Siren's Call - dev log 1

Dec 14, 2023

Welcome to the Development Log of "Siren's Call", a VR experience/short game by VL. Here, I'll be showing the whole process of creation, from the initial concept to the finished product. So if you are in need of something similar, it will give you a clear overview of how does the process look like and what stages it consists of. 



Every proejct begins with an idea. For "Siren's Call", which has been designed to serve as a "demo reel", the project had to have several features:

- be relatively short and confined to several locations

- have two main characters that can interact with one another

- present a spectrum of VR interactions, like handling objects, connecting them and using on each other, as well as locomotion and conversation

- be set in an interesting sci-fi/cyberpunk environment and have futuristic themes

- be available to play on various devices, like Meta Quest, PICO and HTC Vive

Initial concepts

Normally, while working with a client, this stage would consist stages like: script, narrative development and storyboarding, in order to establish the story, characters and overall setting. Since this project is being done in-house, I didn't need to pitch it to anyone and have it approved, so I could move directily to concepting. However, for "Siren's Call", there will soon be a full design document available, similar to GDD (Game Design Document), available for download and review. 

Having a general idea of the plot, I could move on directly to the concepting phase. While working with the client, this stage would consist of reference gathering, creating mood boards and, finally. concept art. I already knew what mood I was aiming at, so I could focus just on reference and concept art.

I created a couple of reference boards and then used tools like Stable Diffusion, MidJourney and Adobe Firefly to prepare a series of concepts, that were next refined and adjusted with Photoshop and Procreate. Even though, I had a pretty clear idea how I want the locations to look like, having a concept art is always very beneficial. It gives a better sense of scale, of lighting, textures, and provides guidelines for modeling, even if it has to be simplified for the sake of VR (optimisation for VR is a whole other topic, and very important one, but we'll get to it soon).

3D scene blocking

Once the initial concepts are created, 3D blocking of the locations can be started. It's a lengthy process, which will be discussed in the later posts in detail. At the beginning, we need an overall layout and create general shapes, while thinking about the optimal use of space and the number of polygons.

                                 Initial stages of 3D blocking

The key element of the 3D scene blocking is the scale, which we always need to keep in mind, using distance measurement tools and 3D characters as a reference, and making sure we maintain the correct scale ratio, when exporting from 3D package (Maya, in my case) to Unity.

At this stage, 3D blocking has two important functions:

- it's cruical for effective gameplay design (see below)

- it's necessary for testing the locations in VR before we commit to further modeling and refinement

Important thing to remember is that in VR, things look and feel different than on the screen. What seems like a lot of space in 3D, may seem not much in VR. Anaogously, location that doesn't seem very big on screen may turn out to be way to big in VR. That's why keeping the scale right and testing the 3D blocking in VR is important, to make sure everything looks and feels correct.

"Siren's Call" has two main "real world" locations: the back alley/underpass area, where the main character's (MC's) workshop is located, and the workshop interior. Both locations have been modelled with Maya.

Once they were ready, I tested them in Unity with Meta Quest 2 to make sure everything work correctly, the scale is right and moving around the locations feels natural - it doesn't take too long or feels too short.

Any necessary adjustments, like scaling objects up/down or repositioning them were applied, since at this stage, these changes are very easy to implement.

Gameplay design

Concept art was divided into several categories: locations, characters (including robots/drones), mechanical elements and the Network (sort of "virtual reality inside virtual reality"). Along the concepts and 3D blocking, the actual gameplay was being designed with several key points in mind:

- create a logical connection between the objects, so various forms of VR interactions are possible and plausible (considering the setting)

- keep the interaction difficulty level relatively low (considering the VR and physical manipulation aspect as well as the fact the experience is meant to be more of a tech demo than a challenging game)

- have the initial part of the experience act as a small tutorial teaching the basis of interaction for those unfamiliar with VR

Gameplay design for VR experience like this can be done using various tools and techniques. Personally, I use a combination of 3D (having the locations in their early stages) with hand-drawn notes and sketches on top of them. I use Twine for dialogue and scenes' logical connections.

Important thing to remember is that the three elements: 3D modeling/blocking of the locations, concept art and overall gameplay design, are all interconnected in the initial stages of a VR project like this. Concept art may guide the modeling, but gameplay may call for different design/additions/omittions, etc. due to VR constraints, scale, story flow or logic. It may also require re-modelling of certain areas, so they are e.g. more easily accessible, or to the contrary - block the player's way.

Overall, pre-production for VR experience like this ends with:

- refined concepts for all the key scenes, after taking into consideration gameplay aspects and possible VR limitations;

- 3D layout/initial model of the locations, with correct scale, that feel natural in VR;

- designed gameplay that fits the experience and provides some guidance for those who have limited experience with VR