Fantastic Contraption Pioneers Mixed-Reality Virtual Reality Game Trailers

Virtual Reality (VR) game trailers require rigorous planning and production, because the job of communicating activity in a 3D world through a 2D video can be challenging. Leading game-trailer producers have turned to mixed reality to showcase a third-person view of the player, shot against a green screen, and recorded from multiple video feeds. The streams are overlaid into a single third-person view, and compressed into a compatible format for uploading and streaming. Those aren't just tasks—they're extreme megatasking, suitable for Intel's new offering, the Intel® Core™ i9-7980XE Extreme Edition Processor, which offers the raw compute power to handle multiple compute-heavy tasks on a single system.

Thanks to the pioneering work of Northway Games, who developed the foundation of filming against a green screen for mixed-reality views, VR developers can now add a mixed-reality component to trailers, streaming, and other marketing efforts.

Northway Games, Mixed-Reality Pioneers

The husband and wife team of Colin and Sarah Northway are a part of the thriving indie game-development community in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. They met in the computer science program at the University of Victoria and, after graduating, they journeyed to San Francisco to begin their careers in web development. But they were restless.

Sarah and Colin Northway
Figure 1. Sarah and Colin Northway are the husband and wife team behind Northway Games.

After Colin's 2008 release of the original flat-screen game Fantastic Contraption, a popular physics-puzzler he wrote in his spare time, they reached a crossroads. "This looks like something big," Sarah recalled thinking. "Maybe we don't need to have day jobs to support it; maybe we can just write our own games on our own time."

Colin is a dedicated player of Smashbox Arena, a team-based action game from Seattle-based BigBox VR. Sarah grew up playing role-playing games (RPGs such as Exile* and Avadon from Spiderweb Software, another Seattle company, founded in 1994. "Those were the first games I ever played that seemed like fully complete games, made by just a single person," she recalled. "I was constantly blown away when I saw the credits, and that it was just one guy."

While Colin followed up Fantastic Contraption with Deep Under the Sky, a psychedelic, one-button arcade game, Sarah created a post-apocalyptic strategy series called Rebuild. She helped Colin with Incredipede, another physics-puzzle game, and she also produced Word Up Dog, a hip-hop spelling game. Needless to say, they are far, far along in their developer's journey. But VR beckoned, so in 2017 they rewrote Colin's original title, and released Fantastic Contraption[VR].

VR is So Hot Right Now

The growth in VR games is no secret. In March 2017, Technavio predicted a compound annual growth rate for the global VR gaming market of 67 percent (from 2017–2021). Grand View Research estimates the total virtual reality in gaming market size could be USD 45 billion by 2025. Powerful desktop PCs will play an important role, according to Ujjwal Doshi, a lead analyst at Technavio. "The global market for VR gaming by PCs is projected to account for a revenue of almost USD 14 billion by 2021," he wrote.

The growing market is getting crowded, bringing more pressure than ever to produce compelling trailers to get games noticed. Colin was already thinking about VR in 2016, after he tried an HTC Vive* for the first time. "After ten minutes of trying it, I was hooked," he said, and decided there and then he was going to devote the next stage of his life to a VR project.

"We had a conversation, where we decided Contraption was really good for room scale," Colin said, "because it's got that limited build area." The player's contraption goes off and explores the world, but the player is essentially stationary. The team found that their game also integrated easily with VR hand controllers, which was important, because that's the crux of their game play. "It checked a lot of boxes in terms of room-scale VR with fixed-op controllers," Colin said.

They settled on Unity* for their engine, and they were on beta branches of the main code base for the whole project. Because Unity worked closely with Steam*, their OpenVR code worked with Oculus Rift* as well as with Vive. Having never touched Unity before, the team encountered a steep learning curve, but the work paid off. "We're both completely on board with it now," Sarah said. "They were very responsive to our bug reports, and things got fixed fast."

Friends on a couch
Figure 2. The Northways envision VR gaming as a social experience (Source: Northway Games).

One of their key focus areas was social play. Early on, some criticism of VR games stemmed from the fear that users would turn into isolated, headset-wearing zombies. The Northways, meanwhile, envisioned a positive scenario where players would be shown on a screen, with a crowd on the sofa, watching. "It should be fun for everyone—a real social experience," Colin said.

Bring On the Green Screen

Then Colin had an epiphany. "It occurred to me that we could use a green screen to separate the player from the game," Colin said. Then he got the idea that they could line up the cameras, and that's when he hit on mixed reality, thinking "Oh, man, that's a good idea!" That very afternoon, the Northways set up a quick test, to capture the player in the game. They tried to key out the white wall behind the player, but it wasn't right.

Sarah got the idea to fill the living room with green muslin to create a green screen. "Our whole living room was green-toned," she recalled. They decided to start doing a regular Twitch* development stream, recounting their progress, where they could regularly play their latest iteration and also converse with viewers.

Green screen set up
Figure 3. Green-screen setup for filming mixed-reality trailers (Source: Northway Games).

Before their first green-screen test, they put up a teaser screenshot on Twitter, and got a mass of people watching the action. The response was amazing—viewers would be completely surprised. "They'd be completely entranced,"Sarah said. "They'd say, 'Oh my gosh, what is this? It's like we can see inside VR. This is crazy; what's going on?'"

Despite low-quality cameras and a living room morphed into a game studio, they knew they were on to something. They had already inserted code for a Director Mode that enabled some spectator controls, so they added a few tweaks, and made some of their code widely available. Now, anyone with an extra camera and some green background material could introduce mixed reality to their streams. The attraction was so intense that the Northway's work gained immediate traction.

"I think one of the big watershed moments for mixed reality was the Vive trailer for Steam that Valve* did," Colin said. "To do that, they had to build a quickie, mixed-reality implementation into the Steam VR API*, and when they left it in, suddenly, every Steam VR game had their implementation of mixed reality in it." That's still the code that most streamers use, even though more advanced tools are becoming available, such as MixCast* from Blueprint Reality. "The Valve system was based on the stuff we were doing. As soon as we started seeing it, we expected it to be a big part of VR," Colin said.

Sarah finished his thought, saying, "It was funny how Valve put these amazing pieces in, just because they wanted to shoot one video—but they put this amazing little gem into all games, suddenly giving everything built with OpenVR this capability to do a green-screen/split-screen view." It was a bit rough, however, and lacked customization tools. So, the Northways created step-by-step instructions on their dev blog to show how to get a good picture, how to handle transparencies well, and how to get the shot wide enough to capture the full body.

Working With a Professional Trailer Producer

The team initially had to use two older systems to play the game and capture it, then add the stream from the camera. "It was kind of dodgy," Colin said. "You're doing a lot of work just to run a VR game on a 4K screen. That's super expensive. Then you add on top of that doing all the streaming, and the coding, and the keying… It's an awful lot of processing that needs to be done."

As technology advances, the Northways constantly get better systems, because they need to test devices at the highest specs. "The advantage of upgrading is so big," Sarah said. "We were saying it's like eating your own dog food, right? Somebody has to pretend to be that player that is going to have to deal with issues at each level."

They're looking forward to the day they can create mini-trailers on a single system, because of all the advantages. Colin says "Honestly, it just makes compiling so much faster, and makes our jobs a lot faster, too. Then, we get to play all the new, sweet games in the highest specs, which is where our inspiration comes from, so that's important, too." They're hoping for a new Intel Core i9 processor system, but may have to flip a coin to see who gets to upgrade, and who has to stay behind.

They did some early trailers on their own, but they knew they'd need professional help for the official video. "Our actual release trailer was the Kert Gartner one with totally merged worlds," Sarah said. She added, "We got a beautiful green-screen studio to film it in," which she said was an improvement on taking over the living room, for starters. Making the extra effort is just good marketing, Sarah explained. "You may have to spend a lot of time and effort and money on the trailer, but the effort is worth it. It is super, super important."

Mixed reality trailer
Figure 4. Fantastic Contraption* [VR] uses a mixed reality trailer to show the player inside the game.

Colin rates Kert as the go-to producer in the indie trailer world. "Kert bothers you more than anybody else," Sarah added. Gartner was very engaged, and a constant email presence, dashing off multiple requests into the wee hours. Colin recalled the barrage. "I'd get these messages from him, 'Hey, man, you've got to add this feature so I can trigger this animation at this one moment,'" Colin said. Gartner also needed to be able to save a certain state so he could go back to an exact point easily. Other times he would want to twist the camera in a certain way. All of it required dev time, which made the project hectic, but worth it. "Because he's so meticulous about portraying the vision he has in his head on film, and because he's so playful about coming up with that vision to begin with, his stuff ends up being very good," Colin enthused.

Sarah weighed the trade-offs between doing their own work, and using a third party, and she was glad they chose to go outside. "If you think you already have a great community, or if you think that your game isn't going to be particularly spiced up by, say, adding live action to it, then I can see just doing it yourself," she said. In another example, she used Derek Lieu for the Rebuild 3* trailer, and felt he did an amazing job using just the actual game as it was. She didn't need to code extra capabilities, and it went faster. But it didn't go viral like Fantastic Contraption [VR] did, either.

To get around using live actors, some trailers now employ in-game avatars. The Fantastic Contraption [VR] trailer uses them sparingly. One of the advantages of the in-game avatar is that it keeps the flavor entirely in the game, without the distractions of a player's appearance. The Northways commissioned a local artist to enable animal characters—such as a beetle, an elephant, and an ox—instead of humans. The downside of this approach was a lack of multiple facial expressions, which would have required more effort.

In-game avatar
Figure 5. The in-game avatar adds a degree of flexibility, but one drawback is a lack of facial expression.

To build marketing momentum, the Northways set up their own Twitch channel for talking to their fans, testing ideas, and getting their team together. Convincing industry players to test their game was also very important for word-of-mouth buzz. Getting tastemakers to play the game—and recording the session—is key to getting indie games sold in today's market.

Being veterans, the Northways are no longer surprised by how much time they spend on pure marketing. When they first started out, most of their time was devoted to coding and design. That's changed for them, and they've adjusted. "Marketing is now a huge part of our job, especially because it's just the two of us, so we do everything," Colin said. "It's an awful lot of work, but it's just part of making games, especially when you're independent and you don't have a publisher."

Giving Back

Once upon a time, the indie developers at GDC could all fit into a single room. Now, big crowds gather at events in just about every major city in the world, and the Northways travel to many of those gatherings. They give a lot of credit to Intel for its support of the indie world, with contributions such as their presence on the skybridges at GDC, sponsoring the indie showcase MEGABOOTH, and of course its own annual Intel®Level Up Game Developer Contest.

In the same spirit, the Northways give back in their own way. They recently decluttered their living room, and donated their old cameras and green screens to a shared office/community space called The Cube. It's a 6,000 square foot hangout in the Railtown district, reinforcing Vancouver's expanding presence in AR/VR/MR development. Politicians and government officials were on hand for the opening, awkwardly flailing about in VR gear. The festive event heralded Vancouver's growing impact in the gaming world.

The Northways see a bright future for indie devs, and they've got more ideas percolating that they hope to share soon. "Indies have ended up changing games for the better," Sarah said. "It's gone from a few big companies making the same game over and over, to this new ecosystem where anyone can do it, and what really matters is setting yourself up to be different." Sarah says she looks for new titles that are completely unique, because if she's seen it before, it's not interesting—it's not indie. She believes that, in the end, the indie ecosystem is not a zero-sum game, where if one indie wins, others lose. "There's room for everyone's vision, if it's executed well," she said.

Resources

Northway Games: http://northwaygames.com

Fantastic Contraption: http://fantasticcontraption.com/#about

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