Owlchemy Labs Case Study: Lessons Learned from JOB to VACATION
Oculus Developer Blog
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Posted by Devin Reimer, Andrew Eiche
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April 23, 2019
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In this blog post, Devin Reimer (Chief Executive Owl) and Andrew Eiche (Chief Technology Owl and Cable Wrangler) of Owlchemy Labs share their insights from developing “Vacation Simulator”, the studio’s latest VR title and follow-up to “Job Simulator”. With the breadth of knowledge they've gained from shipping these titles, we're excited for them to share a few of their lessons learned— and be sure check out Vacation Simulator on Oculus Rift, and on Quest in 2019!


Vacation Simulator was born from the desire to dig deeper. Our bread and butter at Owlchemy Labs has always been our interactions and commitment to making VR approachable by all— “VR for everyone” is our goal!

We knew we wanted to spend more time in the Bot universe and expand on many of the design principles we first tackled in Job Simulator. The premise seemed simple enough— first you JOB, then you VACATION— but expanding the world of Vacation Simulator meant expanding on practically every major system in Job Simulator.

Today we’re going to share three case studies where we expanded on interactivity with environments, characters and systems to make the vibrant, interactive world of Vacation Simulator possible!

Movement

At the core of our design goals for Vacation Simulator was creating connected environments for players to explore. Early on, we found that tinkering with objects in your play-space in a room-scale environment was incredibly rewarding in VR, not to mention the most comfortable and accessible. It’s intuitive to interact with the world with your hands and move your body in a physical space— we’ve been doing it our whole lives!

In Job Simulator, the user is tasked with completing numerous Jobs within their workspace. We built every Job within a single, tracked play space, and to move to a different Job, we invented the “Exit Burrito”: an item that players could eat to go to the main menu and let them switch between Jobs. To account for variations in the players room size, we dynamically reconfigure the playspace to meet the needs of the available space. This involved implementing custom layouts, tool choosers, or recreating models for the various layouts. While custom-authoring layouts seems like a pain, we found it essential to ensure our players got an amazing experience regardless of physical limitations! We also discuss this tactic in more depth within our 2018 GDC talk: Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality Postmortem: VR Lessons Burrrp Learned.

Moving to Vacation Simulator, we had to figure out how to expand our environments into a connected world. After all, Vacations are about exploring lots of different places and doing lots of different things! To create this open world, we had to balance a tricky set of challenges: encourage players to physically move within their play space, interact directly with the environment and make the teleportation process understandable to players, all while adhering to our our #1 rule—“Don’t make people sick!”

We had already tested the concept of zone-based teleportation in “Rick and Morty: Virtual Rick-ality” but wanted to address several key challenges in Vacation Simulator:

  • Forward-facing Tracking: How do you allow teleportation in multiple directions if all your interactions need to be in the forward direction to maintain the best experience?
  • Teleportation Directions: What angles, orientations and distances feel “good” to teleport across?
  • Communicating Playspace Boundaries: How do you differentiate where you can move your body within a space and where you need to teleport to change spaces?
  • Communicating Movement: How do you make it clear where you’re heading and where you’ll appear?

In Vacation Simulator, players are able to clearly see where playable zones are, hit a button, and teleport! It’s intuitive and encourages active movement within a play space by creating discrete zones for interaction.

Character Interaction

At Owlchemy Labs, all of our games feature memorable characters. To create characters that players feel a connection with in VR, there’s a whole new set of challenges to tackle from a design standpoint. Characters in VR are a part of your world, and the player’s sense of presence and immersion depends largely on the believability of your characters— their appearance, action, dialogue and demeanor.

In Job Simulator, we designed the Bots to be simple and friendly. This made things much easier from a production standpoint because we didn’t have to worry about animating complex movements or facial animations. In many cases, this also allowed us to avoid the uncanny valley. Bots look familiar and approachable, but not human— we found players were able to form connections with these characters, but the fact that they’re cartoony robots means players still feel comfortable goofing around with them and, of course, throwing things at them!

To feel a connection to characters in Vacation Simulator, they needed to be near the player’s personal space, but not so close it felt uncomfortable and aggressive. We found a sweet spot, either placing characters just outside the immediate play space or at the very edge of it. This provided a comfortable distance while still allowing for player interaction. Player agency is a hallmark of good VR experiences, so this “opt-in” style of interaction is key for players to create real connections with your characters.

Because we try to keep our characters and character interactions fun and friendly, we experimented with a virtually universal human greeting: waving! To initiate a conversation or activity with a Bot, players only need to wave. Having this player-driven initiation mechanism felt so natural most players did it automatically, and it’s just downright fun! We hope it becomes a standard— since its inception we’ve been waving at all sorts of characters in VR hoping for a reaction!

Systemic Interactions

When we design games at Owlchemy we strive to find rich features that can be used across the game. We want our players to explore their creativity and feel like they’re a part of a whole world. In Vacation Simulator we built many different exciting systems that all interconnect, like painting, sandwich making, and fluids to name a few. Let’s dive into a single system as an example of the work we did across the game: Temperature.

We first introduced the concept of temperature in the Gourmet Chef Job in Job Simulator. Players interacted with hot and cold items and were sometimes tasked with cooking them. In Job Simulator we limited this to certain devices like the Toaster, Grill or Microwave, and certain items like fluids and a few specific foods. In Vacation Simulator, we wanted a universal system that better met the player’s expectations of how hot and cold works. With an interconnected world spanning multiple climate-specific destinations, there was a baseline expectation that the world had some kind of “temperature” and that items would react accordingly.

Given what players expect, it only made sense to start at the highest level. Every area of Vacation Island has its own base temperature: The Mountain is the coldest zone; The Forest is moderate, close to room temperature; and The Beach is much warmer. This was a good start: ice cream from the mountain melted on the beach, and hot drinks turned cold when left out in the snow. But it wasn’t granular enough to satisfy all expectations. What about inside the mountain lodge, atop a frozen pond, or even something as small as a match? What happens when you step outside the mountain lodge or use the fireplace inside?

Temperature zones are smaller, invisible areas of hot or cold within a larger area--like the space around a campfire for example. These temperature zones might be turned on and off by players, like the grill, or even created on the fly, like a small sphere of heat around the tip of a lit match. Just like real life, items inside temperature zones naturally heat or cool towards that temperature. We even model the heat transfer and absorption of items inside these zones. For example, a burger placed on the grill will heat much faster than one held slightly above the surface. Once we had the system set up we realized we could add boiling for just a touch more added believability and, just because we’re that crazy, boiling fluids even slowly lose liquid as they turn into a gas!

This was all great, but if it’s not clear to players, it’s not accessible, so we had to find the best way to communicate temperature and temperature changes to players. When we finished, we had a number of different feedback mechanisms. Items that are gaining heat might sizzle or steam, and fluids give off little particles once they begin to boil. Taken to extremes, items thrown into cold water can actually freeze, becoming encased in blocks of ice. And of course, for anything food-related it was important to change its appearance as it took on heat, going from raw to cooked to burnt, or perhaps melting, depending on the specific type of food.

With food-related interactions scattered throughout Vacation Island, it was important to have cooking and temperature feel intuitive and meet players’ expectations. Based on the number of hot dogs we’ve seen cooked over single matches, we’d like to think it’s working!

While these case studies address separate challenges we tackled making Vacation Simulator, they all play together to create a richer, fuller VR experience. Especially in VR, it’s very important to think about not only the individual interactions and systems you build, but how they connect to create opportunities for unique player experiences only possible in VR.

To make engaging VR you first must build the universe…Or at least part of it.

Thanks for reading!

- Devin and Andrew