Land's End has just been released for the Gear VR, Samsung and Oculus' portable virtual reality platform. The game is $7.99, and it's one of the best things I've ever played in virtual realty.
You find yourself in a dreamlike, barren landscape, and you look at dots in the environment to move around and find puzzles to solve. The entire control scheme is based on your gaze, in fact; the only thing the Gear VR's touchpad is used for is taking screenshots.
The control method and play itself can be hard to describe in words, but you can put anyone inside the game and they'll be able to pick it up. You don't need to know how to use a controller, and the basic mechanics are taught on the opening menu.
The game moves at a deliberate pace, and even when you fly across the landscape it's unlikely you'll feel ill. If you have a Gear VR and wanted to show someone why the technology is so special, this is a great place to start; Monument Valley developer ustwo has created a game that feels like an ode to the strange feeling of waking up in a brand new place.
It's also not likely to make them much money.
How this happened
"The easy thing to do after Monument Valley would have been more Monument Valley, to do a sequel or another level pack," Ken Wong, the game's lead designer and artist, told Polygon. "That would have definitely kept the money coming in."
2015 is a hard year for developers releasing premium virtual reality games. The Gear VR itself is only available in the "Innovator Edition," aimed at developers and enthusiasts. Pre-orders of the retail hardware went live today, to be shipped later in the month. The technology itself may find mainstream adoption, but it's likely to be a slow burn. Land's End is competing for sales in a very small market, and the $7.99 price puts it on the higher end of the spectrum.
But monetary reward isn't the goal, at least not yet.
"There’s a part of us, you know we’re making enough money, let’s see if we can push ourselves in terms of art and in terms of technology," Wong said. "It seemed like the right time when VR came around, and especially the Gear VR."
The team found that many people seemed to be dismissing portable virtual reality in the same way they had dismissed mobile games in general before Monument Valley became a hit. Wong himself was a virtual reality skeptic, especially after trying some of the earlier forms of the Oculus Rift, an experience he likened to strapping "a 3DS" to his face. Finally someone at ustwo dropped a virtual reality camera into Monument Valley, and Wong began to see the possibility of what they could create in the space.
They went to work.
What took so long?
Land's End has been in development for around 16 months, and the final game can be played, and finished, in around an hour, give or take 20 minutes depending on how much you struggle with the puzzles.
"VR is a whole new medium, and we’re looking at totally re-writing the rules of how you make an interactive experience," Wong explained. "The controls have been reset. Instead of a screen we have an all-around vision. We really had to go back to the basics and the basic interface of how people navigate space and control things in here."
There was also a bit of hubris involved; they didn't know it would take as long as it did when they began.
"We went into the project a little bit naive, thinking we were going to do this fun little experiment and it was going to take three months," he said. "We quickly realized that we really had to go through this research phase … where those months went was what we think of as R&D."
It wasn't just a case of rapid iteration, this final version of Land's End was described as being the third or fourth version of the game. They would completely scrap the work that came before and remake the game based on what they had learned.
"We build something, and it’s going to be kind of OK and we realize we can do a better job so we burn it to the ground and start again and it’s much better but we’re still learning lessons, so we try it again," Wong said.
They also had players test the game through all stages of development, and included people in the company who don't play many games at all to make sure it was welcoming for everyone. The second they have the basic mechanics set up in an early version of the game, they begin to test it on people to see how well, or poorly, it's working. Dan Gray, the game's executive producer, took the game to Buenos Aires and was able to show it to players across the language barrier.
"We want to see, is it intuitive?" Wong explained. "Can they pick things up and figure out puzzles without us giving any instruction? Because if they can do that, if we can make things so intuitive they don’t require instruction, there’s a certain magic that comes out of that, people being able to figure things out on their own. That’s a different kind of user experience that we’re quite passionate about."
Gray said it can get strange to test virtual reality games in public spaces.
"It can draw a small group of people, because it’s something they don’t quite understand yet … there’s a general amount of intrigue about what this thing is and what they’re seeing," he said. Wong once had a friend play through the entirety of the game in a restaurant in Shanghai.
The result is a game that anyone can pick up and play, even if they've never tried virtual reality before or they can't read the two simple words on the home screen: "Look here." Land's End is a wonderful achievement in virtual locomotion and UI.
I've beaten Land's End twice, and both times I was struck by how easy it was to believe that I was in this world. I also spent time trying to put together the story, such as it is. I don't want to flavor your experiences with mine, but I will say I consider Land's End to be something of a rescue mission.
I'm also struck but how effective the visuals are in giving you a sense of place, while at the same time giving you so little visual detail. This is the video game equivalent of a Bob Ross painting, where a single brush stroke evokes a giant landscape.
"It’s not about recreating reality," Wong told me. "It’s about creating something new and indulge imagination and see something that couldn’t exist in the real world."
What's important is the fact that ustwo has created something beautiful that anyone, regardless of their comfort level with VR, can play and enjoy. In doing so they've taught themselves how to create a new form of reality from scratch, and the methods they've used to solve these problems may help others do the same.
"Hopefully this time next year when people are making more VR games, they’re trying to think of the best way to navigate a landscape, hopefully they talk about Land’s End," Gray said. "It’s not often you get to be in that position, to set the precedent."
Land's End is available now on the Gear VR.