One of the great wonders of VR is its ability to transport you to an entirely new place. Sometimes, a world is so beautiful you’ll find yourself wanting to stay forever. Today, we’re excited to share that you can step inside a whimsical, calming environment like no other in Paper Valley—now available on Rift!
We asked Vitei Backroom Programmer Chris McLaughlin, one of the chief architects of Paper Valley, how to build a world that no one wants to leave—and how many real paper planes it took to make the game a hit.
What was the inspiration for Paper Valley?
Chris McLaughlin: During a tiny-prototype week we had, one of the prototypes was just model planes flying around the player’s head. You could grab them out the air and throw them around the room. They didn’t really do anything other than crash into the wall and then take off again, but the actions of grabbing planes out of the air and throwing them felt really nice. We wanted to try and make something that focused on those feelings.
I’m not sure why, but everyone who played one of the early prototypes said, “The planes should grow into plants or trees when they hit the ground”—even though nothing in the game hinted at that yet. We grabbed onto that thought, and after it was implemented, it just felt right.
Those who’ve tried Paper Valley marvel at how immersive it is. What steps did you take to keep players wanting more?
CM: We made a real point of ensuring that Paper Valley feels physically comfortable. We don’t move the camera around, and the player is in control of where they are and where they’re looking at all times. Even when teleporting between points, it’s a deliberate action that the player chooses to take—and then has time to prepare for before it happens.
We also paid a lot of attention to minimizing arm strain. The game really only has two actions: throwing planes and guiding them. Doing that over and over can get tiring! The game’s relaxed pace helps there because the throwing is broken up by watching the world grow, and the very deliberate teleportation also gives you a chance to rest between action points.
What’s been your favorite reaction to the game so far?
CM: We’ve had more than one person say, “I just want to live in here.” We’ve always been aiming to make a place that just feels nice to be in, so it’s wonderful to hear people appreciate that.
We showed the game to some older players (60+ years old) at Oculus Game Days in Boston. That was great, too, because many were trying VR for the first time. They really enjoyed it and understood how to play very quickly because they approached the experience as being something real, and not as a video game.
CM: It’s important to explore the possibilities of non-violent games. It’s very freeing to allow the player to interact in ways that go beyond destroying things, and it’s quite freeing as a player to not be guided down a path of destruction.
Shooting and traditional adventure games are enjoyable, but there’s so much possibility for new types of games when you think outside of that. VR offers a very personalized experience and lends itself nicely to exploring other emotions and feelings.
What was your favorite part about designing Paper Valley?
CM: Allowing the game to define itself was particularly magical. All games have some amount of design that emerges from the pieces as you put them together. However, for Paper Valley, it feels like even the fundamental parts of it were found as opposed to designed. The only thing we really started with was: “Little planes are pretty cool.” But over the course of a few weeks, they turned into paper planes, then into guidable planes, then into planes that grow into plants, then into planes that grow the world, and finally into the game that we released. Everything that makes Paper Valley the game that it is now was discovered along the way.
Any fun behind-the-scenes trivia to share?
CM: We didn’t actually throw as many planes as you might think, or perhaps as many as we should have. Once we had the flight mechanics feeling nice, we quickly discovered that throwing planes in the real world wasn’t as satisfying as in VR—you have to walk to the other end of the room to pick them up again!
Alex, our sound designer, loves surprising the players with sounds that are made up of elements you might not expect. In this case, almost all of the sound effects began as raw samples of paper and cardboard—quite fitting for a game called Paper Valley, really!
Very early on in development, half of the team (Alex and I) moved with our families to the other side of the world—Scotland and Sweden, respectively. There was a bit of a learning curve involved in getting used to the time differences, but because we’ve all worked together for about five years now and have some good procedures to show for it, we weren’t affected as badly by it as we thought we might be.
CM: We learned a lot about our individual roles on our team from both games and how to focus our unique skills in the best way to help each other out. Since we’re a small team (only four people), there can be a lot of overlap in what we do. It’s been important for us to learn what everyone can do beyond their core discipline, and just as importantly where all of our limits are.
Working on Tiny Escape really refined our processes so that in five or six weeks we could go from a good idea to a polished, playable demo. Knowing what’s important to focus on, how to find the fun in an idea, and then presenting all that so players understand it quickly really helped us when it came to creating the Paper Valley demo we made for BitSummit 2017.
The Modern Zombie Taxi Co. taught us a lot about taking time to discover what’s great about your game, not to get too attached to things, and to always be prepared to throw work away if it’s not going anywhere. You always learn something from everything you do that you can take forward to make the next thing better.
What unique challenges did your team face in designing Paper Valley compared to your other games?
CM: Keeping things calm and relaxing was actually a huge challenge. It was very tempting to add moments of stress or excitement, such as timed targets, moving targets, and even the concept of “game over.” These were all things we tried but threw away because, while they were enjoyable, they completely changed the feeling of the game and very quickly pulled you out of the relaxation zone.
With VR, it can be particularly important to deliver intuitive controls. How does that affect your design process?
CM: Accessibility is something we always think about, and not just in terms of first-time players. Making something easy and enjoyable to use has benefits for everyone, new and experienced alike.
We’re always looking at the things we implement and picking them apart to see how they can be improved and simplified. Usually we find that the simplest expression of our idea is the best way to communicate it to all types of players. It’s very easy to add layers on top of an idea to patch up the issues, but then it’s much harder to pull those layers off. The end result is almost always a better product. You could almost say that this accessible design philosophy doesn’t affect our process as much as it is our process!
What are you working on next?
CM: I’m not sure that we can say what Vitei Backroom at large is working on (the company has a couple of teams, not just the four of us), but if we had the chance it would be wonderful to somehow bring A Tiny Escape to a larger audience.
There are a few other prototypes in our library that would be good to finish off, too, including a pretty invigorating stone-skipping game. Maybe we should have another tiny-prototype week and see what comes out of that—it could guide us to discover another project like Paper Valley.
What’s your ultimate VR dream project?
CM: I think everyone on the team would have a different answer for this, but I think we’d all like to work on some sort of playful, multiplayer co-op experience. There’s a really special feeling that you get when you see and can interact with another human in VR, and it would be great to build something that drives players to experience these moments.
Thanks for these wonderful insights, Chris. We can't wait to start throwing planes!
Transport yourself to Paper Valley today to start growing your own fanciful world. Check out what Vitei Backroom is up to by following them on Twitter—or join them on /r/oculus for a live AMA today at 11:00 am PT.
We’ll see you in the valley!
— The Oculus Team