We’re so excited to learn about a VR game being made by students in Advanced Game Design (53-472) for Buggy100! Professor Thomas Corbett, producer Trento von Lindenberg, and a class of several dozen students are working hard towards their goal of a playable prototype by Carnival. I took some time to interview Professor Corbett, but if you want to know more, you can follow blow-by-blow development updates weekly at their dev blog here.
The game is slated to be a first person seated driving experience, in which the player travels around a recreation of the course as it was in the 1920s. Campus architecture, famous buggies, and popular characters as pushers will all feature in the game, as well as classic course elements such as potholes, flaggers, and hay bales as well as some gamified power-ups. The dev team cites Mario Kart, Fortnite, and The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild as inspiration for the art and game design, and of course careful study of the sport of Buggy. I wanted to dig a bit more into the details on how this awesome opportunity might impact our community. The interview below was lightly edited for clarity.
Mike: It’s still early in development, are there any big features or challenges the team expects ahead?
Thomas: Hahahaha. So, so many. Too many to count, and many of the biggest ones we don’t even know about yet. That’s why constant playtesting is extra important. As of today we are 59 days out from launch, which means we are 52 days from when we need to be finished. We are currently wrapping up Alpha development, which means that a lot of the pieces that have been developed independently are starting to come together into one build. It’s exciting to watch it evolve, and also slightly nerve-wracking to know that we have less than two months to deliver, but that’s all part of what makes development so much fun.
Mike: I saw that there is a 1:1 course model as one of the environments available. Do we know roughly how fast the player will travel through the course at various points?
Thomas: We’re not yet fully decided on which map will be used. We like 1:1 for authenticity, but recognize that it may not make the best game experience, so we are experimenting with some options. Some of these are subtle, like condensing some of the uphill portions to keep the action going, or easing some of the more extreme turns to minimize motion sickness. Others, like the finish line, are much bigger and more noticeable. In the early days of the race, contestants turned into the main campus at what is now Hunt Library, and the finish line was the axis connecting CFA and Hamerschlag. Today, that puts us in the heart of Carnival. Once we realized that, we knew we had to build it that way. It’s a huge celebratory moment that connects buggy, carnival, and campus all in one, and was just too cool to pass up.
Speed is something we are still working on. Our goal is for the free roll portion to feel as authentic as possible and we are using timing from the videos we have to make estimates on how fast we should go. But motion sickness is also a concern so we may need to adjust. Our goal is for the guest experience to last about the same as a real buggy race.
Mike: It seems that some models and animations for pushers are in the works. Do we know how pushers will interact with the player? Will there be differences between the different hills?
Thomas: The pushers are very interesting! And they present a number of challenges for VR. For a lot of the dev team, this is the first time we’ve really gotten to see buggy up close (in video) and we realized early that we had underestimated the complexity of pushing strategy. Things we are looking at include: how do we interact with something that is mostly behind us? How do we coordinate actions between our driver and a NPC (non-playable character)? And how do we get close to a human character in VR without plunging into the Uncanny Valley? That last one is extra tricky, and we have chosen to address it by having our pushers wearing giant foam mascot heads, like you might see at a baseball game. It sounds silly, but it helps make them more believable and saves us a LOT of time not having to animate the faces. And it lets us bring back historic figures like Andrew Carnegie to participate in the race.
Mike: One of the big challenges in Sweepstakes is getting practice driving, and not everyone can make it to Carnival. Are there plans to let teams or remote alumni interact with the experience, potentially after the final release in May?
Thomas: From day one, our plan has been to make this game available at the end of the semester. Our physical installation for Carnival means that our software needs to be feature complete around April 10. We plan to take the last three weeks to prepare the title for at-home use, building in additional menus and tutorials so that someone can download and play on their own.
Mike: I’ve heard VR games can be demanding on computer hardware. What kind of hardware might someone need to play a VR game like this? What kind of hardware is the game slated to be run on for the demo at Carnival?
Thomas: Right now, the experience is being designed for the Oculus Rift S. We made this choice because the on-board camera tracking system (known as “inside-out” tracking) requires the least external devices and gives us the most flexibility for our deployment. That device requires a VR-capable machine (in our case gaming laptops). I would love to get this onto the Quest, the standalone headset by Oculus, which would make it much easier to share, and so we are exploring this as an option. This goal keeps us economical in our polygon count and vfx, which has the positive effect of helping us maintain a healthy framerate, even if the Quest version does not happen. Right now that is a “stretch goal”, meaning that we likely don’t have time this semester to complete it, but perhaps it could live on as a summer project.