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When you enter the world of Land’s End, it’s a beautiful and colorful experience reminiscent of the iconic computer game Myst. The virtual reality game takes you to the edge of a world on a sea shore. You see Stonehenge-like symbols and other strange structures on the cliffs.
Land’s End is a VR game built for the Samsung Gear VR, which uses an Oculus-built VR headset and a Samsung smartphone to transport you into another world. The game comes from Ustwo, the London-based company that created Monument Valley, an award-winning game based on the Relativity lithograph by M.C. Escher. The small studio spent about a year working on Land’s End as its first experiment with the new medium of VR.
I attended a recent Unity Technologies VR event in San Francisco and spoke with Jonathan Topf, an artist at Ustwo. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
GamesBeat: How long is the experience you’ve created?
Jonathan Topf: We wanted the length to be about 40 minutes so people could play the whole thing. A lot of games out there try and go a bit longer and end up not being finished. It’s important to us that people can get through it and feel like they’ve completed something rather than burn out.
GamesBeat: How many people are in the studio?
Topf: It’s about 11 people. Most of the production was only about three people, and then toward the end we ramped up the full 11 of us.
GamesBeat: Is this the first thing you’ve done since Monument Valley?
Topf: It’s our first full release since then, yes. Of course, there’s the updates to Monument Valley as well.
GamesBeat: Where is this headed? Is it on Gear VR and then something else?
Topf: It’s a Gear VR exclusive for the time being. We’re waiting to see. It’s only been out for a month now. We’ll see how people react to it. We’re notorious for taking things slowly and waiting to let the game decide what it wants to be next. But we’re pleased with how people are receiving it.
GamesBeat: How long did you work on this?
Topf: It took about a year.
GamesBeat: What were you thinking as you made the decisions around what it should be?
Topf: The way we approached Monument Valley was not by coming up with a story. We had an idea of mood, and we wanted something that would fit perfectly on a tablet. At the time there weren’t that many great experiences on tablets. We came in here with the same idea. We had some ideas about moods and concepts, and then it was a case of taking VR and looking at what works best. What interactions feel good?
A lot of interactions are taken from other games and ported over to VR, but they don’t feel very good. We wanted to work out the native language of VR. How do you make buttons work? How do you make movement and interactions work? That’s what made the decisions at any moment for us. Does this feel good? Does this feel comfortable?
GamesBeat: It has a Myst-like feel to it.
Topf: Absolutely. It’s one of those things that we—We had a moment where we thought, “Yeah, this is very much like Myst.” Tonally there are some similarities, like letting the player move at their own speed. It’s not a game about reacting. It’s more about thinking. There are definitely elements like that.
GamesBeat: You go from point to point, so you get around the problem of people getting sick from the movement.
Topf: Exactly. Movement is always a strange thing to do in VR. But I think this is the best way to do it. Certainly the most comfortable way. Some people do get used to VR with controllers and things like that. But in a market that’s still new, you’re cutting off half of your audience by saying, “Okay, if you’re motion sensitive, don’t play our game.” We wanted to be able to say, “Want to try VR? Here’s VR.”
GamesBeat: How do you approach the financial side? You can’t make a lot of money in this market yet. But it seems like it will eventually be a big market. Do you feel like this is something you have to do to learn in anticipation of that time?
Topf: Kind of. It’s similar to how we look at it. This is certainly not a huge market yet. We’re doing very well for the market that’s out there. It was more a case of, this is a new market and we have a chance to define some things, answer some new questions. It gives the market the best possible chance of going somewhere. We’re seeing a lot of games that turn people off. If someone says, “I want to play a shooter in VR,” before people put that on and have a terrible experience we want to show them a different version of what VR can be. Then they have a good experience and VR has more of a chance to be accepted. It’s not about the money so far. It’s more about sending a message about what VR can be.
GamesBeat: The art direction reminds me of a lot of iconic images. It looks a little like Stonehenge, but not quite, and other things I feel like I’ve seen before.
Topf: I’m from Cornwall in England. That’s where Land’s End is. There are a few locations in Scotland and other fringe parts of Britain that inspired a lot of the visuals and landscapes, although this is a little more fantastical. There’s a definite timelessness to the types of places we wanted to put people in. We didn’t want to put people in cities or any other places they’d likely been in before.
There’s a dream in VR about going somewhere you’ve never been before. These places are exotic, but not in the most obvious way you’d think of.
GamesBeat: There’s a sort of virtual tourism appeal in this.
Topf: It’s tourism to places that don’t exist.
GamesBeat: How well did Monument Valley do as far as the number of people who played it?
Topf: I don’t remember many numbers off the top of my head. We put an infographic out. At the time I think it was [2.4] million downloads. Anyway, it’s done well. It’s not Candy Crush, but for a premium game it’s done incredibly well. It’s nice to see that happening. We had a lot of ideas about how to approach making mobile games. We feel like we proved there’s a different way of doing it. That’s not to say that any other ways are bad, but we had a new idea of how it could be done.
GamesBeat: It got a lot of recognition.
Topf: A lot of things went into that. The biggest one is that you pick it up and you understand it. Or if you don’t understand it at least you can appreciate how it looks. With a lot of computer games, you have to understand what computer games are already to appreciate them. The nice thing about Monument Valley is you can appreciate it whether you play it or not. It has immediate appeal. And if you want to get into it, it’s quite simple to do that. It draws people in.
GamesBeat: Is there anything here that players of Monument Valley might recognize? “Oh, yeah, this was made by the same people.”
Topf: I’d like to think so. We definitely didn’t want to do Monument Valley 2 in VR. That would be crazy. But there are design principles and approaches to the way we did things. The point of Monument Valley is that it’s simple, and likewise here. It’s a choice to make things simple, to pare things down. We like to do that.
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