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Game Design Deep Dive: Mixing VR and non-VR in Lola and the Giant

September 19, 2017 | By Matt Duff

September 19, 2017 | By Matt Duff
More: VR, Smartphone/Tablet, Design, Video, Deep Dive

Deep Dive is an ongoing Gamasutra series with the goal of shedding light on specific design, art, or technical features within a video game, in order to show how seemingly simple, fundamental design decisions aren't really that simple at all.

Check out earlier installments, including creating the striking pixel animations of Crawl, inventing a fictional language for Planet Coasterand creating the intricate level design of Dishonored 2's Clockwork Mansion.

Who: Matt Duff, lead designer

Hi all, I’m Matt Duff, a lead designer at Climax Studios, located in Portsmouth (UK). I’ve been in the industry for over eleven years, since graduating from university. For eight of those eleven years I have been here at Climax Studios.

I joined Climax as a level designer on a 2.5D platformer called Rocket Knight, which was a modern-day reimagining of a franchise that first appeared on the Mega Drive. After working my way up the ranks here I became the lead designer on the Assassin’s Creed Chronicles Trilogy for PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One and PC.

Towards the end of production on Assassin’s Creed Chronicles, my wife gave birth to our first child, a baby girl who we called Eleanor. As anyone and everyone who has children will tell you, everything changed at that moment and all for the better. Becoming a father gave me a completely different perspective on everything within my life, it also gave me the idea for the next game I would create, Lola and the Giant.

What: Lola and the Giant Companion Application

"The idea came from spending time with my daughter. When we would play together I would begin to think about how differently we saw the exact same space."

Lola and the Giant is a first and third person narrative driven VR adventure game where you switch between controlling Lola, a young girl with magical powers and the Giant, a rocky goliath with immense strength. Together you progress through a series of weird and wonderful worlds, meeting crazy characters and solving light puzzles whilst trying to find the way back home.

The idea came from spending time with my daughter Ella, as when we would play together I would begin to think about how differently we saw the exact same space. What was huge and daunting to her, seemed small and simple to me. It was at that moment that I began to think about two characters working together but from very different perspectives and that is when Lola and the Giant was born.

The game was created for Google’s Daydream VR platform as the opportunity to tell our story in the immersive world of VR seemed like an opportunity not to be missed. The immersion that VR offers also really helped in defining and showcasing how different the perspectives and experiences of Lola and the Giant were.

"VR, especially mobile VR, can be an isolating experience. We decided to try and create some way that the adventure could be enjoyed by both the player using the VR device and by everyone else in the room."

There was one small problem with VR though. I had always imagined the game being something I could share with my daughter but VR itself currently, especially mobile VR, is a very solo, and at times isolating experience. Therefore, we decided to try and create some way that the adventure could be enjoyed by both the player using the VR device and by everyone else in the room. Thus, the Lola and the Giant Companion App was conceived.

We knew that most people in the world had mobile devices, be that phones or tablets, so we knew early on that those were the devices we needed to target for our social, companion app experience. 

The first version of the companion app merely allowed another person to connect their mobile device to the VR players device and follow exactly what they did. One thing that we had simply underestimated was the amount of movement there is on a camera that is controlled and dictated by your head.

When playing as Lola, you would be in 3rd person, just behind and slightly above her. When you moved your head, your perspective would change, just like you were actually there, floating behind Lola. In VR, this is perfect and incredibly comfortable, as what you expect to happen when you turn your head, does in fact happen. However, pumping this out to a mobile device created an experience that was uncomfortable, hard to follow and nauseating for the mobile companion app.

The camera would constantly bobble, moving up and down, because the VR player’s head wasn’t perfectly still. You don’t notice it in VR because it is your head that is moving. It also turned out to be not very much fun to experience the game this way, as often those using the companion app wanted to look at something completely different to what the VR player was looking at.

Also in this original version, whenever the VR player would switch between Lola and the Giant, the companion app user would switch too, creating a very jarring experience that really disconnected them from the game.

Going back to the drawing board, we decided that we needed to give the companion app users their own camera, their own window into the VR world, one that they could control and use without any interference from the VR player.

"We decided that we needed to give the companion app users their own camera, their own window into the VR world, one that they could control and use without any interference from the VR player."

After several iterations, we developed an app which enabled the companion player to look around the world of Lola and the Giantfreely. By using the gyroscope and accelerometers in their mobile device, they could now look all around the world, it was literally like holding a portal window into a new world in your hands. 

We also gave the companion app users the ability to switch between Lola and the Giant whenever they wanted, completely independent of the VR player. This meant that a co-operative experience began to naturally emerge, as the companion app user could be the Giant whilst the VR player was Lola and vice-versa.

With that co-operative experience emerging we decided we needed to give the companion app users some way of interacting with the VR players but without taking any of the experience away from the VR player.

We came up with giving the companion app users the ability to place down an arrow in the world by tapping on the touch screen of their mobile device. This arrow would drop where they tapped in their view but also in the VR world, so the VR player could see it too. This meant that as a companion user you could literally point out where you were talking about to the VR player.

Result: A VR Co-Operative Experience that Doubled as an Invaluable Development Tool

From the first real test of the companion app, we knew we had created something that was immediately fun and made VR social for non-VR users. I took the game home and sat down with my daughter, who was now two years old. I got to watch her reactions (Big smiles & laughter!) to the game that she inspired and that was all down to the companion app.

A brilliant and honestly unforeseen benefit of the companion app to the development of the game was that we could, as developers, see what people were doing when playing our game in VR for the first time. Before the companion app was created, I sat in many meetings with Directors and other team members, watching them play the game but having no idea what they were looking at, where they were getting stuck, what they were missing etc. 

For anyone that has worked on mobile VR this will be a familiar feeling, sat in a quiet room, watching others experience your game without having any way of observing them. When we took the companion app into a review or playtest, it was a real eureka moment. We could see what players were doing, we could see how they interacted with the world, how they went about solving the puzzles and traversing the environments. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to make the great game we created. 

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