything around the actual play space had fake lighting. Only in the center of the play space does it cast dynamic shadows. Because of the fact that—if an AI was far away from the player, the player wasn’t seeing it, but it was casting shadows anyway, and that would dramatically decrease the frame rate. We had to dial that back to only focusing in on the play space having those types of shadows. That’s an example of optimization, certain instances where we have to take that route for VR’s sake.
GamesBeat: How do you make sure the player pays attention where they need to pay attention, since they can look everywhere?
Bustani: When it comes to attention, we let the player do what they want. They have the freedom to look and do what they want while they’re in the game. We can’t punish them for doing that. We can only reward them for playing the game well. What it really comes down to, we may have all these ideas of how the mechanics will play and how the progression will work and all the tools we’ll be able to give the player, but it comes down to play-testing. We want to start hosting regular play sessions where we have people come in and test certain mechanics, see if they’re intuitive or natural, if they can pick it up without explanation or if we have to walk them through it.
We’ll end up having to cut a lot of things and change a lot of things. Being flexible like that is key when you’re working in a new medium. VR is very much uncharted territory right now. There are lots of good examples in the marketplace as far as what you can do, but there’s also a lot of gray area where you’re not really sure if people will understand certain things. You’re not sure if you’re overloading the player in certain instances.
What our plan is going forward, we built the game to have a sense of progression, so we’re going to start the player off with the most basic of the core mechanics, which are just frisking and searching through luggage. With every level as you play you unlock a new tool or a new mechanic that you have to factor into your gameplay. All that stuff will come into play when you’re in the level, because you’re just trying to survive that shift. You’re trying to make it through your day without passing out. You’re going to use any tools you have available to make that happen, to get the game to go forward and make it to the next day.
GamesBeat: You guys are in a kind of unique position as part of the SCAD+ program, but what are your thoughts on the indie game scene in Savannah? Is it difficult to find resources support for most game devs?
Bustani: We’re extremely fortunate to be part of the SCAD+ program. While Savannah is trying to expand and really set itself apart as an indie game hub on the east coast, that’s still very much in a foundational phase. Because we’re a part of that foundational phase, we’re going to be able to reap the benefits as Savannah continues to expand. But because we’re part of the SCAD+ program, we still have all those connections to SCAD. We have access to the entire student body. We made use of the mocap studio today. We have access to professors who come in and give us critiques. SCAD+ will also bring in people from the industry and companies from the industry to come to Savannah and talk to us on location. We have a lot of resources at our disposal in Savannah thanks to SCAD.
IndieBeat is GamesBeat reporter Stephanie Chan’s new weekly column on in-progress indie projects. If you’d like to pitch a project or just say hi, you can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.