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How Flappy Bird led to an Adventure Time VR game

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If you want to know how someone did something, take them out for chicken and waffles.

Holden Link is one of the three developers who makes up Turbo Button, the studio that made Adventure Time: Magic Man's Head Games, a virtual reality platforming title out now on the Gear VR. We met for the meal of meat and breakfast products the night before Oculus Connect 2 was scheduled to begin. I was curious about how the project came to be.

It goes back to Flappy Bird...

The conversations between Cartoon Network and the people who would later become Turbo Button began when they were working at a more traditional mobile game company.

"We got into talking about games we had been playing recently, and one of the team members from Cartoon Network mentioned they were playing with an Oculus [Development Kit 1,]" Link said. "We had been doing game jams and side projects with VR for a few months before that as hobbyists, so we shared some of our demos and geeked out about VR together for a little bit."

Turbo Button had released a number of goofy virtual reality experiments that had earned some notoriety. There was Floculus Bird, a virtual reality take on Flappy Bird. There was Night at the Roculus, a virtual reality game that was "played" by moving your head in time to the music. There was SMS Racing, a game that required you to race other cars while also looking down at your phone and answering texts.

Each demo released was rough and rather gimmicky, but they showed that Turbo Button was comfortable playing within virtual reality to create new experiences. Each game also brought a bit of attention to the studio due to the clever and somewhat gimmicky nature of each release.

"It only strengthened my case to work with Turbo Button on a VR project," Cartoon Network’s Ryan Harwell told Polygon.

By this time Turbo Button was working in virtual reality full time, and the bite-sized games Turbo Button had worked on were becoming popular.

"Knowing that excitement about VR was building at Cartoon Network, we reached out to see if they'd be interested in doing a VR project," Link explained. "We tossed some ideas back and forth, and after learning about the things they wanted to explore with VR, we made a quick prototype of a platforming game with Adventure Time characters."

It was a bit of a road to deciding on a platformer.

"We had originally talked about a first person camera-style game in the same vein as Pokemon Snap," Harwell told Polygon. "And another where you rode on the back of Lady Rainicorn. But being big fans of Banjo Kazooie and Conker’s Bad Fur Day, we finally landed on the current play style of a 3D platformer."

Cartoon Network was in. the game was in development for five months, and is available now. Spoiler warning: It's really good.

The game itself

The Adventure Time game is available now on the Gear VR, and the earlier work Turbo Button had done in virtual realty allowed them to create a smooth, comfortable game. This is the difference between a developer dabbling in virtual reality and a team that knows what they’re doing; Adventure Time handles third-person platforming well; the camera is comfortable and the game features the voices from the television show.

Being inside the game and looking around the environment allows you to scan the world for secrets and collectibles while hearing the patter of Finn and Jake. It feels like stepping into a world you already know, and the an early scene where your character "grows" in size while your view grows more expansive shows how fun it can be to play with the player’s point of view.

Turbo Button shows a sense of restraint and confidence in the game that’s rare in the world of virtual reality. Adventure Time is simple to pick up and play, but there are moments where you get a sense of the dizzying reality of the levels. Creating a working third-person camera that doesn’t make the player sick is something that many players may take for granted, but is often a devilishly tricky problem in the development phase.

The potential audience for this game is small, but these early games are more of an investment in the future.

"We wanted to create interactions that used VR in a meaningful way, and seeing the characters react to you was instantly powerful," Link explained. "The biggest challenge with third person was making a comfortable camera system, but aside from that, we just stuck to the best practices we've used in our other games."

Of course, there just aren’t that many Gear VR units out in the wild, although the retail release is expected to be detailed this week at Oculus Connect. The potential audience for this game is small, but these early games are more of an investment in the future.

The Adventure Time creators are all early adopters and enthusiasts in this space themselves and have a reputation for re-inventing storytelling, so during key phases of development we provided builds for them to review and give feedback," Christopher Waldron, vice president of Cartoon Network Digital, told Fortune. "Pen Ward, the creator of Adventure Time, even jumped in and provided voiceover."

Adventure Time shows what can happen when an existing brand is willing to try something new, and works with developers who clearly care about virtual reality as a medium. It’s a short game, and available for free, but it gives a bit of a hint about what we may be able to expect from future licensed games in virtual reality. If future experiments continue to treat the characters and medium of virtual reality with this much care and respect, we have some great things to look forward to.