Final Approach © 2016. Images Courtesy of Phaser Lock Interactive

Final Approach

Taking Flight in VR

Last modification: 29 Aug, 2017
10 mins

Having worked in the games industry for over 20 years, Michael Daubert and Scott Brocker are no strangers to the industry’s ever-changing technologies. But the arrival of VR has reminded these long-time colleagues of a much simpler time in the industry where gameplay is king and realism takes a smaller role.

Michael and Scott discuss what it was like developing a game for new VR systems, what drove them to make this shift, and why developing for VR is just like the old days.


How did Phaser Lock Interactive get started?

About a year ago, we participated in the HTC Vive VR Game Jam in Austin. They locked us up in a big warehouse for two days and we had to come up with a VR experience using the HTC Vive. It was a little tricky because at that time, nobody had the Vive. They didn’t release it to developers, let alone to the public. We were a team of about 5 guys and we were able to pull together a small demo of what Final Approach is. We felt that we came out with a very strong product. Two days later, Valve called us and asked if we can have a launch title by March the following year. A week later, Oculus got word of it and asked for a launch title. We had to move pretty quickly, we were just freelancers at the time so we had to start a company, get computers and everything else in order to ship a title eight months later. We had to be pretty agile in that we were developing a game for systems that were changing every other month all the while trying to figure out what works in VR.

Tell me about the game, Final Approach.

Final Approach is an airplane management game. It’s based off the flight control simulators that were made popular on mobile platforms. You have airplanes coming in and you need to drag your fingers across to land them. In our game, you play in a 3D world so on the Vive, for example, you got full room scale and you can walk around in your room and there are airplanes flying all around you. You can reach out and select them. You have to drive down to the ground where there are airports and an island. There are also aircraft carriers where you have to stand in the ocean and land the airplanes. There are also obstacles and combats between the different airplanes, jets and helicopters.

We created a different scale mode where you start out in god-mode and you’re like a giant with the airplanes flying all around you. But once you land, you click on an area and you land in full scale. It’ s really like having you own toy set that you get to play around with and control but later go to full scale with them.

Final Approach © 2016. Images Courtesy of Phaser Lock Interactive

Where did you get the inspiration for it?

At the game jam for HTC Vive, people were trying to create a VR game that uses the full 360 degrees of the room scale. We really wanted to do something that isn’t just in front of you, or on the ground, we wanted something that would be using every inch of the VR scale but also get close and personal with the environment as well. That’s when the two different scale sizes came in.

What did the Pipeline look like for creating Final Approach?

We had a short time frame and we had to keep prototyping because VR was so new. What worked in the consoles or on PC, didn’t translated well to VR. I was animating and rigging in Maya, Scott was modelling and texture mapping and adding effects in 3ds Max. The neat thing was being able to prototype the game as quickly as we could. Now that Autodesk has that straight to Unity .fbx option, we were able to import and export quickly.

We were going back to the old days when it came to polygon counts, how many normal maps we can push and how many different textures just because you’re limited on VR. You must be at 90 fps or higher. Anything lower than 90 gives you a headache. We had to use a lot of the experiences we had in the early days of working with low polygon modelling and texture mapping to get the quality and still have it at 90 fps.

Images Courtesy of Phaser Lock Interactive

What other challenges did you come across in VR?

The camera movement was probably the biggest challenge. We were finding that it wasn’t polygon counts that were causing problems, it was texture mapping and baking down textures in order to use atlas mapping. The atlas mapping became huge on our side; it wasn’t a matter of how many polygons, but how many draw calls we were getting off of the different shaders and texture maps. A lot of that had to be combined and brought down to the atlas mapping. Our environments were clearly larger than anything that was out there, and we had a god-mode so that you could see everything at once. Now think about that: when we’re in god-mode, you see everything in the world at once. Think about how many draw calls that is, while still trying to keep the frame rate at 90 fps.

Final Approach © 2016. Images Courtesy of Phaser Lock Interactive

If you asked for a document that explains how we made this game, I don’t think we could. We were flying so fast that we just had to get this done with technology that wasn’t proven. We had to use the skills and software that we knew well and reiterated over and over until we entered it in the VR systems.

How did the team manage to do so much with so few people and so little

I think we just had to keep it simple. We were making sure the quality and details were good enough to be seen on both scales. If you zoom in, you would still see the quality of what the object was.

We also reused a lot. We reused environment size, the buildings, etc. We did a lot of reskinning, rotating, and slightly modifying. On the character side, we used one mesh with a bunch of different textures so it really comes down to one draw call or creating prefabs. The prefabs in Unity were essential as well. We could make changes across the board on the whole engine.

If you asked for a document that explains how we made this game, I don’t think we could. We were flying so fast that we just had to get this done with technology that wasn’t proven. We had to use the skills and software that we knew well and reiterated over and over until we entered it in the VR systems.

What would you say is something you prioritized?

I would say the number one thing was frame rate. It didn’t matter how pretty something was, or how far we were pushing the boundaries on particles or the AI system. If we weren’t hitting 90 fps, it really didn’t matter because it needed to be a pleasant experience.

Before any decision was made on gameplay, characters or environment we asked ourselves ‘why does this belong in VR?’. If it doesn’t belong in VR, we shouldn’t be doing it. If something like gameplay modes could we done on a flat screen, we’d look for a different approach that would emphasize the VR side of it. We wanted to make the players feel like they are changing the environment or have an influence on the character in the VR world instead of just watching it.

Final Approach © 2016. Images Courtesy of Phaser Lock Interactive

What’s the best part of being a launch title for all these VR systems?

It’s neat because the industry is so small and we get to meet a lot of the main players in the industry. Everyone shares tips and tricks, their latest builds, what they are working on to get input and vice versa. It’s a pretty tight community! VR seems to be inventing brand new game genres that you really don’t know how to describe.

It’s an exciting time. VR is a brand new industry and everyone is challenging the experiences in VR. You’ll go to the Steam store or the Oculus store and you’ll see these different games and experiences. You never know what they are going to do it with it. The landscape is being redefined.

These times really remind me of the early days of games. Back then, there were a lot of sprites, 256 colors, pushing pixels around and stuff like that over the years of N64, PlayStation, and Xbox. They were trying to push more polygons, textures, materials, shaders and so on until it got as realistic as you can get. Then all of sudden, cell phones came out and it went back to sprites.

Now, we’ve taken a turn with VR. It really feels like the early days of game development when everyone was just trying to figure out what was fun and push as much as you can. You never know what’s going to come out of it.

Images Courtesy of Phaser Lock Interactive

Phaser Lock Interactive used 3ds Max and Maya to create Final Approach. Take flight in a full virtual reality world on Steam and keep up with these devs on Twitter.

  • 3ds Max
  • Maya
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