Creating a sci-fi mystery for virtual reality

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Since this is the first post, it will be mostly background information and not so much process, though I do have a video that is a early proof of concepts of sorts. I am using Unity and my Oculus Rift to create a small VR game. This is a start of documenting my journey. Hopefully I end up with something playable, but if you don’t want to get spoiled at all you probably shouldn’t be reading my updates, though they won’t contain story spoilers. Just follow me on Twitter if you just want to know when I release something playable.

If you want to follow along and maybe learn something, then that’s even better. I am aiming for a realistic looking game. That is easier said than done, and I know that. I will be sculpting a lot of props and models with Oculus Medium and my Rift. The concept is already made with the help from a few assets, and I already have a code name for the game. I’ll get back to that. A little background on me first. I have had different sorts of 3D and visual effects as a hobby since I was a kid, have done a lot of course work in visual effects with industry people and have learned a lot of the pipeline a shot for a movie would go through. The game creation pipeline looks more and more like the movie pipeline now, and as such I am hoping to use what I’ve learned previously, learn more, and create something decent.

Elite Dangerous land vehicle on frozen planet
This Elite Dangerous concept art is an inspiration for the open landscapes


I’ve had this game idea since I saw Elite Dangerous post their concept art for ice planets/moons. The story draws elements from Ex Machina, Moon, The Expanse, District 9 and many other movies. When I started collecting reference art I also noticed Destiny (2?) has an image that might be in similar settings. My game is by no means a shooter though. From my idea I started to build a proof of concept, this is just a way to quickly get something out of my head and into something playable. I had one scene/level in mind, and I started there. If I find some affordable assets on the Unity Asset Store I usually get them at this stage as it takes a lot of time to model and texture myself.

At this point my priorities are:

  • Look and feel
  • Sense of scope and presence
  • Realistic goals
  • Story and setting

Notice how there’s nothing about gameplay there? A lot of people will find that strange. But strange as it may sound, virtual reality has it’s freedom and it has it’s restraints. Since I’m going for a puzzle/mystery there’s a limited amount of things the gameplay can consist of, so I’m not obsessed with nailing it down yet, though I have some ideas.

Starting the creation of environments

I ended up with an asset that was of a quality I was happy with for the planet and some moons, I already had a milky way skybox and a few other assets. Enough to get started, which brought me to my next task. Create terrain. I am using normal Unity terrain tools, and the plugin RTP for a better terrain shader, but I used to find a place with ridges and valleys as a base for my terrain and imported that into Unity with a raw file. That process is documented a lot of places so I won’t go into details. However, the problems with the terrain I want is that I can’t have trees or grass, so what do I actually populate it with? In addition to that I need spikey formations, overhangs etc. which can’t be made with a height map terrain, since obviously it hasn’t got an extra dimension to get that information from.

That’s where the sculpting comes in. So my plan is to create some glazier formations in Oculus Medium, scale them up and tweak them in Blender, then import to Unity. Same goes for spikey objects and formations, caves etc. I will give an update on that later. After some tweaking and adjustments I exported a screenshot reference file from Unity through the plugin Amplify Color. This allows me to adjust look and feel in Photoshop and export a LUT file back to Unity to adjust the look of the end result the player sees. For anyone that doesn’t know a LUT file is basically a color lookup table, heavily used in the VFX industry. It allows people to have the same look and feel even if there’s 10 different studios working on 400 different shots, which is not uncommon in today’s movies. A linear workflow is also important as you will always be working with more colors and a better source of information than the limited sRGB space which most normal monitors can display.

Testing movement and VR

I also think it’s important to get a feel for the world in VR early so I hooked up the headset and hands to a player model and started rigging up possibilities for grabbing stuff etc. I’m not done with that yet, however it’s a process I’ve done many times before so I expect it to work smoothly. Then you can start walking around the environment and get a feel for how it looks with a VR field of view.


Next up on my list is finishing up the VR controls so you can move around properly. In addition to that I will be starting to sculpt some models and develop the story/plot and gameplay. I’ll probably have some screenshots of my (ugly) concept art or some sort in my next post. There’s also a lot of decisions to make to improve the terrain, start on planning the other levels, gameplay and possibly also on the creation of materials and lighting. So in my next post I’ll go more into details about how I decide what the look, color selection for the palette and such will be.

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