Booyo Park Postmortem

    Booyo Park is a mixed reality experience that utilizes the HP Omen VR Backpack, headsets, and various cameras to give players a fully mobile mixed reality experience. The game itself is something akin to a virtual petting zoo where players can use their hands to poke, push, and play with Booyos, virtual creatures that exist on top of our world.

    Booyo Park was made as a part of my 4th year capstone project for Sheridan College's Honours Bachelor of Game Design. For our capstone year, in addition to pursuing our own projects, we had the opportunity to work on one of several projects sponsored by another company. My team and I decided that this would be a good opportunity to learn from working with another company and so we ended up working with Shadow Factory, a Hong Kong based VR development studio who we would meet with weekly for feedback and progress reports. Shadow Factory wanted to see if we could develop an unrestricted VR experience using the HP Omen VR Backpacks that had been provided to us by HP, one of the school's sponsors. Booyo Park is the end result of our experiments and development. 

    Going into the project, we knew that we would need to spend a lot of time doing research. Some other members of the team and I had done work on VR projects before, but this wasn't a traditional VR game and it came with its own unique set of challenges.  

This is the setup we had. Pictures like this are what caused us to think that this was more than just a VR headset. Wearing the headset like this you wouldn't be able to see anything around you. 

    The first challenge we knew that we could have to overcome was figuring out how players would move around with a headset on. Currently most VR games are set up to have the player stay in one spot, usually with enough room to flail their arms around, and while room scale VR does exist, it's largely limited to a small areas or a single room. Nobody expects you to go downstairs to your kitchen while playing Beat Saber. Larger room scale VR does exist, for example The Void, but this requires a large amount of dedicated space, which we knew we wouldn't have access to as a small team.

    We figured that the simplest solution would be to let players see the world around them. At the time we thought that our headset had AR capabilities, being a Mixed Reality Headset and all, but it turned out that that was not the case. Rather than give up on the idea, we pursued it further and attached a separate camera, the ZEDm, to the front of the headset. With the camera in place, players could see the world around them through the headset, which allowed them to move around freely while wearing the equipment without having to worry about bumping into things. 

The curved surface of the HP headset meant that it didn't support camera mounts that worked for the Vive or Oculus. We made do with what we had on hand.

    The ZEDm wasn't the only thing we strapped to the headset, we also attached a Leap Motion, which allowed us to do real time hand tracking. In addition to being really cool, this was done to improve usability and ended up making the game more immersive overall. 

    When we were first designing around the equipment, we imagined that we would be showcasing it at something like a booth in a mall. Our sponsor, Shadow Factory, had done several public VR installations so we figured that if the project was taken further it would be shown in the same sort of environment. With this in mind, our target demographic was families and people hanging out at the mall: people who we expected probably didn't have a lot of experience with VR and games in general. Our goal then was to make our frankly somewhat intimidating setup as approachable as possible, and one way we did this was by removing the controller entirely. 

By removing controllers interactions become more natural, which allows for better blending between the game and reality.

    In other VR games grabbing things is often accomplished by a button press on the controller, usually a trigger on the back. This might seem trivial to most of us, but for someone who's never held a controller and now has a headset strapped to their face, it can be a bit more daunting than you may think. Replacing that button press with a familiar hand gesture is much more intuitive. We all know how to reach out and grab things. It's something we do every day without even thinking about it, so being able to take that familiarity into the game removes what might otherwise be a barrier for some players. This also has the added benefit of increased immersion, and makes the game feel more "real" since your using your hands to interact with the game instead of a controller. 

    Having these extra cameras strapped to the headset allowed us to take the game in a different direction, but that's not to say that everything just worked out of the box. I've written about several of the trials and tribulations we faced in other blog posts, so I won't go over all the technical stuff again here. Outside of getting things to work though another thing we struggled with was figuring out what to do with our new toys. 

An early paper prototype for an idea we had based around using the Leap Motion to draw shapes with your hands. We simulated the Leap Motion by taping a marker to the players hand, and recorded the first person perspective with a phone taped to a baseball cap. 

    As with most games, many of our ideas didn't make it into the final product for one reason or another. Early on we were inspired by Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes to try and make an asymmetrical game where the player wearing the headset would play with another player who wasn't wearing one, but we had trouble balancing access to information while making each player feel involved. 

    Eventually we settled on a sort of pet simulator. We figured playing with virtual creatures would be more approachable for an audience unfamiliar with games and easier to understand. However our earlier designs also tried to incorporate sign language into the game. The idea was that you would use sign language to interact with your virtual pet. For example, you would sign "food" and then some food would appear for you to feed your pet. A cool idea, but we found that while the Leap Motion does a pretty good job it's not perfect, and it would have had trouble recognizing the subtle differences between certain signs and gestures. 

    We did end up using hand gestures in the final game, holding up your pinky and thumb on both hands would reset everything, but this ended up more so for our own debugging purposes. The gesture had to be distinct enough that the Leap Motion could recognize it, but not so common that players would accidentally reset the game while playing normally. However when we tried to explain the reset gesture to players, some players were unable to make the gesture at all and had difficulty moving their hands in such a way. In most cases we would end up manually resetting the game for players and this eventually became the default. 

Players who were unable to make the hand gesture would be unable to reset the game.

    At one point in development our mentors suggested that we should focus less on the "game" part and instead focus more on getting things working and feeling solid. Ultimately, I think this ended up being the right direction to go as most people were impressed just by seeing their hands track using the Leap Motion, but it did mean that Booyo Park would end up as more of a tech demo than a game. 

    This was something we struggled with for a while. We would often have other game designers visit the program to play our games and give us feedback. Almost every time we would have them say something along the lines of  "Yea it's cool, but there's no game here." Conversely when we tested with players from our target demographic they loved it. 

    We had wanted to add a goal of some kind, and many of our ideas had some sort of goal attached to them, but we ended up with very little time to implement anything. This was because we spent a lot of time tuning and tweaking our basic interactions, things like making sure that it was as easy to grab virtual objects as it was a real world object and making sure that interacting with virtual objects had enough feedback to communicate interaction. By the time we had everything place, we didn't really have any time left to add another system on top to make it a proper game. The solution we came up with was actually sort of a compromise based on the feedback we were getting from playtesting.

Footage from one of our playtest sessions. Here the player is trying to feed a Booyo to their friend. These kinds of player-observer interactions increased tenfold once we added a display mirroring what the player saw.

    In the game you can merge Booyos together into bigger Booyos, and after you merge a certain number of Booyos together they would pop and go back to being small. There were issues with having a single large Booyo, such as obstructing player vision, and odd behaviors that occurred when grabbing a Booyo while inside of it, so the size limit was to ensure that a Booyo never got too big. Players didn't like the size limit though, and wanted to be able to make bigger and bigger Booyos.

    So we removed the hard size limit on the Booyos, and instead made them pop after X amount of time. The more Booyos you merged together the faster they would pop. We also added a number after they popped that would show you how many Booyos you merged together. It wasn't a perfect solution. Players who wanted to make big Booyos were sad that they would pop so quickly, and more goal oriented players were still looking for a concrete ending to the game, but it worked well enough that both sides were happier with the change. 

    While it may not have ended up so much a game as a fun little toy, I'd say that overall Booyo Park was a success. During our first public playtest we were worried that there wouldn't be enough content and things for people to do, and that they would get bored quickly, but we found that more often than not people would play for far longer than we expected. A lot of this came from player-observer interaction: people playing with their friends and family while also playing the game. We ended up having to set a timer for each session so that other people would have a chance to try it.

Booyo Park at the 2019 Level Up! Showcase

    I learned a lot from working on this project. In addition to all the technical back end work that I did, a lot of time was spent thinking about how players would experience the game. Thinking about what it was like to watch someone play, and how we could entice people to put on the backpack. It's easy to think of the game as just the gameplay, the moment to moment interaction and progression, but games also extend beyond that and it's important to think of every step along the way that someone takes to actually playing your game. 

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