Developer Perspective: Creating Compelling Characters w/ Corinne Scrivens of Polyarc

Oculus Developer Blog
Posted by Corinne Scrivens
April 16, 2019

In this blog post, Corinne Scrivens, Principal Artist at Polyarc, will present some of the production philosophies and processes used to create characters that take full advantage of VR. We hope you enjoy these insights from Corinne's experience developing Moss, and if you haven’t already, be sure to check out Moss on Oculus Rift, and/or on Quest in spring of 2019!

In Moss, players step into the role of a spirit-like being called the Reader. Quill, a young mouse with dreams of greatness beyond the confines of her small and tranquil village, must embark on an epic journey—and she needs you, the Reader, by her side. Together, you'll travel to forgotten realms, solve challenging puzzles, and battle menacing enemies. Alone, no one can conquer what you're up against. But united, you just may defeat even the darkest of villains.

So how did we come up with these two characters?

The first thing we did was identify our goal: create a good game that people want to play. We knew we wanted to create a virtual reality game. Because of this, any conversation about creating the characters of Moss must start with discussing what works well in VR.

To figure this out we started by researching existing VR experiences. Two games left an impression on us: Aperture Robot Repair and Job Simulator. In Aperture Robot Repair, a drawer opens to reveal a small pocket universe of tiny office workers, illustrating just how enjoyable a diorama-like world is in VR. Meanwhile, Job Simulator highlighted how fun it is to reach out and physically interact with objects. This research helped us realize that we wanted to create our own tiny diorama world that players could reach into and interact with.

The next step was figuring out what would be feasible to create. We looked at our team’s strengths, as well as our constraints, to help inform what would work best. At the time, Polyarc was an unknown little indie studio that had yet to ship a title. We had a small budget to work with, which translated into a short development cycle of just 18 months and a small team of 15 employees, of which only 12 were full time game developers. We could not afford to slip on our deadline.

As for strengths, our team had over a century of combined experience working on memorable characters for well-known titles like Red Dead Redemption, Halo Reach, Destiny, Guild Wars 2 and Dragon Age. Because of this, we decided to play to that strength and focus development on creating compelling characters to in inhabit our world.

Thanks to the desire to create a small diorama world, we knew that we wanted a smaller character for the player to interact with. We needed a theme that explained the size difference, something unique that would also be relatable and easy for players to connect with emotionally.

This is how Polyarc came up with the idea of small animals in armor. It explains the size difference, and cute animals make it easy to evoke emotional connection. They are also relatable, tapping into people’s memories of having and caring for a pet. Prior art does exist for this genre, but Polyarc felt it was a unique enough solution that it was unlikely another VR game would beat us to market with the same theme. Chris Alderson, our Art Director, created these character designs to see if this idea could hold up for multiple characters. People wanted to go on adventures with the small roguish mouse to the left, so this became the starting point for our hero, evolving to become Quill as you see her in the game today.

We created a rough gameplay prototype to test if Quill and our gameplay ideas would be fun. This gave us real production times to see if this type of game would fit our deadline.

Playtests showed the gameplay was a success, and they also revealed something unexpected –people would talk to Quill. They’d do things like give her encouragement if she missed a jump, even though the player themselves were the one either making or missing the jump. They also tried to high five Quill after making it through challenges and they spent a surprising amount of time trying to pet her. By playtesting our idea, we discovered just how compelling character relationships are in VR. We turned these personal connections into a focus of our development, which meant our player would not be playing directly as our hero.

So it was onto figuring out who the player could be. Our desire to have the player reach into the world to interact with it meant the player themselves would be a character in our game, and not just a camera. This made our game not a third-person or first-person game, but a new hybrid of the two.

To figure out what this character could be we looked at the current VR technology as well as our team’s constraints. We only had one tracked point for the head and one tracked point for each hand. Making a body that felt natural was outside of our scope and we did not have the time to create any type of convincing human face or facial animations.

This made a mask a good solution for us. While simple, it still does a great job of showing where a player is looking. We did not have the time to make a full body but making a neck was feasible. This helped turn the mask from a floating object into a real character. By fading out the neck before it reached the shoulders, we didn’t need to create a full body. This led to this character being themed as some sort of spirit energy-being instead of the typical physical character.

Giving the player a face is a key way for us to show them that they are a character in the world. When you meet our hero Quill for the first time, players notice their reflection in the water beneath them. Being a character in the world enables a stronger connection with characters, like Quill, and adds to the immersion of VR, making this reflection moment a powerful experience that can’t be replicated on a flat screen.

In conclusion, we did not start with the story when trying to figure out our game’s characters. We started with understanding the medium that we were developing for, and using that understanding to design characters that would take advantage of the strengths of VR. We also took the time to consider the constraints and strengths of our team when deciding what type of characters to create.

We made sure to do experiments and playtest our work throughout production to ensure that we were not making subjective decisions, but data and fact-based ones. This playtesting was essential, and it was what revealed how connected a player could feel to another character in VR.

None of us knew what type of game we were making when we started our production, or how connected players could feel to our little hero. Virtual Reality is full of unexplored potential and all of us are lucky to be developing at such an exciting time.

From these learnings, I hope you can do your own experiments and playtests to see what surprising things you can discover. I can’t wait to see what engaging characters that you come up with.

Thank you for reading!

- Corinne Scrivens

From The Oculus Team:

These learnings and more are covered in further detail within Corinne’s 2019 GDC Presentation: Engaging VR Storytelling: A Moss Postmortem.

In case you have not checked it out, many GDC presentations can be accessed within the GDC Vault with and without Vault subscription, while we will be sharing even more informative, insightful articles from our team, and our developer community very soon!