The Climb brings alive the exhilaration and intensity of free solo rock climbing. However, the process of creating the game is a real team effort.
With that in mind, today sees the launch of the first video in our new developer diary series, in which some of the people leading our expedition into VR with The Climb share their insights into the project.
You'll hear about how real rock climbing helped to inspire the game, and why even the earliest prototypes of The Climb had everyone convinced we were on to a winner. The team discuss those moments that really set their hearts racing, and you'll learn about the new mindset required for creating a game in VR.
Check out the video and find out why the team behind The Climb are calling it an “intense" experience which ensures that “if you want to know what it's like to climb a cliff face, you're actually going to get that feeling."
We decided to build one master level from beginning to end, and then extrapolate from there. All teams had to start at the same time and work in parallel so we could quickly iterate on both art and level design to figure out what we required for each level.
Our Environment Art Team began by splitting the work into foreground art for the climbable rock surface and the surrounding vista. Simultaneously, the Level Design Team blocked out the actual climbing path and the Concept Art Team composed target concept images for us to aim towards.
The climbable surfaces are very close to the player, so they have to look natural and detailed. In VR, to maintain the presence required to keep players in the world, you have to deliver what the user expects to see. That means a lot of resources have to go into what is immediately in front of them, as anything that doesn't look as detailed as it should be can break the immersion quickly. Even so, the level of detail required for VR was a real learning process for many of us. You would design an object, place it into the engine and you would think, “Wow, I expected this to be so much more detailed." Then you realize that you need a
ton more detail.
Take a hook that we might use at save points, for instance. In VR, you can look around an object and inspect it in close-up detail, so you need to be able to see every single groove, every single scratch. You really have to push the detail much further than you would expect for objects that are in your immediate view. And of course, you must constantly test in VR because elements might look more or less impressive than you would imagine. The hook example was one where we were like, “OK, we've got to get to work on this." But then you can be pleasantly surprised too – a two-meter boulder you might create and place in the scene is just a small rock in our level. Up close in VR, however, it can feel and look just like a two-meter boulder that weighs 20 tons. We placed a lot of emphasis on constantly checking the art we created in the VR environment to make sure we were achieving the look, feel and quality we wanted.
The demand for detail meant that the rock faces, and especially the grips you use to climb, had to look very natural. We decided that the best way to make them look and feel realistic was to sculpt the grips into larger rock-chunks by hand – grip by grip. But the grips were still being placed by level design in parallel, so the position of individual grips was often not final. It became a very delicate matter to when exactly we would quite literally set a grip in (virtual) stone. On top of that, the decorative dressing with vegetation and other assets needed to happen as well, without interfering with level design.
The Background Team had a little more freedom, but creating an entire world that runs at a smooth 90fps while looking like a perfect postcard is no simple task. The vista was created first as a rough photo-based white box of the level that represented the intended art direction and captured the feeling of the world. Next all the required assets like mountains, the water surface, and huts could be created and placed in the level. Around the same time, Cinematic Art joined in, to bring in details like birds, boats and fish, adding more life to the scene.
One of the interesting challenges we found when it came to creating the wider world was achieving scale. In VR, scale is immediate, but its effect really depends on where objects are in your field of view. With close up objects in the near field, you have to stay to absolute measurements. It needs to be accurate, as your brain expects. Those objects then become real to your brain – if you reach that accuracy, in both size and detail, that's what makes VR so immersive and impressive. However, in the distance we chose to exaggerate reality and make the already big, absolutely huge, making our views even more arresting.
There were also some interesting techniques we used with scale for our vistas. Flocks of birds, for instance, don't just give a sense of presence and place, but also scale. They make you realize that the mountain they are flying past is large, because they are tiny in comparison. We also had to pay attention to the speed at which they flew too. If they move slowly across a larger object, you realize that they must be far away. These things take on much more importance in VR because your vision works the same way it does in real life – you need points of reference to understand scale at distance.
Once the level was nearing completion, the Lighting Team did a final lighting pass over the rudimentary light that was set initially by the Environment Art Team. Here the final sun position, the look of the atmosphere and sky, plus the individual lighting of each rock surface is decided so we could get the right feel.
Lastly, every department joined forces to optimize the level for target performance while maintaining the desired art look. Thanks to the experience of the team, the way the level was built, and the close collaboration of all departments, we achieved 90fps without any reduction in visual quality. Our Asian setting was the first of our locations in the game and a learning process for us, but we're pleased with the visual quality we've been able to achieve in our hyper-realistic, Asia-themed postcard. We hope you'll enjoy it.
Earlier this week we
shared details of how we set about bringing The Climb's vibrant Asia setting to life – from early inspiration to the challenges of implementation. Today, you can take a closer look at the setting with a brand new fly-through video.
The fly-through footage takes you on a tour of our bay and reveals the environment we've created and some of the rocks you'll be scaling when you play The Climb for yourself. Of course, the setting takes on a whole new dimension when experienced in VR, but we hope you'll agree the view is already pretty easy on the eye.
From temples up on the rocks to junk boats in the bay below, our Asian-themed environment takes inspiration from elements from East and South East Asia to create a sense of imagined-postcard-perfection surrounding you on all sides. Whether you'll have the courage to soak it all in as you scale the cliff faces towering above the water is a whole other matter!
For now, sit back, relax, and allow us to transport you to a tranquil paradise where you'll discover that life on the edge has some serious upsides.
When we first thought about here a VR climbing game should take place, it seemed obvious to take inspiration from some of the most stunning natural locations on earth. After all, for many people, this could be their first contact with a VR experience, and we'd like it to be as impressive and beautiful as possible. Photorealism would not be enough; it would have to be “desktop wallpaper realism." So rather than replicate real life places exactly, we decided to take the approach that people who make desktop wallpapers or postcards adopt: take the best possible perspective and light, bring together iconic elements from the area and retouch it all to perfection.
When it came to creating our Asia setting, we were particularly inspired by Halong Bay in Vietnam. Halong Bay is a World Heritage site featuring beautiful islands, arresting rock formations, and stunning waters. It's a major tourist destination, and its limestone pillars have drawn climbers from across the world, including free solo rock climbers who go to explore unchartered territory and enjoy spectacular ascents in this area of outstanding natural beauty. For us it was a starting point where we could bring in other Asian influences and features, to create a larger than life holiday feeling.
To truly get the “postcard" feel we wanted to achieve, we also took inspiration from another genre of games, which had done something similar in the 90s: arcade racing games. A lot of people on the team have fond memories of old-school racers like Daytona, Ridge Racer and Screamer. Those games really popped with color and had striking environments with the bluest of blue skies. And for some reason there was always a random helicopter flying around, so obviously we needed one too.
Another thing we did to create “our imagined perfection" was to increase the scale of everything. We made rock formations even larger so that we could provide different routes and challenges that created a real rock climbing playground. On the one hand, that opened up more gameplay possibilities. But from an artistic perspective, it played into our desire to give players awesome views with incredible draw distances that work fantastically in VR when you're looking around from the rock face.
The recurring theme was to ask “is it as awesome as you could possibly imagine?" If not, make it larger or find something else that fits. We took liberties and cherry picked from regions all across South East and East Asia. We looked to some of the beautiful beaches, bays and mountains from Thailand, like Krabi and “James Bond Island" for instance, and to China, Japan and other areas of Vietnam too. It wasn't just geographical features – we also brought in things like temples, junk boats and elements from holiday resorts that you find across the region, which all give the level a feel of human activity. There was no requirement to be rigid – if it looked good and we could take inspiration from it, we did.
We worked hard on the near cliff surfaces that the player climbs on. Naturally we brought in the kind of vegetation you'd expect to see from the region. We also wanted to have a feeling that the places you are climbing through are humming with life so as you climb, you'll come across birds and animals too. After all, you're climbing around in their home, and VR lends itself just as well to large scale vistas as to the smallest objects right in front of you.
To further fill the world with life, we tried introducing spectators. We'd have crowds of people cheering you on, giving you real-time feedback on some of the moves you were performing, and even used our random helicopter as a film crew chopper, which would pursue you as you'd climb. But unlike in a racing game, where you expect bystanders to cheer for you, the slower nature of climbing and the strong presence of VR made some players feel really uncomfortable, like they were asked to perform in front of a real audience. The feeling was just too intrusive; it added another level of stress on top of our free climbing gameplay, so we decided the player would not receive this kind of attention. But it was an interesting lesson about the power of VR immersion. Still, we kept that helicopter. Helicopters are awesome.
In the next blog post, we'll take a look at some of the surprising challenges and solutions we came up with as we sought to visually immerse players in our Asian environment.
One of the questions we're asked the most about The Climb is why you only see and use hands to climb. It's easy to understand when you play, as it feels intuitively right and the visual experience is different in the VR environment. In fact, because of the detail in which the hands are rendered and animated, and the way your eyes are drawn to where you want to go, you don't really think of the arms as 'floating' but more as a natural extension of the physical actions you perform. However, when you look at 2D media and you've not had the experience of playing the game, it can look unusual and not really what you'd expect. So let's look at how we came to our 'hands only' mechanic.
When we began production on The Climb, rendering a full body for player actions was something we instinctively looked at. But as with many aspects of developing for VR – a brand new medium – many of the usual approaches that you'd take in traditional game development don't work in the way that you'd expect, or even apply at all.
VR is primarily such an exciting field because of the incredible immersion it gives the player. When your brain sees a character's displayed arm in the game when you climb, it needs to be as it expects, or presence is broken. That's because scale in VR is immediate – the inevitable difference between a single character's arms as rendered in the game world and the player's own arms in reality causes problems. The deviance between the digital and the physical radically affects immersion.
For instance, the head tracking technology in a VR headset can accurately map where your head is, so when you look around, it feels like 'you' are looking around. It's that accuracy that makes it work – the visual inputs you receive are exactly what your brain expects. For a comfortable climbing experience, arms would need to be precisely rendered to the size of each individual's arm size. Why? It's because if you're facing the wall, then you see 'your' arm reach out for the next grip but it is longer than your own, at best it looks and feels unusual, breaking immersion, because the movements and sizing deviate from what your brain anticipates. At worst, it can induce discomfort and motion sickness. It's not consistent with what the brain expects. When we render hands only instead, the movements you perform become much more natural, and physical discomfort is eliminated.
There are vital gameplay reasons why we render hands only too. If, in theory, you could replicate everyone's arm length realistically in the game, via scanning from extra hardware or perhaps more clumsily by providing sliders for players to enter their own measurements, it unbalances the game. You could solve the discomfort and immersion factor, but people with a longer reach might have an advantage over people with a shorter arm span in certain circumstances, or even the opposite depending on the route in front of them, and that causes a problem for the competitive elements of the game. After all, The Climb is a sports game and needs to be a level playing field.
Not having arms also helps with gameplay in different ways. For instance, rendering arms – and indeed, a full body – obstructs your view. When climbing downwards, it's particularly intrusive. You can't see routes as clearly – or indeed, take in the view – as more of the visual real estate is taken up with arms and the body. It makes playing harder and less visually satisfying than it should be.
By eliminating the body and arms, you also do not have legs and feet. In real life climbing, legwork and foot placement is important but with legs – and indeed the entire body – rendered into the game you encounter the scale problem again. Your own body and leg dimensions may deviate from what's displayed, causing discomfort. But adding in feet also adds another layer of complexity, requiring another layer of inputs to control them that goes against the sense of immersion and flow that we want players to feel. So far, we've found that less is more when it comes to button inputs when climbing in VR – and we want complexity in the gameplay, not complexity in playing the game. We want you thinking about your routes and getting into a flow, rather than slowing gameplay down as you double the number of appendages you have to control to perform each movement.
Out of all the variations we prototyped and tested, just having hands in the game was the most satisfying, the most immersive and the most instinctive. It eliminates issues of motion sickness, makes exploring rock faces and the environment easier, keeps your immersion consistent and allows us to present more balanced gameplay. The hands might look a little strange in 2D, but in VR, they quickly feel natural to the point where you don't really think about them as being disconnected. Instead, you just think about what you're doing and where you're going.