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Road to the IGF: Khan, Meekel, Flusk, and Meekel’s after HOURS

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

after HOURS has players sharing a tiny space with Lilith, a young woman suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) due to childhood molestation. Through sharing her space and thoughts, players will get to witness the break between the objective reality and the hurtful realities the disorder creates.

Gamasutra sat down with Bahiyya Khan, designer of the Best Student Game-nominated after HOURS, to talk about using discomfort and pressure to draw out empathy and understanding, using FMV and animation to recreate the dual realities of BPD, and the challenges of exploring (and reliving) difficult topics like molestation. 

Who is Bahiyya Khan?

Existentially? Who can say? Some things that I do know is that my name is Bahiyya Khan and I’m the game designer and writer for after HOURS. I play Lilith, the protagonist in the game, and since it’s a full motion video game,  I co-directed it. I also provided my own teenage poetry for the game, which is very cool to me.

Breaking from what games “should” be

When I was in my final year of high school, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I mean, I knew I wanted to be in a band and write, but I have brown parents so hahaha yeah. I ended up studying game design at university because I figured I could make games about being in a band.

I only *really* started making games three years into my four-year degree. I mean, I made games for school, but I was so unhappy in my degree for the first two years that I just didn’t give a shit about what I was making. Half the time my best friend was carrying me through my degree cause I was just so sad and felt like an outcast. Once I stopped caring about all the things that everyone told me a game “should” be,  that’s when I began making games that I cared about and actually had fun doing it.

Using rage to help others

I had to make a year-long game for my honors project at varsity. A year is a long time, so I knew that I wanted to make something important. Unfortunately, at the time, there was a rise in violence against women and children in South Africa. Friends and family I’d known my whole life had also come out to me about being raped or molested. I’ve also experienced a disgusting amount of sexual assault and fuck man, I was fucking furious about it all. That’s when I decided to make my honors game about it. I wanted to direct my rage into something that could potentially help people.

In terms of the Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) aspect, I have it and it is my desire to kick its arse in the pit. A lot of people that have BPD have been sexually abused in childhood or just have had unstable childhoods, so it made sense to me to show that Lilith has developed this disorder because she was abused. I was also so sick of people with BPD being demonized, whether by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) or just experiences I had in my own life.

So, I wanted to show that we’re not evil people. We’re hurting and trying our best and we read “Catch 22” a lot and like The Front Bottoms enough to stick their lyrics on our bedroom walls.

The tools to create after HOURS

Initially, I prototyped the game in Twine. I did that to kind of guide the way I wanted the game to flow. I also mapped out the game on paper. I just drew out how I wanted the bedroom to look and what I wanted players to be able to interact with. The game was then filmed using a Sony a7s ii camera and #MadeWithUnity.

Very importantly, we also used our hands and brains and hearts. Lest the general public forget that video games are made by people.

On choosing to explore the challenging topics of after HOURS

I’m a woman that lives in South Africa. We have one of the highest rape rates in the world. I needed to talk about it. I wanted survivors and people with BPD to feel less alone. To not feel like they’re insane for feeling the emotions that they do. That they are valid and are more than what has happened to them or their illness.

The difficulties of developing a game about heart-wrenching topics

A lot of the development process was the worst! Wow, it was really bad. So, in the beginning, I was working in Twine, whatever, that wasn’t too emotionally taxing ‘cos I’d just sort of done vague plot points.  When I had to get into the character of Lilith, that’s when things started getting bad. I have BPD, so a lot of Lilith’s reactions are very close to my own, and performing something on camera that I hate going through in my actual life was really weird and uncomfortable.

The molestation aspect of the game ruined me. It actually ruined my life and I’m still trying to recover from it. Immersing yourself in content like that for concentrated periods of time… I just couldn’t stop thinking about how ugly it is that it exists. I was losing my mind trying to come up with solutions to end all the pain for people. I couldn’t live with the knowledge that I had. I became obsessed with reading articles about children that had been molested because I felt like I wanted these kids to not just be another statistic but for someone out there to know their names. All the scenes in the game where I’m crying and tearing down my room, I really was that angry.

Sometimes I’d be unable to do my bit of work on the game because I was so depressed and that would, in turn, set everyone back and just make the whole process really pressurized and awful and it was a really bad cycle.

Leaving the player with no room to relax

My intention wasn’t for the player to passively consume her story. I knew that I wanted them to play the game with bated breath and give them no room to relax – to sort of mirror some of what Lilith goes through. I wanted them to have access to the voices in her head so that they could contrast that against what was “objectively” happening and think about the dissonance in Lilith’s reality and how scary it is not being able to trust your perception of things.

I wanted players to interact with her thought processes when sending texts to her boyfriend or friend and then not give them agency in choosing certain options to show them how often Borderline people feel like they have no agency in their lives, and are being dragged by the hair by the evil bastard in their brains.

Using FMV & hand-drawn animations to create a split reality

I’m pop-punk trash and watch a lot of music videos, and one of my favorite bands, All Time Low (pls notice me), released this music video for their song Nice2KnoU which combined hand-drawn animations over film, and I thought that looked dope as hell. Then I was like, “Shit! This will be perfect for after HOURS!” because the way I feel as a person with Borderline is that a lot of the time, the reality that I experience is different to everyone else’s. It’s a more wounded and intense reality. That’s when I decided to use animation in the game to show that sort of split in reality – what is objectively going on and what is going on for Lilith.

I feel like I often inhabit a different reality as opposed to everyone else, and while this is true for all human beings, I feel like mine is different in a much more intense way. I thought adding the animations were a useful tool in depicting this. They also help with letting the players know when Lilith is triggered by something or experiencing a particularly strong emotion by the repeated trope of her eyes being scratched out or an animated snake going into her head and symbolically poisoning her mind.

Drawing out empathy with after HOURS

I want to make people uncomfortable. I feel like a lot of the time, people watch their friends or whoever experiencing depression in a rather passive way. They don’t see who you are when you’re alone. They can’t see into your mind or see what you see. And while no one can ever really inhabit your reality and experience your depression or what it’s like to be molested, I want players to get as close as they could to empathizing with those realities in a 20-minute video game.

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US labor organization AFL-CIO urges game developers to unionize in open letter

“This is a moment for change. It won’t come from CEOs. It won’t come from corporate boards. And, it won’t come from any one person.”

– Liz Shuler, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer, makes her case for a game developer union

In the wake of Activision Blizzard’s massive layoff wave, a move that was announced in the same call as the company’s record quarter, the union federation AFL-CIO has published an open letter to game developers urging members of the industry to organize.

The AFL-CIO itself is the largest labor organization in the United States and counts 55 individual unions (and more than 12.5 million workers) among its affiliates. 

The letter, readable in full on Kotaku, calls out many of the issues that have prompted conversations about unionization in just recent years like excessive crunch, toxic work conditions, inadequate pay, and job instability. 

The industry, points out AFL-CIO’s secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler, boasted sales 3.6 times greater than those of the film industry in 2018, yet much of that financial success isn’t felt by the developers working on the games that generate those billions. 

“Executives are always quick to brag about your work. It’s the talk of every industry corner office and boardroom. They pay tribute to the games that capture our imaginations and seem to defy economic gravity. They talk up the latest innovations in virtual reality and celebrate record-smashing releases, as your creations reach unparalleled new heights,” says Shuler. 

“My question is this: what have you gotten in return? […] They get rich. They get notoriety. They get to be crowned visionaries and regarded as pioneers. What do you get? Outrageous hours and inadequate paychecks. Stressful, toxic work conditions that push you to your physical and mental limits. The fear that asking for better means risking your dream job.”

Shuler makes the argument that the change needed by the industry won’t happen on its own, and won’t come from those at the top of the triple-A development food chain. She calls out the work already done by Game Workers Unite, a group that got its start last year with the goal of advocating for a game developers union (and has already become a game developer-focused branch of the IWGB union in the UK), as evidence that game developers can “embrace the power of solidarity and prove that you don’t have to accept a broken, twisted status quo.“

“Change will happen when you gain leverage by joining together in a strong union,” says Shuler. “And, it will happen when you use your collective voice to bargain for a fair share of the wealth you create every day. No matter where you work, bosses will only offer fair treatment when you stand together and demand it.”

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Peek under the hood of Ubisoft’s AI assistant for players at GDC 2019

Personal digital assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are becoming household names, and now Ubisoft has designed its own AI-driven assistant specifically for video game players. To learn how it works, come on out to the 2019 Game Developers Conference next month!

As part of the GDC 2019 Design track of talks, Ubisoft Barcelona creative director Charles Huteau will present “Ubisoft Club: Building “SAM”, the First AI Chatbot for Gamers.” He’ll give you a behind-the-scenes look at the nine months of development that went into Ubisoft’s AI chatbot SAM, from the early prototype to the worldwide release of the beta version and the collaboration with game teams like Rainbow 6: Siege and Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey. 

He’ll also share key lessons from the development team and the discoveries that were made from building an assistant AI which is radically different from traditional home assistants like Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. You’ll also explore the future of the project and examine how an “open dev” philosophy brings community and users at the center of major development decisions!

It’s a great talk that’s part of the equally great GDC 2019 AI Summit, which is jam-packed with intriguing and in-depth sessions offering an inside look at key architectures and issues within successful games. 

While the summit is targeted at programmers who want in-depth discussions, anyone interested in what AI can offer the next generation of games will gain invaluable perspective and insight.

For more details on all the talks on offer at GDC this year, check out the GDC 2019 Session Scheduler. There you can begin to lay out your GDC 2019, which takes place March 18th through the 22nd at the (newly renovated!) Moscone Center in San Francisco. 

Bring your team to GDC! Register a group of 10 or more and save 10 percent on conference passes. Learn more here.​

For more details on GDC 2019 visit the show’s official website, or subscribe to regular updates via FacebookTwitter, or RSS.

Gamasutra and GDC are sibling organizations under parent company Informa

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Ubisoft isn’t worried about an influx of new games stealing Rainbow Six Siege’s thunder

“When there’s something new on the market, especially shooter games, [Rainbow Six Siege players] go and explore and then they come back.”

– Ubisoft’s Yves Guillemot discusses the staying power and appeal of Rainbow Six Siege in an investor Q&A. 

Ubisoft has rounded up its financial results for both the third quarter of its 2018-19 fiscal year and first nine months of that period, calling out specifically that its games “delivered a solid performance in a quarter when, as expected, competition was particularly fierce.”

For that nine-month period, Ubisoft recorded €1.32 billion (~$1.49 billion) in sales and €1.35 billion (~$1.53 billion) in net bookings (or sales plus deferred revenue from live games). Net bookings along saw a 13.5 increase over the €1.19 billion (~$1.34 billion) recorded during the same period last year.

Digital continues to take up a growing chunk of overall net bookings. Last year, digital net bookings were responsible for 56.3 percent of net bookings for the first nine months of the year. This time around, that share has grown to 66.4 percent, or 897.8 million for that three-quarter-long period.

Net bookings sourced from Ubisoft’s back catalog of past releases also saw a boost. This year, back catalog titles brought in €842.9 million (~$952.5 million) in the first nine months of the year, up 38.6 percent from the 2017-18 year, and were responsible for 62.3 percent of total net bookings.

Net bookings for the quarter, meanwhile, fell by 16.4 percent from last year’s numbers but still managed to exceed Ubisoft’s earlier projections. For Q3, net bookings came in at €605.8 million (~$684.6 million), just slightly beating the €600 million (~$678 million) target set for the quarter. 

The company totes strong player engagement as one noticeable sign that its games had some staying power throughout a competitive holiday season. For last quarter’s release Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, Ubisoft leadership says they charted a rise in things like days-played and overall completion numbers, factors that they believe reflect well on the decision to take the long-running series in a more RPG-inspired direction. 

Rainbow Six Siege, a 2015 release and ever-present force in Ubisoft’s catalog, has seen consistent growth and a year-over-year increase in revenue. Even as a premium title, Ubisoft notes that the bulk of Rainbow Six Siege’s revenue comes from DLC sales. 

The game currently has 45 million players and the company doesn’t expect rising competition in the genre to hurt the game’s player base. “When there’s something new on the market, especially shooter games, they go and explore and then they come back,” explained Ubisoft’s Yves Guillemot in an earnings call. The company is looking to bring Siege over to China in the future as well.

The Epic Games Store, or rather Ubisoft’s decision to move The Division 2 from Steam to Epic’s new platform, was another topic brought up a couple times during that earnings call. In response to a question about the risks of skipping Steam, Guillemot said that the revenue boost it’s been seeing on sales (both from the Epic Games Store and increased traffic on its own UPlay platform) has been a beneficial result so far. 

“I think the Epic deal is a deal that was important for us,” said Guillemot. “Because it really helped us to do actually more of our business on our own store and have a better revenue per unique sold.”

He says it’s difficult to say the exact impact the decision has had quite yet, but that preorders so far have been promising. The deal itself sees the PC version of The Division 2 launching only on the Epic Game Store (with UPlay integrations and the platform’s generous revenue share model) and Ubisoft’s store. So far, with one month left before its release, Ubisoft says The Division 2 has already beaten preorders for the original The Division.

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GDC Dev Days deliver fresh insights from top game tech companies!

As you’re gearing up for the 2019 Game Developers Conference next month, organizers would like to quickly let you know about some of the great day-long sponsored Developer Days you can enjoy during the show!

All Developer Day sessions take place during the first two days of GDC (Monday and Tuesday, March 18th and 19th) and offer cutting-edge insight and opportunities to learn from some of the top companies in the industry.

Here’s a sample of what’s in store for you during the GDC 2019 Developer Days, served up in an easy-to-read list format. A number of companies are presenting Dev Day sessions this year, and today we’re excited to highlight offerings from Google, Autodesk, Xsolla, Substance, and The Khronos Group:

Google

Building Successful Monetization and Growth Strategies: Hear how top game developers challenge traditional mobile game business models and find success through diversifying their revenue streams. This session will also look at ways to build communities and cover the latest growth and monetization tools to help you find and keep high-value players.

Building on AndroidThis technical session will cover Android tools and tips to optimize your mobile game’s performance for the best possible player experience. Learn strategies for diagnosing library problems, how to spot bugs and identify root causes, as well as how games can be optimized for large screen devices, like Chromebooks, to improve engagement and reach new audiences.

Create, Connect, and Scale with Google: In this four-part session, you’ll cover a variety of ways to reach new audiences with your games. Hear about expanding to emerging markets, developing immersive AR experiences, designing voice games for the Google Assistant platform, and how to grow your game and improve the player experience with Firebase.

Tools and Best Practices to Improve Discovery and Game Quality: Learn about the latest tools, services, and best practices to help distribute mobile games on Google Play. You’ll examine how to create high quality games using Android vitals, improve player conversion with Google Play Instant, and build effective pre-launch strategies to maximize the lifetime value of your players.

Autodesk

3ds Max: What’s New and What’s to ComeGet an exclusive sneak peek of the latest advancements in 3ds Max from the Autodesk product leadership team, meet the Autodesk team and be part of the conversation.

Autodesk & Unity: Powering Immersive Experiences with Connected Workflows: For over a year, Unity and Autodesk have collaborated to build more connected workflows between Autodesk 3D tools and the Unity engine. In this session, Autodesk and Unity will give an update on that relationship, what new work has been done to improve the interop between our tools and what we’re exploring for the future.

Sony Santa Monica Presents: God of War: See a first-hand example of how animation performance in Maya accelerated workflows for artists at a major AAA game studio, and learn how they can be applied in other cases at other studios.

Maya 2019: Faster Animation, Artist Workflows, and the Future: Learn about everything new in Maya 2019. Autodesk will present key updates to animation workflows for artists and discuss what to look forward to in the near future. 

Shotgun for Production Management in Games: Keeping track of assets, project status, and reviews is a huge challenge in games. Shotgun is a review and production tracking toolset well known for helping creative teams deliver blockbuster films, epic TV shows, and AAA games. In this session, we will cover the latest updates to Shotgun for games and hear how it has impacted the efficiency of some of the world’s biggest studios.

Xsolla

A Game Dev’s Guide to Life Beyond Credit Cards & Major eWallets: In an era of global game publishing, extending one’s reach can be tough, particularly as a smaller studio. Xsolla will help attendees expand to geographies that they never thought of with hyper-localized customer buying experiences guaranteeing increased market share and conversion. Learn about nuanced payment habits and local payment options that are gaining traction in key gaming markets.

Content Design & Marketing Tactics for Successful Pre-Order Campaigns: This talk will help attendees understand how to create and execute successful pre-order campaigns — demonstrating best practices and case studies across founder and pre-order packages, bundle content and pricing, marketing activities, upselling, sales, discounts and how to work with existing crowdfunding campaign backers.

Game Publishing 3.0: Battle Testing Your Business Model Pre-Launch: When it comes to publishing advice, one mantra you hear often is to “start your marketing early.” However, rarely do you hear “start your monetization early.” This talk will get you up to speed on pre-launch strategy and help you enerate early indicators to tune your marketing, optimize your sales funnel, and ultimately make more money both pre-release and at launch.

Learn How to Up Your Game: Empowering Developers Everywhere: It’s never been easier to make a game, but the barriers to success have never been so high. How can you take control of your own destiny? Xsolla GM & CMO Nathalie Lubensky will show you how by drawing from over 20 years of creating exceptional and memorable customer experiences. This kick-off talk will give you the confidence to self-publish, launch your dream game to the right audience, own your customer, and create a global brand — without breaking the bank.

Maximizing the Influencer Potential for Your Game: Influencer marketing has become an essential part of marketing for many games today, and a vital source of growth for some. In this talk, Xsolla will discuss how to position a game for influencer success.

Untapped Opportunities: Funding Beyond Friends & Family: Tired of self-funding? Come learn about different sources of funding one may not have known existed. With a wider network and a customized pitch, odds of funding success can increase substantially. Xsolla team members will cover where and when to reach out to make the magic happen.

The Khronos Group

Bringing Fortnite to Mobile with Vulkan and OpenGL ESThe session will cover the challenges faced in bringing Fortnite Battle Royale to Android devices using Vulkan and OpenGL ES, optimization strategies, performance and memory trade offs, plus content changes and implementation details Epic used to get the most out of the mobile graphics APIs as implemented in modern Android mobile devices. 
Making Use of New Vulkan FeaturesJoin this session to learn about recently released Vulkan features that have been driven by developer feedback. This session is comprised of 3 smaller topics each delivered by a different speaker (from AMD, Gaijin Entertainment, and Samsung) and focused on specific new features that are targeted at real world use cases!
OpenXR: The State of the Union: Come for an understanding of how OpenXR approaches future proofing and cross-platform compatibility, and some of the changes that applications must make to fit in. Additionally, Khronos will talk about how new and existing hardware fits into the ecosystem.
Ubisoft’s Experience Developing with VulkanCome hear Ubisoft’s Jean-Noe Morissette talk about his experience developing with Vulkan! From shader compilers to pipeline caches, Jean-Noe will share thoughts and perspectives on working with ecosystem tools and the Vulkan API. Contrasting Vulkan with DX12 will highlight practical concerns when porting projects to Vulkan.
Vulkan: The State of the UnionOver the past three years Vulkan has become the world’s leading cross-platform, low-overhead graphics and compute API. In this session, Khronos will check in on the state of the Vulkan universe and review the latest developments in the standard and the ecosystem.
glTF and WebGL: This session will present the current state of both the WebGL API and glTF file format. The latest features of both will be demonstrated, as well as how each is being used in the wild. The glTF roadmap will be covered including next-generation materials and compressed texture transmission (CTTF).

Substance

Substance Days Keynote: Adobe’s Sébastien Deguy will kickstart The Substance Day at GDC 2019 by sharing some updates on the latest news in the Substance world. This session will highlight some great upcoming features for Substance Painter and Substance Designer, and will also present some exciting news about Substance Alchemist!

Marvel’s Spider-Man: A Deep Dive into the Look Creation of Manhattan: Focusing on the art side of creating Insomniac Games’ 2018 hit Marvel’s Spider-Man, Insomniac’s Matt McAuliffe, Brian Mullen and Ryan Benno will take deep dives into how each department handled the creation of materials, textures, models, set dressing and lighting across the entire city of Manhattan, and how all of these assets came together.

Texturing the World of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey: Ubisoft Quebec’s Vincent Dérozier and Pierre Fleau will take you through the complete production of the materials of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. From conception to pre-production and production, learn what defines the artistic direction of such textures, and how technical elements of the pipeline and workflow were built using the Substance suite.

The Division 2: A World of Materials: This talk will cover The Division 2’s material creation workflow and tools pipeline. The speakers will discuss the philosophy of creating a curated library of materials from scratch using Substance Designer. They will also shed some light on their proprietary Substance toolset, and how they designed a flexible engine integration for Substance files.

Creating Hard Surface Materials in Substance Designer: During this talk, WB Games Montreals Jonathan Benainous will present two personal projects. Giving a detailed breakdown of these hard surface materials, he will assist the audience in studying the key steps involved in creating an intricate Baroque Ceiling & a Damaged Painted Wall in Substance Designer.

For more details on these promising sponsored sessions and countless other great talks, head over to the GDC 2019 Session Scheduler! There you can begin to lay out your GDC 2019, which takes place March 18th through the 22nd at the (newly renovated!) Moscone Center in San Francisco. 

Bring your team to GDC! Register a group of 10 or more and save 10 percent on conference passes. Learn more here.​

For more details on GDC 2019 visit the show’s official website, or subscribe to regular updates via FacebookTwitter, or RSS.

Gamasutra and GDC are sibling organizations under parent company Informa

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Road to the IGF: Polyarc’s Moss

This interview is part of our Road to the IGF series. You can find the rest by clicking here.

In Moss, a little mouse sets off on a grand VR adventure, and the player will join in alongside her, using their shared abilities to solve puzzles and overcome monsters that they couldn’t tackle alone. 

Gamasutra sat down with Stephen Hodde (Audio Director), Rick Lico (Animator & Rigger), and Chris Alderson (Art Director) for the Excellence in Audio-nominated Moss to learn about the thoughts that went into making the player wish to help Moss‘ tiny protagonist, how sound deepens that connection, and how VR can make the player truly feel like a part of the journey.

The people behind the mouse

Hodde – Hi, I’m Stephen Hodde and I’m the Audio Director. I started making flash games before transitioning to console. I worked at Volition on Red Faction and the Saints Row games, Bungie on Destiny and its year 1 expansions, and Amazon Game Studios before landing at Polyarc.

Lico – Rick Lico, Animator and Rigger for Moss. I’ve been animating professionally since 2000, and in the gaming industry since 2001. I’ve been credited on 14 shipped games and a few expansions. I was the original animator for the Destiny franchise, helping to establish the animation style of its characters, gameplay feel, and technical animation systems. Before that, I was helping to redefine animation for the Halo franchise by introducing a mocap pipeline for Reach, and pitching the initial concept for Bungie’s runtime rigging system.

Alderson – I’m Chris Alderson, Artist and Art Director. Funny enough, Rick (Lico) and I have been working together in the industry for 14 years. We were both hired at Monolith in 2004 where I worked as a character artist on the Condemned series. Four years later, I was hired at Bungie to build characters for Halo 3: ODST, Halo:Reach, and Destiny, respectively, before leading the Character Art team on The Taken King. In 2015, with the new exciting prospect of VR, I left Bungie to help start Polyarc where we began work on early prototypes of Moss…And the rest is history.

Created from comfortable VR play space

Alderson – Moss was ultimately a product of early VR explorations by the earliest developers at Polyarc, and our love for classic adventure-style games that we grew up with. A new entertainment medium usually means new and exciting ways to interact with it. Basically, starting from scratch. We were excited to make something that everyone could and would want to jump in and play.

We set out to make a world that was inviting with a control scheme that wasn’t daunting. We wanted to make a game that could be played from the comfort of your couch, or if you wanted to get up and walk around, you could do that too.

One of the first big impacts we noticed with VR was the ability to reach in to the world around you and physically interact with it. Furthermore, VR also allows us to bond with characters and have meaningful, emotional interactions with them. In a comfortable play space where you can reach in and interact with objects while being seated, we needed a protagonist that can fit in that space comfortably. Quill was born from those principals. We tried to make a character that you would want to invest your time in to bonding with them emotionally, while also making a game that was fun and easy to play. The world and story around her developed once these basic ideas were in place.

Fetal heart-rate monitors as development tools

Hodde – One of the stranger tools I used was fetal heartrate monitor to record some unique heartbeat sounds. Since all non-synthesized sound originates out in the world, I spend a fair amount of time during development recording in the field. I have a small collection of microphones, but I tend to rely mainly on my Neumanns. I use a Sound Devices recorder and external microphone pre-amplifer on location. I also keep a small, handheld recorder on me most of the time to capture serendipitous sounds.

In the studio, I keep Eurorack & Moog synthesizers. I alternate between many headphones, but have settled mainly on Sennheiser HD650, Oppo PM-3, and Sony MDR-7506 for recording. I have a collection of rare recordings from Andy Martin that he captured during his Northwest Soundscapes Project that appear a lot during the first third of the game. I use Nuendo as my main digital audio workstation which interfaces nicely with Wwise, our audio engine. Unreal and Blueprint cover the other 50% of audio development.

Lico – Moss was made in Unreal. The animation content was authored in Maya.

Alderson – As mentioned above, Unreal Engine was our primary development tool across all platforms, and we love it. The artists used a wide range of different tools during the production of Moss, and our mantra is each artist should use the tools that will help them do the best at their job. Some of us use Maya extensively, while another artist prefers 3D Studio Max.

We used Zbrush and Mudbox for sculpting. Substance Designer, Substance Painter, Photoshop for our textural needs. Marvelous Designer is a great tool for creating garments. We purchased a few scanned data assets from Quixel, and the Unreal Marketplace got us started with our terrain and foliage that we later edited to fit our needs, so our artists could spend more time on hero props and characters. 

Creating a personal connection in VR

Lico – I believe it’s a collection of many decisions that factor into this. The first being Alderson’s design of Quill herself. Having an anthropomorphic mouse at a realistic scale with no discernable pupils makes it very easy to side-step common issues such as the uncanny valley. Or that uncomfortable feeling you may get when someone stares at you too long or ignores you.

Beyond pop cultural icons, people have no preconceptions of how a mouse should move or act. Quill’s also quite tiny, so supporting a complex facial animation system wasn’t necessary, making her body language more of the focus. She’s also appealing on her own, without any animation what-so-ever. All of these made my job much easier.

Beyond that, I felt it was important avoid cliché animation decisions. In film and cartoons, there are certain expectations for how anthropomorphic creatures act and move. It’s common to see animated characters gesticulate well beyond what a human would ever do and is often expected as a given. I believe these exaggerated acting decisions can feel off-putting to VR players, and lack emotional depth. I wanted to give Quill a more genuine personality based on honest acting decisions. But this doesn’t mean I don’t respect traditional animation principals. On the contrary, I wanted Quill to feel like a Disney or Pixar style character in motion, but wanted her acting choices to be more subdued in the hopes that she’d feel more relatable.

Finally, we wanted to take advantage of the VR medium. What separates VR from traditional game/film media is a sense of presence. You’re there with the character, not just viewing the character. This means the traditional ‘4th wall’ doesn’t exist in VR.

We felt it was important to interact with Quill like you would with one of your friends. We’re no longer limited to button inputs. We could have Quill react to gestures, line of sight, and context. Things like waving at her, petting her, or spooking her by sneaking up behind her were important for us to represent. But just as important is Quill’s autonomy. We gave her an opinion and a way to express it using sign language. We gave her sovereignty over her actions as she asks for a high-five, implying that she has free will, thought and emotions. It’s easier to have empathy for a living creature than it is for a thing. And empathy is the root of bonding. 

A shared emotional journey

Lico – The contrast in scale between Quill and the player helps to define roles. Given Quill’s diminutive size, it’s obvious how limited her effect on her world really is. Players pick up on this and may try to protect her. This will often add subtle tension to a battle or give the players a sense of accomplishment when they solve a puzzle with her. These roles provide an opportunity for the player to feel helpful and cooperative.

But we didn’t want Quill to feel helpless, so we made her actions display an overt sense of effort to compensate. She doesn’t just magically pop-up on top of a ledge or swing her sword. She skitters and scratches her way up a ledge and swings her entire body, not just her sword. This puts an emphasis on realistic physical locomotion, making her more grounded in her world.

We also attempted to be mindful of the player’s emotional arc throughout the game and represent the way we hope the player feels via Quill’s actions. For example, after defeating Sarfog, Quill will kick the defeated foe to vent some adrenaline, which is exactly what we hoped our players would feel in that moment. The idea here is that, if Quill acted on the players emotions, it’ll strengthen the bond they have with her.     

Emphasizing vulnerability through environment

Alderson – In the world we created, most of the dangers for a small mouse like Quill have long passed – including the giants who used to roam the land of Moss. Rodents and small animals alike now rule, and except for the occasional war between different rodent kingdoms or other fairy tale creatures the world more-or-less was made for Quill. She had the unfortunate luck of being born right when an ancient evil decided to rear its ugly head. But it wasn’t all coincidence.

What her tale lets us do as developers is take advantage of the scale of the world to emphasize her vulnerability, adding to an emotional weight of your relationship with her. We tried to play up that fact quite often. Whenever Quill leads you into a tiny rodent structure, we like to reward you with a vast environment at the end of it, but this also tends to make you feel for Quill and how open she is to danger. It was also important that the scale of every tree, plant, and rock felt in place to help the player believe they could exist in this world. Once the scale of the world feels out of place, it can really take you out of the experience which would also take away from the emotional weight of Quill’s journey. 

A shared adventure only possible with VR

Alderson – To me, Moss and VR are synonymous. The reason for the game’s existence, and why Quill looks and acts the way she does was to compliment the tech from the get-go. We knew that, to make the best VR game possible, we would have to have to design it with VR in mind first, rather than port over an experience to VR later.

The most notable way that Moss utilized VR is through your relationship with Quill. VR let’ you become your very own character, and if done right, you should have your own personal story and motivations to keep you engaged. And that’s where Quill comes in. Hopefully, when you play Moss you are taken by her charm, where you both discover everything about her world and story at the same time, so that your motivation is to go on this journey with her and help her succeed.

That is just something that isn’t possible on flat screen entertainment where you end up watching some other hero’s journey. You and Quill are the heroes in Moss. In VR, you are present within these worlds with their own rules and stories, and from there it can go so much further. I can’t wait for the future of this type of VR entertainment

On Moss‘ audio design

Hodde – Quill’s relationship with the player became so central to the player’s experience, so I tried to pursue an understated, detailed, and gentle style that could hold that experience. If the sound is working right, the game’s sound arrives in the player’s mind as a unified world. They’re not hearing effects or systems or processing, or consciously registering discrete components of the soundscape. It should all feel glued together. Strangely enough, this line of thinking caused me to spend more time on making cool reverb than I have on any other project.

Using sound to bond with the player

Hodde – Both Jason Graves (our composer) and I are giving GDC talks around this very topic, so I don’t want to spoil too much!

I’ll be breaking down the role audio plays in VR comfort (and discomfort), how to approach sonic scale and perspective, how Quill’s vocalizations allowed players to form their own impression of her identity, the role of voice direction and narration in supporting the player bond, and choosing sounds that have inherent emotional value. It’s all wrapped in a discussion about how to approach sound as a designer, and in Moss’s case, how each one of these aspects contributes directly to the player’s emotional bond with Quill.

Jason will talk a bit about how soloists create intimacy. He’ll also cover how why we chose to create suites of music that were broken down later into small parts, instead of working directly from a cue sheet.

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