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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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Why It’s Important for Me to Submit to Film Festivals

It may seem like an obvious title, but if you have ever submitted to festival or any type of competition it can be quite nerve racking. You are putting your work out there to be judged on whether it’s of value to be shown at their event. In fact, his week I got my latest rejection letter from the Sundance Film Festival for a VR piece I made in Berlin this summer at the School of Making and Make Believe. In the back of my mind, I knew it was a long shot to get in but for some reason I always have this hope that programmers will see value in my artistic intentions.

When I received the rejection email this week, my heart sank. It’s not that I haven’t felt rejection before, but even after years of these emails I still haven’t acquired a taste for the bitterness of frustration.

In that moment I questioned myself, my work, and wonder if I will ever stand a chance at getting recognition through these festivals. It took a few days to shake it off as the end of week another deadline was looming for the Tribeca Film Festival. Thoughts raced through my head, but it allowed me to get some perspective. For me, I always saw festivals as a way to create deadlines for myself in order to push me to finish my work.

However, along the way I started expecting more than that and it’s not that I feel like I should scale back my ambition it’s that I should remember the reason that I did it in the first place. Sundance gave me a goal and without it, I’m not sure if I would have finished The Key and submitting it was the greatest feeling in the world.

Film festivals are important to me because the submission gives me a sense of accomplishment. It says something like “I’m here, I’m an artist, and my work has value”. Whether others see value in the work that I’m making is an entirely different conversation, but my self worth as an artist shouldn’t be tied to their selection process. As an artist I can’t stop coming up with ideas and creating them. Festivals are places that celebrate this and I’m proud of myself that I have the opportunity to submit to them with new work. So rather than worry, I should just go out and find more festival deadline opportunities and make another project.

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