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Spellbound: Winter Update

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slayemin

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I took the last two weeks of December off for holidays, so no production was done for Spellbound during that time. I met up with my friend Russel (Magforce7) for an afternoon at my office and gave him a demo of Spellbound in VR. He works for Firaxis, so it was interesting to compare notes on development and production. Without a doubt, he's a lot more experienced with production and development, so I tried to glean as many tips and tricks as I could. It was also his first time trying VR, so I gave him a bunch of quick VR demos so that he could get familiar with the medium and how to interface with it. It's interesting to compare the differences between producing a traditional video game vs. a room scale VR video game.

In terms of production, I've written out the complete narrative manuscript for Episode 1 of Spellbound and have begun shopping it around to anyone willing read it. It's not "done" by any stretch, it's just the first draft, and the first draft is always going to be susceptible to lots of revisions. Currently, it's about 40 pages in length. That's about what I had expected. Now, I need to go through and do a ton of polishing passes. I think of the story sort of like one of those JPG images which loads over a slow internet connection. The very first version of the image is this highly artifacted mess which barely holds a semblance to the actual image, but with each pass, the resolution of the image improves and the details get more refined each time, until you end up with a perfectly clear image.

With regards to writing narrative for a VR game, I think the pass process is going to be a lot more convoluted. The first pass is just trying to write the story itself and figure out what the story even is. The writer explores a bunch of different directions and the final product is the choices by the writer which yield the most interesting story. But, you can't just take the story of a writer and plop it into a VR game and call it perfect. In fact, the writer must keep in mind the medium they're writing for and what the capabilities of that medium are. If you're writing a script for a movie, you have to think about what scenes you're going to create and possibly consider a shot list, and also think about the actors who will portray your characters and the acting style. You can effectively frame the shot of the scene to show exactly what you want the audience to see. That's a great amount of power and control over the audience experience. Writing for VR is completely backwards. I have to preface this by saying that I'm a novice writer and have never written a script, much less, a script for VR, so take my words with a hefty grain of salt. My writing technique mostly consists of putting myself into the body of the character. I am that character. That character has a personal history. A personality. A style. Stated interests, and unstated secret interests and ambitions. Character flaws, and character strengths. I see the scene from the eyes of the character, see the state of the world, listen to what was just said, and then react based on the traits of my embodied character. The character should always be trying to progress their ambitions. Character conflict should happen when ambitions collide. When it comes to VR games, the protagonist is the player themselves, so you have to keep in mind that the protagonist has agency which the writer can't control. They experience the story from the first person perspective, through the eyes of the character they embody. So, whatever happens to the main character also happens to the player. With VR, the player brings their own body and hands into the scene, so those are things the writer can interface with. Maybe the player gives a bow to a king? What if they don't bow before royalty? Maybe when you meet a new character, they extend a hand to give a handshake? What happens if you don't shake their hand? Maybe a character comes forward to give the player a huge hug? The secret sauce for VR is finding these new ways to develop interpersonal connections with characters in the world and using that to drive story and player experience. I try to keep this at the forefront of my mind when writing for VR -- first hand player experience is king. I also want to give my characters depth, so I do this mostly through subtle narrative exposition, mostly in the form of ambient banter between characters. For the sake of simplicity of production, the main character doesn't have narrative conversation choices. This means I don't have to create conversation trees or user interfaces for dialogue choices and the flow of dialogue can be seamless and uninterrupted.

I am starting to audition for character voices. I've got a list of local voice actor talents and am asking a few of them to send me a few demo lines from the manuscript and a quote for their day rates. It's hugely inspiring to hear the voices of the characters saying the lines I've written. It feels like these characters might actually exist somewhere outside of my imagination, and I owe it to them to give them the very best lines I can come up with to portray their nature and ambitions correctly. A few people have read my manuscript and given mostly positive feedback, so that suggests that I'm roughly on the right track. I'm going to spend a few days taking it to various writers meet up groups and getting critical feedback, so this will help me immensely to get to a higher level of polish and clarity. If you're interested in reading the manuscript and my production notes, feel free to read the google doc and supply feedback in the comments below:

https://docs.google.com/document/d/1IvNYNf9NqtdikD6UZuGq-rUo9yU5LVqqgIlWsz6n2Qs/edit?usp=sharing

(Note: It's a work in progress, so you can see changes happening live as I edit it.)

The ideal is to write a story which is so compelling that it grabs people and makes them want to read it. I want to be able to drop a 40 page manuscript in someones lap and tell them to read it. They'll be thinking, "oh god, more bullshit. I don't want to read this crappy novice writing. I'll humor them and read two pages." So, they read two pages. It's good. They decide to read another page. It's also good. In fact, it's getting better. They turn to the next page to keep going. Wow. It's actually a decent story. They keep turning pages. Forty pages later, they're surprised to have read the whole thing and they are left wanting more. It's a pleasant surprise. The story should be good enough that it stands strongly on its own legs. It doesn't need anything else to be a compelling experience. Now, if you experience the same story in VR, and characters act out their lines, and the voice acting is stellar, the experience of the story is just multiplied by the talent and quality. This is the ideal I'm shooting for. Spellbound will be a story centered VR game, rather than a game which happens to have a shallow story layered on top. It's worth taking the time to nail the story and get it right, so I'm taking my time.

When the manuscript is complete, I'll have voice actors voice out each of the characters. I really don't want to have to do a lot of dialogue resamples, so I need to make sure that the first time a line is voiced is also the last time it's voiced. The goal is to avoid revisions. So, how do I do this? My current plan is to polish the story and get it as close to perfection as possible. Hiring voice actors costs money. When I drop voiced lines into the game, I am going to need to know whether the line works in the current scene with the current context. So, a part of the creative writing process will require for me to experience the scene and adapt the writing for context and length through a bunch of iterations. I'm going to voice act my own characters with a crappy headphone mic and use these assets as placeholders. It'll be a really good way for me to quickly iterate on the character interactions and player experience. I kind of feel silly, like I'm just playing with dolls who are having a conversation with each other. But hey, maybe that's really the core of script writing in hollywood too?

On a personal note, I've decided to give up all social media for a month. No facebook, no twitter, no reddit, no youtube, etc. The primary reason is because it costs me too much time. Typically, my day starts by waking up, pulling out my laptop and checking twitter and facebook for updates to my news feed. That costs me about 30-45 minutes before I get out of bed. Then I go to work. I get to work an hour later, start a build or compile, and since it's going to take 5 minutes to complete, I decide "Hey, I'll spend five minutes checking facebook while I wait.". That five minutes turns into twenty minutes without me realizing it. And this happens ten times a day. I can easily waste hours of my day on social media without consciously realizing it. It adds up, especially over the course of days and weeks. And for what? To stay updated and informed on the latest developments in my news feeds? Why do I actually care about that? What value does it add to my life? How is my life better? Or, is my life actually better? What if social media is actually unhealthy? What if its like cigarettes? Cigarettes cause lung cancer with prolonged use, so maybe social media causes mental health problems like depression, low self worth and narcissism with prolonged use? What if social media is inherently an anti-social activity? Anyways, I've consciously decided to abstain for a full month without social media as an experiment. So far, I'm five days in and realizing how much I was using it as an outlet for self expression. Something happens to me and my default reaction is, "Oh, this would be good to share in a post!", and now I realize "Oh, I can't share this on social media. Who am I actually trying to share this with? Why am I trying to share this? Can I just forget about sharing and just relish the experience in this fleeting moment?" The secondary effect of abstaining from social media is that I'm also trying to pull away from technology a bit more so I can find a more healthy balance between technology and life. Currently, if I'm not staring at a screen, I'm at a loss for what to do with my time. Should I really live my whole life staring at glowing rectangles? Is there more to life than that? How would I feel if I'm laying on my deathbed and reflecting on my life, realizing that I spent most of it looking at screens?

I need new hobbies and passions outside of screens. So, I've picked up my old love for reading by starting in on some fantasy books. Currently, I'm well on my way through "The Way of Kings" by Brandon Sanderson. I'm reading his first book slowly, digesting it sentence by sentence, and thinking about it from the eyes of a writer instead of a reader. It's an amazingly different experience. He's got some amazingly clever lines in his book, and there are some amazing pieces of exposition which the author uses as a proxy to share his own attitudes and life philosophies. I am going to steal some of the writing techniques and use them myself.

I'm also still doing VR contract work on the side in order to make money to finance my game project. The side work is picking up slightly and I'm getting better at it. I have this ambitious idea for a new way to create VR content using 360 video and pictures. Most clients are trying to capture an experience or create a tour of something in VR and taking audiences through it. Essentially, it's mostly just video captured in 360 and then projected onto the inside of a sphere, and then setting the player camera at the center of the sphere. It's somewhat simple to implement. My critique is that this isn't a very compelling virtual reality experience because it's really just a passive experience in a movie theater where the screen wraps all around the viewer. There's very little interaction. So, my idea is to flip this around. I'd like to take a 360 camera and place it at various locations, take a photograph/video, and then move the camera. Instead of having a cut to the next scene, the viewer decides when to cut and where to cut. So, let's pretend that we're creating a virtual reality hike. We incrementally move the 360 camera down the trail, 50 feet at a time, for the entire length of the hike. A hike may not be perfectly sequentially linear, there may be areas where you take a detour to experience a look out on the side of the trail. So, on the conceptual data structure level, we are going to have a connected node graph arranged spatially, and the viewer will transition between connected nodes based on what direction they want to go on the hiking trail. I'll have ambisonic audio recording, so you'll be able to hear birds chirping in the trees and a babbling brook in the side of the trail, etc. The key difference here is that the viewer drives the pace of the experience, so they can spend as much or as little time as they want, experiencing an environment/scene, and since they can control what nodes to visit next, they have agency over their entire experience. This is the magic of VR, and if I get a prototype proof of concept working, I think it can be a new type of service to sell to clients. I can go around Washington State and go create virtual recreations of hikes for people to experience. There's some beautiful hikes through the Cascade mountains. We have a desert on the eastern half of washington, filled with sage brush and basalt lava rocks. We also have a temperate rainforest on the Olympic peninsula, where we get 300+ inches of rain a year, with six feet of moss hanging off of tree branches. The geography, flora and fauna are somewhat unique to Washington state, so if I can create a library of interactive virtual reality experiences of various parts of our state, it would be a pretty cool experience, where you can get virtual tours of various parts of the state. It would almost be as good as visiting in person and a good way to preview a place you might want to experience. IF it is a popular form of content, I can expand my content library by offering virtual reality tours of other parts of the world people wouldn't otherwise be able to visit. Would you like to explore the tropical jungles of Costa Rica? Would you like to climb the mountains of Nepal? Would you like to walk around in Antarctica? Would you like to go to the Eiffel Tower? If I do this right, I could create a fun VR travel channel and combine some educational elements to the experience. It would be a good way for me to get out of the office and experience the world. I'm currently working on building a prototype proof of concept to figure out the technical side and user interface, and will probably have something rough built out by the end of the month. This could turn into a cool new way to do interactive cinema in VR. I haven't seen anyone else do something like this before, but I may just be under informed.

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It was great to see and chat with you over the holiday and check out all your VR stuff! Very exciting!

The 360 hikes sounds like something you could proof-of-concept using Google Street View data.

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