Oculus Developers Celebrate International Women's Day

Oculus Developer Blog
Posted by Ruth Bram
March 8, 2019

Women in games are innovative and accomplished. Our diverse and unique perspectives promote positive changes, drive quality, and ultimately win fans.

Jessa Brezinski from Harmonix said it best during a panel we were on together. She told me that we need to be more aware than ever how different people respond to situations presented in a game, especially in VR which is all about immersion. For instance, with Rock Band VR, the team quickly realized that the way the crowd interacts with you, the performer, could be perceived very differently from person to person. It takes a diverse team to recognize and design for these varying experiences.

On diverse teams, it can also take a female leader to ensure that strong, female characters are represented accurately. I caught up with Jenny Huang from Sanzaru — they just announced Asgard’s Wrath, a Norse-inspired action adventure featuring a playable and powerful shieldmaiden, Ingrid. She explained that society’s thoughts of how women should behave can sometimes affect perceptions of how they should be portrayed in games. For instance, during Ingrid’s voice over sessions, the character's ‘yelling’ was off-putting to some. Jenny felt a warrior should sound like a warrior regardless of gender and she made sure that the VO was representative of this strong, powerful character.

At Oculus, I’ve gotten to collaborate with some amazing women like Jessa and Jenny. I've learned from them, supported them, and have celebrated with them when their games have been well-received. And to celebrate International Women's Day, we at Oculus would like to recognize and enjoy a few stories from several more outstanding women in the VR space: Tess McCrea from Martov, Sarah Northway of Northway Games, Lianne Papp from Turtle Rock, andLee Brighton from Virtro. Read on to learn about their unique experiences, a-ha moments, and favorite projects in VR.

-Ruth Bram, Producer at Oculus

Tess McCrea (Martov Co.)

Work by Art Director Anastasia Ovchinnikova

When I donned an Oculus DK2 for the first time in August 2015, I hardly knew how my world was about to be shaken. It was a simple live-action horror experience, and despite the fact that I am a well-known horror enthusiast and have been desensitized by decades of blood, gore, and jump scares, it took my breath away. I enjoyed the novelty of the experience, but in the days and weeks that followed, the potential demonstrated by that short experience only grew in my mind.

It was a couple of years before that revelatory first experience translated into full-time work in VR, but the excitement of working in this small, fast-growing field filled with passion and energy has met and exceeded my expectations. The relative youth of the industry means that the stories and pieces of content created now have the potential to ripple outwards indefinitely, impacting future creators and creations in ways we could never even imagine (could Bernard Hermann, writing the score for The Day the Earth Stood Still in 1951, possibly have known how indelibly he was tying the eerie sounds of the theremin to the idea of extraterrestrial life for all eternity? I dare you to listen to some theremin music and try not to think of aliens, it’s impossible).

So, when you know you are (in some way, large or small) contributing to the shape of the zeitgeist of your field, the question becomes, what does that contribution look like? What do we want the world of VR to look like? For us at Martov Co., we love creating the types of worlds that we would want to explore, live in, and be challenged by.

That means colorful, fantastical, and above all, fun. Of course that also means representing all the richness in gender, race, ethnicity and sexual identity that exists in the non-virtual world. Part of creating unique and interesting experiences comes from making space for varied voices on your team -- as it’s Woman’s Day, I’d be remiss not to mention my pride that our team at Martov Co. is 40% women (double the industry average), and filled with devs from diverse backgrounds.

For our new game, Forged, we’re creating just such a world. In the single-player campaign, play as Qadira and fight back the Blossom of Omara, a sinister influence pouring from a rift between worlds that spews demons from its depth and corrupts everything it touches, a consequence of the dark machinations of Dekarian sorceress Naja Masako.

In order to defeat Naja and cleanse the Blossom from the land, Qadira must master the sword, face her demons, and rally the forces of her homeland.

In order to push the boundaries beyond your typical hack-and-slash fantasy sword fighting game we are building Forged to last, with a strong focus on ForgedArena, our PvP mode, where players can choose their own Hero, as well as a team of AI allies to aid them in their quest to destroy their opposition.

All this takes place in a fantasy world built from Martov Co’s signature fantastically colorful and richly detailed aesthetic -- and of course, as in any game worth its salt, there are frog people.

Sarah Northway (Northway Games)

At 17, I applied for my first ever tech job with the words “jack of all trades” at the top of my resume. I figured this was a good thing; it meant I was flexible and good at everything I did. Employers, unsurprisingly, saw it as a mark of aimlessness, and a career adviser told me to pick one thing and focus on it.

I chose my greatest love, programming, and in the fullness of time I got pretty decent at it. But I wanted more: to invent, craft systems, write, illustrate and design graphics. So after 10 years as a coder, I quit and went indie.

Working outside in the tropics made me squint… so worth it

My husband Colin and I spent 5 years traveling the world and making our own small independent games. My first game Rebuild was hugely successful, and solo: I’d done all the design, writing, code, and art myself. It was a flat 2d game of course, because I wouldn’t touch 3d models with a 10 foot pole. I’d taken stabs at all the software – 3DS Max, Maya, Blender, ZBrush – and bounced off each one. I couldn’t get my head around the camera angles; I’d wreck things in the Z axis while working in the X and Y. Watching professionals, I felt I’d need years just to memorize all the hotkeys required to use those tools effectively. I swore I’d never make a 3d game.

Until… VR.

Tilt Brush to be exact. I tried a private demo, waving my arms around to paint great huge solid lines of light. I was completely taken by the medium. My husband was too, and we immediately switched gears and teamed up with Radial Games to write Fantastic Contraption VR, a puzzle game where you grab and snap tinker-toy-like pieces together to make lifesized vehicles. It used those same large arm movements we found so neat in Tilt Brush.

Don Piano by Sarah Northway, Tilt Brush + Audio, 2017

I stayed deeply into Tilt Brush. Some of the early sample art packaged with it was mine. And I’m not – well, I had never considered myself to be an artist. I just found it so incredibly intuitive and easy to use. If you want to draw a line from here to there, you just… move your arm from here to there. Nothing like the frustrations I’d had with traditional 3d modeling software.

I wondered if I could make art assets for a VR game inside VR, and the answer was oh yes you can!

Trees made in Gravity Sketch

After some experimenting with tools like Medium, Quill, and MasterpieceVR, I discovered Gravity Sketch, and used it to make a little (unreleased) game about gardening on an alien planet. I modeled while sitting cross-legged on my bed, scaling and rotating the object in front of me as I tweaked it, leaning over it to see details, scaling it up to get a sense of how it would feel in the game. The hand motions in Gravity Sketch are so natural, and the basic functions – draw, move, rotate, copy, undo, all mapped to a different button to make creation flow so effortlessly.

I’ve seen the future of 3d modeling, and this is it.

Along the way Colin and I found ourselves in the VR community, and time and again we were intrigued by the incredible art being created. Like Cabbibo’s liquid iridescent creatures made from math, Liz Edward’s paintings which become your whole world when you step into them, or Sean Tann’sinteractive rainbow experiments.

VR is a new artistic medium, and the artists experimenting it are wonderfully unbounded in their ideas. We wanted to help connect these artists and share their creations with the world, which is what brought us to create The Museum of Other Realities.

I’ve seen the future of 3d modeling, and this is it.

MOR lobby featuring Fruit Tree by Sarah Northway, Gravity Sketch, 2017.

Initially, the MOR was a series of self-enclosed art experiences by a variety of VR-centric artists, joined together via a lobby area with entrances to each one. Entirely digital, the lobby was styled as a traditional brick-and-mortar art gallery with neutral white walls and smaller pieces of art on pedestals.

We thought it’d be neat to make the lobby area multiplayer, so visitors could get that legit museum vibe while watching strangers come and go, or chatting with friends before and after the experiences. The MOR – still in early alpha – began holding monthly “release” parties where all the artists logged on from their respective VR rigs to check out the new exhibit and connect with each other.

MOR multiplayer featuring dresses by Anand Duncan

Gradually, the separate experiences fell away and the lobby took over the entire project. Today the MOR (still in alpha) contains nearly 100 works from 30 artists. There are full-room art pieces which move and flow around you, interactive dance halls with ribbons of color, tiny dioramas you can teleport down into, a bar and cocktails you can clink, mysterious floating alien jellyfish, motion captured musicians, photogrammetry villages, wearable dresses, roaring dinosaurs, laughing skeletons, spaceships, and at least a couple Sarah Northway originals, made in Tilt Brush.

I have since moved on to my next thing, but Colin and a growing team are still working on the Museum of Other Realities – due to be released in 2019. If you are a VR artist and want to be involved, please get in touch!

Lianne Papp (Turtle Rock)

Hi Internet! My name is Lianne Papp and I’m the Executive Producer over at Turtle Rock Studios. Part of my role has been growing and helping the various game teams we have as well as empowering those teams to create amazing experiences in both the VR and traditional console/PC spaces. Being Executive Producer at TRS means leading production on multiple projects simultaneously, managing the schedule of each department on every team, and working closely with our publishers. Some people might ask what the role of a producer is; to me, we’re facilitators, enablers, and communicators.

TRS’s relationship with Oculus was an exciting one to start, fun to watch grow, and has been truly amazing throughout the past 3 years. I’m super excited for everyone to get to see what we’ve been working on lately with Oculus, as VR has been full of lessons (failures and successes) that have helped us all grow even more as developers. BUT… I can’t talk about those yet, so I’d love to talk about some of the past experiences I’ve had.

Our Introduction to VR

In 2016, we split up what had been one big game team into multiple different little teams to start creating short Gear VR experiences. This was to provide content for a new platform and also allowed us to dip our toes into a medium that was completely new to us. While this did cause some challenges, TRS benefitted from having teams that were already used to wearing multiple hats and being extremely agile: we playtest often and aren’t afraid of change. We’re all about collaboration, sharing of ideas, and feedback coming from all levels and aspects of development, so we naturally asked everyone to pitch their ideas for these experiences. Most people familiar with Gear VR have heard of or tried Face Your Fears and either laughed or screamed a lot (and maybe a little fear-laughter-crying). Face Your Fears came out of this pitch process and there’s another experience that we developed that I was super passionate about and want to highlight.

Something New

One of the pitches was provided by Justin Cherry. He is an incredible artist, and I actually have a couple pieces of his art on my walls at home. He pitched an app where you get to experience a painting while being in it. Sometimes you’re at an art museum looking at that gorgeous piece of art framed on the wall and you wish you could go around a corner or examine something in detail. In Other Worlds, you can do exactly that. It provides a little escape from reality where you can also find a little bit of peace (it might be a little too bizarre for some ;) ).

Something Familiar

A little over 2 years ago, we were lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to work on a Gear VR app to accompany Blade Runner 2049. Blade Runner 2049: Replicant Pursuit is a 3-minute journey in which you are pursuing a rogue replicant through downtown Los Angeles. While the original Blade Runner came out well before I was born, it was a movie I watched over and over with my family while growing up. I was in love with the world, the music, the characters… I read the book it was inspired by, I played the Blade Runner point-and-click adventure game, repeatedly. I never guessed that as an adult, I would not only get the opportunity to work on the franchise, but to see the world in VR. There’s something unique about that experience, and it’s hard to properly communicate it to anyone who hasn’t immersed themselves in it.

That’s one of my favorite things about VR: it’s unique and it’s fully immersive. When done right, you’re transported and you get to see and do things you never thought possible. I’ve been fortunate that I get to do it with some of the best teams in the industry (yes, my bias is showing).

Jordan & Lee Brighton (Virtro)

Our world is full of travel. Relaxation, discovery and at the heart of it all is the desire to learn and experience another culture. When we go to Italy, it’s not just to eat pizza or pasta we can get that at home, we want a new experience.

So many times I have travelled with the same intent. We went to Peru and Ecuador with the intent on experiencing their culture. We would go down to the local markets and buy our food, catch the local buses to get around and even eat where the locals ate somehow expecting their culture to attach itself to us, but it didn’t.

In our very basic Spanish words we would try to start a conversation and those that wanted or needed to practise their english would eagerly talk to us, but that was never experiencing their culture. We could see it all around us, but it simply wasn’t accessible to us without their language.

We began to speak with other people about why they travelled and while the first answer was to sitesee or for the food, inevitably when you dug a little deeper they wanted to experience something of another way of life - almost to walk another's footsteps albeit only a short while.

It seemed a strange disconnect and the story only got worse when we began looking at how many people are trying to learn a different language - and how many are never successful at achieving this no matter what class or system they use. As problem solving people by nature, it quickly became apparent that it was one of those big hairy challenges we just had to solve.

We began hatching our plans back in 2016 and imagined a world where we could speak with Artificial Intelligence characters to help us learn and practise speaking. It was the dawn of Virtual Reality and we knew that we could create amazing immersive experiences where learning was so much faster and retention was so much higher.

Lastly, all the kids in our family (some a little older than others), like playing video games, so we wanted to design a great game with the language learning integrated into the game. In so many language learning programs the fun seems like a wishful after thought, and sadly missed the delivery mark completely. We wanted real fun with real learning.

Fast forward to today and we are about to go to begin our pilot program. It is so amazing the support and encouragement we are getting from across the globe. I love that people are reaching out as excited as we are about having access to a fun way to learn a language in VR. They are so excited to be able to chat with the AI characters, it’s really quite amazing.

Our dream is to make it possible for everyone to speak another language because this can open the door to understand other people's cultures and their world. With this understanding we hope there will come friendship and acceptance and in our small way, make this world a better place.