State of the vir­tual art

At this year’s De­velop, we asked three VR pi­o­neers to tackle the is­sues fac­ing vis­ual de­sign in this new medium


We gather a panel of pi­o­neers to tackle the chal­lenges of VR art

Gath­ered for the Edge panel en­ti­tled Next-Gen­er­a­tion Vi­su­als: Cre­at­ing Art For VR, lead­ing de­vel­op­ers joined us at De­velop in July to dis­cuss the chal­lenges fac­ing artists work­ing with vir­tual re­al­ity. In this edited tran­script, SIE Lon­don Stu­dio ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of VR Bryn­ley Gib­son, Re­bel­lion head of dig­i­tal Matt Jef­fery, and Guer­rilla Games Cam­bridge prin­ci­pal artist Shawn Spetch con­sider the po­ten­tial and pit­falls. What chal­lenges face de­vel­op­ers cre­at­ing art as­sets for VR games? Shawn Spetch We now have to think about things in terms of per­for­mance. So in­stead of just build­ing a game like Kil­l­zone Shadow Fall, where we pop­u­late lev­els with a lot of de­tail, we have to scale that and we test per­for­mance while go­ing into pro­duc­tion. We op­ti­mise while we’re work­ing, in­stead of put­ting a bunch of stuff in and then go­ing back­wards to make sure it fits into the fram­er­ate – fram­er­ate is the most im­por­tant thing for us right now. We’ve had to re­think so many as­pects – we use bold shapes, we make sure it’s read­able, and we fo­cus on be­liev­abil­ity. How do those as­pects marry up? Bryn­ley Gib­son At Lon­don Stu­dio, we talk about be­liev­abil­ity over re­al­ism al­ways. So even though we use kind-of-re­al­is­tic tex­tures, it’s all about the shapes and we don’t go for lots of high de­tail. Bat­tle­zone’s a great ex­am­ple where you’ve got solid shapes, but it’s a style that doesn’t have a lot of noise in it – it helps peo­ple to not be over­come or be­wil­dered as they move their heads around. De­tail is not nec­es­sar­ily needed for great, be­liev­able VR ex­pe­ri­ences. Matt Jef­fery VR should be a won­der­ful ex­pe­ri­ence for ev­ery­one. We know that there’s a small per­cent­age of the pop­u­la­tion who will al­ways get mo­tion sick­ness what­ever we do. But for the vast ma­jor­ity, try­ing to make the ex­pe­ri­ence as com­fort­able as pos­si­ble is very im­por­tant. SS We’re al­ways try­ing to beat that 60fps be­cause you have to in VR – there’s no way that you can drop frames. There’s not much of a divi­sion be­tween de­sign and art now – we ac­tu­ally work to­gether as a unit to make sure that it’s all run­ning within the per­for­mance tar­get and we check GPU all the time. MJ It’s like Fight Club: the first rule is fram­er­ate, and the sec­ond rule is still fram­er­ate.

“When we’ve ramped up the res­o­lu­tion and tex­tures, it doesn’t make great VR. It’s def­i­nitely not right”

How will this change in the fu­ture? BG We have to be cau­tious about this; we’ve found when we’ve done tests and ramped up the res­o­lu­tion and tex­tures, it doesn’t make great VR. You think, “Oh, it will be bril­liant, it will be crys­tal,” but it’s def­i­nitely not right. It’s about pick­ing the right art style for your game, but also for VR. And there are many ways that you can do that – it doesn’t mean that it all has to be ar­cade-style. We’ve all been try­ing out dif­fer­ent things, and that will con­tinue for the next few years. And I think a lan­guage will de­velop. SS Some of the things we’ve tack­led in­clude re­duc­ing sur­face de­tail on tex­tures. We watch our highs and lows, our darks and lights, as well. For ex­am­ple, blacks are not al­ways the best thing to use be­cause they’re harder to read – play­ers can per­ceive them as a hole in the en­vi­ron­ment, or they might not be able to sense the spe­cific depth be­tween them and that area.

MJ When we make our more tra­di­tional games, like Sniper Elite, a lot of it is push­ing the GPU as hard as we can. To use a bad anal­ogy, you dial every­thing up to 11. When we did our first VR pro­to­types we did the same, and then when we put on our head­sets it was over­whelm­ing. It’s too much, and your brain doesn’t like it.

Will there al­ways be a com­pro­mise?

SS We’re try­ing to push a pho­to­re­al­is­tic look for RIGS. For ex­am­ple, the sand in our Dubai map has a lot of vis­ual de­tail in terms of [the grains’] wavi­ness, but we use an in­verse de­tail map in the shader, al­most like a set range, where we’re draw­ing de­tail far­ther away from the player, and less when they’re close.

Poly­gons are prob­a­bly our big­gest bud­get con­sid­er­a­tion right now, so we’re try­ing to fig­ure out ways to drop counts – re­verse LODs are some­thing we’re look­ing at. We take the fourth – or last – LOD and work back­wards, which is dif­fer­ent from just mak­ing a model in ZBrush and then dec­i­mat­ing it. So we put that LOD in the map, and then look at the form and sil­hou­ette.

The rea­son we do this is that with the head-mounted dis­play, the LODs tend to drop off with the field of view re­ally quickly. That’s go­ing to be rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the dis­tance that you’re go­ing to be draw­ing most of the time. From there we can up­scale and do the rest of the LODs down. As time goes on, you’re go­ing to see tech­niques like that be­ing done across the board, and peo­ple try­ing dif­fer­ent things, and it’s just go­ing to make things smoother.

SIE Lon­don ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer of VR Bryn­ley Gib­son; Re­bel­lion head of dig­i­tal Matt Jef­fery; Guer­rilla Games Cam­bridge prin­ci­pal artist Shawn Spetch

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