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 Zach Flores and Ezra J. Robinson spoke with us about their involvement with Oculus Launch Pad and how it helped shape their career and the development of Detour Bus, a casual VR game where players build ridiculous winding highways around themselves to take the dysfunctional Flowers family on a road trip across Post-Infrastructure America.
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?
The Oculus Launch Pad program has been an awesome experience for us. Attending Oculus Connect in 2019 allowed us to meet so many so many amazing developers, both our peers in the program and established professionals. It was also where we started learning about the need for accessibility in the VR space, which really inspired us to take an accessibility inclusive approach when designing Detour Bus. Then, when we came back to pitch and demo, seeing all other projects’ presentations gave us a lot of hope for the near future of our medium. Launchpad let us take our wacky project to the next level and make the goofy bus game we really wanted to make.
What was the inspiration behind Detour Bus?
Detour Bus began as a two-person project with just the two of us, where we challenged ourselves to design a VR experience from the perspective of accessibility. To achieve this, we knew we needed to embody the medium-specificity of VR and belonged only on it, not any other interface. In some of our favorite approachable, medium-specific mobile games, players use elegant controls to build complex functional systems, so construction seemed like a great genre to bring to VR for our goals.
At the same time, one of our friends had just purchased a junked Volkswagen Type 2, named it Lewis, and completely refurbished it. We found the nostalgia surrounding this vehicle particularly interesting, and decided to make it the protagonist of our game. With the current prevalence of nostalgia as a political force, the Microbus led us on an exploration into the mythology of the road trip and how public infrastructure like highways help create our collectively imagined nation. We settled into a narrative for the game with the goal of demonstrating how public infrastructure is the backbone of a society that cares and provides for the needs of its people. The characters are loosely inspired by Zach’s family members and some significant public figures.
Did you run into any technical challenges? If so, how did you overcome those challenges?
It’s common in VR to have some representation of hands or controllers rendered in game, but in Detour Bus everything related to gameplay is controlled with our road system. Making road building flexible and satisfying enough to be used in a variety of ways has caused both design and technical challenges. Owlchemy Labs uses the term “tomato presence” to describe the ability to still have a sense of your hands while controlling an object even if a hand isn’t shown. In Detour Bus you never get hands so making a game where players feel like they’re in control and have a presence in the world has been hard. We’ve experimented with a variety of particles, line renders, and shader effects to communicate players’ sense of control.
What lessons did you learn while getting Detour Bus ready for Quest? Any best practices you can share with other developers?
This is probably nothing new, but develop for your tightest constraints from the start. Simplifying a complex game for mobile requires immensely more work than bumping up some settings for a PCVR release. Thanks to our past experience developing for VR, and Zach’s experience porting VR games, we knew to play things pretty safe and test on Quest from the start. Performance limitations directly and indirectly affect much more than the graphics rendering at the end of your development. Whether or not we could implement post-processing effects like bloom or color grading, prompted a number of design conversations on Detour Bus.
What reactions have you seen while demoing / playtesting the game?
Even with the very earliest prototypes of Detour Bus, without much polish or any narrative, we knew we were succeeding in our design goals when we caught playtesters laughing to themselves at the roadways they had built, or dancing along to the groovy baseline in between snapping pieces together. With each layer we’ve added—3D environments, the voice acting of the characters inside the bus—we’ve watched these reactions get stronger. One of our favorite quotes from a playtester was “it’s like Hot Wheels without the hassle!”
Playtesting has also been incredibly important to our process of improving the tactility and ease of control in the game, to help us make the main mechanic as approachable and intuitive as possible. Although the current build looks like it works essentially the same as our very first prototype did, the code behind our road building has been completely overhauled two or three times in response to user feedback.
Can you discuss the history of the game?
For the first four months of its existence Detour Bus was a partner class project at USC, though Zach was already in the Oculus Launch Pad program at that time, and we always planned to submit it to that. The most important step in the development was one of the first, which we recommend to everyone developing for VR or even games in general: building physical prototypes. Based on the theme of highway construction, we each developed an experiment to test. Ezra created a pair of cardboard road pieces, which players held in both hands to transport a toy car across a room. Zach designed a tabletop push-your-luck puzzle game where players connected random tiles with twisting roads to attempt to connect destinations in the most circuitous way possible. A week later we combined the best parts of these two designs into a digital VR prototype, and despite much refinement and many additional layers of complication, the core of Detour Bus has really not changed since then.
What influenced the overall look and feel of the game?
Building roads in Detour Bus should feel like you are playing with toys. One of our friends calls this “Unga-Bunga” or Caveman Design, based on the premise that any player interaction with the software should in itself be rewarding to perform, activating the same human instincts as banging a stick on a rock, irrespective of its relationship to the player’s end goal. Achieving this requires maximizing feedback, (a.k.a. the “juice”,) from the very first stages of development, because it is an essential part of the player experience. We wanted Detour Bus to be the best building toy ever—providing the satisfying tactility of LEGOs or K’NEX and inspiring childlike wonder like a massive marble run or car track—something that couldn’t easily be achieved in the physical world.
Visually, Detour Bus takes after its protagonist vehicle, attempting to capture the psychedelic vibrance of the hippie era. We took inspiration from artists like Peter Max, Yongoh Kim, Bonnie MacLean, and John Alcorn. Part of the magic of psychedelic art is how it flattens the world onto a page, so our Art Director Quiana Dang and her team had a challenge figuring out how to bring that same feeling back into 3D, all while making every bit of information parsable. The team has done a wonderful job capturing the essence of the psychedelia in a style that serves the game’s design and accessibility needs.
Who did you work with on the soundtrack and sound design? What was that experience like?
Our sound designer, Hanna Adams, is building super chill soundscapes for each of our miniature level environments. She has done amazing work to make them as interesting to explore aurally in 3D as they are visually. We found ourselves in an interesting genre with our 60s-70s inspiration, where our game doesn’t sound like much else out there. A lot of game sound falls into either sci-fi/fantasy or hyperrealism, so it has been really interesting working with Hanna to make up what nostalgic childrens’ toys and pure groovy energy sound like. To avoid any digitalness, we began recording a lot of strange foley ourselves and combined the natural world with analogue synths.
We have some very exciting collaborations with artists in the works, to create some original funky music for our world, but we can’t announce them quite yet.
How did you approach and incorporate inclusivity, representation, and accessibility with your app?
Our approach to accessibility and game design is made up of two main parts: intuitive gameplay and flexible accessibility. From the beginning we wanted to make all gameplay as approachable and intuitive as possible for players of all experience levels, backgrounds, and abilities. The game mechanics need to teach themselves to anyone and the game aesthetics have to welcome a diverse group of players. In Detour Bus we do things like making sure the default controls only require pressing one button, providing lots of feedback on actions, introducing new mechanics gradually, and designing regular ‘safe spots’ or checkpoints in levels. We made sure to stay away from challenges that required high stamina or dexterity.
Designing an approachable game to start with is the key to later success with flexible accessibility options. This part means providing many alternative options for controlling and perceiving the game, to assist players who need them. Detour Bus includes subtitles with dyslexia-friendly fonts, a sitting mode and flexible player-height scaling, a one-controller mode, a no-reach mode, various artificial locomotion options, low-vision and color blindness filters, and complete remapping of the controls for any of those features.
VR can be really inspiring the first time someone tries it. We wanted to make a game where a wider audience of people could throw on a headset and experience something really unique and have a good time. We think it’s super important to help bring more people into the VR community and believe inclusive software can help drive that.
What are your top tips for devs hoping to be more inclusive and reach a broader audience?
Don’t assume you know what people need, so talk to lots of people early! We gained invaluable insights from conversations with organizations like The AbleGamers Charity at Launchpad and by demoing the game for complete strangers far earlier than most devs would ever dream of. We showed the same prototype we submitted to Launch Pad—with free art assets, default Unity lighting, and ourselves reading the voice-over—at DreamHack Anaheim in February 2020, and that was probably the most influential experience on the development of the project. Questioning common assumptions about what makes a VR application helped drive a lot of what we do in Detour Bus.
What advice would you give to a developer looking to start building for VR?
Know why you care about VR! In choosing to develop for VR you are designing for a very specific medium with a very specific audience; it has completely different strengths and affordances from anything else. Know what you want to say about or contribute to the medium with your project, so you will have a solid foundation to guide your design.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with our developer audience?
Stay groovy, support public works, and be good to one another!