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July 01
2020

ISSUE

Summer 2020

Cloudhead Games: VR Multi-tasker and Storyteller

By CHRIS McGOWAN

If you’ve teleported inside a VR experience or used snap-turns to rotate then you’ve already experienced some of Cloudhead Games’ contributions to the modern VR industry, according to Co-founder and CEO Denny Unger.

In addition, the Canadian-based studio’s pioneering efforts in VR hand interactions caught the attention of Valve, who approached them to create a demo on Valve Index hand controllers. And Cloudhead has been a pioneer in using VR performance capture, employing it for its 2016 VR adventure-fantasy The Gallery: Call of the Starseed, which won multiple awards. Its 2019 first-person-shooter VR game Pistol Whip was similarly much lauded. Cloudhead Games is nothing if not a VR multi-tasker.

Denny Unger, Co-founder and CEO, Cloudhead Games (Images copyright © Cloudhead Games.)

The Gallery: Heart of the Emberstone is the sequel to Cloudhead’s The Gallery: Call of the Starseed.

Unger’s first experience of virtual reality came in 1992 on a system called Virtuality, playing a title called Dactyl Nightmare. “The VR was high-latency, low FOV, low frame rate, and made me sick as hell, but from that point forward I knew it was the future,” recalls Unger. “It just took a lot longer to enter the mainstream than I thought. From there, I became a life-long VR enthusiast and garage hacker, building collimated displays, flight simulator cabinets and crude VR headsets.”

Unger met Palmer Luckey at a VR enthusiasts’ forum called MTBS in 2009. Luckey was the designer of the Oculus Rift HMD, which many credit with reviving the virtual reality industry, and the founder of Oculus VR, later sold to Facebook. At the MTBS, Unger’s fellow VR hackers would share their latest ideas about building new headsets. “It was very grassroots,” says Unger. “I even designed the first logo for the Oculus. Palmer came up with the prototypical Oculus, which at that time was just a package of off-the-shelf parts and cell phone tech that a handful of us were hoping to build in our shops. But it was clear even then that he had cracked the formula for an affordable, wide FOV, low-latency VR headset that actually lived up to the promise of what VR should be.

“When Palmer began a collaboration with John Carmack, it was a clear signal to a few of us that it was time to get ahead of the VR curve,” continues Unger. Carmack was famous in the video game industry as the Co-founder of Id Software (creator of Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake games). He became the CTO of Oculus in 2013 (he has since stepped down to be its Consulting CTO).

In 2012, Unger founded Cloudhead Games. “I reinvested money from a prior business, pulled in some trusted co-workers and we got to work, building the first VR adventure series inspired by cinema, The Gallery: Call of the Starseed, and its sequel Heart of the Emberstone.” Along the way, Unger realized that he also needed to contribute to the tech side of VR. “There were no Google searches for VR best practices in those days, so we quickly became an R&D studio out of necessity.

“A lot of what we did early on was figure out how to keep people from feeling nauseous,” explains Unger. Moving users around virtual spaces affected human vestibular systems – the sensory system that provides the brain with information about motion, head position, balance and spatial orientation. “In the most basic terms, the golden rule in VR is to have movement be user-driven whenever possible, with very few exceptions. Artificial motion and visual velocities not driven by the user [vection] cause a disconnect it ‘blink’ at the time – is a way to move a user’s entire physical volume to a new location without causing artificial forward or strafing [sideways] velocities.”

From The Gallery: Heart of the Emberstone.

Certain that VR would utilize motion control to interact with the virtual world, Cloudhead used a system called the Razer Hydra, developed by Sixense and originally made for 2D games, and adapted it for VR. “Using that as a surrogate we were able to develop a deep set of tools for hand and object interactions. Exploring what feels good and how to trick the brain into feeling weight that didn’t exist was in and of itself a monstrous task.” In 2019, Cloudhead released its five-minute demo for Valve Index hand, knuckle and finger tracking technology, Aperture Hand Lab.

When it came time to capture actor performances for The Gallery, Unger recognized that they had a rare opportunity to invert the traditional process in a unique way. Instead of the director having a small window into the virtual world, with the actors using their imaginations to fill in the gaps on a greenscreen stage, Cloudhead put its actors into VR while they captured their performance data, using Noitom’s Perception Neuron full-body motion capture system. “They could see and interact with the virtual world we had created, hit their marks, read virtual teleprompters, all with no imagination required,” comments Unger. “The performances we captured in this way felt more genuine and grounded.”

Call of the Starseed, the first title of The Gallery trilogy, was released in 2016. “When thinking about the best consumer entry point into virtual reality, it always came back to finding a cinematic language in the medium,” says Unger. “But this wasn’t a passive experience, this was interacting directly with a living narrative. A big pillar for us was making the user the hero, the central figure in an adventure, something that felt familiar.” The experience had influences from the landmark Myst series, and “we took elements from our favorite films to give [it] a classic hero’s journey. If we could get them into that head space, we knew that they would have an easier time naturally interacting with the spaces we created.” Cloudhead sought to transport viewers to “another place, to the degree that you forget where you were. That sense of going somewhere and returning.” It won some two dozen nominations and awards in the VR world and was followed by the second title in the trilogy, Heart of the Emberstone, at the end of 2017.

From The Gallery: Heart of the Emberstone.

Cloudhead pioneered the use of VR performance capture for its 2016 VR adventure-fantasy The Gallery: Call of the Starseed.

From The Gallery: Call of the Starseed, the first title in the Starseed trilogy.

“2019 was the tipping point many of us were waiting for. VR had a tumultuous re-birth, riding the hype cycle down to more realistic expectations, but the landscape has changed over the last couple of years. VR studios are beginning to turn healthy profits, and the technology itself is reaching a high point with some solid hardware standards coming into focus. Games remain the leading driver in the space, and there’s an evolution of quality, a general industry understanding of what works and what doesn’t in the medium. As a result, there are some undeniably fun experiences that could only happen in VR.”

—Denny Unger, Co-founder and CEO, Cloudhead Games

Cloudhead continues development on the third title in The Gallery series.

Cloudhead’s 2019 first-person-shooter VR game Pistol Whip.

Cloudhead’s 2019 first-person-shooter VR game Pistol Whip.

For VR storytelling, Unger feels that telling stories through the environment is critical, “because so many perceptual filters are removed. Users can look in and around objects, crawl on the floor, jump and move through. You have to guide a user through the story by carving out a path that makes sense and fits the narrative, and at critical points along the way feed them information without any of the tools you might otherwise have. You can’t lock the camera down or frame a cutscene in a specific way.” The process should feel like an act of natural discovery. “Character interactions have to be built with the conceit that players have agency and can move around, breaking all of your best laid plans. So where and how those moments occur is a constant balancing act, using environment to have it all make sense. In some ways it’s much closer to theme park design than game design.

“Simplifying interaction design to natural gestures is always better,” he adds. “The more you do to accommodate natural motion into your experience, into the acts of exploration and interaction, the better things will feel.”

Unger feels that “2019 was the tipping point many of us were waiting for. VR had a tumultuous re-birth, riding the hype cycle down to more realistic expectations, but the landscape has changed over the last couple of years. VR studios are beginning to turn healthy profits, and the technology itself is reaching a high point with some solid hardware standards coming into focus. Games remain the leading driver in the space, and there’s an evolution of quality, a general industry understanding of what works and what doesn’t in the medium. As a result, there are some undeniably fun experiences that could only happen in VR.”

He believes that the Oculus Quest is hitting “that sweet spot” in terms of affordability, matched with a full 6-DOF VR headset with tracked controllers, in a stand-alone unit (no computer required), “basically VR’s first self-contained console.” It can also plug into your gaming rig at home. “On the other end of the spectrum you have the Valve Index,” he adds, “a high-end VR headset with an emphasis on comfort, wide FOV, incredible sound, controllers with finger tracking, premium quality through and through. It relies on a PC with adequate horsepower to drive it, but you’re going to start seeing higher-budget experiences coming to platform.”

In the near future, Cloudhead will further develop Pistol Whip and bring it to PSVR (PlayStation VR). “Beyond that we are continuing work on The Gallery franchise.”


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