How Ubisoft designed and refined its Assassin’s Creed VR escape rooms

[XRDC is happening today and tomorrow 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.]

At XRDC in San Francisco today Ubisoft Dusseldorf’s Cyril Voiron took to the stage to talk a bit about his work on Ubisoft’s Escape Games, virtual reality experiences that challenge players to escape virtual puzzle rooms.

Dusseldorf leads development on these experiences, and Ubisoft has released two so far, both set in the world of the Assassin’s Creed games.

They’re not available for purchase on any current VR platform; instead, they’re exclusively playable at location-based entertainment centers around the world. And they’re built by a small team within Ubisoft Dusseldorf, itself a small part of the greater Ubisoft network.

“We operate a bit like a small startup within a startup,” said Voiron. “We are 21 guys, we are very small, very fast; we want to change the world like a startup.”

According to Voiron, the concept that would become these escape room games was born in 2017. By June of that year a team was being built, by July they started prototyping (with 8 team members) and by October the project was green-lit, with a starting team of 10.

The first game, Escape the Lost Pyramid, shipped the following June (the team was 16 strong at that point) and the team began working on the second game, which shipped in 2019 as Beyond Medusa’s Gate. By 2020 the company hopes to release a third game, with an ideal team size of 23.

Building room-scale VR experiences with a small team

To move quickly with a small team, Ubisoft Dusseldorf made some major commitments up front. The team committed to doing multiplayer-only experiences, not replayable, and designed for either 2 or 4 people — because it’s cheaper to mirror puzzles than it is to redesign challenges for larger groups.

Also key to making this feasible was a choice, early on, to cut down the number of platforms being targeted in favor of focusing on a few manageeable options.

“What we decided was that our experiences are going to be roomscale-only, [and] exclusively for location-based VR,” said Voiron, explaining that Ubisoft Dusseldorf only supports the HTC Vive and the Oculus Rift. “It was great for us because it meant we could have the same minimums pecs for every single partner, so we didn’t have to spend a lot of time on optimization.”

The VR escape room team adopted agile production methods and relied on short sprints, with an emphasis on quickly getting a playable version and doing regular, one-time playtests, something Voiron highlighted as being a key reason for the team’s success.

“Making sure we did all these playtests from very early on actually gave us a lot of knowledge about the quality and the content of the experience,” he added.

So who plays VR escape room games? According to Voiron, it’s a very mainstream audience. These kinds of approachable, location-based VR experiences are reportedly popular with folks of all ages, and are often seen as a simple way to check out location-based VR for the first time.

However, the team also had to work within the unique constraints of designing location-based VR; players typically book session time (60 minutes at a time), and they’re usually playing with a different mindset than people playing games at home. People leave the house to see friends or family, and generally be social, which further encouraged the team to focus on making multiplayer-only experiences.

To encourage players to collaborate, the team made a rule: you cannot solve the game on your own.

“If you’ve ever done an escape room, sometime’s someone is very fast and they do everything,” said Voiron. “What we wanted to do was design the experience so that at the end, any member of the team can say ‘guys without me, we couldn’t have done it!’”

To attract players, the team built the game to be large and interesting to explore. The idea was to take advantage of a core appeal of VR: getting to visit a novel and intriguing new world.

“VR offers you [the chance] to transport people to different places,” said Voiron. “We want them to experience something larger than life, and to do something that’s not so possible in real life…and at the same time, because of our audience, we need to make it accessible to everyone.”

Designing an approachable Assassin’s Creed  tomb

To try and make this experience broadly accessible (and appealing) Voiron says the team held to a few core tenets of design.

First, “We are nonviolent. Even though you’re playing in an Assassin’s Creed game, you’re not going to kill anybody,” said Voiron. “We felt it was important, especially for our target audience.”

Second, “we are giving you a full body avatar,” says Voiron, with some pride. The games are designed so that players inhabit full-body (fictional) avatars, replete with exotic costumes and accessories. Players can then pick up other cosmetic items, like headdressess and crowns, to try them on, something Voiron says has proven more effective and more popular than the team expected.

“This is a moment where people who haven’t done VR are sold on VR,” said Voiron of the VR dress-up phase. “They realize, ‘that’s actually me, and we can see each other. We can talk.’”

And finally, the team focused on filling these escape room games with only natural interactions like talking, climbing, grabbing, throwing, and the like, in order to minimize the challenge for newcomers and better immerse players in the experience.

That said, the team did build in a non-natural “teleport” locomotion option for player convenience, though Voiron says it’s still a choice being debated inside the studio.

“We did it for the partners,” said Voiron, though he took pains to explain how the team designed a special one-button teleport system, rather than the more traditional two-button teleport seen in many VR games.  “If you are a very mainstream person who has never played games, who has just 60 minutes to learn VR, you can learn how to use one button in 60 minutes. You’ll have a hard time with two.”

VR escape room design lessons learned

After the first game launched, Ubisoft took the feedback and made some notable changes to the formula for its second VR escape room.

“In Medusa, we’ve structured the challenges so that at the start of every stage, you start with 4 players and you can decide where you want to go,” said Voiron. “If you don’t want to climb, you don’t have to.”

Also, they learned to maintain line of sight at all times. Voiron said that when players lose sight of each other in big VR levels, they loe interest surprisingly quickly.

“When you’re lost in VR, you feel really lost,” he said. “It’s a bad experience…but as long as you can see the other players, you can still talk, and they can help you.”

On the first game the average completion time was 44 minute, which Voiron said was “too short…too many people were able to finish it in less than 30 minutes, which is too short.”

For the second game, the avarege completion time is 54 minutes, which he says is much more satisfying to Ubisoft’s VR partners.

Intriguingly, Voiron said that the team also changed up their post-game photo opportunity; on the first Assassin’s Creed VR escape room, players were given the opportunity to take real photos of themselves (with optional real-world equivalents to in-game costume items); for the second game, Ubisoft designed it so that players could get photos of their avatars playing together in-game, something that proved more popular.

But perhaps the biggest surprise, according to Voiron, is that VR escape rooms are a big hit with a surprise demographic: couples.

“In traditional escape room, there are more 4-player teams, but in general in VR arcades, there are more 2-player teams,” concluded Voiron. “I think what we realized is that VR escape rooms are fantastic adventures for couples….so I always tell our partners, think in your marketing of ways to target couples, because this is something you can really do together.”