Alta VR’s Boramy Unn on A Township Tale and developing for VR
Or, how not to make people throw up in VR.
Exploring the show floor at PAX Australia this year, there was a noticeable spike in the presence of virtual reality titles. With almost half of the ‘PAX Rising’ indie area devoted to taped-off VR spaces, it was exciting to see the sheer variety of different titles on offer.
One such title is A Township Tale, developed by Sydney-based studio Alta VR. Spread across two locations in the PAX Exhibition hall, a constant stream of people found themselves donning the team’s Vive headsets – thoughtfully cleaned down by the Alta team between uses, to prevent the spread of PAX Pox – and engaging with the world they have created. After taking a tour through the township, Stevivor spoke to co-founder, lead designer and artist Boramy Unn for the inside scoop on Alta’s creation.
“A Township Tale is a social VR multiplayer sandbox RPG, where players enter a fantasy town with a world that they’re free to explore,” Boramy detailed from a quiet corner in the queue hall. “They’ll be adopting roles like the blacksmith, miner, farmer, and all work together to accomplish goals like fixing the town and finding out what’s out there.”
While setting up the demo, another member of the team (Timo Schmechel) mentioned that they were trying to avoid some of the pitfalls of early VR titles, focusing on a single obvious mechanic and nothing more. We asked Boramy how this had informed the development of the game.
“One of the things we’re really focusing on is creating this world experience, that’s where all the roles come in. That’s where the core experiences of the game are. Things like archery are just a means for combat for us, but we’re looking to spend equal if not more time in other stuff like the blacksmith mechanic, mining, farming… If you want to be the baker or innkeeper, just a lot of these different roles you would expect in a fantasy town.”
While the breadth of experiences are a welcome element in a world of gimmicky early-development VR titles, it’s hard to imagine baking or mining having as much of a draw as the sheer fun of archery – an immediately satisfying experience players would no doubt gravitate to first. “[With archery,] it’s something they can play with straight away but once they figure it all out, that’s about as far as it goes. You can learn to aim better, but if you want to progress in the game players will need to adopt some of these other roles. If you’re the baker, people will need your food to go out there in the wild and survive. We’re really driving the survival element with those dependencies.”
A Township Tale also tackles one of the persistent challenges of VR, especially in a game with multiplayer – representing the player in-game. Alta have chosen to take a step further than some titles, not only showing the hands and head of a player but also giving them a Mii-esque torso to help create a definition of occupied space.
“The key thing about creating VR characters I think, is to keep it from going down the uncanny valley,“ Boramy elaborated. “So we’re going with quite a stylised look in general. Simply because we can add so much more character to things, but can also have a distinct style for players to personalise themselves. You can choose your eyes, what your hair looks like. Then you can equip armour on your body, weapons and tools, all just to help you identify yourself.”
As mentioned above, A Township Tale is planned as a collaborative co-op experience for multiple players. But being a representation of a town, just how big a player base should we expect?
“Generally we can go as high as we want to but we’re wanting to aim for about 16 players. That’s a design decision because we want everyone to get to know each other in this town – we don’t want the next person coming by to just be a stranger to you. So as you’re playing, you get to know who your neighbour is, because we’re trying to simulate living in this humble countryside town.”
That said, any town – not to mention any multiplayer experience – is bound to have a few bad eggs who just want to watch the world burn. Not every problem goes away in a township, so Stevivor was curious to learn what forms of conflict resolution we should expect.
“We’re absolutely looking to have some form of PvP in there, to let players hash it out the old fashioned way if they wanted to,” Boramy laughed. “We also implemented things like giving players a bit of personal space to prevent griefers, who just have more malicious intent.”
In keeping with the medieval theme, we were pleased to find a very medieval video camera lying on the road in this township. “We’re really looking to ways we can connect with players like YouTubers and Twitch streamers, what we can do to help them create better content. From our perspective as well, having a camera in the game helps us create these funny development blogs: for example we can say, ‘Hey, I’m here in Township Tale, today we’re taking a look at blacksmithing!’, and then we can play on the fact that it’s another reality separate from ours.”
Being a relatively sandbox-based game, it can be a tough decision between allowing the narrative to be purely player-driven, or having a backbone of story to lead them through that sandbox. The team at Alta do intend to help lead you through your time in the township, just to make sure you don’t get caught up playing bows and arrows forever. ”There is a narrative of the town and the world you’re entering and discovering, we plan to have a lot of lore there for players to learn and discover. What exactly happened to this town before you showed up? And that’s just to give the world a bit more exposition and give it some history.”
Moving around the world of A Township Tale, players will find themselves utilising the familiar teleport mechanic present in a lot of VR titles. While the ability to teleport isn’t defined by key anchor points, the range you can move is relatively short. “Originally we had it able to reach a lot further – and from a development perspective that was fine, because we could easily move around and test things. But we found you could just miss entire chunks of the level. So we reduced that back a bit.”
Boramy went on to explain that teleportation is by far one of the most comfortable options for movement in a VR environment, but they want to involve it more than just a way of getting around their game’s world. “The way we’re trying to approach it is to gamify what teleportation means, so perhaps if you’re on difficult terrain you can’t teleport quite as far. Other players could also throw some kind of splash potion at you so you won’t be able to teleport at all. Something like thirty seconds so if they want to fight you, you’ve actually got to defend yourself for just a short while.”
Moving forward, we were curious to learn what’s next on the development schedule for Alta and A Township Tale.
“Next up is fleshing out the mining experience, currently it’s more of a surface set of boulders lying around. We want to set up a randomly generated mines that you can explore. They’re very dark, you need to light your way through. Next up after that is to start working on our blacksmith mechanic. Every time we add a new feature we try to look for ways they complement each other.”
A Township Tale is currently is in active development for the HTC Vive, and the team are planning to make an announcement about Early Access in 2017.