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How smart decisions in VR led to a funny game about soccer, set in a prison

It makes perfect sense

Frame Interactive

Ben Throop was a game director at Activision and, soon after he left that position to work on his own projects, he attended a game jam in 2014 that included this interesting tethered virtual reality headset that included head tracking. It was called the Vive.

He immediately began to think about using his head to aim soccer balls, using natural motions. It only took a few days of creating passable physics before he realized the idea had merit.

The game eventually became Headmaster and launched alongside the PlayStation VR once Sony became interested in the early version of the game.

Here’s Headmaster’s official summary:

Welcome to the Football Improvement Centre, which is not a prison. Inside our Heading Facility, you will undergo an intense re­education under the guidance of our world class staff. We've constructed an impressive variety of lessons to ensure you are no longer a threat to the reputation of your club, who has so generously sponsored your enrollment. You will find your time spent here to be quite valuable, but do remember... improvement is mandatory.

So why the hell is it set inside a prison?

The journey

All game design is iterative, but virtual reality design is perhaps even more so. There are just aren’t enough understood ideas about what can or can’t work, and why. It’s all being discovered as we go.

Throop was having trouble getting meaningful feedback of Headmaster’s physics during playtesting due to so few people having tried VR at all, and he lacked the language needed to explain why a physical movement to knock a soccer ball at targets may not feel good. He was stuck simply adjusting things until it “felt” right, and even then there were surprises.

“Our physics system was inadvertently set to limit how fast things could spin, which meant the balls couldn't spin or roll naturally,” he explained. They didn’t figure this out until the very end of development.

“Nobody ever called this out in over a year of demoing and playtesting. But lo and behold, one number changed and all of a sudden the ball can spin freely, and the game felt 50 percent better. You could hit rolling shots that never worked before. Glancing shots felt amazing. All from one single number that we overlooked for a year.”

What’s fascinating about Headmaster, and what makes it one of my favorite PlayStation VR launch games, is that there’s story to the game. There’s a linear progression. The setting makes sense, and it’s all tied together in a coherent, sometimes vaguely threatening manner that’s rare in a title that could have become little more than a disposable party game.

You’ll want to keep playing not just because it’s fun, but also to find out what happens next in the game’s story and to a more difficult challenge.

But that setting, the idea that you’re locked into this kind of dystopian “testing” situation happened organically.

“I quickly changed to a nighttime setting because I wanted to evolve challenges on the field without breaking the player's sense of immersion,” Throop explained. “There was a self-imposed rule of ‘no magic.’ No floating numbers, no telekinesis. So making it at night, I could shut the lights off and swap everything, then turn the lights back on creating a cool surprise and sense of anticipation in the player.”

The ability to change things in the environment while the lights were off also allowed Throop to set up each challenge in a way that was comfortable for the player, while still providing a little surprise.

“It was funny to have everything change on you while it was dark,” he said. “The lights come on and you're like ‘what?’ but your brain is cool with it. The fact that a dozen elements shifted around while the lights were off does not break presence. That was a great early example of a VR surprise.”

He wasn’t willing to add “magic” to the game, which meant no image overlays or any other game-like way to present information to the player. So how do you get information to the player? You add a big scoreboard. You’re on a soccer field, after all.

And how do you tell the player what to do? Put a speaker on the scoreboard and have instructions come from a character inside the game’s world. So now you have a player who is locked on place, with lights that come off and on, while someone is commanding you to play soccer.

“The feelings were prison-like, so I just ran with it and slapped a barbed wire fence in there along with a guard tower in the distance,” Throop explained. “I started to daydream about why it would be a prison, and it made some amount of sense that crazy powerful soccer clubs in Europe might send their poorer performing players ‘away’ and wash their hands of them. Plausible deniability. Someone would have to provide that service!”

And then all the sudden boom, he had the setting and story.

“So that became The Football Improvement Centre,” he said. “A re-education facility — not a prison. Who runs it? Well the Headmaster of course. It all came together like that, in the span of a few days really early.”

Other characters are introduced. Tension builds. Things are introduced. I will not ruin any of it here.

“So all of these ingredients came about organically, solving design issues and patching together a really odd setting,” Throop said. “Ultimately there is a crisis. You’re in the middle of it, and of course you have to find your way through it by heading stuff, which makes complete sense.”

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