A GEARVR NEWS RETRO* (VR JAM) REVIEW
*Retro Reviews Discuss Games & Experiences that were Created Before November 21st, 2015 when the Consumer Edition 1 was Officially Released.
It’s been 10 months since the 2015 VR Jam awards were given out and I still fail to see why this demo was not one of its top winners! Rocket Builders is the work of an artistic genius who knows how to flesh out an environment in VR in a way that feels so natural, you will often reach out to touch (or move forward to grab) something that’s not really there.
That’s sad, too, because without positional tracking you can’t interact naturally, only-partially defeating the masterful illusion Dan MacDonald worked so hard to build. Truth is, this demo is cool in the feeling it provides, the illusion stands up through it all.
You may rue the day your mobile HMD failed to come with positional tracking pre-installed because this room feels so real that you’ll want to believe that it is. Part of its appeal for me is the incredible sense of scale, as you feel about yaye-high (about a 5-year-old’s height) … and everything feels the size it would be if you were that tall. And you get all of this amazing feeling of VR Presence for FREE as of this writing.
In Rocket Builders, you are a boy going about the normal business of rocket building (from scattered Lego pieces scattered around) in one heck of a cool room that looks like it was made for one of the characters from the movie Goonies by Steven Spielberg.
It’s filled with childhood memorabilia from the 70’s (suggesting this demo’s true audience to be much older) which turns the experience into a time-capsule moment where the user can relive their youth.
It grabs you from the first moment you enter the room until you complete this experience, which lasts about 45 to 90 minutes depending on how much time you’re willing to spend touching things, and interacting with the enormous amount of toys and objects in the room.
Almost everything is workable, from the remote control to the TV it operates, to a remote-controlled car, plus the shelves and drawers in the room all open. So that almost everything works when you operate it.
The room is also alive with wonders, from the posters on the walls, to the glowing chest by your bed which begs you to find the key which unlocks it. The name of the game here is exploration and there’s more than enough to explore in this small room that it feels really well lived in.
A real boy could have lived there, that’s what you get from this demo once you’ve completed it. And maybe one did. Was this Dan’s actual bedroom as a child, you have to wonder? Is he bringing it back to life with this demo?
There is a lot to do in the demo, with the main goal of being to assemble a rocket from Lego pieces hidden like Easter Eggs throughout the room. There is a book with directions how on your desk, showing you assembly of the rocket. The rocket has to be built up in order or it won’t go together, leaving you scratching your head … unless you find the book with the clues.
The TV can also be turned on by a remote you find … this for even more clues. It asks “Have you tried looking here …. and here … and here … ” while flashing some images quickly to give you the clues. It’s clever that you can not only operate the TV, but that it’s function is to serve you with clues. It’s only natural to want to turn on the TV with the remote, so the clues are pretty easy to find if you’re the least bit curious about anything.
WORKS FOR ALL AGE LEVELS:
I feel that although this demo feels like it was made for adults as a time capsule, the amount of attention Dan put into providing younger minds the clues they need to solve the room’s challenges means that the demo works just as well for young and old alike.
A real boy could play this demo and still solve its puzzles because the creator went so far in laying out the clues and helpful hints … all without resorting to an immersion-busting tutorial that would give it all away.
Not having a tutorial is part of the magic in this one, as the exploration is deep enough here to support not needing one. Exploration is it’s own tutorial, teaching you by doing, which is more fun. And if you don’t find them, you can still solve the game without the clues, but they’re there if you are clever or patient enough.
The graphics are amazing just on their merits alone (even before we even discuss the stereoscopy and scale which make this demo shine even more). The attention to detail is outstanding. The posters are all hand-drawn, and there are some masterful sketches on the whiteboard in the corner by the bookshelves.
One of the posters reads: “RimSky: The Scrolling Elders” … a joke on Skyrim from Bethesda’s famous “Elder Scrolls” series, mocked just as a boy would do it. Funny. There are decals and stickers stuck to everything from Atari to Mario Brothers to Despicable Me. It’s like every era’s children’s logos were combined into one great big “matrix of childhood” some some database and this room was the product that got spit out.
It’s really all … just so perfect. Well done, Dan!
ONE OF THE BEST FOR PRESENCE:
The demo’s greatest feature is the awesome Presence it maintains due to how close all the objects are to the user. Due to the limitation of resolution on current phones, the furthest that you can extend the stereoscopic effect is about 60-80 meters.
Because this game is rendered on the scale of a human boy, the room itself stays well within the stereoscopy field at GearVR’s current limitations, so everything around you is deeply 3D feeling. It all pops out so well. The level of immersion here leads this demo to be one of the greatest achievements on the GearVR to date!
While other games and experiences are still trying to focus on environments that extend way past the theoretical limit of the current hardware to even see stereoscopically, this demo keeps all of its goodies right there … in the sweet spot. It is able to achieve a feeling few other GearVR titles have, even though they are already published on GearVR for sale or otherwise and this one is not.
I feel more games should realize the 3D-Depth limitations of GearVR and stop trying to make huge environments that lose the whole point of VR at this time, it’s 3D-Depth effect. Those kinds of games need 4K or 8K graphics to extend the 3D-Depth feeling out far enough to capture the stereoscopy.
One example is Anshar Wars 2. Even with its recent 3D patch applied (and set to Level 10, its highest setting) the stereoscopy only extends about 60 meters, which is just enough to fight a close battle with an enemy combatant. The backgrounds still look 2D until you get within 60 meters of some objects, which ain’t much in a game of that scale.
A SINCERE MESSAGE TO THE VR INDUSTRY:
The inclusion of the new 3D-Depth-Level Settings in Anshar Wars 2 helped me see that it wasn’t the game’s fault the background looks 2D (without depth), it was the phone’s fault for running graphics at these relatively low resolutions (for VR).
3D-Depth needs to stay in close proximity to the user (less than 80 meters), and so (at this time in VR development) we should be focusing on games that hug tight around the user.
An early VR game in the 90’s was about exploring a dungeon filled with traps. It was a scary place where one wrong move would find you locked in a room with spears extending into your guts from all directions, goring you multiple times. You saw it all happen slowly, your death unfolding before your very eyes and there was nothing you could do to stop it.
It was horrible, but also so cool as a VR concept, because death was quite close to you at all times. The depth effects really made you aware of the reality of the danger.
These are the kinds of adventures that can show off VR’s power at this time. We need to focus on much more tightly-knit environments, not huge open spaces. Smaller set pieces have the most to offer mobile VR at this time. It’s all about tighter, more enclosed spaces in these early days of VR.
Three good examples of games that do this well are Polo, and Small (another two VR Jam games I’ll review later) and the already-published Dead Secret. Dead Secret uses this same mentality: put the user in confined spaces and let the 3D Depth be as evident as possible so that Presence is achieved and maintained.
Everything beyond the 80-meter “Sterescopic Threshhold” at this time is just lost effort because those wide-space environments can’t materialize the same results that these enclosed-environments already have.
The caveat here is that as phones advance to 8K or more (*link above), we will be able to push the Stereoscopic Threshold out a lot further. At 8K, space games like Anshar Wars 2 will start to make a lot more sense for VR.
For example, you would feel the asteroids even way off if done in 8K! Flying through caves and such would be even more unbelievable due to the far off depth as much as the near-field depth effects. But for now, why not focus on what we can actually achieve?
No one wants to go into VR and be confronted with things that looks 2D because our phones just can’t pull it off. And the main reason again? The environments are way too big for the low resolution we have to work with now and so there’s no depth effect past a certain point. It’s a huge waste of effort.
ISSUES AND SUGGESTIONS:
There is no mechanism for turning without using your body. It would be nice to just have a “swipe to rotate 45 degrees” feature where it does a blink-turn like the horror game Dead Secret does.
The remote-control car is only used for one stunt when we remote-control it. It drives off the shelf onto the floor with a puzzle piece in it. And then the remote control vanishes so we can’t use it anymore. How terrible! One of the greatest toys in your whole demo becomes inoperable once it delivers its payload. I think at the very least, you should have the remote control flash a red light and say in a robotic voice “Batteries low, please replace to continue…” and then turn off the remote control until we locate some spare batteries, hidden deep somewhere on the level. Once found, we can drive the car around using the remote control. It would be fun to play with something like that in VR all by itself, and could provide an 30 minutes of extra goofing around in the environment that would be quite memorable.
The end of the demo was broken for me (no spoilers, don’t worry!) At the end of the demo, there is a cool ending. I feel more work needs to be done on it. The transition was poor, how about transitioning into a poster on the wall instead? It basically crashed at this stage on my S6 phone, not sure about other people’s phones. The ending idea itself is really good, but it all need a bit more flash and bang if you are ever taking this to market some day.
I think it’s cool you have a boy’s room, but what about making an alternate path for girls? A room for girls with all the same magic and love and cool stuff to interact with, but for a girl’s personality? Make the rocket more sleek and organic, put the instructions in a scrap book (like the ones girls obsess over), the chest can stay the same, but the clothes in the closet would need to change. As well as the bike, a pink one for girls … with a basket. More dolls to play with, maybe have a puzzle piece get hidden in the zipper of one’s back? You could start the whole demo with two images embedded in a twisted Figure 8 on its side (an infinity symbol) with the boy’s room on the left, girls room on the right, wrapped in that symbol with bows. The bow surrounding the girl’s stage is pink, the boy’s stage is surrounded in blue. We click one of the environments to choose the environment for us. And each environment has many similarities but also some unique parts, too. By playing both rooms, we can get some perspective on the attitudes and values of both sexes. Would be so interesting!
The dart board is nice, but why not make it functional, and then require we score at least 30 points with 3 darts? Another little mini game is always nice and it’s basically already set up for you here. If we score the points, the dartboard falls off the door revealing one clue (one piece of the puzzle taped behind it) and after taking the piece off, the dartboard resets to door for more play time … if we should choose.
There’s a bed here, how about a “jump on the bed” moment? You know that’s got to happen. Clicking on one spot of the bed causes us to climb up and start jumping up and down (just three times) and then hop off. It’d be a funny gag, but not too much jumping … to avoid discomfort. And an Option in the Settings Menu for disabling bed jumping if we’re afraid of setting it off accidentally.
If you add a girl’s room, change the boy’s bedroom window to be a view of a distant house facing the girl’s bedroom from this same demo! Return the telescope from your original pre-build sketch (see below) and let us look through the telescope into the girl’s room. It’s just a photo essentially, we can zoom around and see the girl’s room. And in the girl’s room is almost the same telescope looking back into the boy’s room. So they are not brother and sister, but potential friends who share similar interests. It could suggest a kind of subtle romance angle, but in a cute way. The telescopes are just innocent curiosity.
Although there were some really great VR Jam titles out there, I feel it was a failure of the judges to overlook what this title brought to the table for VR. Many of the titles they judged as top winners don’t qualify for what makes a great VR experience like this one does.
The bad ones were still unique, but were not that special for VR itself. While I AGREE with the scores for Steam Crew VR, DayDream Blue, DRIFT, and Polo, I DISAGREE with other winning titles like Panopticon, Bazaar, Blind Swordsman, and Bouncinators. These, I feel, were not very deserving of their awards … not like Rocket Builders clearly was.
This title fulfills the function of VR so well, in fact, I feel it deserves 2nd Place! SteamVR still deserves 1st Place for not only being just as great, but also including multiplayer, which Rocket Builders does not. But because this demo was so great, if no one else will do it, GEARVR NEWS will present its own award (see below!*)
So, if you haven’t tried Rocket Builders yet, why not start now? IT’S FREE at the link in blue provided at the start of this article and its definitely worth experiencing. Give yourself about one free hour to truly go through this fascinating environment searching every nook and cranny.
Try it today. You’ll be glad you did.
When using a gamepad to move around the room, you will glide forward which can potentially lead to discomfort in some people. I rate this comfortable for some.
*Even as a mere unfinished demo, Rocket Builders has achieved the GEARVR NEWS Award for Excellence!
Categories: Retro Reviews