theBlu is an interactive underwater simulation built from the ground up for the HTC Vive. In many ways, it serves as a sequel to theBlu: Encounter which was a 2-minute demo piece for Valve's inaugural Vive demo reel at GDC 2015.
However, it's also a greatly expanded product. theBlu features two new environments with scripted experiences that are around 7 minutes each. We sought to really push the advantages of roomscale VR in these new scenes, adding multiple layers of interactivity and a couple of new modes.
The result is a product whose scope, complexity and ambition is much larger than the Encounter.
On theBlu I became the Technical & Design Lead, co-leading the product with Art & Visual Lead Gee Yeung. We began by pitching concepts for new environments that would highlight the more interesting aspects of roomscale VR, but still retain the core product vision of being accessible to everyone.
With the approval of company leadership, we handled hiring, pre-production and early prototyping. During production, my duties included feature & logic engineering, design review and asset integration. Additionally, meta-logic, like saving and loading player progression and Steamworks API integration, also fell under my umbrella.
A good example of this is the Anglerfish in the deep- I was responsible for blocking out the pathing, developing scripting tools for animation blending and creature-to-player awareness, integrating sound and associated audio logic, and integrating the final animations and creature assets into Unity.
All in all, a great balance of being able to lead from the macro to the micro, on a tight budget with a strict launch-day deadline. I couldn't be more proud of our team and the reception theBlu has gotten on Steam.
Creative Director - Jake Rowell
Senior Producer - Max Geiger
Art Director - Gee Yeung
Tech/Design Lead - Scott Stephan
Visual Engineers - Julian Kantor & Eyal Erez
Senior Animator - John Kim
Animator - Dan Fiske
Senior Artist - Gennady Babichenko
Senior Artist - Nghia Lam
Engineering Support - Scott Reeser
Technical Artist - Abril Martinez
Sound Designer - Kevin Brough
Music - Joel Corelitz
Executive Producer - Neville Spiteri
Press Quotes, Honors & Awards:
Over 150 positive reviews on Steam with a 96% Very Positive rating.
"finally set up my Vive yesterday, and theBlue was first on my hit list for a number of reasons; however, one reason in particular stuck out. When I was a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist more than anything. As an adult, I became an accountant. The overwhelming beauty of this experience has caused me to have an mini existential crisis, and has made me wish I would have pursued my underwater dreams. At least, in a small way, I can now" - Steam user hogieGnarBoots
"The Blu is without a doubt one of the most breath-taking and frankly beautiful VR experiences we’ve come across using the HTC Vive, and is one that we imagine won’t be beaten for quite some time" - PC Advisor
"A Vive app called TheBlu: Encounter dropped me in a computer-generated reef that I could explore, something I’ve never done in real life. The view made me gasp." - The Wallstreet Journal
About theBlu: Encounter :
theBlu: Encounter is a 2 minute demo for Valve & HTC's VIVE VR hardware. WEVR was invited to be one of less than 10 studios to create a demo that explored the capabilities of their new roomscale hardware. Currently, theBlu: Encounter is the lead demo in the experience and is many people's first taste of roomscale VR and the VIVE hardware,
The major focus was to provide an experience that would be amazing regardless of whether or not you took the tech to it's fullest potential. Given that it was the first demo, we figured users might be comfortable walking or using the controllers, so we focused on many moments that "came to you". Still, there are surprises for the intrepid explorers who peer over the ship's railing!
On this project I primarily used the in-house tools to script the sequence, integrate new art assets into the existing AI pipeline and did some light engineering to accommodate new 3D audio and feature requests.
It was an enormous pleasure to work alongside a talented team featuring Jake Rowell (Call of Duty), Andy Jones (Avatar), Ben Vance (Irrational Exuberance, Skulls of the Shogun), Abril Martinez, Dan Fiske and Eyal Erez (Naughty Dog, Disney Interactive).
The updated version of the Encounter includes additional assists from Max Geiger and Julian Kantor.
Press, Awards & Honors:
An updated version was accepted into the Sundance Film Festival's New Horizons exhibit.
Maximum PC: I saw a bunch of fish and manta rays swim around me and it felt extremely polished and immersive. This felt much more real than the Ocean Rift demo on the DK2. But the real kicker came when a giant blue whale swam by the ship and looked at me. I felt like I was on an alien planet, and basically just kept on smiling and nodding my head as if to suggest to myself, “Yep, you guys have done it.”
Gizmodo: Then, there's this moment when a huge whale appears, stops, and just stares you down with its huge eye. These are the moments that are the hardest to explain when you're writing about virtual reality, but in that precise moment I felt so, so tiny.
Rockpapershotgun: It stopped and I stepped to the left to align myself with its eye, larger than my head. I stared into it and became aware again of my physical presence in the real world: I was smiling. A big, open-mouthed, toothy grin had spread uncontrollably across my face as I made eye contact with such an amazing creature, and I felt giddy as it swam on, its fin and tail swooping past my face. It’s not often that I feel moments of euphoria while playing videogames.
An Oculus Rift enabled environmental storytelling game, downloadable at anamnesisthegame.com
Anamnesis’ defining attribute is its use of the Oculus Rift as a secondary display port, not as an HMD. Players are told that they possess a Google Glass like device which picks up the psychic residue left behind by other people in the space. At any time, a player can lift the Rift to their face like a pair of binoculars and get a new view on a familiar play space.
Anamnesis uses this technique to explore multiple narrative perspectives, environmental storytelling and the utilization of role-play and ritual in the gameplay process.
My role in the project was as co-narrative designer and lead programmer. Alexa and I spent many hours together hashing out the world and story bible, as well as writing the item descriptions and VO script. I wrote most of the game's code, handling things like the gaze-based triggering system, render layer sorting and the unique HMD on/off mechanic. Alexa focused on environmental design, sound design, art (Texture + Modeling) and lighting, though her assists with some technical problems were invaluable.
Co-Narrative Lead / Art Lead / Sound Designer - Alexa Kim
Co-Narrative Lead / Technical Lead - Scott Stephan
Awards, Press & Honors:
LA Weekly: Oculus Rift Gives You Magical Powers in a New Video Game Set in 2020 L.A.
Exhibited at IMGD Winteractive Showcase
Shortlisted at Ama.ze Berlin, Most Amazing Game
IndieCade @ E3 Official Selection
About Everything, All the Time:
Everything, All the Time (EATT) was my IMGD thesis project. After a few years of working on VR projects, I really wanted to tap back into my interest in interactive storytelling, especially with regards to the affordances offered by the interactive form and the mobile phone/tablet device.
I took to calling EATT "playable short fiction" and it revolved around a handful of core design pillars:
It would be linear and authored. This was not a Mass Effect-style, branching narrative that put the player at the center of the universe.
It would tie together the themes of its story with the mechanics of the play. Otherwise, why not just read a book or watch a movie? I wanted to match the advantages of the form to the goals of the work.
The story itself revolved around the parallel experiences of two people living in a small midwestern town. William Howe, a father and husband and self-described good man faces a double-bind when his belief of his own moral good is pitted against his identity as a provider and protector. It’s also the story of Aubrey Landsdale, a Christian for whom her religious faith and devotion to the environment are one in the same. Her conflict arises when she comes to doubt her ability to affect change in the world around her and she commits an act of profound violence as a means to an end.
It’s also a story about people and institutions and how individuals can ever hope to interface with systems that are faceless and functionally infinite. whose scale and size and complexity outstrip the ability of a single person to fathom, let alone change or alter.
Playing through a series of day-in-the-life vignettes, players collect water samples and petitions,
Given that EATT was my culminating thesis project, I took on many of the lead roles on the project. The most notable exception was an incredible assist from Bethany Martin who did all of the artwork for the intro, day-in-the-life sequences and really defined the look and tone of the experience.
This was also my first experience developing for mobile. Since we kept it 2D, the challenges weren't too steep but optimizing for tablets was a new way of thinking about how to structure the shader and CPU-relevant parts of the pipeline.
Bethany Martin - Lead Artist
James Earl Cox - Designer
Ascot Smith - Narrative Design
HUMANITY HAS BEEN BROUGHT BACK INTO THE DARK AGES BUT REMNANTS OF A ONCE HIGHLY ADVANCED CIVILIZATION STILL EXIST. In this world where control over lost technologies equals power, two explorers from a small village have just discovered Aegis, the legendary weapon said to have brought on the calamity. Although its true purpose remains mysterious, one thing is certain - powerful people will stop at nothing to control it.
Aegis is a 2D, exploration-focused platformer with tower defense inspired combat. Designed to invoke a nostalgia for the 16-bit classics we played as kids, Aegis also includes the huge leaps and accessibility and design that have been made since then.
Aegis is my first pure Production role- I often end up doing 50/50 design/production. Its a real joy to be on a team that needs a Producer. As a team of 3, Bryce handles all the art and Lifu handles all the programming, which means that everything else falls to me- Incorporating the business, creating and managing budgets, setting schedules, managing relationsgips with our development and publishing partners and general biz dev. Its an enormous amount of work, but also incredibly gratifying.
In August of 2014, we launched the Aegis Defenders Kickstarter, raising over $145,000. Aegis Defenders is currently planned to release in early 2016.
You can read our Kickstarter Post-Mortem series, written by yours truly, on Gamasutra.com
For more about Aegis Defenders, including preview trailers and press, visit Aegisthegame.com
Awards & Honors:
Winner, Best Mobile VR Experience, Proto Awards 2015'
About theBlu: VR
theBlu VR was a launch title for Samsung's Gear VR platform. I worked on the title as an Experience & Encounter Designer, creating and directing content for the app.
Using the in-house toolset and the Unity engine, I concepted, pitched and grayboxed levels, as well as writing and executing the event scripts for the levels.
One of the enormous challenges of this project was to create a theBlu caliber experience that was capable of running on a phone. Its easy to imagine a majestic scenario where 900 fish all spiral together and spell out your name, its much harder to do when you only get 25 fish. Learning to maximize the staging and context of the experience was an incredibly important lesson in working smart, not just hard.
This was also a fantastic opportunity for team collaboration as I worked closely with the amazing art and engineering team at WEVR to bring new environments to life.
Michael Annetta - Level Designer
Kyla Gorman - Level Designer
Ben Miller - Executive Producer
Max Geiger - Producer
Borut Pfeifer - AI Engineer
Scott Reeser - Lead Engineer
Eyal Erez - Visual Engineer
Episode 1 & 2, rules character sheets and a findings & methodology report can be downloaded from here.
Obsolete was a table-top role playing designed by myself and Geniveve Conley. We started from the idea of making a tabletop role playing experience for people who don't play tabletop role playing games. We set out first to do research on why people- especially gamers- are squeamish about table top experiences and then set out to design a game that accounted for that.
The big finds:
General anxiety about "roleplaying"
A large number of responders felt that they weren't creative enough.
Steep learning curve (A 20-sided die is terrifying.)
Inaccessible setting / Social Stigma (Few players felt comfortable in fantasy or sci-fi environments)
We took a few steps to try and work around these:
Players play as themselves, woken from a long rest in an unfamiliar environment
Combat is demphasized and all situations are resolved with a single roll of a familar 6-sided die.
Simplified character creation: You self-report on a small number of skills and then choose abilities you think you have. These abilities are intended to be role playing prompts, designed to guide players as well as aiding the DM in telling the story.
The story is broken up into "episodes" of a approximately 10-12 episode season. Each "episode" should take no more than 90 minutes, with a target playtime of 45-60 minutes.
We took writing cues from 'rational mystery' shows like LOST, ending each episode on a cliffhanger and implying a deep, recurring mythology in the universe.
Setting the game in a sci-fi esque, but familiar environment.
You can check out a video of the playtest over yonder. The end result basically that people who want to play tabletop games want and need that full, complicated suite of rules and options. People who don't want to play tabletop games simply won't. This is less a question of accessibility and has more to do with lifestyle, social stigma and desire.
Minimum Wage snuck its way onto the GDC 2012 Pirate Kart!
Minimum Wage: Hunger is designed to be played by 2 players at the same keyboard. You can certainly play it solo, but you'll miss out on some of the experience. The idea is simple: Collect as much nutritious food as you can in the time allotted. Because of it's large resolution, Minimum Wage: Hungry is best played in it's own window. Click here to launch Minimum Wage: Hungry.
Minimum Wage : Hungry is a game about food deserts, areas of industrialized, urban landscapes where people, often the poor, have little to no access to large groceries and, by extension, nutritious foods like fresh produce.
MW:H is intended to be one in series of games looking at the difficulty of being poor in a country as wealthy as the United States. Originally, this was a smaller portion of a larger game simply titled Minimum Wage, but I opted to focus on a smaller section in order to use MW:H as a sort of laboratory for the kinds of mechanics I’d like to employ in the rest of the series.
From a design perspective, there are 2 core goals/questions that I’m trying to explore with MW:H. The first is the question of games as a viable medium for the expression of political and social activism. Up until recently, video games really only had a strong foothold in the culture as a result of their commercial appeal. There needed to be substantial investment in their creation and distribution, as well as a wide audience to purchase and receive them. Further, games required a particular brand of literacy- How to use a controller or the assumption that WASD and the arrow keys are interchangeable. This is changing. For the younger generaton, games literacy is part and parcel with cultural literacy. Digital distribution platforms like STEAM or gaming portals like Kongregate.com make it possible to reach millions of customers without a huge publishing contract. Open Source software like FlashDevelop or GIMP bring professional-level tools to the enthusiast at no cost.
What this means for a designer is that games no longer need to have a commercial instinct to survive. We can begin to use games to express unpopular or controversial ideas, as we do with documentary television and cinema (Frontline, the films of Michael Moore) or as in novels and non-fiction writing (The Jungle, The Omnivore’s Dilemma). Minimum Wage: Hunger is an attempt to leverage the medium of games as a way to express and explore a political and social issue. It’s my belief that people will begin to look to games- as systems- to explain things to them, to work out complex ideas and to come to conclusions about things that challenge them. I cannot be sure that MW:H is a success in this regard, but it was exciting to make the attempt.
The second question is this: Can we leverage game mechanics to elicit specific emotions in players? The popular Models-Dynamics-Aesthetics framework is built on this assumption, but what happens when we want to make a player angry? It’s easy to make a player happy, because culturally this is a preconception about games- They’re leisure. And if they make you mad, you can turn them off. But what about making a player intentionally angry? In MW:H it’s impossible, by design, for the 2nd player to succeed by remaining on budget and purchasing only healthy foods. Inevitably, one player will be frustrated.
How can we leverage what we know about game design to force a sympathetic or empathetic experience in players? ? MW:H tries to do this by putting two players right next to each other, introducing a competitive environment and goal and then letting the discrepancies add up.
We’ve come to expect games to be “fair”. AAA titles like StarCraft 2 and DotA-clones like League of Legends live and die by their legendary gameplay balancing. MW:H is a purposely and unfairly imbalanced game. It tries to make one player angry and one player happy and in the process creates a play-conversation. Hopefully it spurs discussion, although further play testing will yield better results on how to create, moderate and manage an experience like this.
Concerns and Thoughts: This issue is a little near and dear to my heart. I worked teaching Nutrition to inner-city kids in the Bronx and staffing food-outreach green markets in poor areas of New York City. It was absolutely staggering to me that on the A train you could visit what some call the world's greatest restaurant- Per Se- and just 20 minutes later be in a place where it was hard to buy apples. I remember a woman asking me what to do with a banana, she claimed never to have seen one in her neighborhood. For many, the corner bodega was the only option and that meant snack chips, boxes of unhealthy, dry foods and things like juice "drink". Many of these people had no idea how to read a nutrition label. And all of this is happening in developed, urban areas. I wanted to try and talk about this using play and game development as a medium.
Because the core gameplay is so simple, a large part of MW:H's affect lies in the physical act of playing the game. Local play (That is, having 2 players at the same keyboard) has gone the way of the dinosaur. Even split-screen play has almost disappeared from the modern gameplay lexicon. As a result, while multiplayer gaming has become more popular than ever, it's less social than it's ever been. Because MW:H has a strong social message that requires a dialogue, putting two people next to each was necessary.
Additionally, the proximity helps to create an intense atmosphere. You're not losing to a stranger, you're losing to the person next to you. The proximity is also leveraged in the necessity of sharing the mouse to manage the inventory. At one point there was a keyboard-based interface for inventory management, but playtesting revealed that this lead players to be isolated. Introducing mouse sharing created 2 unique dynamics: It allowed players to create a kind of meta-game that allowed them to shape the tone of the experience (Some players shared well and had an overall positive experience while other pairs fought over the mouse. Some players sought to control the mouse as a show of force.) and it also gave players time to contemplate the game itself- What's going on? Why am I doing so well? Why is my partner doing so badly? When there was keyboard management, it allowed players to keep to themselves and focus purely on score optimization. Also, let's face it, it's got Occam's Razor going for it. It's a far simpler solution.
The fact scroll at the end was originally part of the main game- it scrolled along the top of the screen. Players found it distracting and I preferred having the "reveal" at the end of the game. I think most players get what's going on, but I found that from an "experience" stand point, it was better to have them play, digest the results and then read the facts.
What Didn't Work:
I'm not sure I ever hit the sweet spot in balancing the food statistics. For the most part, player one ends up with a distinct advantage, but I'm not sure it really expresses the severity of the gap between middle-class, suburban consumers and the urban, working poor. It quickly became a challenge to try and price things in a way that made it feel challenging, while remaining true. Because players can only hold 8 items (I tried 12, it vastly increased the complexity of managing the inventory, led to Mouse-control bottlenecks and generally made everyone miserable), the game is a sort of magnification of the shopping experience. The biggest challenge was trying to accentuate the issues at hand (Lack of access to affordable, healthful foods), while keeping the experience honest. Again, I'm not sure I got there. I got the game to a place where I was seeing outcomes and players were feeling and experiencing the kinds of things I wanted them to and I wasn't sure drilling down to that granularity of detail was necessary. Given more time, it'd certainly be high on the To-Do list, I think creating a simulacra of the buying experience is important to the experience as a whole.
The UI is definitely spotty. It felt more important to balance the core experience than to pretty it up. Especially troubling was creating a readable display for the Food Statistics. I don't think I ever got there. The ideal here would be to work with someone who is a better designer than I am because I think a strong visual presentation could really help to reinforce the game's message.
Part of the game's core mission was to leverage game mechanics to create a particular set of emotions and experiences. While many players got where I wanted them to, other did not, either because they got wrapped up in the competitive experience or because they didn't "get it". Both of those are my fault- The experience needs to be reinforced and tightened, either by refining existing mechanics or adding new ones.
The final scoring algorithm always felt a little off to me. The idea was to make money and nutrition especially important as a way to express the fact that these problems create lasting, exponential effects beyond a single day's shopping trip. I think it just feels a little bit like rubbing salt in the wound.
Finally, there's the issue that recent studies have shown that greater access to healthful foods doesn't really change things in effected areas. Many families have no idea how to prepare fresh foods and often lack the time- if they'e juggling 2 or 3 jobs- to cook a meal. Which is a larger question: Can you discern bias in gameplay? Is it fair to steer players towards a conclusion like this?
That's All Folks:
If you read this far: Thank you! Minimum Wage: Hunger is just the start of an experiment to try and leverage games as a medium for personal, political and social expression. There's plenty of room for games as an entertainment medium, I'm just hoping we can start to use them as an expressive medium, too.
Big thanks to Bill Brown for some of the food sprites and inspiration in general. YouTube user Omnigrad for the killer chiptune version of Born in the USA. Thanks to Chevy Ray, Draknek and the FlashPunk community for answering all my goofy questions.
One my two big projects at GameDesk was on Producing the Aero project, a game designed to teach the principles of Aero dynamics to kids as young as 5th grade. I also contributed to the level and progression/incentive design.
One of the major challenges about working on a game like this is marrying fun, compelling mechanics to actual learning standards. That meant bridging a gap between our game-focused development team and our education-focused team of scientists, teachers and researchers. No small feat, but one that gave us a beautiful, useful game.
My more significant work was on GeoMoto, designed to teach Earth science, starting from the Big Bang and moving to modern day. Major design work was done on 5 prototypes, directing small teams of 3-5 from paper prototype to digital demos. I also worked on overall vision, creating a lookbook and working with a team of artists to create a unique and consistent aesthetic standard for the project as a whole.
Mapping a path for a game like GeoMoto is a major project, not just for the usual reasons- Making games is hard and involves lots of people and parts- but because we had to figure out a way to condense all of time and known science into a 60 minute story. I started from the basic research and met with researchers from California State as well as notable figured like Bill Nye to figure out how to bring the story together.
From there, we worked in small prototyping teams pulling the projects together. Prototype teams would have weekly meets with research and content teams and adjust from there.
It runs badly on the web, so I've provided a .zip that you can run.
todays news utilizes the New York Times’ XML feeds to create new images, headlines and color schemes based on the current news. Headlines are generated via a Markov Chain algorithm built into the RiTA text-processing library. ‘Markov’ images are created by sampling a fraction of each image and recompiling it into a whole. Background colors palettes are created by taking color samples from each of the major images on the front page. The result is an ever changing composition- sometimes oddly meaningful, sometimes absurd- that is both generated by the artist in collaboration with the machine, via algorithm, and yet more importantly, by the data itself. The result is inherently political and yet entirely without prejudice.
A series of small films and other media I've worked on.
Inspired by Al Sweigart's Random Mechanics Generator, here's a list of Goodbad ideas for Roomscale VR that I don't have the time to get around to. You should steal one and let me know when you're done!
The dog in a VR Headset was part of Gramer's April Fool's Joke. I only wish I had thought of it first.
You play as a man with 8 nipples, ala the Bill Clinton Dana Carvey Show sketch. Babies are coming by on a conveyor belt. Some are snoozin', but some are cryin'. Pick up the cryin' ones and attach one to your nipple. But be careful: Over nurse that baby and it'll pop! Nurse 'em 'till they snooze and get them back on the belt. Lactodad!
You play as a kid looking for treasure in a backyard. The shadow of your father looms above you as he mutters "Kids can't do that. Boys can't find treasure just like that. You'll never find it". WHen you find the treasure, make sure to turn around and show it to Dad. But wait- Where'd he go? Cat's Cradle plays.
You play as a dude or lady stripper. Initially, you're in the dark and you have to hold weird poses. Then someone yells SURPRISE and you jump up, popping out of a giant novelty cake. You dance, people give you money. Then you go home and spend the money on your bills, help your kids with their homework and enjoy some downtime before more cake dancing.
SMASH TV VIVE
All I wrote down on my phone was "duh, writes itself". Which, obviously, it didn't.
You're a scientist. Your robot turrets are running amok. They're firing big ol' bombs atchoo. You have no defense but to roll them back. Big focus on powerups, intensity and physics play.