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 John Corn, lead VR developer at Stuido Studios. Stuido Studios (formerly known as Eos Interactive) is an independent game studio located in New York City, currently working on Virtual Reality games and interactive experiences.
Observer: How did you get into VR?
John: I got into VR two years ago or so. I was teaching classes at the New York Film Academy and they were offering a few VR classes. At the time I was teaching programming for games so they gave me a lot of the equipment and I started playing with it. Then I met some other devs building for VR here in New York who were building mobile VR experiences at the time. NY has a really tight indie scene so we just kept seeing each other and eventually started working together.
Observer: How would you describe ‘The Take’?
John: Our biggest issue with VR was - and still is - that it's generally expensive and it's not always easily accessible. For me, I would invite friends over to my tiny Brooklyn apartment to show them a VR game and then I’d watch them play that game. However, it’s not always fun to watch someone else play a game, I wanted to participate as well. It's enjoyable to see them have fun but the idea with The Take was to create a local multiplayer game where we're both playing with each other in this digital space. It's a way to have friends play in VR together with just one headset and one setup. We almost want it to be a showpiece for when you bring friends over to play VR; this is what you would play so you could engage with them easily.
Observer: When you guys came up with the idea of building a local multiplayer game, how long was it from concept to release on Steam?
John: I think the actual concept was created last July but we really didn't start work on it until September. And even then we didn't start working on it full time until last October. We had a playable demo early last August built initially on mobile! We were using a Gear VR with the controller but we were very frustrated with the mechanics and faced a ton of tracking issues. Because of this we gutted the project and started our prototype on the Vive. We released on April 2nd of this year so development was about 8 months in total.
Observer: How did you playtest your app throughout development?
John: We have a really good [VR] community in New York so we brought it to a lot of events to see how users reacted and then took notes. Our earliest version was just a very small playable trailer. One of the interactions was a slide projector where you had to pick up the carousel reel and put it on the slide projector. What we found was that when kids tried the experience they got stumped by this step. When they got to the point where they were supposed to put the film on the projector, we realized they had no idea what a film projector was! Based off of these tests I made some changes that night to make the projector glow and pulse. We then playtested again the next day with kids in the same age range and they understood the mechanics. A big part of playtesting is this "leaving bread crumbs" concept and seeing which ones people actually follow in the way we want them to.
Observer: When playing the game, I’ve noticed that I really move around a lot. How did you guys think about physical movement in your design and development process?
John: When we started designing on the Vive, we wanted to start by designing on the least amount of constraints first and then move down to the most constraints, so we thought we should tell the player they're allowed to move within their play space. We wanted to let the player know that it's safe to move within an extent so there's a circle that's drawn on the floor that matches the size of your play area for the Vive. We wanted to encourage people to actually walk. Before we did that, we found that a lot of players were just teleporting everywhere, spending too much time trying to teleport even to move just 6 inches. We wanted to teach players that you don't have to teleport just to move 6 inches - just take a step over.
There’s also a lemon at the beginning of the experience that is intended to encourage physical movement. We wanted the player to not just use their legs, but also to reach out and grab it. There was a lot of issues with new users where they were just pointing at it and trying to force-pull it in. To get past this we needed to make sure it was clear that everything is 1:1 with the real world.
Observer: How do you see data analytics playing a role in the development process for VR?
John: I think that goes back to everything that I talked about with the bread crumb trails and seeing how players understand and use the different tools that we give them. Like the whole lemon thing...with analytics we could see the heat map of the play space. This visualization allowed us to see if users actually step out, or if they just stand in the center and teleport. I think that information is super helpful because before using analytics we had to rely on watching people session by session and take notes, which is ok, but now that we have this data to look at. We can actually get hard numbers from our Steam users since we're not able to watch these sessions in person. We now get valuable data and we’re able to make design decisions based off of how players are playing 24/7. So that's been really powerful for us.
Observer: What gets you guys excited about the future of VR/AR?
John: The uncertainty of the industry is both exciting and...terrifying. There's a ton of cool things going on in the industry right now but it can go in all different directions. We've talked a lot about the Microsoft Hololens and how maybe one day VR won't actually be a thing, it will just be another part of the whole MR spectrum. For example, if you’re wearing a Hololens and you want to go into “VR”, it just goes fully opaque. Otherwise, it can become semi-transparent for mixed reality or transparent for augmented reality. We're definitely thinking about how to make games in AR just so we can continue to stay relevant.
Observer: What’s next for Stuido Studios?
John: As far us making experiences, we're definitely slowing down a bit on that because, you know, after 8 months on The Take we got really burnt out. We have some ideas and prototypes but we're definitely focusing right now on teaching and incubation and growing the community. It’s very satisfying for us to help other teams and to be able to teach more people about the technology. What we found is that making games is awesome, but right now we're focusing on growing the industry any way we can, while also doing some experiments on the side.
Thanks to John Corn for lending his time to be interviewed. You can follow John on Twitter.