Bringing Finding Monsters Adventure to VR Part II - Level Design
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.
Disclaimer: this was originally posted as a Made With Unity story.
The first part of this series of articles presented the shift from score-based to objective-based gameplay as the main aspect that lead the VR version to differ from mobile. Part II is about how changes in level design direction contributed for Jake & Tess' Finding Monsters Adventure to stand out as a great VR experience.
The team took the first week of the project to analyze and decide what we'd be able to do on a short development cycle and what we could and could not use from mobile. We had only two months to deliver a sharply optimized version of this new game. It was a tight schedule, but we committed to deliver 13 unique levels. They were distributed as 5 Grasslands levels, 5 Ice Mountains levels and 3 Moon levels.
Another commitment we made was that each of these new levels should feel like a new experience. We didn't want someone that might have played the mobile version of Finding Monsters to think they were playing the same game on VR. We wanted them to feel that it was a fresh experience, even with familiar elements.
VR levels and their stories around dares
When designing mobile levels, the design team had to balance the moments and pacing of the level according to how many rare poses we could use and how difficult it would be to frame them in proper time. It worked on mobile, but this would not work without the scoring system.
We had to consider a new approach with levels, since dares were now the central element of the game. It was then that we decided that every level should feel like they were telling a short story. Even if it was something really silly to start with, it could become amusing when all parts were polished and put together.
The first level to be created for VR set the tone for level design as people showed genuine surprise when they've seen the new creature that didn't exist on mobile version.
This was really appropriate for dares, as they are brief statements that help to tell the story. We created the context, designed the interactions, and reiterated them with dares. Players felt more involved with what happened during the levels, which was something we were particularly looking for on the VR experience. This involvement was also made easy since players had only one system to track during the gameplay, and therefore their attention could be more effectively used while inside the VR world.
As you collect film in this level, the dancing Cuttlesquishes prepare for the show by the level end, provided you've collected all films available.
What we wanted from the levels
As we were thinking of new levels, the sense of discovery and exploration were some of our main guides. This could be conveyed by adding a new monster to the scene, making something unexpected happen or even persuading the player to look somewhere else. For us, things like these provided a good start for coming up with a level or designing a dare that would reward a photograph of a remarkable moment.
Giant Harry Scary brought some grinning to Moon level Hairy Situation.
We also had the opportunity to bring the Whoopsie monster in as a treasure hunting side quest. This is something we wanted to do during mobile development when we were deciding the role of this monster in the game, but unfortunately we had to adapt to the scoring system. A creature ever present on all levels, hidden in some odd and usually out of sight places was perfect to promote even more exploration. While looking around trying to find it, it's also an invitation to take a moment out of level's action to further appreciate the VR environment.
There is a Whoopsie hidden on each level. In some levels it's easier to find, in some it's harder. Be sure to stare for a moment when you spot it.
VR is all about promoting the sense of presence for players. It’s a super immersive experience in which you feel like part of the virtual world. This became very clear to us during early experiments of watching monsters run around and come close to the camera. We knew proximity would favor us well when thinking about levels. To avoid messing with the camera, we decided to cut the zoom feature we had on mobile version. This lead us to also avoid having important things happen too far away, as they wouldn't bring a good experience. Not only that, having things happening close to you in VR is quite amusing. Sometimes this leads to funny surprises and further emphasizes the relationship between player and monsters throughout the game.
Bringing creatures up close grants some cool moments and they seem way closer in VR.
Some limitations we faced
No new animations
One of the most constraining limitation we faced was not being able to have new animations. The tight schedule and allocation of the Animation and Sound teams to attend demands of the mobile release would make it too risky to develop new animations and sounds for the monsters.
We could end up having new animations without proper sound or the other way around. Either way, none of these scenarios would be good.
Having a clear vision of the tools we could employ into levels to convey discovery and amusement, as we wanted, helped us overcome this limitation. The design team was aware of the available animation set. So every time we'd come up with a new story for a level, we would be careful not to create something that would be impossible to communicate within our animation sets.
A little bit of Kuleshov Effect was also handy when applying some animation sequences to provide different meanings than their original intent.
The first animation was meant to be Harry Scary inviting you to something, but in this level it was used to make it seem like eating Cuttlesquish. Playing a "yummy" animation right after helps giving this context.
Keeping camera positions
We also knew we wouldn't have much bandwidth from the Tech Art team, as they were also involved in other demands and would have to dedicate quality time to grant optimization.
This meant we had to avoid moving the camera position on the level scenes. Moving the camera would impede on Tech Art time to check all the asset positions and lighting. We had a considerable level of freedom to move assets around and even remove them, as it ended up mostly occurring in lightmap re-baking, but repositioning the camera would mean more work for them.
The camera was only drastically changed on a single level, but for a good reason, which leads to the next point.
Avoiding motion sickness
A major thing we worked hard to mitigate was motion sickness. It was mostly unnoticable throughout the game, save for one level that demanded some extra care.
We decided to bring the final monster riding level from mobile to VR. Riding levels positioned you on top of a monster allowing you to go with your camera around the scene.
Keeping this specific ride was important to us, as the feeling of riding back home and the farewell from the monsters was something special we'd like to keep.
All the monsters pose to you as they wish a farewell and hope to se you again (:
The original ride from the last level was designed with lots of curved movements, ascending, descending, as well as speed variation. It wasn't as bad in VR as we accounted for at first, which made us believe in the decision of keeping it, although it was rather uncomfortable.
We were able to solve those issues by making the monster move in straight lines in a constant speed and with less swaying. That particular level was originally a challenge to optimize. We knew this from the mobile version and keeping it would mean more work for the Tech and Art teams. But having the camera ride along the designed path meant rendering some areas that weren't meant to be rendered. To avoid it becoming a bigger problem that might have led to removing the level, we contacted Production, Tech, and Art as soon as we knew the course. Fortunately we all managed to find a way for everyone to work on their specific parts by constantly merging work and communicating what was being altered. This granted the VR ride level to make it into the game with proper optimization.
Rinding levels take your camera to a trip around the scene.
The process of coming up with stories for the levels before designing anything too specific worked wonders for the design team and helped to create the amount of levels we were committed to delivering. It also ensured a higher quality and consistency, which are some things we were aiming to achieve in the making of Finding Monsters in VR.
Unfortunately it was only after delivery that we saw the Oculus Story Studio talk at Oculus Connect 2 (there is a brief version of the talk key points on their blog). We arrived at similar conclusions, such as having multiple events happening at the same time instead of a singular linear sequence of events as a means to fill the virtual world. This only became clear to us late in the process.
Designing levels for VR was an interesting learning process and having a familiar foundation to start with helped a lot to achieve good results. It's being great to be involved in this sense of novelty around VR experimentation and there is certainly a lot more to find out.