What you’re seeing on-screen is slight representation of what it’s like to play ElemenTerra. Actually wearing the headset is a much different experience. If you’ve ever told anyone “you just had to be there” then you understand what we mean. The video is from a third-person camera that slowly follows behind the player's POV (this is so that we can display the video on a large screen to an audience - 1:1 camera movement with the player's head is great for the player themselves, but would have caused motion sickness for the stationary audience)
The game was developed in Unity3D. All of the primary assets (plants, creatures, character) were created in Maya. The Taopi (see below) are driven by mocap animation recorded at USC's Zemeckis Center, and processed in MotionBuilder. Some model cleanup was done using Blender.
The hardware being used is the Oculus Rift DK2, and the Sixense STEM.
Because most of our players are new to VR, we ease them into the experience one small step at a time, starting them off in a near-empty starfield.
The introduction constitutes ElemenTerra's lore. Because it is a freeform experience, a linear narrative would have been too restrictive. We focused instead on lore: Just the foundation of the player's own story, enough to make the world they're entering feel full and grounded.
We wanted to make a player avatar that would be humanly relatable, as well as unique and distinctly removed from our current world so as not to be uncanny. We designed an androgynous avatar, that didn't sit cartoonishly on either side of the anatomical spectrum, so that people of any identity would be able to feel comfortable and relate to the new body they inhabit.
The player begins in the caldera, a crater-like zone that focuses their movement and view to their immediate surroundings. This is the next step that eases them into the world of ElemenTerra.
Mother Moon & Father Sun continue to give the player instructions, step-by-step, on how to use their new body. The player is first taught movement. Because we have unconventional input and output devices, very little of this is grounded in traditional game input conventions.
For example, the player can’t turn or strafe with the joysticks. Instead, they need to use their feet to their teir body, and their hands to direct their movement. These unconventional yet intuitive controls level the playing field: both hardcore gamers and non-gamer family members have comfortably learned how to navigate in the virtual space.
There’s another benefit to having the player use their body to control their virtual avatar: This direct connection greatly reduces the likelihood of motion sickness.
The main tools of the world-builder are their staff and palette. The palette lives in the player’s left hand, and can be stowed away or re-summoned with the flick of a wrist.
This is the sort of canonical design language we set out to discover. Traditional GUIs like 2D menus feel wrong in VR and break immersion or feel claustrophobic. Instead, we had to find ways to make everything diegetic, like sampling paints with a brush from a palette.
After movement, the sculpting mechanic is the next feature the player learns, and it serves a couple of experience goals: Ownership through creativity, and a seemingly telekinetic connection to the planet.
We based it on something from 3D modeling called the “snake-hook tool,” because it’s a physical metaphor. This required a voxel system, and unfortunately all of the voxel systems available had such poor performance that they lowered our frame-rate leading to a very sickening experience in VR. We had to learn very quickly about optimization concepts that none of the engineers were ever taught in school.
Our next experience goal was making the world delightful: giving every action pleasant and rewarding feedback, such as the visceral rumble and flow of terrain creation, or the way that plants springily bloom into existence.
Discovery adds to a sense of mastery, so we added layers of depth to each mechanic for the player to discover.
When I create a plant using the same option but on a different type of terrain, it makes something completely different.
The art team also faced some itneresting challenges through working with VR. VR requires a very high frame-rate, we couldn’t get away with anything less than 150 fps. On top of that, because the player has the ability to create as much as they want; wwe had to account for having thousands of these plants in the world all at once.
Plants require clear silhouettes and detail, which had to be balanced out with the efficient low-poly style we decided on.
We used a single texture throughout the game for all plants and creature models; this is a technique used in mobile gaming.
Some 3D shortcut techniques weren’t available to us: traditional game textures, normal maps, and foliage planes looked flat and unconvincing in VR. Players can, examine their environments up close in 3D space, so shape matters most meaning every leaf needed volume.
We had the priveledge of working with students from USC, CalArts, and LCAD, as well as artists from France and Protugal.
Although many of our designs were inspired by the strange plants and animals that live on our planet, we combined designs, warped proportions, and originally crafted life forms that, in the end, were uniquely fantastical. VR has the ability to transport players into brand new worlds: so why just put the player into our everyday environment? The goal was to toe the line between something that would be comfortable and familiar for the player, but also new and exciting.
As you can see, now that I’ve spent a little while shaping this world, it has some new inhabitants.
Having a delightful world meant peaceful, non-confrontational gameplay. Confrontation is the source of motivation in most games, so without confrontation, we had to create motivation a different way: By giving the player an audience for whom to create, a host of citizens to appease. Life gives their world a reason to exist.
Most creatures follow a simple modular design. They serve more as decoration than anything else, and each is associated with a particular plant, genus, or biome.
The humanoid critters are the Taopi; they are the natural inhabitants of Aisha, born from your creative powers as you fill the world with plant life. Players often feel compelled to build forests and shelters for the creatures, depending on how benevolent of a deity they wish to be.
The AI was a challenge that the engineering team tackled as well.
Terrain is dynamic, as you’ve seen. On top of that, gravity is radial, which allows the player a really unique sort of freedom. Creating a radial three-dimensional path-finding algorithm was out of scope, so instead the AI runs on a moment-to-moment adaptive pathing system that works on almost any terrain.
Unlike the others, Taopi have hand-crafted behaviors. Everything they do is in reaction to what the player does, and time of day is also a driving factor.
There are dynamic world systems beyond the AI that make Aisha come alive.
In order for the player to feel total authorship over their world, we realized it's important not to change their creation without their input. For example, there are no natural disasters, but there are non-destructive world systems like weather or the presence of meteor showers to add to the sense of life.
These dyanmic systems exist within the sky. These are inspired by our own sunsets and sunrises, but are unique to Aisha. We found that these bold colors, dynamic lighting, and smooth transitions provided a unified and delightful backdrop. The world's day-night cycles play a large part in the sense of immersion wherein playtesters have happily spent upwards of half an hour at a time within this creative space.
We realized, through our first rounds of playtesting, that we shouldn’t put the player directly onto a perfectly round planet sphere. For one, it wasn’t as pleasing aesthetically. The lack of variation in the surface made the planet feel artificial and off-putting as well. But, the biggest problem was that players experienced something akin to writer’s block: they had no idea what to do in this plain world.
To address this, we've created a partially pre-sculpted planet; It serves, as an open-ended prompt, to provide moments of discovery
show the player what they're capable of, and inspire them to push the limits of their creative powers on Aisha.
Beyond the gameplay itself, we also took into consideration the physical real-space experience. The hardware setup we’ve developed for ElemenTerra over the course of the year. Virtual Reality presents a unique set of challenges over the traditional medium that required straightforward, yet creative solutions.
When we initially started doing user testing, we found that players are much less prone to motion sickness if they play standing up rather than sitting in a chair. Standing and being able to turn around also adds to presence, as players feel much more grounded in the virtual environment compared to only using a pair of controllers.
To allow for this feature, we developed a series of cable management rigs that enable the player to move and turn in the virtual world using their bodies in the real world. After making that move, instances of motion sickness have been greatly reduced.
We have striven to create a dynamic, relaxing, delightful, and comfortable experience with ElemenTerra.