eff Pobst talks to OK Games about Defence Grid 2 and VR

05/23/2016 by Julian Rzechowicz | Source: OK Games
No longer is VR something which is just around the corner. It has been a couple of weeks now since both the Vive and the Rift have started appearing in people’s living rooms. As such I thought it about time to talk to someone about one of my favourite franchises ever. This is what Hidden Path’s Jeff Pobst told me about VR development!

For those that are not aware, Defense Grid is one of the best tower defence games in the universe. First released way back in ye olde times (also known as 2008) it set a benchmark for the way that these styles of games can be made.

The game moved away from just blasting everything to smithereens (this is not to say that this still doesn’t happen), to strategic deployment and upgrade of towers in an intuitive and fun manner. The levels were not only challenging, but extremely satisfying to complete multiple times.

On the back of the success with this first iteration, Defense Grid 2 was then successfully Kickstarted for a 2014 release. This version not only contained a huge number of upgrades for the underlying engine and improvements to its gameplay, but also extended its reach out of the PC and Xbox world it was trapped in. For the first time it came to Playstation.

Now we come to the latest version of Defense Grid 2, the Enhanced VR edition, Jeff Pobst from Hidden Path Entertainment kindly talked to me about where this game fits into the franchise and the effects VR had on the development. This is the story of the VR. This is the story of how Defense Grid 2 took VR, and without shoehorning it into the game, turned it into an entirely new experience. Finally, this is the story of the future of VR.

The space of VR

Defense Grid is well placed in the gaming industry to be an early adopter of this kind of technology. It is a game where the basic purpose of the game is fairly straightforward. Protect the cores. You do this by building towers in predetermined zone.

The essence of transferring this game into VR then came from looking at ways to make this action of building towers more intuitive, and less obstructive within the new control schemes. This is critically important, because as Jeff points out, one of the greatest strengths of VR is: “the concept of “presence”. By putting on that headset, you the player, are transported somewhere else, and have a different surrounding than you did just moments before. When we as game developers can make this new location and environment one that’s interesting, exciting, and one that comes with new abilities for you to exercise and try out, it can be an amazing transformation that makes the player giddy even before they start playing the mechanics of the game.”

If any action by the game removes you from that level of immersion it will create a weaker experience overall. Defense Grid avoided this issue by building that level of interaction right into the game. Just look and double tap “A” to build almost instantly. Look to a tower and it’s build options are there, easy to see and easy to use.

While certain elements did seem to roll in Hidden Paths favour, developing this system was not something that just fell into their laps. It took much time and much more effort: “It took dozens if not hundreds of iterations to finalize what we now believe to be one of the very best and most intuitive ways to play the game.”

“With VR, we’ve found that iteration often isn’t a very continuous process at all. An amazing solution can be surrounded by a ton of absolutely horrible solutions right next to it, and small tweaks can nonlinearly have huge responses”

Fortunately for the development team, they had plenty of help from Oculus themselves as they strove to set themselves up in this new space. Jeff also points out that in part, the swift creation of Defense Grid for VR was driven by the nature of the game naturally aligning with the functions already available within VR.

Of course, not all the issues have been gameplay or interface related. One of the biggest obstacles to a solid VR experience is that of the framerate. This alone is something which forced Hidden Path to tighten their belts. Anything less than 90fps and players will start noticing that what is around them is not so immersive. Any dropped frames will have an immediate impact on players enjoyment of a title.

While shooters may require high fps so that player reaction times can be better interpreted, VR needs perhaps even a higher framerate just for the world presented to remain believable.

Once again it comes back to this exploration of what is natural, what is believable. If these are broken, even for a moment, then the entire nature of the game could fall down.

Many big studios rely extremely heavily on big IP. They like to squeeze it into whatever space will take it. This unknown nature of VR presents both an obstacle that could be very difficult to breech or an opportunity, which could be very hard to find. While some games may naturally migrate across. Taking a regular game than then trying to fit VR in can in some cases be an exercise in futility. With such a new and exciting technology, why would you choose to limit yourselves to the known styles?

One of the keys that made these bigger games huge successes is their space within their genre. CoD and Battlefield take up the realistic FPS style games. You have games like Stellaris which are defined by their high level strategy. When asked about which genres he sees gaining the most from VR, Jeff noted that:

When we talk about genres today, we’re often talking about setting or camera perspective, or type of player interaction, but if you boil it all down, another way to look at genres is a way of differentiating the pace of decision making and the types of decisions players make.

I don’t think there are any restrictions on VR in supporting really interesting decisions made at a high variety of different paces and therefore, I don’t think there are any genre restrictions inherent in the technology.

I think that this is particularly important. There are lines where similarities can be drawn, and common ground created (like with Defense Grid 2). There is also an awful lot of space that exists outside the traditional space. A flat screen, regardless of 3D capabilities, will never be able to simulate the same kind of experience.

Looking around, touching, and moving inside a virtual world is something which will just take your breath away. While we can try to duplicate existing settings or types of player interactions, is it worth it?

Exploring what is possible has already happened with a few games. If we just look at what is in Valves “The Lab” we can see the kind of ideas that could develop. The controls that are used for the Vive are staggering. They really help draw you into the experience, something that I am sure the Oculus Touch will be able to do too. It is these kinds of controls and interactions that can really create and define a new medium.

This is further emphasized when I asked about any future plans that Hidden Path had for VR. They noted that they will definitely be working with it in the future and that: yes, we’ll be working more in VR, but I think it will be because we are designing for VR from the beginning.

I must offer a huge “Cheers Mate” to Jeff Pobst for taking the time to share his thoughts with me. It is fantastic to be able to see a little of the behind the scenes for these kinds of projects and it is this kind of outreach and communication with the community that makes being involved so special.

The full Q&A

Defense Grid 2 VR and developing for VR

What do you think is the greatest to gameplay change that VR has brought to the Defense Grid series?

The most noticeable change when playing Defense Grid in VR is initially that key feature the Rift headset itself provides – the concept of “presence” that by putting on that headset, you the player, are transported somewhere else, and have a different surrounding than you did just moments before. When we as game developers can make this new location and environment one that’s interesting, exciting, and one that comes with new abilities for you to exercise and try out, it can be an amazing transformation that makes the player giddy even before they start playing the mechanics of the game.

In our case, the mechanics of our game are actions about building towers, deciding where you want them to be, but the game isn’t about creating challenges for you in the effort of building of those towers, rather the challenges come in the puzzle and the mental strategy, deciding where the best place is to put the towers when you have limited resources, and which towers you want to build to counteract the incoming waves.

One of the biggest changes in gameplay in VR is the new user interface that we developed for VR play. It took dozens if not hundreds of iterations to finalize what we now believe to be one of the very best and most intuitive ways to play the game. Players gaze where they’d like around the level and we show a small dot (like a laser pointer) at where the game determines they are looking. When that dot is on a tower build square, we highlight that build square to show that it is optionally selectable.

When a player then presses the A button on the controller, or the select button on the oculus remote, we pop up an iconic tower build menu showing you available towers to choose from, which towers you can currently afford, how close you are to affording them, the current tower’s name and cost, and a mini-bar graph showing how many of your available resources will be spent if you build this tower.

Players typically take all this information in and process it almost instantly, look at the icon of the tower they want to build and press the A or select button a second time, and the tower gets built. It’s almost magical and simple, and people often feel like the UI just goes away, and they’re looking at where they want towers to be built, and those towers get built right where they want them.

Players typically take all this information in and process it almost instantly

Simple gameplay controls often take an inordinate amount of work for them to become “simple” to the player, and we’re very proud of the new tower building interface we’ve built for the game in VR. It not only makes the game easy to play and focuses the challenge on the interesting strategy part of the game, the interface itself has it’s own kind of fun about it.

Were there any areas where you felt that VR actually made it difficult to create an improved experience for the player?

Wow, I don’t remember having that feeling ever during development. If anything we kept being surprised how VR kept providing opportunities for the experience to get better and better. From a business sense, you know that perhaps not everyone out there is going to have a headset for some time and that there is this assumption in making a VR game that the player of it has all the necessary hardware to play it and has overcome the inherent friction of being able to play a game that has new hardware requirements, but once you get into developing for the player’s experience once they are in VR, so many new and exciting things open up.

For example, once the headset is on people, they love to explore around our levels. They like to look around, above, below things, look where they couldn’t look before, and explore what they may have somewhat seen before, but now see it from new angles and new perspectives. We wanted to engage with the player when they did this and even encourage looking around at all the great art that our artists have created.

We wanted to engage with the player when they did this and even encourage looking around at all the great art that our artists have created.

So, we added a simple passive hidden object game as a mini-game to the experience. Each level in Defense Grid 2 Enhanced VR Edition has five “gold cores” that are hidden in and amongst the level and we have a small counter in our floating interface that keeps track of how many you have found. It doesn’t sound like much, it’s not at all critical to the main game experience, but sometimes watching people play, I’ve been surprised at how important it can be to a player to find all 5 gold cores in a level – almost as important to them as preventing the aliens from stealing the actual game power cores during the tower defense experience.

When developing the VR edition, did the team start by exploring what they could do, or did they design a concept for what they wanted to do and then trim it back to what was possible within the environment?

It was definitely about exploring what we could do. So many things about iterating in gameplay depend upon pulling from your past experience and using that information to help guide you towards a better solution than the one you have initially come up with. In VR though, things that “always make a game better” don’t necessarily make a VR experience better, and things that “you always want to avoid” actually can improve a VR experience as well. There’s a lot of recalibrating your intuition through experimentation in VR.

I also think that if you’ve developed games for a while and done a lot of gameplay iteration, you begin to look at it as a more continuous process. You try something, you then adjust it, you determine if that made the experience better or worse, and you adjust things again based on that, and typically work your way towards a solution that is better than the one you started with and incrementally things always get better or worse depending on the variables you change or adjustments you make.

With VR, we’ve found that iteration often isn’t a very continuous process at all. An amazing solution can be surrounded by a ton of absolutely horrible solutions right next to it, and small tweaks can nonlinearly have huge responses – many times when you don’t expect them. The tiniest change can have an amazing impact such that it takes something – like say the way the UI pops up – from feeling completely wrong, to being completely the right thing. Or a tiny change can completely ruin something that was working so well. It’s crazy.

With VR, we’ve found that iteration often isn’t a very continuous process at all.

I think more than any other medium we’ve worked with, VR requires new thinking and new design principles, and that cliché about how hard it is to make something seem simple and natural is even more pronounced in the VR environment.

As VR is still an emerging technology, what did you find what the greatest unexpected obstacle during the development of Defense Grid?

Typically when we make a game, we do have a set of technical constraints, but because of the platform we’re delivering the game on, whether it be PC or console, the gameplay mechanics are more of our focus than the technical constraints of the platform. This can change based on the type of the game you are making, but typically the technology areas of focus are all around ensuring that the play works the way you want it at the performance you need it to be at.

With VR, the entire nature of “presence” – that feeling that you are somewhere else – requires a very high framerate so that when the player turns their head and look to their left or right, that the scene updates very quickly (90 frames per second is the Rift standard) so that it seems like they are just looking around normally and the world is rendered in the headset, just as it should be when they turn their head. If the game ever falls below 90 frames per second for any amount of time, presence is completely broken. The player stops believing they are somewhere else, they stop believing in all the things they are seeing in front of them, and the entire experience feels immediately “broken” and stops becoming interesting and compelling.

If the game ever falls below 90 frames per second for any amount of time, presence is completely broken.

Therefore when you want to have an exceptional VR game experience, you as a developer have to make everything work for your gameplay and your animation and your environments and simultaneously make sure that everything in the world you are presenting updates at a silky smooth 90 frames per second. While shooters may require high fps so that player reaction times can be better interpreted, VR needs perhaps even a higher framerate just for the world presented to remain believable.

This is a pretty significant technical challenge and keeping presence working in addition to entertaining the player with gameplay can be a huge effort. It was a huge effort for the DG2 team as we had previously shipped the original game that was locked at 30 frames per second on PC and consoles and now we needed to draw more things, on a higher resolution screen and also speed it up 300% from what it was at before. It was a huge technical challenge.

With the Oculus Touch controllers being planned for release in the second half of this year, and the Vive controllers already out there, are you looking at way to implement these new control methods into Defense Grid 2?

We haven’t spent any significant time yet experimenting on using the new controllers for Defense Grid 2. I’d say the reason for this isn’t that we aren’t excited about the controllers – they’re extremely cool and we love using them! But rather, our existing gaze and select system that we shipped the game with, is so fast, so intuitive, and so simple, that supporting the controllers isn’t clearly a better user interface for this particular game.

For many other games and experiences, the touch controllers are going to be the very best solution

For many other games and experiences, the touch controllers are going to be the very best solution, but because we have such an existing smooth control scheme for this game, it’s not clear that it will be a step up to use the controllers in your hands for DG2. It may be, and when we next have the opportunity to explore that, I suspect we will do so, but for now, we think we’re shipping with the very best control scheme you would want for Defense Grid.

Palmer Lucky has stated that he is all for games getting modded and being playable across multiple VR headsets, do you plan on making Defense Grid 2 VR available for other VR headsets?

We’re super appreciative that Oculus approached us some time ago and suggested bringing Defense Grid 2 to VR. We then worked with them over the course of the last year to upgrade the game and do all the things necessary to bring Defense Grid 2 to VR and they were simply amazing as our publisher and did everything possible to help us release an amazing game on the Rift. In exchange for that opportunity to be part of the VR revolution early on, Defense Grid 2 is an Oculus Rift exclusive title.

The wider VR space

There are many different headsets being made available on the market at the moment. Have you had a chance to have a go on many of them, and which would you most like to put in your living room?

Personally, I have ordered or pre-ordered all of the major headsets myself: Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, Sony PSVR, the Gear VR. That’s way too much money to be spending, I know, and not something everyone has the opportunity to do, but I am so excited about what I’ve already learned about VR and the experiences I’ve had working in VR over the last couple of years, that I really want to try and experience everything that is getting developed in this space, not just as a professional, but also as a player.

What we’ll be doing as a company, I’m not yet sure, as there are not just technology considerations, but also business considerations to take into account, but I can tell you that we as a company are excited about what all of the folks in this space are doing, and as content creators we’re always thinking about how we can entertain people and bring new experiences to them using any of these platforms.

we’re always thinking about how we can entertain people and bring new experiences to them

What genre of games do you think benefit most from the VR experience and motion control experiences?

We’ve completely surprised many people when they try our third-person top-down god view game in VR and it’s not something everyone expects to work well in VR – and yet it works exceptionally well. I think trying to predict what will and won’t work in VR is a bit foolish at this point.

I’ve seen amazing experiences on past technologies that completely broke the “rules” people were saying about them (what would work and what wouldn’t work on them), and really all those rules were just the results of the preliminary tests done by people who had early access to the technology and maybe they were right, but also perhaps they were wrong.

As more and more people get access to VR and develop new things for VR, we’ll learn what things VR does well and what things it doesn’t do well and I think different genres will adapt to those traits and perhaps stay similar to the genres we know today, or perhaps they’ll morph into something new and something different.

When we talk about genres today, we’re often talking about setting or camera perspective, or type of player interaction, but if you boil it all down, another way to look at genres is a way of differentiating the pace of decision making and the types of decisions players make.

I don’t think there are any restrictions on VR in supporting really interesting decisions made at a high variety of different paces and therefore, I don’t think there are any genre restrictions inherent in the technology. There are definitely things that we don’t yet know how to do well in VR and there are things already that are working better than anyone expected in VR – I think Defense Grid 2 is a testament to that today.

There are definitely things that we don’t yet know how to do well in VR and there are things already that are working better than anyone expected in VR – I think Defense Grid 2 is a testament to that today.

As an extension of that, will you be considering implementing VR into some of your other titles?

Yes.

That’s the succinct answer.

The longer answer is that I think you really design up front for VR, you don’t “implement” VR typically.

I think you really design up front for VR

We were very fortunate for this early round of VR that Oculus helped us identify that we already had a game that happened to have many of the things you might do for VR already designed into it fortuitously.

We have a game that has a great way of experiencing presence (as if you have an entire miniature world laid out in front of you). We have a game that has a lot of strategic depth but has a very small number of simple verbs (build X tower right there), so that the UI simplicity is already more appropriate for VR, and then we took many steps past that point to ensure that the game really worked well in VR.

I don’t think that many games should make the direct transition to VR because in many ways they likely aren’t already suited for VR, but we were fortunate in that we had stumbled into VR by already having a game that was a good fit in the first place, and then there was only “a ton of work” left to do to figure out some challenging problems and get the game fully there.

So, yes, we’ll be working more in VR, but I think it will be because we are designing for VR from the beginning.

So far, even though Palmer Lucky has stated multiple times that there is no restriction on games that are made for the Rift being made available for other devices, there still appears to be a division between the different environments. What is your opinion about this division and what kind of impact that it could have on developers who choose to only release on a single device? While I understand that you might not have the same kind of experience with the Sony devices, do you think that this will be something that could help or harm the Sony VR offering?

I love that different hardware companies often participate in providing great experiences for players. There have been different console manufacturers and now different VR manufacturers, and if we didn’t have the market competition in these places, our game consoles or VR headsets would be even that much more expensive and difficult to get.

Having different groups put together what they think is the best possible experience at their own particular price points and release that to consumers is good for all of us, and yes, it is common for critics to desire the one console to rule them all utopia where only one hardware device has all the great content, or in the case of VR, only one VR headset that is the one we need to purchase.

But, there aren’t many business incentives for the different console manufacturers to merge to compatibility, and if any of them fail, the resulting market isn’t a great one for consumers, so while I’d personally love the convenience of only having one game console out there, or in the case of VR, having only one VR platform out there, I think the pricing, the market conditions, and the incentives, will continue to ensure a situation where there are multiple choices with differences that separate them.

there aren’t many business incentives for the different console manufacturers to merge to compatibility,

Those differences are things we as game developers have to deal with in bringing our content to players, and perhaps adjusting or changing our content as we release on different platforms, but those problems are ones we can work on and live with in a pretty stable system, while the inverse situation where there is only one main platform I think would be much harder to develop for and release games for because of the market situation it would exist in, even though that sounds perhaps counter-intuitive.