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How we made a room-scale VR game work on your desk ... or floor

The importance of flexibility in VR design

Fantastic Contraption is a game played in a room-scale environment with hand controllers. It's the one thing we've shown consistently throughout development and in all of our trailers and teasers. It's always been true.

But it won't always be true. In fact, visible in the game's settings menu right now are some experimental alternates we've been quietly working on, and you can try right now if you're feeling adventurous. Not everyone has an entire room for VR, and we want to make sure you can play our game.

There will soon be four different scales in which to play the game, depending on what's comfortable for you and how much space you have in which to play. This is, partially, how we're bringing a game that has been so tied to the Vive to the Oculus Rift. It hasn't been easy, but the results have been worth it. We want you to have fun, no matter how you play.

This isn't something we're doing lightly. It's important to us.


We were working on the tutorial for particular shortcuts that require two-handed manipulation early in development. Stretching and collapsing a rod feels particularly cool in VR with two hands, but during playtesting we realized we hadn't recharged the batteries in one of the controllers.

The tutorial was impossible to finish without two hands, but that seemed more like an annoyance than a limitation.

I believe it was Lindsay Jorgensen (V-Rtist at Radial Games) who changed how we thought of the game. "Well, this is how a one-armed person would have to play," he said. "Let's fix it."

This quote is about a year old and we haven't really discussed it since, but it resonated with me. It can be so hard to remember the privileges we have being able-bodied, and ever since that day we've been trying to make sure that the game is not just functional but fun for as many people as possible.

The game is designed around this thought, and continues to be iterated with that goal in mind. The game can be slow paced and doesn't have countdown clocks. You can take your time. Colors enrich the environment but aren't required, so you can be colorblind and still play. You can traverse a level with an arm motion at larger scales, and you basically only need two fingers to play.

It's our hope that we can make the game accommodating to anyone that's able to put a headset on. We aren't perfect yet, and admittedly the game is primarily tuned for those that are able-bodied. But we also didn't want to slam the door in the face of people that already have it worse off than us, especially if it's something we can help.

We cut that section of the tutorial, making the game more welcoming for those who may only have use of one hand. We're also leaving many shortcuts hidden - awaiting discovery by the enterprising first players of the game. Little easter-egg shortcuts that will add to the sense of discovery and joy of the world we've crafted. For example, you're able to use the grip buttons to operate a stick like a grabby-claw.

Why start with room scale?

Our biggest mandate on Fantastic Contraption has been to provide the player with the most FuntrapsticTM experience possible. Practically speaking, that means we chose the best hardware that fits our game design -- we didn't try to cram our game design onto a popular platform.

We decided to focus on the Vive for launch since we saw tracked hands as a mandatory aspect of the game. Vive's room-scale design aligns well with Colin Northway's design of the original browser game — your build area was a large blue square, and that idea naturally translates into 3D space.

The game suddenly became a hundred times more magical as we began to build virtual devices in our living room in the early days. Dr. Kimberly Voll — designer and programmer on Fantastic Contraption — is a cognitive scientist that attributes much of the positive feelings players have towards the game to the combination of the proprioception system and having extension into the virtual space. In this case, that means the hand controllers.

Not everyone has an entire room for VR, and we want to make sure you can play our game

Proprioception can get pretty complicated, but broadly speaking it's the concept of body awareness. Tilting your head back to look at a tall object sends a physical signal from your neck to your brain that reinforces "this is a tall thing you are looking at." The physical act of stretching your arms out, walking across a space, and tilting your head upwards to look at the tall goal area all combine to give your body a physiological reason to believe your contraptions are actually inhabiting your space.

This is the same reason why you could get a sense of awe standing at the base of a skyscraper in real life, but that feeling doesn't happen when looking at a photograph of the same building — or when scrolling your view upwards in Mirror's Edge. Your brain may "know" that these objects are supposed to be the same size, but you begin to believe it when you physically move your head back to look all the way up.

Having the freedom to roam about your room in VR, building in any direction you want, and stretching your arms out to fill the space makes our game more exciting and more realistic to your brain on many levels, and we consciously are leveraging that in our game's level designs and art direction. It is, when possible to achieve, what we consider to be the ideal version of the game.

You don't even need that much space to pull this off - about two yoga mats, as Valve's Chet Faliszek is fond of saying. You can tap into that feeling using a play space of two meters by one-and-a-half meters, which is the listed minimum requirement for our game at this time. The game also supports sizes up to five-by-five meters of space and will scale your play area accordingly, but it's likely few players have that sort of space available.

We're confident that room scale (with either the Vive or later with the Oculus Touch) is the best way to play the game, and we have many (scientific!) reasons for believing that. It's not a guess.

But we did find there was room for experimentation.

Due to technical reasons (blah blah fidelity of the physics engine blah) we decided to scale the whole play area up by 10 times fairly early in development. The levels, the objects, and the player themselves - according to the physics engine, everyone is now 60 feet tall instead of six feet. This produces no perceivable difference to the player themselves, but it had a happy side effect: bugs! We weren't always scaling the player correctly on boot and sometimes you'd be a giant and sometimes you'd be an ant in the world.

We realized that these were fantastic experiences as well and we started playing with scale.

Originally we gave the player a slider to control their exact scale but, as with all sliders, players only ever used the extremes.

We decided to lock it down to four major settings, which brings us to our first custom scale:

Standing Scale

Standing scale is a mode where we simply scale you a little bit bigger than you normally are, and set your play area to a minimal size. This means if you have a small apartment or a crowded space, you can still access the full "2 x 1.5m equivalent" space in a more compressed way. As long as you can bend over and reach out with a small step, you should be able to experience the game as intended. If you worry about having enough space for our game, this is the mode that might help.

The default/recommended setup for Oculus, as well as potential desk-mounted-only Vive setups, have both tracking devices on one side of your room. This can cause hand-tracking occlusion if you end up turning away from your tracking devices and face backwards.

This is challenging for us, as our game has natural affordances that make you want to spin around and face any direction. In these alternate scale modes, we try to encourage you to stay facing in the same direction by placing your starting point further back, and orienting you to "normally" face the goal area.

We still think playing room-scale and being able to take at least a few strides is (again, scientifically!) more pleasurable for your meat-brain, but we also understand that not everyone has enough household real estate to plop down two yoga mats. Personally, I think everyone should start selling their shares in coffee table manufacturers and do as the Vive stick figures indicate: Throw out your television. VR is more important than your existing furniture!

But standing scale is cool. It's helpful with the Rift, and helps bring the game to more people. It was clear we were onto something with these different scales.

Floor Scale

We scale you up to be quite large in floor scale mode — we aimed to make your butt about 5 meters wide in game units, which fills about half the island on which you normally stand. At this size, you are towering over the levels — everything (including the cat and all your contraption parts!) is super teensy and it feels a lot more like building a model airplane than a big contraption that fills your living room.

We call it "floor scale" because it feels like you've just dumped a box of Lego bricks onto your living room floor. You could stand over the Lego and build in mid-air, but no — you will probably prefer to collapse down to a cross-legged pose and play with things on your carpet, right? So too in Fantastic Contraption.

We find this floor-seated position has it's own kind of magic. You sit down like a kid and play with your toys! How cool is that?

You don't get all those "grand scale" proprioception hooks as you do in room-scale; instead you get the "teensy scale" proprioception hooks and neat little pings from your childhood, the sensation of putting together something tiny and fragile while building a contraption and sending it out into the world like a baby bird taking its first flight.

This mode can feel like playing with toy cars on those awesome road-printed carpets, or maybe Tinkertoys or building paper airplanes. Plus there's a super tiny baby kitten and it's so adorable.

Floor scale is an amazing and entirely different experience — we highly recommend everyone play it!

But I personally worry that it's such a different feel that it's almost begging to be a different game altogether. I haven't seen many VR games play with micro-scale objects yet, but every time I do it transports me in a way that no vast, open-space experiences do.

It's also hard to show off the game in this size, and it's a lot harder to communicate the magic of the moment. This matters from a marketing standpoint; if I can't make you believe it's fun visually, you're less likely to try it, much less buy our game.

As fun as building model planes is to me, I can't imagine an action-packed trailer of someone carefully gluing two toothpicks together. The fun is definitely there though; that spark is definitely alive. We think everyone will love playing this mode, and it's particularly popular with kids. They seem to naturally want to sit on the floor and play our game anyway, but it's too "adult-sized" for them normally. Plus, we don't need to "sell" this version game, it comes to you for free with the entire package.

Desk Scale

Now we come back full circle to accessibility. Here's something I'm not too happy to admit: I can't sit cross-legged on the floor. When I play floor-scale I have to sprawl out, my six-foot frame taking up much more space than a "standing scale" mode would require, and it's quite taxing due to my lack of flexibility. We wanted to make the experience more comfortable for those that are less agile, but also give a nod to those that may not be able to reach the floor easily at all.

We simply take the floor-scale setup and raise the floor up to be at about tabletop height for this version of the game. If you are sitting at a desk right now, imagine the same pile of Lego poured on your desk, or building a model airplane hovering over the top of your keyboard. It's the same concept, but with different ergonomics.

This design, sadly, has a few more problems. It's now suddenly possible to build things "underground," previously blocked by your real-life floor, and moving forward slightly might mean that your real-life torso is intersected by the virtual floor, which feels like some kind of strange inanimate invasion of privacy.

Because we offset your position a bit, if you look down you'll see that you're floating above an infinite void, and that feels uncomfortable. It's as if you are Wile E. Coyote about to drop at any moment.

Then there's the problem of smacking your actual desk with your controllers or putting your hand through your computer monitor, or even just basic occlusion issues being in such proximity to a desk or a table. This setup is a nightmare mix of potential issues, far divorced from the freedom of "room-scale play." But you still get that magical feeling of playing with a model airplane.

So please, if you play in this mode? Be careful! Make sure you can't reach anything you wouldn't want to break.

We would say that this is the least optimal way to play the game of the bunch, but it squeaked in under the "worth it, despite the problems" bar. It provides a level of convenience and accessibility to make the game playable by just about everyone, in just about any room configuration. It is my personal favorite mode to play in, but I think that's just because I need to stretch more!

Current status

All of these features are currently available in the extremely volatile "experimental" section of the settings menu in-game, and you can try out any of them as long as you own a copy of the game and a Vive. Why so experimental? We haven't decided on the exact scale measurements, what to do about resetting your seated position, or how to let the player fine tune the height of their level in seated mode. We want some player feedback on these before they become too baked-in, and we'll continue working on them in the months ahead.

Right now hitting those buttons might require a game reboot, and I'll take personal responsibility for overlooking some silly things, such as the menu helmet looking incredibly small, which can make it impossible to "put on." Heck, we'll even need to make new tutorial layouts for these new scale modes! But it is all technically functional.

For now, use these options are your own risk, and go slow. We can promise that we will definitely have these fully polished up in time for launch of the Oculus Touch, though.

We'd love it if you picked up an HMD and gave it a try. We listen to our community and really want to make sure we do right by everyone, no matter how much you love your coffee table.

I'll leave you with our brand-new launch trailer:

Andy Moore (@Capn_Andy) is Captain of @RadialGamesCorp, partners with @NorthwayGames in production of Fantastic Contraption, a launch title on the HTC Vive, available free with purchase for a limited time.

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