May 5, 2016

In The Cards: How Psyop Is Crafting A Unique Fortune-Telling VR Experience with 'Kismet'

By Daniel Kayser

The advent of virtual reality has brought about a resurgence in creativity as developers and designers quite literally gain a fresh perspective on what the words "interactive entertainment" really mean. While there's no doubt that the multi-billion dollar video game industry will see its most popular genres cross the visual plane into the realm of VR, it is the new, innovative areas of virtual reality that excite some content creators the most.

Enter Kismet, a unique virtual reality fortune-telling experience that was built in Unreal Engine 4. Named after the mysterious fortune-teller at its core, Kismet is an experience inspired by the mystic arts of tarot and astrology, brought to life in a beautifully detailed, handmade, gothic style, unlike anything else tried before in VR.

So, when I discovered that Psyop, the creative design experts who have crafted memorable brand experiences for clients such as Samsung and Supercell, were looking to VR for an all-new way to approach the age-old art of fortune telling, I simply had to find out what was in the cards. That's why I reach out to Kismet’s writer and director, David Chontos, to discuss the design vision for the project and how the power of Unreal Engine 4 along with the accessibility of Blueprint visual scripting helped bring the team's vision into reality.

Thanks for joining me, David! Can you please start off by explaining what the Kismet VR experience is all about?

Kismet is a virtual fortune telling machine, capable of providing you a past-present-future tarot card reading, a daily astrological reading, and a go at an ancient board game. Your gracious hostess is Kismet herself, an enchanted automaton.

How did the concept for Kismet as a VR experience come about?

I’ve been obsessed with mechanical fortune telling machines ever since I was a child, and designed this character years ago for another project entirely. When I started developing a host of ideas for our flagship VR experience, this one stuck out as something not only unique, but of a scale that would be achievable in a short production period.

How did you cultivate the information needed to feed the tarot and astrology mechanics found in the reading of the cards and the stars?

I did a lot of research on both, gathering any relevant information from a variety of sources. Luckily, the mechanics are generally ubiquitous and at times mathematic. Each card has a unique meaning in each of the three positions (past-present-future), but there are also a large amount of combinations for adjacency taken into account, and all of them were written by hand in a very laborious spreadsheet. The celestial events that are mentioned in the astrology portion (eclipses, moon phases, planetary transits, etc) are even algorithmically looped for the next 100 years!

Aside from readings, there are also fun mini-games to experience in Kismet. How many different games are included in the final experience and what can you tell us about them?

For launch, there is only one, The Royal Game of Ur. It is a recreation of an ancient Mesopotamian board game, the rules of which were discovered written in cuneiform on a stone tablet.

The subject matter of Kismet requires that the user feel a personal connection to the content. How are you handling this important aspect of the experience? Is it mostly just their date of birth or do you inquire about other aspects of their personality and/or beliefs?

Right now, the only form of input is the user’s birthdate, and the general sense of immersion that comes with existing inside of Kismet’s very personal space, surrounded by her things. As Kismet moves into the future, we hope to include not just more information gathered like time of day and weather, but also learning and memory. The ability to reference past readings or current events is something we feel could elevate that connection exponentially.

What is the plan for updating content in Kismet? It feels like an experience that people would want to interact with often - provided it was consistently updated.

We hope to provide a host of updates in the future that will deepen the user experience. From additional mini-games, to a more in-depth astrological profile, we would love to continue to add to Kismet’s capabilities. As of now, logging in on new days will trigger new readings, as you will have the opportunity to pick different cards during each subsequent Tarot reading, and your astrology reading will change with the positions of the celestial bodies.

The audio work and visual presentation in Kismet are rather stunning. How many variations of the presentation style did you go through before landing on the version we see today?

Surprisingly few. Once I have a vision in my head, it rarely changes. I spent a lot of time on the initial design and prototype so we could produce it quickly and efficiently, without the plague of indecision during production.

The experience is very atmospheric and memorable. How did Unreal Engine help you bring your vision for Kismet to life?

Because of the power of Unreal, we never had to compromise on visual quality. If we could envision a scene in Kismet's world, it was possible to build it inside of Unreal. Thanks to the ease of use, accessibility, and learning tools, our team was able to produce Kismet's unique visual style for VR. Kismet runs entirely through Unreal's visual scripting system, Blueprints.

A large amount of our Blueprint logic was written by first-time users. Eighty percent of our development team had zero experience with Unreal before starting this project, but within four months we were able to complete our vision. Without a doubt, it would have been impossible without UE4.

At GDC 2016, Epic revealed the availability of the VR Editor for Unreal Engine developers. How do you think the ability to create VR experiences while in VR will impact the design process in the future?

All of us here are excited to create and edit worlds inside of VR. The prospect of scene layout, lighting, and shading in VR will make the look development process even smoother and facilitate a laser-focused attention to detail.

Are there any particularly interesting technical or creative challenges you were able to solve throughout the process of creating Kismet?

Kismet has the ability to completely transform the environment in moments. The question we kept asking ourselves: Is it possible to present a new scene to the audience, fast enough to wow them? We did not want players to wait for a loading screen.

Through the use of Unreal's sub-level tools, we were able to make it happen. Transitioning between environments occurs within an instant. Having the ability to view multiple environments without sitting through long loading periods is part of what makes Kismet feel magical.

What platforms is Kismet available on and where can those interested go to find out more about the project?

Kismet is available for Oculus and Vive, and will be coming to Playstation VR for their launch in the fall.

I guess I have to ask - What does the future hold for Kismet?

You’ll have to ask her yourself! We are excited to see what the VR community at large thinks about her, and certainly hope to expand her repertoire in the near future.


For more information on Kismet, follow @KismetVR on Twitter and visit Psyop's official website right here. You can also experience a 360 video of Kismet in action below.