End of Exile: VR
After collecting a couple years of knowledge in Virtual Reality, C#, Unity, Game Design, UI Design, and UX research, I decided to create a VR game as a form of artistic expression.
This was by far the biggest project I've undertaken solo and seeing it through to the end proved extremely difficult. I was a team of one on paper but was lucky enough to have a number of colleagues, past professors, and peers willing to offer advice, be my testers, and talk through my code with me.
I could not have made this without their help.
Create an experience that forces people to weigh their identity expression against their need for social acceptance and personal success.
Give this experience a high level of replay ability
Users & Audience
How they stumble upon the game
Past experience with VR
Past experience with gaming
Innate competitiveness to want to win and do well when presented a challenge
Innate desire for certain things society has deemed 'good'
Innate understanding of identity as it relates to family and community
Scope & Constraints
I didn't want to still be working heavily on this project beyond graduation which gave me about a year and a half to finish from the time I started. Additionally, I had a weekly time constraint. Most weeks, I could squeeze in about 10 hours of work for this project while balancing school, a couple jobs, and social commitments.
I did not want to spend money on pre-built Unity store assets which meant that I would need to build everything from scratch.
While I wanted to shoot for the stars, I only had about 3 years of software development experience when I began this project. I had to design artifacts, gameplay, and logic that was within my technical ability.
When first brainstorming, I knew I wanted the game to have a main mission and a background story. The main mission needed to be engrossing in order to keep the player's attention focused there. Meanwhile, the background story would be centered around identity and not reveal itself until the very end of the game, after all decisions had been made. Upon realizing what the game is truly about, I hoped the player would want to replay the game and see if they could achieve a different identity outcome, thus becoming aware of how their identity shaped their success.
The research that I performed aimed to:
Create a mission that the user found exciting
Determine a storyline for identity that did not draw a lot of attention
Create gameplay mechanics that supported the user's mission
Refine mechanics so that even a VR beginner could play without a lot of instructions
Keep the storylines and gameplay light and fun to be appealing to the player
To test out my first idea for an engrossing 'mission' and 'storyline' I paper prototyped a player shop. Overwhelmingly the testers' excitement was about winning and they had no regard for the shop. From this, I decided to abandon the idea of a shop and go with a story about a tournament where winning is the focus. I needed a new testing method.
With this shift in the main mission, I wanted to test the new idea with peers while also checking that the game kept its light and fun tone. I prototyped an interactive story using Twine in which I laid out the game's new story play. This went through two iterations. In the first version, most testers chose the unexpected route of listening to the mayor talk about 'sponsors'. In the second version, I made the mayor the main storyline and buy-in for this idea was incredibly high. I went with the mayor of utopia idea and moved on to figuring out game mechanics.
My gameplay mechanics were an accidental discovery that as much I would love to take credit for, fell into my lap! One day, I was testing buttons by myself by picking up cubes in a sandbox I had made. The sandbox was meant to test my code but within ten minutes, a group of people was surrounding me, all wanting to try it out and loving it when they did. It was incredibly fun and seeing everyone's excitement, I knew I had to run with it.
To test it officially, I polished the sandbox then had some peers play it through and fill out a feedback sheet. (Note: These weren't typical users, these were folks with VR game development experience.) I ultimately implemented about 80% of what was recommended by these people, shown in the spreadsheet image.
Haptic Feedback Mental Models
Because VR is very close to real life, people have fully developed mental models of how things should work when they put on a headset for the first time. To leverage this, I gave my headset to a few first-time users and gave them simple tasks in my prototype sandbox to see what they intuitively expected to happen.
Testers expected cubes to release when they released the grip on their middle finger and ring finger
Testers wanted to talk to someone by walking up to them
Testers expected the grapple hook to shoot out when they pressed the 'trigger'
Gameplay followed what everyone was most excited about, the ability to move and organize cubes on their platform
Background story also followed the tester's excitement. You need to gain fans in order to play each game of the tournament. Fans can be gained by talking to locals and agreeing with them. At the end of the tournament, a call from your parent will follow one of four different scripts and the chosen script is based on how you behaved in fan interactions.
Haptic feedback was related back to testing. Trigger = shoot, release button = release object, proximity = talking ability
A couple of peers suggested a need for AI opponents in the feedback spreadsheet which I decided to implement.
Some audits were done on the UI to create consistency and follow universal guidelines.
In the beginning months of my project I was extremely hesitant to show anyone what I had done because it felt like 'it wasn't ready'. I could have said this for an entire year and a half but at some point, I found the nerve to show others. Upon doing this, all of the fears I had about showing it to others were completely quelled. I realized that exposing its flaws during month two meant I didn't have to wait until month ten to fix them. Additionally, it's amazing what a fresh set of eyes can do for your own perspective.
This project was so much fun and so humbling to work on. I was incredibly fortunate to be surrounded by other folks in the GIMM major who were enthusiastic about testing out games and stories.
There are aspects of the game that I will be tweaking for years to come in hopes of feeling confident enough to put it on the app store. For now, I will continue letting anyone with an Oculus headset try it out!