Last week I (virtually) sat down with Julien Dorra, the Creative Tech & Design Lead of indie VR startup Bentham Realities.
They’re a small team building a unique VR puzzler called Peco Peco.
We talked about spatial puzzles, app lab, designing for VR, indie development, and more.
“Two years ago, we wanted to start our own studio and start to do our own kind of digital objects. And then we saw that VR was at a crossroads with the Quest. We had done some projects in VR, myself and Benjamin, for clients, but we never did our own VR project, had our own ideas and our own terms. There is a new territory to explore.”
Can you talk about your approach to interaction design?
“When you solve a flat puzzle, a traditional puzzle, obviously it’s tangible, but the world is kind of flattened. So that’s why in Peco Peco nearly all models are quite big. So really you feel that they are here and they are not this flat thing on your screen. We want people to enjoy these 3D models. We see them on the web, we see them on Instagram, we see them on Sketchfab – and they are beautiful – but we cannot reach out to them.”
You’re one of the first developers to apply to App Lab after the launch lineup. Do you plan to use this as your distribution method and market on SideQuest?
“Apparently we were the first one to submit after the launches announcement. We were really expecting this launch, so as soon as it was open we submitted.
When they first announced the Quest, it was supposed to be like the Go. An open market, a bit like the App Store on iPhone or Android. And then the change for more restrictive. It was a bit the first surprise I think a lot of people in the industry, this switch. We started to work on our project before the switch.
We are already listed on SideQuest. We plan to change our listing to preferably direct people to App Lab, just because it’s easier for them.”
You’ve been engaging with real VR gamers and bringing this out to them and trying to build on what they’re telling you. And what are they telling you so far?
“Obviously, we had the usual quality-of-life feedback. For example, people wanting to play seated-only asking us for a better way to manipulate things. I think it’s a classic in VR because you want things to be tangible, and you want people to be able to move. But you have to think also about the seated players, people that don’t want to move or can’t move – quality-of-life and accessibility. So that’s one category of feedback – I want to play, but maybe I’m not that tall and I want to reach a very high piece. So that’s something we already integrated. We lowered the height of higher pieces.
Another one is, please give us more content. People want to dream & to think that a game will have more things coming. One thing we did from the beginning is that we didn’t want to think about the content as something you deliver with the game in the traditional way. For us, the core of the game, the app itself, is just an engine. And so you can get the content over the air. And when you add new content, it magically appears. Players are going to see it instantly, as soon as we added in the game without updating anything.”
If you do have success in App Lab, this seems very likely to get the store from, from what I’ve played. Have you had any communication from Facebook about that? Have they said anything like “talk to us when it’s six months further and development, you have this amount of users” or is it all kind of opaque there?
“They have this kind of fear that if they give out some criteria in advance, people are going to try to cater to those criteria. I had some discussion with people inside Oculus, even some higher up people, and what they told me is that they don’t know what’s going to be a success in VR. They have their own biases like everybody, but did they try to lower their biases and they want to be surprised. In fact, they told me they were humbled by Beat Saber at the beginning because nobody at Oculus predicted that something like Beat Saber would be a huge success.
So they still have this thing in mind that Beat Saber was a surprise for them and they expect to be surprised again. So hopefully we will be able to surprise them and show them that yeah, there is a lot of people wanting to play puzzles. And maybe it’s not the same type of players that they’re used to. There is a wide range of games possible and there is really not a lot of puzzles. I think there is like 5 games, maybe 6 in the category of puzzles. So compared to mobile or even PC that’s not a lot of puzzles. And you have so many games where you have to shoot people. I think we could balance a bit.
That’s one feedback we had from players: I like a game that is not going to rush me into playing and I can play as long or as little as they want.”
It feels like this could also be part of a new space of multiplayer titles that do that. Is it technically feasible that I could six months or a year from now sit in one of these environments with a friend and together we could work it out, and part of the puzzle solving experience could be that sort of social aspect?
“We think Peco Peco would be really great as a social game. I think there is two aspects of social.
The first aspect is very soon we want people to be able to share their custom cuts. So if you for example cut a very simple but very interesting puzzle for kids, because you want a eight years old to be ability to play and you find that most of the cuts are maybe a bit too difficult for them. Or maybe you want to create crazy cuts. At the moment the puzzle with the most pieces is 181 pieces, which is nearly two hours to solve. We want you to be able to share your own kits. And we are working on that right now. This is the asynchronous social aspect which I think is very important for VR. We can create something for others and share it with the community and then the community can play it and give you feedback.
The second thing is, as you said, real-time multiplayer. Being able to invite you in my session and maybe you could help me solve this huge puzzle because it’s beautiful, but it’s so many pieces and it would be good to have some help. That’s actually something real life puzzle players do. They gather around a puzzle and they solve it together. That’s something we are going to add in the next, probably three to six months. The engine is totally ready for that. Peco Peco will be multiplayer that’s that’s for sure. But again, we are a small team, so we have to get the core gameplay and the core content right first.”
Have you thought about spectator modes that could use a companion app or some other method so that people could watch the entire puzzle overview and maybe even help out from outside VR?
“It’s interesting that you ask that because just this morning we thought about how we could add a third person camera following the player from different angles. I think streamers today are very frustrated in the way on the Quest they can only show the first person view and we actually want to do something for that.
As far as I remember Oculus said they are going to offer a third party camera view in their app at some point. And probably an API. But there is another way to do that, I think, using the mixed reality camera, because the mixed reality camera basically is just another camera. And we think we can use that to show players and to help streamers stream other angles.
Another way to do that is to use a web view, for example, and to just project – not as a video but some data and then reconstruct the view on the web.”
What strikes me about this game is that it seems like it will be perfect for mixed reality as well. Is that something you’ve prototyped on any early mixed reality headsets?
“We had players recording themselves in mixed reality. And you can see that yeah, it could work as a mixed reality thig where the puzzle is inside your room and you play with.
Given a consumer headset, that could be something that puzzle lovers would buy. Like, okay, I’m going to buy an AR headset to play Peco Peco or other puzzle games.
If you do something great in VR, that has this opportunity to also an AR game. You can be ready for the next step. But it’s a bit down the road.”
So right now the controller is used to give precise input, which is critical for a puzzle game because you don’t want to be placing the pieces in the wrong place, just because your room lighting isn’t good. But have you explored hand tracking in this game? Did your prototypes find it’s too frustrating or is it something that you’re working on in the long term?
“Obviously we want to add hand tracking at a point. But as a small team we have to focus. At the moment I think there is two issues.
The first one is hand tracking is not good enough. You can lose tracking. Sometimes the clicks are not detected. Better cameras, faster cameras on the headset would maybe help solving that and I’m sure Oculus is working on that. But it has to be a more stable so people never miss any movement.
The second thing is we don’t really have standards. That’s a paradox. It seems that hand tracking could be very natural. But in fact, from apps to app, from game to game, you have to do very different things to interact with the objects. So teleporting, for example, if you look at the games in the store they use like three different way to activate the teleport. It’s too much. One single way would be better.
I think we are we’re at the beginning and as a small team, we have to wait and see, and make it work for everybody first.”
How do you decide what to work on next and what are the priorities. Is it going to be based on player feedback, or do you have a roadmap in your head?
“I think every developer, every game designer, uses both. You have to listen to your players and the good thing is they can be very surprising. They can teach you a lot about what is the real need for your game for them. But you also have to have this vision and priorities set because you know where you want to go.
For us Peco Peco is not only a game, it’s also a new way to interact with 3D creations. Really you build a familiarity with the model. You build a relationship because you’re interacting with it. For example when you snap the top of the, of the lighthouse the wheel is going to turn and in this model, the boat is going to move. So really you get to connect with the model. That’s part of our vision. This is something we think about, uh, when we decide what to do
A surprising example, or maybe something we, we, we didn’t think immediately as a priority; one of our early testers, he’s passionate about cutting new puzzle and sharing them. He gives us this feedback: I really want to be able to save a cut and go back and finish the cut later. That’s not something we thought was so important at the beginning. So that’s something we took from the lower position in the pile and we put it on top because this very early user passionate about cutting said okay, I’m frustrated by that. And if you do that, I will, it will be so much better for me I will share with you so many more cuts.”
Say next year, or the year after that, a new VR or mixed reality platform releases a new headset that starts to sell. What are the conditions that would need to be satisfied to make you as a developer decide, okay, I’m going to be on two platforms and this is going to be the next one. What needs to happen for there to be kind of an effective Quest competitor for you also to also be releasing on?
“For a small team it’s hard to focus on several platforms at a time. Obviously we chose the Quest being very simple to use and accessible, allowing us to reach a lot of players. Probably the most important factor is support. If you go to be on a new platform, you have to support it in terms of a human relationship with your player.
Obviously that could be true too on PSVR on PlayStation. So we could maybe at some point target PlayStation because it’s one single box. If it works for the developer it works for the player too. We want to expand, but I think the most important thing is again, support. Will we be able to support these new players the way they need to be supported?
Now that we have UploadVR Studios running well in standalone VR with hand tracking & good audio quality, we plan to conduct many more interviews throughout the year. If you’re a VR developer interested in being interviewed, reach out on Twitter or email.