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Using Rapid Prototyping to Develop and Sustain my Career in VR

Since April 2015 I have completed three VR projects. Each of these experiences were major technical challenges and therefore unique in their own right. However, the commonality they share is that they were each collaborations with developers that I partnered with in order to make them happen and without them these projects frankly wouldn’t have happened.

Three projects is quite the accomplishment and something I’m very proud of, but through this journey I’ve also realized that if I want to make more I need to be more involved in the process of putting them together in the game engine. This is the technical hurdle for every VR creator who wants to make their experience interactive.

Given the past success, why do I have this need? Well, I still haven’t found the right partners who want to commit all their time to developing content and building the Cinehackers brand with me. As a result, I’ve become reliant on these temporary partnerships that seem to dissolve after the project is done.

This model is hard to sustain and I do understand that to engage people for longer periods, I need to find ways to monetize the work and have been thinking a lot about how to kick start this initiative.

The idea that I’ve landed on is that I need to do more rapid prototyping, very similar to what I engaged in at The School of Machines, Making, and Make Believe this past August in Berlin. That’s how I developed The Key. I had a firm deadline and worked like hell to make it happen.

So here’s the plan, I spend one day developing the idea, one month capturing the assets, and one month putting them in the engine. The other important component is to share my process and I’m in the midst of setting up a Patreonaccount to facilitate this.

If this idea is successful and people see monetarily value in the work that I’m producing, I can then bring in more skilled people to work with me.

So here we go and I can’t wait to share what I make!

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Making a VR Prototype Means Not Being a Perfectionist

I once heard this saying that finishing a project is the most important part of the creative process. When we decided to undertake the task of making our VR project, Circuit Rider, I always had in mind that finishing would be the most important and essentially hardest part.

Why is it so difficult to finish, isn’t it just about stopping?

Well it comes down to what your goals are. From the very beginning we wanted to make Circuit Rider feel like a complete experience. We also wanted to release it on a platform like Steam or Oculus. The issue was that we were working with a tight deadline and that coupled with limited resources don’t always yield the best overall results. There are always compromises that have to be made.

What we ultimately decided was that we were going to build a prototype, not a proof of concept or a demo. In addition, it would be a prototype that would show off the complete experience. I say this because we could have just made one aspect of it really polished, but then we wouldn’t have been to able to demonstrate the entire vision. However, what it took to get there was a lot of compromises and not being too precious about things. We also worked extremely hard on the script by refining the raw original concept and shaping it into something that we could achieve within the scope of all the various constraints that we had.

Once we had the script nailed down, we had to capture all the assets and program all the interactions based on what was laid out in the script. At the beginning of January, with only a month to go, the entire team work feverishly to get everything we need together. Then our programmer, Gabriela Kim Passos, dropped the bomb on me — we had to play test everything in parallel as we programmed. For those who have never play tested before, what it does is uncover all the flaws in the assumptions that you’ve made. Which is great, but it also compounds the work that you need to do as well as the time you need to do it.

What I ultimately came to realize from this experience, especially when it got closer to the deadline, is that there was no way that I could get the game to look and feel exactly how I wanted it to. I had to let go and give in to the fact that it would get as close we could get it and that was good enough in order to finish and deliver on the goal that we had set out from the very beginning.

We have quite a few next steps to follow, but we plan on releasing the project in mid-April. Why mid-April, because we are not being precious about the prototype and just focusing on getting our VR experience out to the world. We are very proud of what we did and want to share it. Not everyone will appreciate it, but we hope they will learn something from it just like we did.

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How We Cracked Our VR Experience

Screenshot from Prototype of Circuit Rider

Screenshot from Prototype of Circuit Rider

This article might feel a bit premature as we are right in the middle of crunch time for our VR project Circuit Rider and there are still a million things that need to be done, but on the other hand it might be the perfect time to write this.

A couple of days ago I had a meeting with one of our programmers, David Wyand about the state of the portion of the game he was working on. Since starting the experience at the end of October, we’ve had countless of conversations about what Circuit Rider will feel like and how much fun it would actually be to play.

The problem with making it fun hinges around the fact that the experience is actually two games in one. Essentially while the viewer is playing Circuit Rider they get hacked out to another level where they discover something much darker and mysterious is happening. To uncover this mystery, they must unlock memories by uncovering objects that are littered out in the level. That essentially means that we are trying to build two different games in one experience and in some way tie them together so that it feels cohesive.

Even though the team and I had spent a lot of time hammering out the script, something still felt off about the Circuit Rider portion of the experience. It felt boring, disconnected, and ultimately wasn’t fun. I’m using the word fun here a lot because the initial idea from Ayal Senior was that the viewer was addicted to playing Circuit Rider. Therefore, we couldn’t just tell the player that they were feeling this, we had to find a way to make this in the game so the viewer actually feels it.

Thus, up to this last conversation there was still a disconnect. We talked about making the game more challenging, but then we needed to teach the viewer how to play it and we didn’t think that had enough time or resources to do that. Also, we didn’t know for sure if that would even solve the problem if we put the remaining time into developing that mechanic.

What we eventually came around to is the fact that as you are moving down the track, and killing drones, you are supposed to be “lighting up the circuit” and thus making the AI of Circuit Rider more intelligent. We cast a terrific voice actor named Ed Robinson for the voice of the AI and it was important that the viewer hear those lines and not be completely distracted by game play. Because we had spent so much time talking about how to make the game fun, we actually forgot the actual point of the narrative was to hear the AI in order to connect the experience to the puzzle game.

This was a genuine eureka moment for us as we took a hard look at what we making and realized the audience for the game would be people who are looking for a narrative experience, and not a shooter game. Thus, we changed the game mechanics immediately to put the narrative as the focus. In play testing the experience yesterday, I could finally see and feel something that I hadn’t felt in the past few months. Cohesiveness, fun, and synergy.

I have learned from making Circuit Rider that knowing who your audience is plays a major role in what you develop. Coming from a film making background I’ve always wanted to infuse a story into our gaming experiences, but I didn’t realize how difficult it would be to balance. The takeaway here is to be honest and truthful about what you are making and ultimately who you are making it for. This helped us crack our VR game and I’m sure if you follow this advice while in development, it can help you develop something that works with your goals as well.

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