Fine-tuning for the ‘action hero’ feel in PlayStation’s VR game Blood & Truth

[XRDC is happening today at the Fort Mason Festival Pavilion in San Francisco, and sister site Gamasutra is there to cover the show! What follows is an excerpt of that coverage.]

PlayStation’s London Studio has been a leading creator of showcase PlayStation VR experiences, and at XRDC in San Francisco today director of VR dev Stuart Whyte shared some of what the team has learned.

Whyte traces the origins of Blood & Truth back to London Studio’s initial work with the PlayStation VR during the headset’s development. The studio designed a few different VR experiences that were packaged with the headset as PlayStation VR Worlds, and after PlayStation VR launched, the studio learned that one of those experiences — London Heist — was far and away the most successful experience.

“It was pretty clear that one experience was way more popular than others, and that was London Heist,” said Whyte. “We wanted to expand on that, and create an experience that makes you feel like an action hero.”

A few key pillars undergird the development of Blood & Truth; in addition to that emphasis on an “action hero” aesthetic, Whyte says the team prioritized making it accessible, designing the experience to be played while seated via DualShock gamepad or Move motion controller.

“We knew our game can be strenuous, so we optimized around seated play” said Whyte. This made it challenging to work out how to create interesting shootouts and other action movie standbys.

Whyte says the team tried a few different approaches to locomotion, eventually passing on the common “point and teleport” approach in favor of a more naturalistic system which has the player walking (or running) from point to point.

“We wanted to design a game that’s in keeping with our setting, and teleporting…didn’t seem to fit well in our setting,” he added, explaining that the team instead designed a traversal system where players target a location and trigger their character to move there physically; the farther the target, the faster the player will move.

“Feedback from people with lots of different comfort thresholds is key”

“Whatever system you end up with, the important thing is to get lots of people to play it,” Whyte added. “Feedback from people with lots of different comfort thresholds is key.”

A key theme of Whyte’s talk was the importance of getting lots of feedback from people testing your experience in headsets, as early as possible, since there’s yet so little common understanding of how to design comfortable, approachable VR experiences.

“The biggest learning, that’s design language,” said Whyte. “Many established game design rules have changed in VR, and we’ve yet to standardize our design language in the same way console and PC games have.”

As an example, he talked a bit about the challenges the team faced when it tried to design something that can seem, at first blush, very straightforward: an inventory sysytem.

“In VR Worlds, there was no concept of inventory,” said Whyte. But in Blood & Truth, he says the team wanted to try and create one that allowed players to intuitively switch weapons and reload them. They wound up adopting a solution many VR devs try: players’ weapons are holstered on their (virtual) body, and can be accessed by reaching to the back or hip to retrieve them — but the road to making to work well reliably wasn’t exactly smooth.

“As soon as you have a player leaning forward, say over a desk, and looking down to grab something, like a clip for a gun, you’re set up for a world of pain,” said Whyte. “You don’t know what they’re grabbing for, and if they’re trying and failing to grab a clip in the heat of combat, you can really break immersion.”

Since the PlayStation Move only tracks the player’s head and hands, Whyte says the team had to spend a lot of time trying to build systems that would support the game’s ability to track player movement. In the end, it was so challenging they nearly gave up on requiring players to physically reload.

“We ended up experimenting a lot, and at times we started to lose faith in the system, and our approach,” says Whyte. “We came so close to shipping a shortcut for reloading using a button on the Move controllers; but we removed the feature just weeks before release, as the physicality of grabbing and reloading a weapon was so key to the experience we were trying to give the player.”

The team also had trouble making ammo management fun and engaging in a VR shooter; even when reloads work perfectly, having to scrabble around for a spare clip or extra ammo in an enemy stronghold can be very tricky to nail: too little of it and the experience doesn’t feel challenging, too much of it and it becomes too frustrating to enjoy.

“We knew it was fun to search the environment to find ammo, and we wanted to be super generous…because it’s not fun to run out of bullets,” said Whyte. But for a while it was technically possible to run out in the game, and Whyte says when players did, it was quite hard to backtrack and explore the game’s levels for more due to its locomotion system.

“We tried [adding in] throwing knives, but throwing was never great,” said Whyte. “We had a backup pistol, which just confused a lot of players and became their default, and neither solution worked great.”

So in the end, the team decided to streamline the experience by giving players infinite ammo for their basic pistol, and only keep an ammo count for larger weapons like shotguns and assault rifles. This, says Whyte, helps players transition smoothly between peaks and troughs in a given level without having to worry about backtracking for ammo.

“You need to have peaks and trough in gameplay to ensure the player doesn’t have intensity fatigue,” said Whyte. “You really need to break up your gameplay and make it so it’s not just continuously intense.”

Map out your game’s pacing and make sure there are peaks and troughs

The Blood & Truth team went so far as to create pacing maps for specific levels in the game, graphical breakdowns of how players will progress through the level and where their peaks and troughs of excitement will be. To help flesh out the world, enhance the “action hero” theme and add more texture to the sections between those peaks and troughs, Whyte says the Blood & Truth team spent significant time brainstorming and adding in “fun” systems and mechanics.

“I think the first thing we added was the ability to pull a grenade pin with your teeth,” said Whyte. “Then we added gun tricks, because they were cool….then we added hand gestures….then we added slow-mo.”

Whyte says this last addition, which the team initially called “precision mode”, actually opened up a bunch of interesting new ways to play through the game, something he says is apt to happen when you have the time and inclination to fill in your game with fun interactions.

“These design decisions were born out of a team having the time and opportunity to explore, and to maximize the value this gives,” said Whyte. “Ultimately, all these things help immerse the player in the world, and reinforce the action hero vibe.”

In addition to pacing maps, the team sketched out the game’s plot and action scenes on storyboards, and here again Whyte hammered home that exhortation for VR devs to try and look at their work in headset as much as possible — even when that work is still just a series of sketches on a storyboard.

“We actually found that for some of our action scenes and blocking, it was incredibly helpful to take that storyboard and put it in a headset,” said Whyte, showing a video of someone moving through a sketch of a conversation scene in VR. “Our team and tools are all about trying things in headsets, and the sooner you can get all the members of your team experiencing something in headsets, the better; it really helps guide you on what to focus on.”