The Player is the Hero: Lessons from Our VR Adventure So Far
I'm Eyal Geva, a writer and game developer here at Peanut Button and the co-creator of The Secret of Retropolis, a VR narrative puzzle game that pays tribute to the adventure games my older brother, Asaf, and I loved playing growing up. When he received a VR dev kit and saw the potential for content in this exciting new medium, we started experimenting with various prototypes that explored different storytelling methods and game mechanics. Those early prototypes were crucial for us to shape our VR storytelling style, and going forward to the success we had with The Secret of Retropolis. Here's what learned from that experience.
A process of experimentation - a fast prototype for a VR adventure in space.
The Player is the Hero
While prototyping our initial ideas, one of the most important lessons we learned was the importance of putting the player at the center of the experience. In VR, the feeling of presence inside a fictional world is unlike anything else – it's not just about watching a screen, it's about being fully immersed in a new world and having the power to affect it.
When our VR story game prototypes made the player a passive participant and didn't allow them to take active actions to overcome obstacles and achieve a meaningful goal (just like a character in any interesting fictional story), they lost interest. Having the player overcome game challenges just so they watch other characters move the story forward made them feel the weight of the VR headsets on their heads. But when we gave them an identity as a hero in the world and the means to impact other characters around them and drive the plot forward, the immersion worked. They got lost in the story.
That's why we came up with the mantra "the player is the hero" for our VR storytelling philosophy. This idea was at the core of The Secret of Retropolis, to make the player feel like they entered a film noir and got to talk to the femme fatale and be the hero of the movie, and it's something we'll continue to explore and refine as we create future VR experiences.
Giving the plyer clear identity - early concept art for Philip Log
Working from the ground up
OK, so we have a mantra for our vision of a VR game – "the player is the hero." Now, how do you move on?
When people ask about the writing process of Retropolis, they are very surprised to hear how this idea came to be. Retropolis is full of lore, details and characters, so they think the writing began with the idea of the world - a retro futuristic robotic city with stories of crime and romance... Or maybe the writing begun with the character of Philip Log, a robotic P.I. who loves smoking screws and drinking machine oil... The truth, as always, is much more mundane. Let's go back a little.
When trying to figure out our VR story philosophy, we built dozens of small prototypes. One of them really stood out and got us taking time to experiment with the concept of "popping hands", the basic ideas was to give the player the ability to send out their virtual hands and interact with objects from afar. Even though it was different than conventional VR design at the time, playtesters found it intuitive and amusing, and for us, it connected to the idea of point-and-click adventure. So, we built a mockup game using this mechanic and temporary art and story.
The response from players for this raw and unfinished game was overwhelmingly positive, and it was only then that we really sat down to flesh out the details of the game and the world of Retropolis and Philip Log's adventures within it. Without knowing the player's ability, it wouldn't be possible to write a story that makes them the hero.
Nailing the mechanic before writing the story - Early version of Philip's popping hands:
Playtest again and again ang again...
As implied earlier from the way we nailed down the game's mechanic - one of the most important lessons we learned was the importance of playtesting with a variety of players. It's easy to get caught up in our own vision for the game and assume that it will appeal to everyone, but playtesting allows us to see how different players react to and interact with our game.
We made sure to playtest The Secret of Retropolis with a diverse group of players, including both hardcore gamers and casual players, as well as players of different ages and skill levels. This helped us identify any areas of the game that were confusing or frustrating, and allowed us to make adjustments to improve the overall player experience. Players who didn't have any VR experience were helpful in finding places where interaction wasn't intuitive, while experienced VR gamers were helpful in finding where expectations of gameplay were met.
Playtesting is crucial for any game development process, but it's especially important in VR. It's always hard to receive criticism of your work, but listening to players and changing the game was what made the game stand out as a polished and flowing, fast-paced experience.
Now, a year after the release of The Secret of Retropolis, we're thrilled to see how much our players have enjoyed the game. We're constantly asked about a sequel, and we're excited to share more information about it soon. In the meantime, make sure to join our mailing list to stay up-to-date on all the latest news and updates from Peanut Button Studios.
First screenshot from Retropolis 2: Never Say Goodbye
We hope our experiences and lessons learned will be helpful to other VR developers as they embark on their own creative journeys. VR is an amazing medium with endless potential, and we can't wait to see what innovative ideas and content the future holds. Now go out there and make amazing VR games!
Eyal from Peanut Button