Over the next several weeks, we’re spotlighting the top 20 3D Jam experiences chosen by the jury and community votes. These spotlights will focus on game design, interaction design, and the big ideas driving our community forward.
First up: Henry Hoffman’s Aboard the Lookinglass took first place thanks to its unique interaction design and compelling concept. It’s available free for the Oculus Rift on the Leap Motion App Store.
The core game mechanic in Aboard the Lookinglass is time. Right hand holding the gory keys to the future. Left hand offering a glimpse into the past. How did you conceive of this concept?
My absolute favorite aspect of game development is devising new mechanics. It feels like mapping uncharted territory. After prototyping some non-VR ideas for the 3D Jam which weren’t working, I took a step back and asked myself some questions. What sort of game would excite me? What are the strengths of the Leap Motion Controller? What are the strengths of VR? What mechanics could play to these strengths?
The idea for Lookinglass came to me when laying in bed and staring at my hands. I looked at the space my hands were occupying – rather than the hands themselves. The idea of hand-shaped portals came to mind, and then being able to pass objects through them.
The following day, I prototyped the mechanic in a few hours, and it worked much better than I expected. What I found particularly exciting was being able to look through your hands. To me that felt like something no one had experienced before.
It was only further into development that I began to realize the narrative potential of using different times. Being able to see the past, present, and future simultaneously allows you to really tell a story in a way that feels very interactive. Knowing you were in the present, and all these terrible things were going to happen was also very foreboding. The tension it added was compelling.
The aesthetics of this game appear to be somewhat of a departure from some of your recent work. How did you arrive at the stark, cold, sci-fi scenery of Lookinglass?
The aesthetics were one of the bigger challenges. After establishing the mechanic, it was important to contextualise what is quite a far-fetched idea in a world which anchors it. Plus, with the short timeframe – and the need to effectively build three overlapping worlds – the art had to be quick to produce.
When I first started, I fell into the AAA trap. Producing highly detailed assets. Baking normal maps. As things started taking too long, I reevaluated my options and scrapped everything. I then pursued a very low-poly, stylised aesthetic inspired by games like MirrorMoon EP.
What emerged was something in between – a cold, utilitarian world, with a focus on simple form and a limited palette. I spent roughly the same time on art production as I did code, working out at around seven full days of development over the duration of the jam in total.
Why do you think dystopian narratives lend themselves so well to virtual reality?
At this blossoming stage of virtual reality, I think our expectations are heavily shaped by the science fiction which conceived it. Wearing a futuristic head-mounted display and being in a futuristic world is consistent thematically. As barriers are broken down, and virtual reality meets widespread adoption, I feel like we’ll see a wider array of experiences.
It’s safe to assume the simulation genres will really benefit from virtual reality, but I really hope we see some more abstract experiences.
Can you speak a bit about your experience combining Unity, Oculus, and Leap Motion?
It was daunting initially, having no experience with the Oculus Rift and very limited experience with Unity. I learned a great deal though. Also, I didn’t actually have access to an Oculus Rift until around three-quarters of the way into development, so I’d have to hold the Leap Motion device in my mouth to emulate head tracking. That was fine until you wanted to record a development video and had to talk with a mouth full of Leap!
The Unity Assets were very well put-together, and worked pretty much flawlessly out of the box. The scenes provided were incredibly helpful, allowing me to just build off of an existing scene, rather than trying to implement everything myself. A basic lack of understanding about Unity caused some confusion at the beginning, but some of the Leap Motion guys very patiently explained it to me in the development forum.
Most of the roadblocks I faced were more to do with my mechanics, and complications presented by overlapping three different worlds. Objects from the future casting shadows in the past, colored light bouncing into the present – these were just a couple of issues I faced. Fortunately, Unity 5 should solve some of these problems, but for the most part I had to fake my way around, or in some cases just ignore it.
Do you have plans to develop Aboard the Lookinglass further?
Absolutely! I have some narrative ideas which I’m quite excited about. Challenging the assumptions of reality will be a big new theme – using the mechanics to create more horror elements, and the relationship with your instructor breaking down. I have some ideas for a big twist too, but I don’t want to say anything about that yet!
I’m still looking into how to make such a project financially viable. But with hand and finger tracking looking increasingly important to VR, and with big platform holders taking VR seriously, I think it should only be a matter of time.
To keep up with Henry’s latest developments and musings, follow him on Twitter @HenryHoffman.