Each year, Oculus Launch Pad supports promising VR content creators from diverse backgrounds with hands-on training and support, so they can iterate on their unique ideas and bring them to market.
2019 Launch Pad grant recipients Dylan Paré, Scout Windsor, and John Craig spoke with us about their involvement with Oculus Launch Pad and how it helped shape their career and the development of Mementorium, a heartfelt story about identity and belonging told through a branching narrative in virtual reality.
If you’re interested in applying for our next Oculus Launch Pad session, watch for our open application announcement on the blog this Spring.
Congrats on receiving an Oculus Launch Pad grant! What was your Launch Pad experience like and how has your involvement made an impact on your career?
Oculus Launch Pad was an incredible experience! We met so many talented developers with unique project ideas. Our peers and the excellent boot camp sessions taught us a lot that helped our development process. It was a whirlwind of a week! We especially appreciate the friends we made and the connection to the growing Oculus Launch Pad Alumni community. The OLP boot camp gave us fun opportunities to work together with our cohort on various game design projects. It showed us how unique ideas come from working with diverse people on some of the silliest design challenges.
Having Oculus’s support to turn our vertical slice into a full game was invaluable. It allowed us to bring in collaborators and take our game to the next level. With this support, we developed our game beyond our expectations, and we’re proud to be submitting it to festivals.
What are your top tips for devs hoping to be more inclusive and reach a broader audience?
Our guiding principles for Mementorium included planning for accessibility from the beginning. It was important to us that we not treat accessibility as an add-on or a separate feature. People use these features for many different reasons that may not always be about disability. We tried to consider many user needs and preferences and design for as many as we could manage.
One of the challenges we faced in designing for accessibility for VR as an indie studio is that we didn’t have pre-packaged assets or plugins we could rely on to speed up the process. We instead had to evaluate how many features we could accomplish in the time we had and then decide which design features we would prioritize. Planning for accessibility early on meant that we could develop many features that increase accessibility for various uses. We included features such as teleportation, free motion, height adjustment, toggled haptic feedback, touch or distanced grabbing and interaction, and left or right, one-handed mode. We also have voiced character narration, subtitles, OpenDyslexic font on subtitles and menus, and volume adjustments for music, dialogue, and SFX.
Another important consideration is to think of accessibility broadly. Accessibility concerns in gaming come out of design by and for disabled gamers, but we can also think of accessibility as everything that might restrict who can play your game. Our game’s core theme is about inclusion in STEM, and so for us, inclusion was a prominent concern for all aspects of design. However, it’s valuable for any game to consider diverse representation in avatars, characters, and stories. We also suggest game designers not portray people in stereotypical ways and provide content warnings that prepare people to engage with sensitive content. All of these kinds of considerations will help more people to enjoy your game.
Finally, don’t be afraid to try something new — a new concept, game mechanic, platform, game engine, or coding language. One of the coolest things about being an indie developer is using your projects to challenge yourself. With Mementorium, we looked at what we knew we could accomplish, and then we set stretch goals for ourselves where we knew we would have to learn new things.
Could you tell us about the core gameplay and what inspired you to create Mementorium?
Mementorium is a heartfelt story about identity and belonging told through a branching narrative and playful interactions. Interactions with “mementos” uncover memories of gender and sexuality bias that transport you to a dreamlike environment. Each branching narrative concludes with a choice that transforms the story and allows you to find the strength to move forward while still acknowledging the harm done.
Mementorium’s design is informed by academic research on virtual reality, learning sciences, gender and sexuality education, and 10+ years of DEI teaching and community organizing experience.
We wanted to leverage virtual reality and embodied learning alongside interactive storytelling and practices for building empathy. As the Queer Code Collective, we have been researching and developing these ideas since 2017, and Mementorium is a culmination of research to this point. We hope that Mementorium can support learning about how identity development is impacted by cumulative experiences of bias and encourage people to find ways to address adversity while acknowledging harm and injustices.
Were there any important themes or messages you wanted to get across in your game?
Mementorium’s main theme is about inclusion in STEM and how experiences of gender and sexuality bias build up over time and eventually push many people out of technical fields. It also extends generally to how being marginalized by society can wear a person out and make it difficult for them to see a future for themselves. We are especially concerned for trans and gender-nonconforming youth in schools right now who are being targeted for exclusion by lawmakers, making them vulnerable to bullying, ostracism, and other forms of violence from their school administration and peers.
Mementorium allows people to make choices about what they can do to respond to instances of harm from the marginalized character’s perspective and their perspective that they bring to the game. Making these story choices in the game encourages reflection on the possibilities and limitations of different responses.
Did you run into any major technical challenges? If so, how did you overcome those challenges? Feel free to be as specific and detailed as you’d like.
When we began development on Mementorium, we were also in the process of moving our development pipeline from Unity to Unreal Engine. This meant that we needed to do some initial work to set up our version control server and make sure that we could develop smoothly as a remote team. We also needed to learn a lot about the differences in VR development between the two engines and become more familiar with the blueprint system. The visual coding was fantastic in that it allowed all team members to modify and build game systems together.
Game development is about constant problem solving and prioritizing. We have numerous examples of technical challenges we overcame because making a game is never a smooth process.
We had a frustrating issue with a VR frame rate limitation bug in one version of UE4. After a week of troubleshooting, we eventually moved the game up to a newer engine build, and the problem was solved! It’s tough when you come across a game development bug that is happening inside the engine, but thankfully this bug was resolved with a version swap.
We also ran into technical issues when it came time to implement the subtitles. Unreal has a built-in system for subtitles that makes it easy to add dialogue. However, this system did not work well in VR because we couldn’t easily position the subtitles. We couldn’t place the text on top of a background to make it easier to read, and the system did not work well with stereoscopic displays. Instead, we built a subtitle system ourselves, which required a lot of trial and error. Knowing how vital subtitles were to the game pushed us to find a solution to expand and customize to our needs.
What was the main inspiration for the art direction in Mementorium?
We wanted the environments in Mementorium to feel safe but also surreal and beautiful. We designed the childhood bedroom, with soft moonlight streaming through the window, to encourage exploration and play. It’s kind of like when you stay up past bedtime as a child to play with your toys. It feels like a stolen, magical time. We used baked lightmaps and reflection probes to keep the performance requirements low while allowing for high-quality shadows and reflections.
We also utilized Unreal Engine’s forward shading renderer, which allowed us to use MSAA for anti-aliasing. We appreciated the crisp edges that MSAA creates in VR, which added to the realism and beauty of the game’s assets. MSAA meant that we couldn’t use screen space effects (for things like highlighting interactable objects), but thankfully after some trial and error, we found other visual effects that worked just as well!
The magical realm took inspiration from our home in the foothills of Alberta, Canada, near the rocky mountains. We wanted to be mindful of how games sometimes use “exotic” places to represent magical realms. Exoticism is a Western, colonial perspective, and those places that are imagined to be “exotic” are somebody’s home. So we decided to represent our magical realm through our own experiences of nature and the magic we see in our backyard of Alberta, Canada. We also acknowledge that these lands are the traditional territories of the people of the Treaty 7 region in Southern Alberta and home to Métis Nation of Alberta, Region 3.
Two additional, significant contributions to Mementorium are the beautifully animated fish and hand textures from two incredible artists, Kevin Ang and Estella Tse. We were so happy for the opportunity to work with them! Their thoughtful, playful, and imaginary approaches to their art added substantially to the magical realist feel of Mementorium.
How important was sound and music to your game?
Music was essential to set the tone for the game. We worked with a very talented composer, Sophia Marlow, who brings a phenomenal emotional presence to her music. In addition to creating the music, she also performed all of the vocal harmonies. You can listen to the Mementorium Lobby music track here.
Sound design was also important to us in our development of Mementorium. Sounds both increased the sense of immersion in the world and added to the dream-like, almost magical feeling of objects and environments. Some sounds in the game were realistic, such as the birds and wind, while others were custom-designed, such as the floating orbs. Mementorium is inspired by the genre of magical realism, and we wanted to have a balance between familiarity and magical elements across all aspects of the game’s design.
As an interactive narrative, we also wanted Mementorium’s narration to be high quality and emotionally engaging. Dylan fully narrates the game, and we built a sound booth in a closet with premium acoustic foam to create optimal acoustics for recording.
Even though we spent a lot of time making the game and being inside the Mementorium world, the game came alive once we added the music and narration. At these final stages, Mementorium became truly welcoming and emotionally resonant.
What did you learn from your experience playtesting the game?
First, we learned that what we thought was obvious was not. For instance, some will say that intuitive interactions are those which replicate real-life experiences. However, sometimes this doesn’t translate well to VR, despite being more embodied than other forms of virtual media. One of our most complex design challenges was our interaction to hug a teddy bear. First, John and Dylan had a long conversation about the mathematical representation of hugging a teddy bear in VR. Second, we went through multiple iterations of sound, visual, and haptic cues to signal the interaction. Then during playtesting, only one player hugged the bear without our prompting. We ended up having to add more cues to direct attention and action, and we had to add in a sort of fail-safe to trigger the interaction so that players would not be stuck wondering what to do with the bear.
Second, people will do things that you don’t expect that introduce bugs. These unexpected moments can help point out places where you can add an interaction, a narration line, or even something as small as a single sound that provides feedback for the player’s interactions. Or an unexpected moment might uncover a bug. In our case, we had players open the menu at the end of an interaction right before they were about to transition to a new scene, and this broke the game. Playtesting helps work out bugs as well as add extra serendipitous moments for the player to enjoy.
Lastly, we found that the time spent on story development was worthwhile. Game designers might overlook or minimize the importance of narrative because of a strong focus on mechanics or interactions. Both elements are valuable and work best when developed to complement each other. In Mementorium, the story and the interactions that advance the story were mapped out entirely on paper alongside each other. The interactions are an embodiment of the story and are designed to enhance the narrative experience. Playtesting confirmed that the time spent on this early design process was essential, as each player found moments of personal resonance in the story and interactions. Players were emotionally invested in the story and the interactions and felt that their choices were consequential and meaningful to the gameplay experience.
What advice would you give to a developer looking to start building for VR?
While developing has a lot of technical learning involved, the visioning and design aspects of game design are most important for directing your technical decisions. We try to design for embodied, emotional, and experiential interactions. Questions to ask yourself can include: What kinds of emotions, embodied experiences, and ways of knowing or understanding your game world do you want people to experience? What do your potential players bring to the game (their identities, experiences, ways of knowing their world) that shape how they might interact? The game design is the mediator between these possibilities. As a game designer, you are inviting players to experience a world differently. How we imagine our worlds and who we imagine in those worlds will guide the creative process. It is important to remember that VR is still developing, and the industry is still learning what works and what doesn’t. Learn from what other developers have done, try new things, and test them out. We’re all out here learning together!
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our developer audience?
We’d like to thank everyone who has ever worked in Unreal Engine development, came across a problem, and wrote a blog post or made a video about it because we probably read or watched it! If you’d like to follow our development adventures, you can find us on Twitter @QueerCodeColl or our website https://queercode.org/.