Developer Blog: Cardigan Bay Sea Quest

Developer Blog:
Cardigan Bay Sea Quest

Paul Sanders Biopic

Hi, and welcome to the first in a short series of blogs accompanying the development of the Cardigan Bay Sea Quest.  I’m Paul Sanders, the Tech Director at Indestinate, and I’ve been heading up the development on the Sea Quest experience.  Sea Quest is a virtual reality experience using Oculus Rift headsets, set in Cardigan Bay.  It’s going to be available on-site at the Cardigan Bay Marine Wildlife Centre in New Quay for all visitors to come and have a go, so be sure to check it out if you’re in the area!

This first blog is all about the environment – a few things we’ve learned when creating the 3D world players will be dropped in to.

Size is an illusion

PC and console games are able to handle massive worlds nowadays, with huge amounts of stuff going on.  Whilst massive worlds look amazing and are really fun to explore, within a virtual reality (VR) experience you need to be extremely focussed.  Players will not be playing at their leisure, rather they will have only 4-5 minutes to experience as much as the VR world can offer.  This has been a real driving force for us when creating the environment, as you want to give the feel of a realistic, large-scale world so there is a strong element of realism for the player, but you don’t want engagement features in the game world to be spread so thinly that the player struggles to encounter them.

For Sea Quest, we’ve made the decision to start on a boat on the water surface.  That way, the player can see a long way around, with the coast in the distance creating a sense of scale.  In reality though, you can only walk a couple of steps in any direction before they’re off the boat and underwater, and once underwater there are rock formations that keep you inside a comparatively small area.

SeaQuest boat screenshot

Time is precious

It’s amazing how quickly 4 minutes disappears!  We’ve found that people generally go through 4 stages when playing a VR experience – each eating up good chunks of time:

  • Awe:  This is the ‘amaze phase’.  It’s time spent adjusting to the VR headset and getting used to being in a new world.
  • Bearings:  This is time spent getting used to moving around, discovering the ‘rules’ of the world and how they apply to themselves.
  • Initial discovery: Once the player has got their bearings they’ll start looking for one of the interaction elements, in our case marine life swimming, crawling or floating around.
  • Engagement: Now the player is comfortable with the world and what they can do in it, they will have a good explore, finding as many of the interactive items as they can in the time remaining.

In our early beta testing, we’ve found that the first stage can easily hit 30 seconds, and the second stage can be as much as 90 seconds, leaving only 2 minutes of actual engaging experience, which isn’t much!  With VR still in its infancy, there’s not a huge amount we can do about the ‘awe’ stage, so a big focus for us has been on the bearings stage, to make the user feel as confident as possible at the earliest point.  By also bringing in the initial discovery stage at this point, it gives as much engagement time as possible, which is where we want the players to be.

SeaQuest underwater screenshot

Comfort is key

The one criticism we hear levelled at VR experiences time and time again is that it is easy to make players feel queasy – and to be fair with many badly thought out experiences this is the case.  We focussed on a number of things to keep VR sickness to a minimum:

  • Walking speed:  A game world can get away with being huge because movement tends to be exaggerated.  A standard in-game walk can often be anywhere from a real-world brisk jog to a sprint!  Motion in Sea Quest is even slower than a real walk as players are underwater, but that does mean we have to always be conscious that for the environment everything needs to be even closer together than normal to make sure players can walk there!
  • HUD and a fake nose:  Research from Purdue University has shown (http://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2015/Q1/virtual-nose-may-reduce-simulator-sickness-in-video-games.html) that including a virtual ‘nose’ in a VR experience reduces sickness significantly.  In addition, having a point of reference fixed to the player viewpoint also reduces motion sickness as it helps give the player a sense of visual context.  In Sea Quest, the simulated diving goggles give us the fake nose, and also let us anchor HUD elements, such as the air remaining to the player for easy visual reference.
  • World complexity:  This one really comes down to hardware.  The more complex a world is, the more the graphics card has to draw, and the more it has to draw, the less responsive the game world is.  Get too unresponsive, and the player experiences lags and jumps, breaking the sense of reality and causing the player to focus on the struggling technology, not the world.  With Sea Quest, we are at an advantage as you can’t see far underwater, so we were able to bring the draw distance right down without any real visual downgrade.  With the elements in the water, it was then always a case of asking does the experience miss ‘item x’ if it isn’t there, is it required, or is it a nice to have?  A good example is the school of sea bass. It’s great to have 200 bass swimming in a school, each with their own individual AI to control them, but visually you can’t really tell the difference between 200 and 60, and loosing 140 sea bass gives a lot more resource for other aquatic items.We hope you’ve enjoyed this delve into the VR deep.  If you’ve got any comments or questions feel free to use the form at the bottom of this page.

See you next time!

Paul

SeaQuest underwater screenshot

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