Those who hope virtual reality becomes the next phase of video games have been waiting expectantly for a “killer app” to justify the technology’s existence. For many, Sony’s PlayStation VR game “Astro Bot Rescue Mission” was that game.
Released last October,, “Astro Bot” is a PSVR platforming game in which you control a small robot named Astro, who needs to rescue his crew in a variety of different worlds with a collection of tools and gadgets.
Creative Director and Producer of Sony Interactive Entertainment Nicolas Doucet gave a talk entitled “Re-inventing Platformers for VR” at the Game Developers Conference today all about the creation of “Astrobot,” what went into crafting a uniquely VR experience and why he believes the game represents why the future of VR might be found in the industry’s past.
Sony’s ASOBI team, of which Doucet is a part, is responsible for the creation of “Astro Bot,” though it created the characters for a previous game. The robots in “Astro Bot” initially appeared the in PlayStation 4 launch title “The Playroom,” a set of mini-games meant to show off the capabilities of the PlayStation Camera and its augmented reality technology.
One of the mini games was a small-scale version of what “Astro Bot” would become, and Doucet said it was the community of players who brought it into being.
“It all began on a Post-It, to be honest,” he said. “All of the Astrobot mechanics began on a Post-It.”
Though the mini-game stood apart from the rest of those included in the game, it became clear to Doucet and his team that it was the standout favorite.
“‘Robot Rescue’ was kind of the odd one out,” he said. “But it would have been kind of a waste and we wanted to include it. The answer came from the community. The gamers really resonated with ‘Robot Rescue’ and they really wanted a bigger game.”
In his talk, Doucet offered a large, 10-step philosophy in what the team considered to make the game, but there were a few core tenets that seemed to dominate his presentation.
First is that “Astro Bot,” which according to Metacritic is the best reviewed VR game of all time, was extensively designed to be a VR game above anything else.
Throughout the first nine months of its development, half of the total time, “Astro Bot” was designed as a multiplayer game. One player controlled the camera with the PSVR, while three other players were on screen taking part in the action.
Over time, Doucet said it became clear that this detracted from the game’s focus.
“Clearly we were making the wrong game,” he said. “We were focusing on multiplayer instead of focusing on VR.”
Over the game’s development, he said that they became more and more dedicated to that VR focus, and did not want anything to take away from what he called “VR-ness.”
“The controls [for “Astro Bot”] are super simple on purpose,” he said. “We thought the VR would be the thing that would add richness, so the controls could be very simple. It should be fun to just walk through these levels.”
That also meant that there were they created rules and expectations for the player that they had to stick with throughout the game’s entire development.
“The important part is to be consistent,” Doucet said. “The distance and the speed were never changed. We weren’t allowed to change them. It’s also very important to have a world that is completely reactive. It’s important in every game, but I think it’s especially important in VR.”
The second large topic that arose from Doucet’s talk was the importance of making the player the star of the game and continuing to engage the player with “wow moments” and emotional bonding.
“The goal is we wanted you to be the star of the game,” he said. “The levels are perfectly straight, it’s Astro who goes around. The levels are built around you.”
He said that testers would apologize to Astro if something happened to it, which informed how much of an emotional reaction they could derive from the character. If the character was too far away from the game’s camera (the player’s head), he said that testers would feel worried about it.
“It really validates your existence in the world as a parental figure,” he said. “Astro is little and vulnerable and you are the protector.”
Making the player a star also meant engaging them physically in the VR space. Doucet said that they observed how players reacted to the experience by seeing how much they physically moved their neck. If they weren’t actively exploring the space as the camera or employing the camera around enough, they took it as a sign that a level had to be stretched, extended or modified.
To Doucet, the importance of creating the connection between the Astro character and the player was incredibly important. They implemented eye contact between the player and the world to enhance this connection.
“Astro looking back at you in VR is really powerful,” he said. “He waves at you a lot, really a lot. Even as he’s jumping around he’s always looking at you. We wanted the whole world to be looking at you.”
Finally, he noted how the game’s adherence and reverence for gaming’s history greatly impacted how “Astro Bot” was developed.
He talked about how important the team considered it to include much of what makes the greatest of platformers so great. Extremely tight controls, lots of low-level enemies, collectibles, advancement from collectibles, big moments, and more all came from past, revered games and he said the team felt it integral to include these aspects in their game.
“The game became quite popular, I’m thinking that it’s because it is a mix of nostalgia and high tech,” he said. “It’s taking in 30 years of video game platformer culture. We’ve all played these games. But it’s also taking in the coolness of VR.”
Not only did he discuss how what had worked in so many past platformers helped “Astro Bot,” but he talked about how their model of learning through classic games could mean a bright future for VR in general.
“We need to be able to deconstruct what was fun about these games and then reconstruct into something new,” he said. “It gave me a lot of hope for VR. Many genres can be reinvented like this.”