At Observer, our goal is to help XR developers and content creators build the best content. We believe that the community is at its best when we share our learnings and encourage each other to succeed. This is why we created the XR Creator Series, where we talk with the people helping push the industry forward. We hope to shine a spotlight on the amazing experiences people are building, as well as learn about how they got started, their development practices, and their thoughts on the future.
This week, we talk to the team over at Beast Inc. to discuss how their VR app, Beast Pets, came to be and what's next for them as they expand into AR. In this interview, we hear from Vivian Tan their Chief Beast, Mat Tyndall who covers all thing tech, and Katie Hughes who focuses on VR design.
Observer: Who are you and what is Beast Pets?
Vivian: Beast Inc. is creating a universe where we bring magical pets to life through cross reality, using both VR and AR technology. Our team never grew out of our childhood selves, the part that really just wants an awesome animal companion, like Pokemon and Disney movies. We realized that with visual and spatial technology, and the tactile technology afforded to us through VR and mobile phones, we could bring this vision to life. Because new technology allows us to integrate more intelligence and personality into the pets, they’re more like the animal companions that we saw in the cartoons growing up, rather than a lot of the pet games that have been released.
Observer: What are the challenges associated with designing for a sandbox experience vs. an experience with a narrative?
Vivian: Often times in games it’s not just the player experience that feels scripted, it’s the environment and character behavior too. To break this pattern, we needed to give users and characters less guidance. For example, in the real world, a pet wouldn’t obey your every command, there's a training and bonding period. We wanted to achieve a similar experience even with our magical pets. At the moment, our pet dragons have an AI-powered brain so they’re making decisions about what they want to play within the world. They have the choice to hang out near the user, play with toys, or get distracted by objects in the environment. Because the pets have a decision-making process, putting the user on rails wouldn’t quite work, there needs to be a balance.
There are parts of the experience where we provide more pointed guidance similar to an on-rails experience. This lets us teach the user how to use various tools and perform specific actions. We then let the user just explore and learn on their own. Over the past year working with Observer Analytics, we’ve used funnels to structure this onboarding process to find this balance.
Observer: How has your development process evolved over time?
Vivian: In developing this version, it was really an iterative experience for us. We refined our process as we moved along. A great deal went into making the user comfortable and teaching the users more than we originally anticipated.
I think all emerging technologies have many new things to get used to, especially VR because you're throwing users into a foreign environment. For every change that is made, we ask ourselves, ‘is this experience making the user intimidated or is it making the user feel empowered?’ This is something that Katie tests constantly by putting people into different spaces. It’s the art of observing and seeing how it makes users feel without asking them leading questions. We take that feedback and keep refining everything from the scale of the space, to the distance of the dragons, to how we present new objects and tools. So while we didn't have a very specific process to start, it’s defined itself over time. It now consists of doing research, figuring out what the user flow is on paper, building the initial prototype, and performing lots of user tests. I think that all falls back on the user’s sense of empowerment when they're in a very foreign space and they can't see the real world. We're asking people to cover their face, something that often goes overlooked, but is a huge element to keep in mind through the development process.
Katie: We also keep a close watch over our data in order to see if our assumptions are validated by user behavior. These analytics are our hard numbers, allowing us to look at aggregate data to validate our observations once we release a new build.
Mat: We also use analytics to find errors which we can quickly fix if critical or roll it into our next update. The reason we focus so much on the user experience in the first place was because once we integrated funnel tracking into our onboarding flow, we noticed that people were finding the first few stages difficult and leaving early. None of it mattered to people if they didn’t make it through the first step.
Observer: How often are you guys aiming to push new versions? Is it at a specific cadence?
Mat: When we started, we updated the game on a weekly basis, but as things get more complex we slowed down to every other week. Depending on our priorities any given month, we'll spend most of our time on either AR or VR. For example, this summer we spent most of our time building an AR prototype. The VR and AR versions share most of the same code base, but there are still tweaks or changes between the two of them to keep them in sync.
Observer: What data have you found most useful throughout development?
Vivian: Analytics are very valuable for our arcade-first distribution strategy because we don't directly contact with our end user, we don’t know who’s playing. The two things we’ve found extremely valuable are the height tracking, and room-scale or physical movement tracking.
Knowing headset height allows us to know the vertical level where our players will be engaging the environment at. Taking that into account we can make changes to the scene design, like eliminating low-hanging branches on tree geometry in the scene and scaling interactive objects. For instance, we used to just lower the treasure chests in game for kids and shorter people, but then we discovered that they still have to go through a whole motion range of opening the lid that's really designed for taller people. Now we're scaling down the entire object according to the player’s height. That has been very informative.
As for the room scale space, we use your heat map to show player movement and that's been really informative through our design process. Over time we noticed that the vast majority of the players don't physically move around that much, they heavily rely on teleportation to move around the environment. With this information, we’ve focused on tweaking our in-world teleporting mechanisms to support virtual movements rather than physical movements.
Katie: Funnels have been especially useful for analyzing initial user onboarding and tutorials, allowing us to measure user churn from session start through the last stage of the tutorial. When we push a new version it is easy to see if this rate increases or decreases based on the changes we’ve implemented. Custom segments have also been useful to really parse the data to see how different types of users engage, to see what their habits are, to see how many sessions they’ve played, and to see what platforms are seeing the most activity.
Observer: What is in store for the next 12 months?
Vivian: In the next 12 months, our focus is bringing pets to home VR and to mobile. Bringing our experience to mobile devices will allow people to build a relationship with their pets on a daily basis without going into VR. We want to utilize the ability to interact with the environment and with the dragons spatially rather than just on a flat screen. For this reason, we're utilizing AR and camera technologies on the phone more than a traditional game.
Mat: Additionally, because we're trying to build a true XR experience, we want users to be able to transition from the AR mobile app to a VR headset seamlessly. We’re aiming for players to play more regularly on their phones, and then pop into a headset either at home or in an arcade on a less frequent basis. For this transition to be seamless, we'll have to do some creative things with accounts, but that’s our goal!
Thanks to the Beast Pets Team (Katie, Mat, & Vivian) for lending their time to be interviewed and Justin Cellona for reading drafts of this post.
To learn more about Beast Inc., you can check out their website or by visiting one of the hundred VR arcades that offers Beast Pets. Stay tuned for the launch on Steam and their AR app later this year!
For past interviews, check out our XR Creator Series!