Owlchemy Labs work at the frontier of VR development. Which, you could say, puts them at the frontier of the frontier of game development. And, they like to boldly go. Studio CTO Devin Reimer enthuses about working with VR as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to shape a medium that’s going to be hugely influential.
Owlchemy Labs have been using Unity since formation in 2010, and to date they’ve made 10 different games. One of these is a WebGL version of alphabetical-list-sure-fire-winner AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome. Developed in cooperation with Dejobaan Games, it was the first commercially available WebGL title made with Unity.
Adapting AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!! for the Awesome for another new platform (Oculus Rift) and releasing it to Steam opened a further door for the company. In November 2014, Owlchemy Labs were approached by Valve to develop a game that would show off the capabilities of what was then an unannounced platform: SteamVR.
A mountain of NDAs later, and Devin and Studio Founder Alex Schwartz were hard at work on what became Job Simulator; a game which stole lots of hearts when showcased on the HTC Vive at GDC.
“I never expected a video game demo in which I grabbed a tomato (and threw it at a robot) to awe me so deeply. I … wanna play Job Simulator forever” IGN
Playtesting is key
Developing a playable prototype from scratch in a three-month timeframe without the luxury of a polished and tested pipeline to SteamVR, meant that the Owlchemy team had to iterate very fast to get Job Simulator ready on time. Indeed, both Alex and Devin make a point of stressing that rapid and early playtesting are key to VR development generally.
“Oculus has a best practice guide for making VR content that they’re constantly updating and changing. No-one really knows at this stage what will work in VR without playtesting. You simply have to experiment and fail quickly. If, for example, the player in your game is a 50-storey Godzilla wandering around Manhattan, it’s best to prototype that mechanic and get a feeling for what playing it is actually like before you push forward to develop your game,” says Devin.
He recalls how, when developing Job Simulator, he worked alongside a colleague adjusting the size of the game’s microwave. With someone wearing the Oculus Rift headset calling out with feedback, Devin could scale it in realtime from the Unity editor and know that it looked and felt right inside the device: “You just don’t get a proper sense of the size of an object as the user experiences it from a conventional 2d monitor.”
Optimize, optimize, optimize
With up to 5 million pixels being rendered 90 times per second, both Devin and Alex are keen to stress the importance of optimization. Alex likens it to making games for the PS2-era, and generally the studio’s long history of developing games for mobile has prepped them for the unique challenges of VR.
“Understanding how to keep your draw calls to a minimum and your shading simple are really important when you’re developing for VR,” says Devin.
VR for the future
Both Devin and Alex see VR as having the potential to redefine not just gaming, but industries, from remote surgery to architectural visualization and beyond.
Indeed, having seen Devin’s grandmother (whose gaming experience is limited to say the least) pick up the HTC Vive headset and immediately and seamlessly interact within the world of Job Simulator, they’re confident that VR headsets will soon be a standard item of consumer electronics.
“I get asked the question, why VR? Why take the risk on such an unproven platform? And my feeling is that if we spent our time developing another me-too mobile title, then we’d be putting the studio at greater risk. By being amongst the first movers on a new platform that we truly believe in, we’re securing the future of our business. We’re in it for the long game with VR,” says Alex.
Best of luck to the Owlchemy Labs team!