It’s not uncommon to hear about VR titles that come out of experimentation at game studios. But it’s not every day that you come across a VR game developed by a hardware company.
Back in August, we introduced you to a small team inside ROCCAT Games Studios, an independent spin-off of the high-end gaming peripherals manufacturer. The company’s first VR title, Elevator... to the Moon! launched on Rift and Gear VR in October. It’s already racking up positive reviews, with fans immediately enamored by the charming humor and challenging puzzle-based gameplay.
Today, we’re excited to share that the Elevator team is releasing an update that brings room-scale play to Rift. Now you can select from traditional point-and-click or room-scale right from the title screen. To celebrate, we decided to take a deep dive on Elevator’s creation, with the team behind the magic.
The project was led by Marc Barnes. A self-described Swiss Army Knife, Marc was a musician, designer, and documentarian before landing at his current role at ROCCAT, where he focuses on product research and emergent technology—he also happens to have once been ranked as the ninth-best Street Fighter player in his native New Zealand. Paired up with developer Carsten Busold, the team began working on “the little demo that could,” which was greenlit by ROCCAT CEO Rene Korte to go into full production.
Shortly after, Hannah Paulmann, an amazing artist, was recruited from a local VR meet-up. Together, the team of three spent the next 10 months taking Elevator... to the Moon! from a moonshot demo to fully-fledged game on Rift and Gear.
The production was an exercise in how constraints lead to creativity. As Barnes puts it, a small team combined with limited budget and resources became a defining characteristic, rather than an obstacle.
With limited compute power, ROCCAT knew Gear VR was the platform to prioritize. While widely accessible, Gear VR can only power so much graphic fidelity. Not a problem. Rather than try to downsize a console title, ROCCAT looked to a parallel—their favorite mobile games—to inform Elevator’s puzzle-based gameplay. Working to develop for Gear VR led to smarter decisions and programming techniques, according to Barnes.
The first step was to build within the confines of a finite space—the elevator itself. Roughly 90% of the game's playtime takes place in that space, a single elevator with only the environment passing by outside changing, which enables static batching from Unity. Elevator embraces a unique aesthetic. Inspired by the airbrushed commercials of the ’50s and mashed up with early ’90s low-poly design, Elevator prioritizes environment art, rather than characters and animation. The fantastical clouds create a comforting though non-distracting backdrop. “Photorealism isn't the only way to hook people,” Barnes notes. “We learned not to be afraid to immerse people with charm.”
That said, even without photorealistic graphics, hitting 60 fps on mobile proved to be a challenge. To boost performance, the team devised clever workarounds not unlike a stage play’s smoke and mirrors. For example, in one scene, the player experiences a shift in gravity, which pulls all the objects in scene behind the player as one of the most complex structures in the game is loaded in front of them—thereby avoiding performance issues.
Developing for Gear VR also meant the team couldn’t run real-time lighting, so they used a custom shader to simulate these effects. When changing lighting (and the level’s mood), materials of all renderers were changed to simulate darkness, a pink sunrise, or green tunnel lights. The shader applied to materials has a Fresnel effect, so the shifting colors and shiny edges on everything it touches fool the eye into believing that it’s seeing real-time lighting—without taxing the GPU.
The limitations of the elevator space also invited linear progression challenges. After all, there are no arrows or doors opening to beckon a player onward. Here, audio plays the critical role of navigator. The team used the Oculus Audio SDK to layer in sound triggers that spur the action forward. This takes the form of a walkie talkie and event-based triggers that tap into our instincts, like explosions strategically placed behind you to draw your attention.
Audio serves as a critical design element, and the ROCCAT team had to stretch resources to pull it off. That starts with homegrown talent. For example, Barnes himself voices the main character, channeling a certain body-builder-turned-actor-turned-Governor, while Paulmann’s friend’s band, Barnes’s former band, and the amazing Los Diablos Blancos all provided music for the game.
Lacking a real sound studio, the team even used a utility closet (and its assorted supplies) to capture various effects and voiceover.
Simultaneous Shipping on Rift + Gear VR
While originally envisioned as a mobile title, the team quickly saw the opportunity to build for Rift in parallel, with limited changes thanks to Oculus Utilities for Unity. This also allowed the team to explore gamepad controls, with a fresh take that let a gamepad mimic two Touch controllers. The left and right thumbstick simulate the left- and right-hand controllers, respectively. The controls feel surprisingly good—people want to operate with two hands—but still use a familiar mechanic, without dramatically different button mapping or design changes.
The team is already hard at work on their next project, although they aren’t quite done with President of the World Doug Slater-Roccmeier and his motley crew. Stay tuned for future updates, and check out Elevator... to the Moon! on Rift and Gear VR!
— The Oculus Team