Oculus Connect interview: Lucky's Tale developers on finding the "Mario brick" for VR platformers

Before I tried on the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype, the best VR experience I'd had was playing platformer Lucky's Tale back at E3 . The charming platformer works amazingly well in virtual reality, and I was eager to talk to Playful Studios CEO Paul Bettner about how the game has progressed since E3, and what he thought of the new prototype hardware. I ended up talking to Bettner and Lucky's Tale director Dan Hurd about redefining the 3D platformer in virtual reality, the importance of positional audio, and how much more challenging level design can be in VR.

Also, Bettner gave me a rough window for Lucky's Tale release. He plans to have the game out in the first half of 2015, before the release of the consumer Oculus Rift. Check out the full interview below.

Wes Fenlon, PC Gamer: What have you guys been up to since E3, working on the game?

Paul Bettner, Playful Studios CEO: You probably can figure it out, right? We've been trying to deliver on the promise we made at E3, basically. We showed something off there that was, in all sense of the word, a demo, and was smoke and mirrors to some extent, and all the things that go into that. So now we're trying to deliver a game that matches the promise of that demo.

Actually, coming out of E3, we saw things emerge that we thought were going to be important to people or their favorite moments of the demo, and some of those were surprising to us. We kind of went back and said, all right, this is the reaction that people had, so what do we want to go bigger on? Invest more in? What are the most important parts of this game as people are responding back to us?

Dan Hurd, Design Director : In a lot of ways it was the smile watch. Somebody puts on the goggles and you sometimes got that immediate smile, which was fun for us.

Paul: [Waving back at Lucky] is the favorite.

Dan: If somebody waves, wonderful. That informed, directly, one of the pieces we needed more of. More interaction with Lucky himself. When people were smiling later on, we'd always ask "what part are you at right now?" And a lot of times one of the greatest things about the demo, people would say they really loved it when they looked and threw a bomb, and it was this synergistic behavior between them and Lucky to accomplish a goal.

Paul: That's one of the areas we've really focused on now. There were a couple of moments like that in the demo, like Dan was saying, throwing the bomb. Really if you extract what's happening in those moments, those are moments where you're playing the game in a way you literally could not have experienced on any other platform. There's this cooperation. The game knows who you are and where you are because we're tracking your head, and there's this character. That's a gameplay mechanic that makes the most of those two things, actually turns that into a gameplay system.

So okay, what are we going to do with this? Since E3 we've been building all sorts of prototypes to do more of that stuff. I'll tell you about one level.

We're working on one level where you, the player, have a headlamp that's shining in the level, and Lucky can't see where he's going unless you are looking and leading the way, saying oh, there's somewhere over there you can go. Just the experience of running him around, and you are also playing as yourself directly impacting the gameplay, because you're shining this light around just by looking around, it's just this great feeling. It's not something I've experienced in any other platformer because you've never had that dual control. Some games play with this even in traditional space, like games where the left stick controls one character and the right stick controls another.

PCG: Like Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons.

Paul: Brothers is a perfect example. That's sort of hinting at what this is, but in this case, we unconsciously control our head motion without even thinking about what we're doing. So it's much easier than trying to control two characters. That's a brand new language.

Dan: It actually accomplishes another goal, too. Something we're really interested in is the pull on everything we do here...having to keep Lucky safe. My attention is always focused on Lucky. So, through level design, we force you to get that really cool vista view by just making you safe for a little while. People can look around and have the freedom to do that.

Paul: It ties into something Dan was saying earlier, too, which was something we saw at E3: the connection people had to Lucky, the character. They would describe it as transcending any kind of emotional connection they've had to a character in a game before. Even though, I mean, Lucky doesn't look [the same], we have a brand new model, he's much better looking now, but even that really low-poly crappy E3 demo character version of Lucky, people were just like, "yeah, he looked at me and he wiggled his nose..." So tying into what Dan was saying, we're now doing a lot more with how Lucky communicates with you as a player.

[The idea of pointing] actually came from John Carmack. We want Lucky to more explicitly hand control over to you and to say, hey, I'm safe, you can look around now. So he points to something that he's interested in, drawing your attention to it, and when he does that, that's the signal that I'm safe, you can take your eyes off me, check this out.

PCG: In the E3 demo, in general, Lucky was safe because you designed a demo that was super easy. Now that you're actually building out levels, part of your work is the symbiosis between player and Lucky, but the other flip side of that is pure mechanics, how this game works as a platformer. What has it been like trying to develop the really hard levels, the intermediate levels...

Paul: We're really good at the hard levels. [laughs]

Dan: Yeah, we can kill you instantly. [laughs]

PCG: But is it good hard, or VR hard?

Dan: That's the art.

Paul: It's good hard. In fact, it's incredible, the difficulty level that we're able to go to in VR is way beyond what you could do on a 3D platformer on a screen...you're actually way more capable, for an advanced player, in our game. So we've built levels to test out mechanics like wall jumping, where it would be literally impossible, because you're jumping, and then jumping to a wall behind you and over here...it works in VR. It's extremely difficult, but it can be done. If you had to control the camera in a traditional game, you just couldn't do it.

Dan: How many deaths have we racked up in games like Banjo Kazooie, Mario, where we've abstracted the 3D, and you're like, ahh, I died because I didn't know that I was actually drifting off the platform. The challenge here is a more pure challenge. Did you interpret that information well enough so that you can make the jump?

Paul: It's no longer: "Oh I couldn't tell where he was going to land." because you can in VR. It's more like, "can I make it or not?" That's really it, whether you have the skill or not...

I do want to caveat that very little about our game is hardcore or difficult, but internally we built levels that are brutal. But we tone it all the way back. The E3 demo was ultra easy, we're aiming for Mario level difficulty, but not really beyond that. We're not trying to create a hard platformer.

PCG: The great thing about the modern Mario platformers is they let you beat the game halfway through, and then all the extra stuff is insanely difficult.

Dan: We really like that. You have the option to engage and be as clever as you want and do intricate jumps and route planning and true exploration, when you're in it for the first time, you're like, I just want to see the thing. Point A to point B. But the second time around, you really want to look around the rings of that tree and go up into the little house and find all the secrets.

PCG: So you can make jumps where you have to be even more precise, smaller things to traverse?

Paul: Absolutely. The direction we're heading now, our levels will have a fairly casual gameplay to them, to get from one end to the other, but the depth and the extent of the secrets in our game is going to be off the charts...You're [going to be] timing those jumps by millimeters because you can get so precise in the control in this environment compared to what you can do in a traditional platformer.

Dan: He does what you expect him to do. In the E3 demo level we did a lot of game shorthand. There were a lot of things in there that we stuck in because we liked some aspect of the effect, but ultimately it wasn't the message we want to convey, necessarily, in a more polished Lucky's Tale. So when you ask what we've been doing in the three months since then, we've been going back through and reevaluating all the basics of those mechanics.

Saying, okay, that was cool, but what is the Lucky's Tale version of that? Something that is integrated into the fiction and the way Lucky moves.

PCG: Are you talking about things like double jumps?

Paul: A good example is the bricks, right? We just copied Mario for the E3 demo.

Dan: What is a brick in 3D Mario? In 2D Mario, they served their purpose. They were a platform and something you could deform to get around. In 3D Mario they just kinda hang out. We've been trained as people who have come up through those games to interact with them in that way. But somebody who's new to gaming or new to VR gaming is like, oh, that's cool, and then they rediscover it. It's a thing, but it doesn't engage you on any sort of meaningful level. It's saddled with all this baggage.

Paul: We're in the process of replacing all those pieces with parts that are more unique and original. The question to ourselves when we tackle that stuff is, if we're going to replace bricks with something else, what is the VR brick?

I think we're finding a series of mechanics, and the ones I feel best about are the ones that aren't based on this baggage of platformers that has built up since the 2D platformer. Some of that is good and delightful, but some of it is legacy, we can do better, and especially the places where I think we do the best is a mechanic or a device in the game you're playing with that could only exist in VR. That's the holy grail for us. I don't know if we can hit that with everything, but I put that on Dan a lot of times. I'm like, there's got to be something else! Keep searching!

PCG: Just come up with something that no one has thought of, ever!

Paul: Yeah, right! [laughs] We can't do that for 100% of the game, but...

Dan: There's a lot we gain from being instantly familiar and playable. The basics of control and the feeling of movement, that's something that's essential to being comfortable in the space. But we're also working on a boss fight right now...

Paul: Boss fights and minigames are the best in VR.

PCG: As developers, how is the tech from Crescent Bay, what do you think of it?

Paul : It's similar from a tech development standpoint. They haven't fundamentally changed the technology the way they did from Dk1 to DK2. They added positional tracking, so that fundamentally changed it.

In this case, there are a couple new capabilities. The sensors on the back so you can turn 360. But we don't really use that stuff. We're aiming for a seated experience anyway. The analogy I was using this morning: in a car, there are rearview mirrors for a reason. It's annoying to turn all the way around. If you're sitting in a chair, you're mostly going to be looking one way anyway. So that's what we're aiming for. But it's better resolution, it looks better, the tracking is better.

Dan: I felt it was more comfortable to wear, too, and I didn't think that was going to have as big of an impression on me. But we put these things on 100 times a day, so actually, that makes a difference. And the process with the integrated headphones, that was a lot better. Just on, off.

Paul: We have been a major advocate of the audio side of this from the beginning. I think we had some of the very first discussions with Oculus, we showed them this demo called the virtual haircut or virtual barber. You can get it on your iPhone. It's a true binaural audio positional demo. Get a good pair of headphones, download it, it is the virtual reality of audio. When you experience it you just won't believe it. It's this guy giving you a haircut. You can feel the scissors right there! It's amazing.

Dan: The sense of place, without any sort of visual feedback, is amazing.

Paul: You feel like you can literally reach out and grab a sound, the way you can the visual side on VR.

Dan: We really salivated at that. The combining of these two things...a lot of people are very focused on the visual side, but this has such, almost an equal weighting, because you can imagine it if you close your eyes. It hints at the potential here.

Paul: So they're starting to play around with that stuff. That app, you have to hold your head steady, it doesn't do any kind of tracking because it's pre-recorded. Doing that in software programmatically is really hard. It's equivalent to how difficult the initial 3D rendering Carmack did back in the Doom days, getting that started. Nobody's really done that in the audio side of things.

PCG: There's kind of no application for it.

Paul: Yeah, there's no application for it until now, with head tracking and VR that all of a sudden it becomes the biggest deal ever. Like they said in the keynote, they're integrating the RealSpace audio. It has a lot of promise, but it doesn't get anywhere near that virtual haircut yet. But when it does, that's going to be another leap beyond. The audio is impossible to underestimate what an impact that has on your sense of presence and immersion in the environment when it's done correctly.

That's another big piece I'm glad to see them talking about today. Otherwise, as developers, the stuff that was announced today doesn't affect our trajectory. One thing that's a bit different than we were talking about at E3: we're more excited now to get a version of Lucky's Tale out sooner rather than later, from what we were originally talking about.

On one hand, Oculus's relentless pursuit of utter perfection on the hardware side is the best thing ever. They're just unwilling to get it wrong with what they call a consumer version. But of course, what that means is, today, there's no date, there's no price yet. Nobody's even talking about that stuff yet. It's just another developer kit. Which might be the consumer hardware, but even [Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe] was like, probably not, we still have more work to do. That's the same message we've been hearing the past couple years.

From our standpoint, what we built with Lucky's Tale delivers a really compelling experience already, even on the DK2 and on Crescent Bay. We want to get that in people's hands sooner rather than later.

Dan: I think there's a lot of value just to be gained just from people playing around.

Paul: Not literally sales value, cause there's only 130,000 units. But we somewhat believe in that chicken and egg thing. The fact is that you can go get a DK2. Oculus may not call it a consumer version, but it's consumer priced. You can plug it into your PC.

If we can deliver a really good version of Lucky's Tale that might sell units, either way, this stuff is moving so fast, realistically, the way you control Lucky with a controller and everything else, do I believe that's going to be the same a year from now? Probably not. So I'd rather get stuff out there, let people see it, and play it, and enjoy it.

I kind of feel now that the first version that consumers are going to see is going to be Lucky's Tale Act 1. It won't necessarily be the full 10 worlds of a Mario game, with dozens of levels in each world. We'll see. I dont want to commit to anything, but the high level is we're trying to get something out sooner, now.

Dan: We thrive on the feedback. That feedback loop is so important for us. We run 10 people through it and still one person might say I felt a little something weird when the camera did that or that....and that's so important for us. We need to increase that many fold.

PCG: It sounds like people are going to be playing Lucky's Tale next year.

Paul: yeah, I would definitely like that to happen. And hopefully the earlier part of next year instead of the latter part. That's what we're trying to head towards right now.

PCG: Awesome. Thanks for taking the time to talk to me.

Wes Fenlon
Senior Editor

Wes has been covering games and hardware for more than 10 years, first at tech sites like The Wirecutter and Tested before joining the PC Gamer team in 2014. Wes plays a little bit of everything, but he'll always jump at the chance to cover emulation and Japanese games.

When he's not obsessively optimizing and re-optimizing a tangle of conveyor belts in Satisfactory (it's really becoming a problem), he's probably playing a 20-year-old Final Fantasy or some opaque ASCII roguelike. With a focus on writing and editing features, he seeks out personal stories and in-depth histories from the corners of PC gaming and its niche communities. 50% pizza by volume (deep dish, to be specific).