Turtle Rock Studios' Journey of the Gods leverages Blueprints to bring designers into the coding process
Considering you play as a giant god and a human in the game, they talk about how they were able to play with scale in VR. The developers also elaborate on how they designed the game's unique and challenging enemies and balanced the combat for the medium. In addition, the studio discusses how they optimized performance for the mobile Oculus Quest headset and explain how going with the game's beautiful minimalistic aesthetics helped them make the game more performant without sacrificing visual fidelity. Finally, Turtle Rock talks about the advantages of working with UE4 and shares some of the benefits they were able to glean from Blueprints. Journey of the Gods has drawn a lot of comparisons to The Legend of Zelda. Was that franchise influential in the project? What other titles might have inspired the game?
Designer Chris Ashton: The original pitch for Journey of the Gods was more of an old-school god game. We were referencing games like Black and White. The idea was that you could summon a god and then command it through gestures, effectively remote controlling it to solve puzzles by moving large objects, carrying villagers, using fire, etc. The hook for VR was seeing these giant gods manipulating the world while under your command.
As we were building the prototype, we found it was more fun to actually become the god and play it in first-person (as opposed to remote controlling it). The world looks small from that point of view, you feel very powerful, and you get to manipulate the world directly.
This made the god mode feel great, and in comparison, the human mode felt a little lackluster. We decided to try making the human player responsible for fighting most of the enemies in the world and using the god mode for puzzle solving. The two sides would work together, almost like you're playing both sides of a co-op game.
That's when we started to reference The Legend of Zelda, primarily as an example of good action, adventure, and pacing.
Zelda also made us feel comfortable having speech bubbles. Originally, we planned to have no talking in the game, but we soon discovered that some of the gestures and mission goals were extremely difficult to make intuitive. Sometimes you just need to tell the player why they are here or how to use an ability. It's kind of an old-school way to communicate to the player, but Zelda proves that it still works today, even in big-budget games.
Journey of the Gods features a beautiful minimalist look. How did the studio come up with the visual style of the game?
Artist Justin Cherry: From an art perspective, we wanted to make sure the player experience had a sense of wonder. The minimalist style allowed us to insert otherwise unbelievable features (disconnecting limbs, having floating objects, etc.) without having to make that a part of the fiction.
We broke down all identifiable parts of characters or environments and distilled those into archetypal shapes, to mimic the glyph-like nature of the text and overall game narrative.
Considering Journey of the Gods runs and looks great on the Quest, how did you optimize performance around Oculus' mobile hardware?
Engineer Ryan Adams: We started by identifying the type of platform we were attempting to release on and picked an art style, using minimal textures and unlit materials, that we knew would allow us to be able to present the experience and game world we wanted. Then, using our set of profiling tools to identify the areas of the game we needed to improve upon, we began iterating. We made sure to leverage all of the assets and features that Unreal makes available to optimize the game, such as level streaming, LODs, instancing, etc. We also made sure to take performance into consideration as we designed each part of the game from start to finish, rather than trying to address it at the end of the project.
In the game, players can quickly swap between using a sword and a shield or a crossbow, all of which are fun to use and are upgradeable throughout the course of the game. How did the studio ultimately decide on those weapon sets?
Ashton: We wanted the weapons and combat to start very simple and get more interesting over time. All weapons can usually be lumped into one of two categories - melee or ranged. If we had one of each, players could easily cycle between the two. There would be no need for an inventory and elaborate weapon-selection mechanic.
Depth would be added through different enemies that must be defeated in different ways and weapon upgrades that would allow the player to choose from an assortment of strategies while still only wielding the two sets of weapons.
A sword and a shield are classic, and in VR, they feel especially great, so that was an easy choice. For our ranged option, we actually started with a slingshot, then moved to a bow and arrow and ultimately wound up with the crossbow. In playtests, players cited the crossbow as feeling the coolest and easiest to aim, so that's what we stuck with.
How did you approach designing sword combat so that players couldn't just lackadaisically swing their swords back and forth, yet didn't require such force that players would quickly grow tired?
Engineer Gary Kroll: We detected average linear velocity over time instead of checking the speed each frame. This prevents tiny but fast movements from activating the sword. We also measured the velocity closer to the hilt than the tip of the sword, which made it easy to reach the required speed when moving your hand and the hilt while making it hard to just waggle the sword since that action only moves the hilt of the sword slightly. Then we kept adjusting until people [thought it felt right].
Players can turn into a behemoth-sized god to solve environmental puzzles or to easily take down enemies. How did you come across this size-shifting concept?
Ashton: As mentioned earlier, god mode came out of the original pitch, but it was realized in a way we didn't expect. In VR, the world has depth because each eye sees the world from its own perspective. Add these two different perspectives together and our brain perceives a 3D world.
Behind the scenes, the game engine is rendering from two different cameras. If you change how far apart these cameras are, you can make the world feel really big or really small. What it's simulating is the distance between your eyes, as if your head was human-sized or giant. When you first see the Kraken boss, you're human sized and he's huge, but when you go into god mode, you're looking down on the Kraken and he seems small. The results are spectacular and only something you can really experience in a 3D medium.
Journey of the Gods features a wide array of enemies, each with their own unique attack patterns, strengths, and weaknesses. This includes gigantic boss battles. How did you come up with enemy designs both from an aesthetic and gameplay perspective?
Ashton: We usually come up with a gameplay design first and then we pitch it to the other team leads in a "kick-off" meeting. Everyone has a chance to react, give feedback, and pitch their own ideas, which sometimes results in design modifications. Once we're happy with the design, the concept team explores what that character might look like and we go from there.
On the design side, our ideal is that each enemy should add value to the player experience. So we add a lot of variety in how they attack, how they move, how the player has to respond to their actions, etc. We introduce players to each new enemy in isolation so they can learn how to defend against and defeat it. If the player's interaction with each enemy is unique, then it starts to get really interesting when you face combinations of enemies. Now the player has to be very strategic and approach different combinations in different ways. It adds a lot of depth to the combat.
With rolling hills, life-size waterfalls, massive treetops to walk across, and expansive vistas, the world in Journey of the Gods is gorgeous and plays with elevation change more than most VR games. How did you approach designing the game's environments?
Artist Brenton Hesse: Great question. The design team first starts with ironing out a space that would feel interesting to navigate and engage in combat with enemies. While this goes on, we have our concept artist put together a look and feel of what the biome could be. Then the environment modeling team takes both the concept art and design framework and works with the art director to make a space that both looks good to run around in and gives the player an interesting navigation and gameplay.
The game allows players to play seated, standing, or with room-scale. How important was it for the studio to facilitate all these modes of play?
Producer Chloe Skew: With Journey of the Gods alternating frequently between exploration and combat, we wanted to take full advantage of the untethered Oculus Quest headset, allowing players to freely explore their environments and react instinctively (for example, to enemies approaching from behind) without worrying about getting tangled or losing controller tracking at crucial moments. At the same time, we know that players have different preferences for how they play in VR so we wanted to ensure that the seated experience would be just as satisfying.
What made UE4 a good fit for the game?
Ashton: In addition to PC and consoles, Unreal runs on Android and supports Oculus, making it a one-stop shop for all projects in our studio. It allows us to share tech and knowledge between different dev teams. Best of all, from a game designer's perspective, the awesome Blueprints tools allow designers to effectively write game code, which meant that all of our levels could have different gameplay modes and objectives (something that was impossible on previous non-UE4 projects).
Does the studio have any favorite UE4 features or tools?
Designer Chris Holmes: Blueprints is an extensive and versatile tool that allows our designers to be a direct part of the development process from prototype to final product. We're able to take a large load off our engineers to allow them to focus on core features like AI, combat, player interactions, etc. by putting a lot of experimental prototype work and level scripting on designers using Blueprints. This is especially valuable for a smaller team. When a designer has an idea for a feature, puzzle, world interaction, or anything really, they can spend a day or sometimes just a couple hours setting up a test to demonstrate it. If it sticks, we'll iterate on it, and depending on the needs, we may eventually task an engineer to create the final shipping version or just polish the Blueprints version.
Blueprints is incredibly powerful and flexible for level scripting. We're able to create and iterate on any sequence of events necessary for a given level based on conditions, timing, triggers, etc. On Journey of the Gods, we were able to essentially create whole new game modes for many of our maps using Level Blueprints, not to mention setting up complex puzzle logic, creating various enemy spawning systems for different encounters, game state tracking for checkpoints, and even unique scripted events for AI characters and real-time cinematics!
Having worked on several VR titles like Face Your Fears and The Well, including Journey of the Gods, what have you learned about the medium thus far and what do you think of its future?
Ashton: We have been fortunate to ease into VR and learn a lot of good lessons along the way.
Face Your Fears taught us that VR amplifies your reactions. A scary game is more scary in VR. A beautiful game is more beautiful in VR. It feels like anything we build in VR has more impact than it would in another medium. Your work carries more weight and results in a bigger payoff, which is super cool and rewarding as a game developer.
We are constantly learning. Back when we were working on Face Your Fears, the consensus was that movement in VR was a non-starter, that you couldn't do it without players getting sick. That's why teleporting was the early go-to movement mechanic. But we started to experiment with movement in The Well and learned that acceleration and deceleration is a key factor in player comfort. We had confidence that we could make free movement work so that became a requirement for Journey of the Gods. And through building that game, we have learned even more.
We're also learning that the VR community is unique. Immersion, for example, is more important than ease of use. Opening a door, for instance, can be super simple and easy in a console game, requiring the player to only look towards the door to press the "use" key. In VR, the preferred method would be for the player to reach out, grab the door knob, rotate it and push the door to open it. What's important isn't the actual door mechanic, what's important is that you're using your hands to manipulate the world around you in a manner that makes sense and makes the world more believable.
The game has a near five-star rating on the Oculus store with many fans asking for a sequel. What has it been like to see such a positive player reaction and might we see more Journey of the Gods content moving forward?
Ashton: The positive reviews are a huge boon for the team and really makes us feel like we are on the right track. We believe that VR gamers are starving for real games with substance. Games that are interesting for longer periods of time, that leverage more than a few game mechanics. Games that feel like they are a complete experience. That was the goal for us on Journey of the Gods and a lot of the reviews are backing up that dev philosophy.
I know the dev team would love to work on a sequel. When developing a new IP, you spend a lot of time and resources figuring out what the game is. If we get the chance to work on a sequel, we get a head start and we can focus on doing crazier stuff with more content.
Thanks for your time. Where can people learn more about Journey of the Gods?
Community Manager Alissa Barry-Toth: You can join us on our official Discord, where a bunch of the devs are available to chat with or check out the store page.