Virtually speaking: Bossa Studios

'The content will be the king, as it always is.'

Virtually speaking: Bossa Studios
| Surgeon Simulator

Welcome to the second in our series of interviews with VR pioneers. This time we took to Bossa studios to talk to Bossa about why they're doing all they can to learn about VR, and the challenges of bringing hit game Surgeon Simulator from the hand cramping keyboard controls to a virtual operating theatre.

Later you'll be able to read my "hands-on" impressions with the game (sorry).

Now though, we sat down with Bossa co-founder Henrique Olifiers and designer Luke Williams.

Pocket Gamer: There seems to be quite a lot of collaboration between both VR developers and the designers of the headsets, in that everyone is working together to make the best product they can. Henrique Olifiers: Yeah, that’s actually true. We had an experience when we first heard about the Vive, all the developers in that room have opinions about how the hardware should develop and which direction they thought it should be, and even discussions about how many controllers should be bundled or how many Lighthouses we need. All that counted on the input of developers. The same with Oculus and so on. They hear a lot of what developers think of the product and how to take the product forward. They are experimenting as much as we are. That’s the truth behind it. Luke Williams: I think it’s definitely a new approach that I guess the hardware manufacturers are doing anyway. I mean, I remember the PS4 had heavy involvement from all the developers when they kind of went, ‘Actually, what do you guys want in a console?’, whereas before with the PS3, they were it was: ‘We’re gonna make this console,’ and then, you know, the developers suddenly get their hands on it and go, ‘Oh fuck, okay, how do we do this?’. Henrique: This is probably more of a trend now, where hardware manufacturers, platform holders, and content creators come together more early on to define what are the feature sets of these things, you know?

VR just happened to be there at this point in time, which is quite lucky for it.

PG:I guess you’ve got to unlearn everything that you’ve learned about games so far for VR? Henrique: That is true. When you start designing VR, especially controls and navigation, when you come with preconceptions of how things should work - things that will obviously work and things will not work, you find out pretty fast that you have to leave those and start experimenting.

All the stuff that you do take for granted that will work doesn’t, and all the stuff that you rule out as, ‘Oh, this stuff is never gonna work,’ actually no, it’s actually good.

Luke: it even had to shift again when suddenly there became all this room-scale side of things. Before everyone was trying to think, ‘How can we move around when the player’s sat there?,’ but then suddenly, ‘Actually, now you can walk around,’ because they’ve added all these hand controls, positional tracking.

So in the space of three years, it’s completely shifted, it’s definitely always moving and evolving.

Henrique: As the controllers get more and more accurate and more reliable, it’s also opening up more and more possibilities for us to explore. Luke: Way more subtle movements, whereas before It was almost Wii style, right? It was, like, clear gestures, whereas now they can do little minute finger movements and stuff. It’s pretty crazy. So you had to basically redesign Surgeon for VR? Luke: Yeah.

What would you say changed about how you had to revisit a game for a 2D screen and a mouse?

Luke: That’s the thing. It was mouse and keyboard, and it wasn’t deliberately obtuse but that’s what kind of made the game, this absurd control system, but now you can freely just pick up everything you want with the minimal difficulty.

So we had to keep that slapstick humour-y stuff but increase the panic and the stuff that can go wrong. So now there’s lots of little things you have to monitor. we actually took the defibrillator and heart-rate system that we had in the iPad version of the game and we’ve now shipped that into the full game.

So now he’s got, like, a little mask and anaesthetic you need to keep his heart rate up now. You’ve got the defibs if he goes into cardiac arrest that you need to bring him back to life with.

And then lots of things, like the tools. Because the difficulty is not in picking them up, we hide and put them around the space so you can open drawers and find stuff, and it’s a little bit more, you have to do more stuff to achieve the, like, you know-, the simple actions than before. It’s not just like, ‘Look at this table of stuff and just go and pick one up,’ because in the original game that was hard to do, just to pick it up.

Now you can just grab it, so we kind of make you, sort of, run over here, open the drawer, pull out the hammer.

Bad controls are inexcusable in VR, right? Luke: Yeah, exactly. Henrique: Yeah, it’s not as much as bad controls. It’s more or less complex controls. Because we had a lot of control of those hands in the original game but the skill learning curve associated with the game was all in the hand control, and now you don’t have that anymore. You’re doing what you do in nature day to day. Henrique: Surgeon was a lucky gift in that the game design lent itself to VR very well,because you don’t have to walk around or anything like that, right? You walk around the ambulance or the theatre, but you don’t transverse space, which is a big challenge for VR.

The other point is that because you have two hands that translates very well for the controllers, but what really surprised us is the physicality of the game. In other games it’s fine for you to have hands that are ghostly hands.

They can go through objects and so it’s fine. Imagine a situation where you have a controller in your hand and you bump about around an object in the virtual world but in the real world your hand carries on. You don’t get that feedback, right? It doesn’t stop against physical objects. In most games that’s not a problem. For Surgeon that’s a massive problem.

So we have to find a way to solve that challenge, and we found a clever way in that in the game itself your hands stop a physical object, but if you keep on pressing against it a second hand, like, a skeleton version of the hand detaches from it and carries on with the movement with the controller, so you always know where your hand is, even though your virtual hand is stuck into some object.

So you’ll go back, link up and your hand carries on. That was something we had never seen before in any other game, but once we deployed that in Surgeon it actually worked very well.

Luke: It’s just that problem where, like, you do that, the hand gets stuck but your hand is over here and there’s that feeling of, like, ‘What’s going on? My hand’s stuck.’ So now you have a second, like, ghost hand that you can still see, and it’s easy to bring it back to the actual hand. I feel like that’s what we’re going to see a lot of in the next year or so. So you guys will go public with that and then someone else will go, ‘That’s a good idea,’ and you’ll see another iteration. Henrique: Yeah. There will be a lot of that in the first couple of years of VR, people coming up with unexpected things that all of a sudden makes total sense and everybody else will say, ‘Yeah, of course, let’s do that.’ Henrique: It's like first-person shooters where you have the weapon ahead of you. Now everybody does that and takes for granted that games were always like that. No it wasn’t. That was a big breakthrough.

I feel like we’re kind of at that same point with VR, where we’re just standing there waiting for people to start going forwards and reiterate what the genres and stuff are going to be.

Henrique: Yeah, that’s the thing. VR has to go into the hands of the first generation of players shortly. That’s probably happening in six months’ time or so. Then we’re going to start seeing what really lies ahead. Up to then it’s all speculation and wishful thinking.

PG:Are you planning on VR for Worlds Adrift? Henrique: Worlds Adrift is about multiplayer and persistency, big scale. It’s innovative in its own right. VR for us is a very promising technology. We believe that the future of games could lie there. But there’s a lot of risk associated with VR as well. A game like Worlds Adrift, which consumes probably two thirds of the studio, is not the right time to make for VR. It just isn't. PG:Just in case, right? Luke: Yeah, yeah. We can’t become a VR studio just like that, because that’s a massive gamble. It’s like becoming an Ouya-only studio before it came out, sort of thing. You know what I mean? You know, yeah, of course VR has way more money behind it and way more promise, but it’s the same sort of the thing. It’s like we have no idea how the public are gonna react.

I’m interested in this idea of risk in VR. Some companies, like Rebellion, are going all in on the technology.

Henrique: It depends on the objectives of each company. Our objective right now is to learn everything that has to be learned from VR so if and when VR becomes a viable market we can get start working on meaningful games. Surgeon is our way of experimenting with VR. we cannot just talk about it. We have to do something with it. In the same way that we host the VR meetups here every couple of months for the past-, three years now? Henrique: Almost three years if not that. But that is a way for us to learn more about VR. Not only we talk to people. We get ideas, we work prototypes. We did the Valve VR game jam probably six months ago at Playhubs at Somerset House. Again, the same thing. We sent a team there, but the interaction of that team with all the teams enabled us to accumulate a lot of knowledge that we can now exercise in our internal prototypes that nobody hears about but also on Surgeon and so on.

Now, that is a way for us to be prepared without betting the company into the future of VR. This is not the right time for us to do that. For some other companies it is. They might have different interests, they might be looking at a different way of tackling the market, and so on. I find very interesting the content companies such as Starbreeze that have even invested in hardware. It’s good that more people bring more ideas to the fold, but what is the business sense behind that is up for each company to make up their own mind with.

What do you feel like is the most exciting part about VR for you looking forwards?

Henrique: The launch. That is the most exciting thing. The launch when VR finally reaches the hands of the masses, right? Right now you have the numbers floating around that’s between 200,000 and 300,000 units, but they are not in the hands of players. They are in the hands of developers. We have a very unique perspective on those things. You should not trust developers evaluating the potential of a platform. Luke: For me it’s like when I tell my housemate and stuff she just rolls her eyes at VR. She doesn’t have any idea, like, what it is, and I’m just there like, ‘God, if you just, like, tried it, it would change your perspective on what games are and what they can be.

They’re like, ‘Oh yeah, a TV screen that goes in front of your head. Why is everyone so excited about that?’ They just don’t quite get it, it’s all enthusiasts. It’s all big big gamers. It’s not just someone from off the street just plugs in and sees what it’s like, and I think that’s gonna be crazy to see.

Henrique: I’m slightly fearful of what’s coming before that, things like Cardboard. The other day I was walking past the tube station and there was a kiosk with The Force Awakens Cardboard being given away. That is not a good VR experience. It doesn’t matter what people say about it, how it’s accessible, everybody can have-, yeah, but it’s a terrible experience. If you think of VR that that is VR, you will have to sell VR for that person twice, and that is a dangerous thing. I’m very worried about that. Like, we were talking about the Gear VR. I think the Gear VR is in that category. It’s much better than Cardboard, please don’t get me wrong, but it’s not true VR. I felt like with the big headsets, when you show it to someone and they use it they’ll be sold, but it’s making it attractive enough that people want to put it on for the first time. Henrique: That is our experience with people that try for the first time. The very first Surgeon VR we did probably three years ago, we had it at EGX. Luke: Yeah, it was June 2013. Henrique: So was it DK1 yet? Luke: It was DK1 one with Razer Hydras. Henrique: HD. It was the HD version, wasn’t it, the slightly better version? Luke: Honestly I don’t think it was. I think it was literally DK1. Henrique: But with Razer Hydras, so we already had the positional controls back then for the hands. Luke: We had no camera or positional tracking. You moved around the world by using the Razer Hydra control sticks, so you had-, so it was a little bit nauseating with that, but we had no-, there was no leaning. We didn’t have a camera. Henrique: We have put probably some 600 people through that in the two expositions we went, and the experience was great. We have recordings of people getting out of it and saying, ‘That was the best game experience I’ve had in my life,’ kind of thing. It’s really something. Henrique: This was DK1. Luke: This was some sort of jury-rigged hacked horrible VR thing compared to now. Henrique: When you see people have a demo of the Vive or a PS:VR or positional VR, that kind of stuff, and they walk away, they are completely blown, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ So we see the seed there, but with that we will need content, we will need stuff that people want to spend time on, not five minutes, but hours on end, and so on. And that is to come. Luke: And that’s the thing right now, yeah. It’s progressing beyond, like, ‘Wow, what an amazing tech demo,’ and actually realising that potential and into fully realised games, which is the big thing. Henrique: The content will be the king, as it always is.
Jake Tucker
Jake Tucker
Jake's love of games was kindled by his PlayStation. Games like Metal Gear Solid and Streets of Rage ignited a passion that has lasted nearly 20 years. When he's not writing about games, he's fruitlessly trying to explain Dota 2 to anyone that will listen.