Keng Aun Chen has some valuable insights on pursuing his initiative. If you have the drive to learn and envision where your initiative will take you, then go for it. He has, in many ways, showed us that each roadblock is surmountable, with the right attitude. It’s about the experience, not the commercial gain. Great insights, Keng!
Keng Aun Chen has been a technology consultant for his entire career, delivering projects for a broad range of clients and industries.
He is the sort of person who would see a new piece of tech, think ‘how hard could this be’ then end up shipping a VR product not too long after. He’s currently exploring the Augmented/Mixed Reality side of things and is always on the lookout for new and exciting challenges.
Why did you start your initiative?
Having zero experience in sound and audio, 3D modelling, scripting, coding, game design or development (even in the traditional format) and a minimal budget, I thought to myself, “How hard could it be to figure all of it out, create an objectively good product in that new medium, then ship it to the public and not be torn apart by the internet’s notoriously harsh opinions?”
Your “Welcome Home, Love” VR is intriguing. How do you create such concepts?
From the get-go, profit or commercial gain was at best an added bonus. We were driven by the opportunity to learn and explore. It’s a new enough iteration of this technology that there weren’t as many established best practices for interaction patterns or other technical challenges, compared to mobile or traditional gaming which have been mature and mainstream for years.
- This experience is designed for a 2×2 meter minimum physical space:
- But how does it feel if the end-user has less space, or a huge empty warehouse to work with?
- Motion sickness due to performance (framerate) is one of the top reasons new people immediately write off VR, and with good reason:
- So how do we build something that looks good and runs complex game logic, but can still hit the 90+ frames per second on supported hardware so people don’t get sick?
- There were very few VR games with fully voiced audio at the time:
- With VR’s added level of immersion, would introducing recorded voiced element to the user’s virtual character detract from the experience, or enhance it?
- It’s you physically walking around and doing things… but that’s not your own familiar voice talking.
- To use a light switch:
- Does it feel more natural to position your hand on a switch and ‘click’ it so it snaps to your virtual hand, or
- Is it better to physically move your arm down to ‘pull’ it?
- What about virtual objects… Keeping in mind this is room-scale VR:
- How do you scale users or position items in the nooks and crannies of the world to keep it interesting?
- While ensuring it’s never too high for shorter people, or hidden too low under a shelf that taller folks can’t crawl under.
- Movement, what’s the better way to do it? Given it’s a core mechanic of almost all VR applications, there’s much more we know these days from trial and error:
- Can they use the trackpad to linearly ‘move’ like a traditional game?
- Or do they point and ‘teleport’? And if so, is it instantaneous or is there a zoom effect?
- Is this a purely personal preference, or do some methods have a stronger tendency to make users sick and break immersion?
All these and a hundred more scenarios tie in to the previous question on why.
The experience of creating and testing new ideas, collaborating with the amazing community of developers around the world, sharing thoughts and discoveries. That is why we do it.
To answer the concept and scope question though, a lot of it came from the self-serving thought of “What can we do that will require the broadest range of skills while still being feasible?”
I wanted to stretch it and learn as much as I can, while being realistic about my time, capability and budgetary constraints – ensuring we’ll still eventually go-live and ship a consumer product.
The other half was from researching gaps in the current landscape. At the time, there were puzzlers, escape rooms and narrative-driven stories but most if not all of them focused mainly on one of those elements. We wanted the challenge of attempting to combine them in a single package.
How do you see virtual reality in the next 10 years?
Having shipped a VR product and exploring Microsoft’s Mixed Reality (MR) offerings lately, I think VR/MR/AR (Augmented Reality) and any future interpretations of xR will eventually enhance most aspects of our lives. There are always talks about this or that killer use case, but I feel it’ll be more of a gradual seep than a big lightbulb moment. Happy to be surprised though.
There’s also a lot of fluff about which is the ‘best’ current generation or emerging headset, or if AR/MR is better than VR. In the grand scheme of things, I feel these discussions are fundamentally a waste of time and irrelevant, sensationalised topics. They each have their own place, content and barriers to entry, yet are closely aligned enough that advances in either will only benefit the overarching technology set.
I’m sure it hasn’t been all smooth sailing for you, what were some challenges that you had to overcome?
Having to effectively learn it all from scratch, everything was a challenge. But nothing in particular stands out and I’d attribute it to resourcefulness and organisational skills.
I may not know exactly how to solve a problem from the get go, but I always knew the streams of work, dependencies and timelines for which they had to come together. And if we were stuck, we know where to go for assistance, be it outsourcing, trading work/skills or just finding the right people.
For example, on ensuring there weren’t major dependency roadblocks:
- On the build end: When we’d plan to complete a particular virtual room, I also have to ensure all the commissioned Foley and sound would be delivered, the right interaction scripts were tested, vocals were recorded and the 3D assets had been sourced.
- On the business side of things: Timeline for marketing activities, monitoring feedback forums and public engagement, Valve/Steam partnership, store page approval, pricing approval, ensuring we had a complete enough product for trailer and screenshots, pricing research and regional variability.
It may be easier to manage these with a large professional team or an experienced studio (then again from years of corporate consulting experience, maybe not always), but as an indie dev I have to juggle these dependencies, manage slippages, ensure 3rd parties deliver, all while doing the actual build!
Speaking of 3rd parties, one of the biggest challenges was knowing when to stop trying, and where to go. If it was better value to:
- Ask on a public Slack if someone could help me tweak a script
- Get a friend to write a snippet of code
- Jump on Fiverr for a small piece of artwork or commission more complex items elsewhere
- Outsource creation of 3D assets (or download them from Russian sites I can barely read)
- Stop struggling with complex lighting, shadow configuration and performance tweaks if what we have now will do
Could we eventually figure it out ourselves? I don’t doubt it. Would it be the best use of time? Probably not.
Actually, a specific issue does come to mind now. We initially recorded all our core vocals on subpar equipment – And at 11th hour, borrowed (Thanks Ian and Alex !) a professional setup and re-recorded hundreds of line.
Did we succeed in the end?
If the goal was to explore and learn then absolutely, yes.
Surprisingly, for a purely English experience that occasionally relied on the nuances of the language, it sold in dozens of countries within the first few weeks and received mostly positive reviews.
Of course, people speak English everywhere but the specific breakdown of sale volumes per country came a little unexpected.
And the internet isn’t always a particularly nice place so the fact my first major release didn’t get completely torn apart is already a win 🙂
What advice would you have for anyone looking to start their own initiative?
Have a strong vision and just do it. If you understand your constraints and are realistic about when to stop – in many cases, at best you’ll end up with what you had aimed for and more. At worst, you’ll have learnt something.
If you hit a roadblock, weigh up how that impacts the core vision and end goal instead of only the immediate state.
Take Welcome Home, Love as an example, I still have the initial design document from before we started development. Looking at it now and given the challenges we faced, our final shipped product matches the high-level summary of what I had envisaged surprisingly well.
I’d also suggest reflecting on past tasks to improve on them. I have a log of every single hour we spent on that project with descriptions of tasks, development or otherwise. Some things were surprisingly quick (Unexpectedly, creating the basic room environments and streets were pretty quick) while others took so much longer than expected (tweaking Balloon physics and how they pop to an appropriately sharp object took forever to feel just right). .
About a Trifle Odd
A Trifle Odd is a VR development studio based in Sydney, Australia. They focus exclusively on virtual reality, exploring concepts unique to VR and developing room scaled experiences for the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift platforms.