One of the big challenges in any medium, but especially VR, is the challenge of creating authentic, likable characters for an audience to interact with. It’s a task that involves artists, writers, and engineers coming together to hopefully create a fictional entity that will win the hearts and minds of people everywhere…but when you’ve got a whole new medium on your hands, how do you do that?
At GDC 2018, Polyarc engineer Brendan Walker hopes to answer that question in a session about the studio’s debut game Moss. To help attendees get introduced to one of the people who brought the charismatic mouse Quill to life, we’ve reached out to Walker for a quick Q&A about his work, which you can read below!
Tell us about yourself and what you do in the games industry.
My name is Brendan Walker. I’ve been in the games industry since 2003. I’ve been all over the place during that time. I started in casual games, then worked as an MMO server engineer at Flying Lab, then as an AI/Animation engineer at Bungie, and finally as generalist at Polyarc working on Moss. Of all the areas I have worked on I enjoyed character engineering the most. Everything I learned about designing AI and animation systems came from Bungie working on Halo: Reach and Destiny. It has been super interesting trying to apply those ideas to making a compelling character in VR. Since Polyarc is a small 15-person company I’ve also had to wear many engineering hats recently including: Tools, Build System, Automation, Localization, Cert Testing and making the office cold brew coffee.
What inspired you to pursue your career?
Learning BASIC programming on the IBM XT when I was 10 years old ignited my love of programming. I was always interested in working on games in a general sense, but the focus wasn’t really honed until I met my long time friend (and now boss at Polyarc), Tam Armstrong. During my undergraduate years I was thinking about pursuing research in what was then very nascent VR/AR at the University of Washington. At the same time I was doing Friday night code jams with Tam and a few friends trying to make a game for the IGDA competition. The code jamming group quickly turned into an actual start-up. It became apparent that I was going to have to pick one thing to spend my time on and I was having way more fun working on a game. We had no idea what we were doing, but we were learning a ton and having a blast doing it. We made one casual game, released it, then shortly went out of business. Shortly after the closure of the studio, Tam volunteered as a conference associate at GDC. While there he ran into the head of another casual game studio who was looking for a few people to help with a game project he was starting. That gave us our first official entry into the games industry.
Without spoiling it too much, tell us what you’ll be talking about at GDC.
I want to go into detail about what we learned about trying to design a compelling character for VR. We started off with a set of constraints that we thought would hold true for VR for a few years (small install base, small tracking volumes, need for high degree of comfort) and then tried to build game design ideas around those constraints. We felt very strongly that anything we did had to involve the player interacting with a compelling character as well as with the virtual environment itself. Quill, our mouse heroine protagonist, was born from that mindset. We spent eight weeks making a prototype to test out some of the design and character interaction ideas in VR and then spent four weeks playtesting. We were hoping that people would like our main character, but were surprised to discover how much people were bonding with her in the span of a 10-minute demo. It was then that we realized we needed to double down on building a bond of companionship with Quill.
What are some of the biggest challenges you face in your work?
Often we find ourselves in uncharted VR territory. We get into debates about how to solve a design problem and then realize rather than trying to philosophize endlessly about the idea, we should just prototype it. That said it can be a timesink trying to prototype every A/B design choice. So we have to pick and choose our investigative rabbit holes carefully. And sometimes it can be really hard to let go of something that “almost works”. As a small studio we also have to be really careful how much of a game we attempt to make. We tried really hard to schedule things carefully on Moss and still ended up with a few months on crunch at the end.
What are the most rewarding parts of your job?
Being constantly delighted and surprised by what my coworkers come up with in VR. This isn’t to say that I haven’t been delighted or surprised by things people have done in non-VR game, but it just seems to happen more often in VR game development. Every time someone has added a new environment, character interaction, animation or ambient audio track my coworkers will gather around to see what got added. What follows is usually 10 minutes of laughter and headset swapping. It has completely reinvigorated my love of game development.
Do you have any advice for those aspiring to join your field someday?
Start prototyping your idea in the easiest and fastest way possible. Time is an incredibly precious commodity. Use whatever tools you have at your disposal to test out your ideas as fast as possible. It’s quite probable that it will take several iterations to arrive at a system you are happy with. If you don’t have a tight feedback loop, it’s easy to become discouraged. Early in my career I spent way too much time trying to cut down trees by reinventing the axe when I could have just used a chainsaw someone else had made. Fortunately there are a lot of high quality free chainsaws available these days.
How do you feel VR as a technology has influenced the way you think about character design, compared to how you thought about it before?
VR influenced how I thought about character design way more than I expected it would. That’s one of the main points of the talk actually. It can be harder to get players to focus on what you want them to focus on because you no longer control the view point of the camera. You have to incentivize the player to engage with the characters you are creating with sound cues, particles, lighting, and environmental framing. But once you have the player’s attention, you really have it. If a player believes in a virtual character they can become surprisingly attached to them. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, players can care deeply about the fate of the character you have introduced them to, which is one of the best things you can hope for as a game developer. But the bond of that emotional contract can be strong and must be respected. As a developer you have to be careful about not breaking the player’s expectations about how the character should interact, which is often difficult since the player can potentially do a lot with their virtual hands. You also have to be mindful about how much danger you put your virtual character in, both because it can be upsetting to some and can also cheapen the threat of danger if used too often.
As an engineer, how do you draw inspiration to create the emotional interactions that you want players to experience in your games?
Lots of playtesting both inside the studio and with new people. The more people interact with a compelling virtual character, the more things they want to do with them. People naturally want to project intelligence onto objects if you can get all of the distractions out of the way. As we playtested Moss we would often come across moments where someone would try an interaction with Quill we hadn’t thought of. For example, we found several people wave at Quill in some early playtests and it felt empty when she wouldn’t acknowledge them. We hooked up some basic wave detection that would make Quill wave back. People loved it. But you have to careful how many interactions you trigger and when you trigger them. If people see the same response over and over again it can make Quill feel like a robot. It’s a delicate balance between discoverability and repetitiveness.