#202: Open world building & minimalist game design with Fantastic Contraption

northway-gamesSarah Northway & Colin Northway talk about the process of converting an open world building game of Fantastic Contraption to a room-scale VR experience with the HTC Vive.

The gameplay is very straightforward and intuitive in that you have a limited set of objects to build things with, but you can use as many of them to build a contraption within a zero-gravity environment. Then you press go, gravity kicks in, and you hope that your contraption is structurally sound enough to get from point A to point B.

It’s a simple premise, but excellently executed in how natural it feels to be in an environment where you can build whatever you can think of with these pipes and wheels. Colin talks about how it’s somewhat disappointing how seamless the two-handed interactions are within the game since he spent over a month writing all of the code to make it happen. Yet his efforts are almost completely invisible due to how intuitive the interactions are within the environment.

Colin and Sarah talk about their approach to minimalist game design, and how they foresee expanding the number of objects and items as well as potentially adding in more social components to the experience.

I had a chance to try out the Fantastic Contraption at PAX, and I have to say that it’s been one of the more fun and compelling experiences I’ve had within VR. I didn’t want to stop playing it, and could have been in there for hours. The fact that you can just let your imagination run wild within this frictionless construction environment meant that I could build a very complex object within a couple of minutes. It had no chance of actually accomplishing the goal, but it was extremely fun and satisfying anyway and I look forward to being able to play some more — as well as watch how other people try to solve the puzzles.

Colin said that the original Fantastic Contraption has had over 12 million contraptions saved, and they plan on allowing people to save and share their solutions so that you can see how others have solved the various puzzles that are in the game.

Colin & Sarah are both looking forward to see what VR and AR has to bring to society, and they think that it’s just a matter of time until VR or AR headsets start to replace 2D computer screens. They’re going to be continuing to solidify and develop this open world building experience with the Fantastic Contraption, and they’re looking forward to other experiences that unleash the potential of their creativity like Tilt Brush and Fantastic Contraption.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.452] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:12.074] Sarah Northway: We're Northway Games. I'm Sarah Northway. It's my husband, Colin Northway. And we've teamed up with Radial Games to make a really cool new VR project called Fantastic Contraption. It's actually a sequel, I guess, to a game from eight years ago, I believe. But this one, of course, is in VR and it's freaking amazing.

[00:00:35.374] Colin Northway: Yeah, we worked on a game called, it had the same name, Fantastic Contraption, back way forever ago and that was a free flash game and it blew up big and there's like millions of people played it and they ended up saving 12 million contraptions and people still play it today, it's really cool. We always loved the idea of a 3D version of that game, and we had no idea how to do that until we tried the Vive. And then with the Vive, you walk around a room, and you use your hands, like you have these controllers in your hands, and the game knows exactly where they are. And so, instantly we were like, oh my god, this is going to be amazing for a contraption. And so you can really imagine if, you know, you put on the Vive headset and then you're in this other world and it's kind of this nice, it's like sunny and there's some like things floating in the sky and you're on this like green island that kind of floats in the sky and you can use your hands to walk around and build a contraption like the size of a horse and then you can like watch it roll off into the world and like try to solve these puzzles. And it's this amazing transformative experience that, I mean, it's just astounding to be working on something that is so different than anything that, you know, even like human beings have. I mean, it seems grand to say, we're working on something that is like unique in human history, but it like totally weirdly is. Yeah. Is it that because you're able to build contraptions that would be impossible to build in real life? Or what do you think it is about like what makes that so compelling to create these different contraptions? Well, I think it is compelling. I think the building is really good. It's nice, you know, if you compare it to building a treehouse or building, even doing carpentry in your garage or something or, you know, even playing with Tinker Toys or Lego, even the friction of building stuff is so much lower. Like you literally grab two sticks and then put them end to end and they like snap together and you're done. You can build stuff so much more quickly and because it's just a computer it's not like the physicality of the real world you don't have to worry about all the finickiness of actual pieces. And then you can make things move, it's really hard to do in the real world too, so you can just, if you want something to spin, you hook a wheel up to it, and the wheel will spin it, or it'll spin the wheel, and that's a lot harder to do, actually, you don't have to sit down and solder things together. But also, it's just, the Vive is more, it actually deserves the word virtual reality, unlike anything else I've ever tried before. Something about just walking around in a space and like using your hands to do things just makes your brain just go like oh Yeah, this is like a real space. It's weird and It's like I've never seen anywhere like this before but it is like totally real like it's as weird to take off the headset as it is to put it on like you take off the headset and you're like oh What I like thought I was in this weird place of like floating islands in the sky, but I'm just in like an apartment And so what has been your experience of people playing it? What are people's reactions to it?

[00:03:29.443] Sarah Northway: Yeah, so everyone just kind of freaks out, obviously. Usually we're the first VR experience that people have had at all when they come. So just the idea of like stepping into this foreign world and the Fantastic Contraption world is kind of like this cartoony Mario style kind of thing. It's, you know, it's very different from our world, but the sense of depth and the sense of you being there, especially being able to just walk around and see your hands and interact with things in a supernatural way just instantly transports people in a way that like I've never seen possible in any other thing. So people get in there and they're just you know they just sit there with their mouths open going like for a long time and then everything becomes so natural. So like the thing with contraption is that we want all the controls we want everything to just feel like it's real life right like you just grab something then you grab it with both hands and you can stretch it out, you know, you can move things with both hands and you can walk around and see stuff from a different perspective and everything is just exactly the way it would be if you could play with tinker toys that were like eight feet tall in your living room. So we don't have to like explain the controls a lot of the time, people just naturally start doing stuff, which is really cool and wonderful, like you can put anyone, like we've put like Colin's grandmother and then the same day like a two-year-old into the system and it's just they just naturally like there's my hands and so I don't know it's really different than like trying to demo a game with an Xbox controller or whatever a menu system.

[00:05:10.237] Colin Northway: So what's the goal or what's the gameplay like? I mean, I imagine it sounds like it's a little bit of an open world, you know, build whatever you want, but is there challenges or intention for what you're trying to accomplish? Yeah, so it's, there are goals, so it's fun to just play and make stuff and I think my ideal experience is people would pick it up and put it on and be interested enough in the world and the tools and just building things that they will just like make stuff that they like. But I get that it won't necessarily like draw you on forever and people like, you know, a challenge and like giving people challenges can also force them to do more interesting things, things they wouldn't have like dreamt that they could do on their own. So we do have a series of levels and the levels are designed specifically to kind of like draw your own creativity out to give you a problem that is like, oh, yeah, like you probably haven't thought about the world in this way. You haven't thought about like how to do something in this. And so we'll have all the goals we're just getting from A to B. So you have an object. So our object is like a pink sphere and it's got kind of an odd smoky universe that lives inside it. And it wants to get to a big pink goal on the other side of the level. And then we basically just changed the configuration a lot. So the first one is kind of set up like a soccer goal on the far side of a field. So all you have to do is you have to get the ball from like over here to over there. It's really easy. You can just like attach some wheels to it. And then the goal moves up into the air. So you have to kind of build a supporting structure that holds the ball up. And then it kind of moves off the side of the world, so you have to find a way to cantilever it all over there, or maybe you just make something that collapses in the right way, or maybe you throw it over there, and there's a bunch of different ways to get there. And then we move from there, we have a level where you have to go straight up, or you have to climb up a pole, or go up a set of stairs. We've been working on the game for such a short period of time and level design hasn't been like a huge priority for us So we don't have we haven't even started exploring like where we can like really go and how far we can really go We know from the original game fantastic contraption the 2d version that there's like seven years of gameplay in that game So we're pretty sure we're gonna get a lot of gameplay out of this one, too. I Yeah, it sounds like you mentioned a number of like 12 million contraptions saved. And so that gives me an impression that people are going to be able to create something and then share them in some way. So what does that going to look like?

[00:07:38.278] Sarah Northway: Yeah, so you will be able to save your creations, save your solutions really to the levels and share them online. And then if you get really stumped on a level, you want to cheat, you can go and browse through what other people have done, get some inspiration, see the kind of stuff that you might have never thought of doing. Yeah, it's been really cool for the original Contraption. Like, people will think, you know, they know everything there is to know about this game. Like, oh, I know how to build a car, and I know how to build a catapult. And then they go and watch some other people's solutions, and they're like, oh my god, like, you can do that in this game? You can do that in this game? It's pretty endless, the creativity. So, like, it is a puzzle game, but it's also this sandbox of just, like, what can you do with a few simple physics and, like, as many pieces as you want to stick on something.

[00:08:27.098] Colin Northway: Yeah, it seems like there's going to be different physics interactions that are happening with individual objects, but I'm really curious about the kind of two-handed interaction with the Vive, like what type of things that people are going to be able to do in terms of that gameplay mechanic of the input controllers, what type of things they're going to be able to do. Yeah, so we spent, or I spent like a good, so far I've spent like a solid just month writing that code. And the only frustrating thing about spending so much time working on that code is that it disappears. Like nobody's ever impressed by it because when it works perfectly, everyone's just like, oh yeah, I mean, obviously you just build stuff. Like, of course, like, well, I mean, I had to actually make that all happen, but it's super easy. So you've got a bunch of sticks piled up against the wall. You go over and you like pick one up with one hand and you pick one up with the other hand and then you like put them end to end and they stick together. If you grab one with two hands, you can stretch it out and make it bigger. If you don't want them to be together, you just like grab one and grab the other and pull them apart. I mean, it's all the verbs. Oh yeah, if you don't want one anymore, you just throw it away. You just like pitch it off the edge of the world and it falls away and you never have to worry about it. The, like, verbs of the game are just so intuitive. They're all of the motions you use to play the game are all the motions you use to make breakfast in the morning. It's like our tutorial is literally all about, okay, this is a game where you have to get, like, the goal over there. And for the actual, like, building part of the game, the part that usually you have to spend forever tutorializing, we have one sentence that is, like, build stuff. And then people like just build stuff. They don't even they don't think about it.

[00:10:05.115] Kent Bye: They just start doing it and You have pipes what other type of objects were in the original game, and you have all those same objects Are you expanding that?

[00:10:14.068] Colin Northway: Yeah, so Fantastic Contraption, the first Fantastic Contraption, and my view of game design generally is I love to get as much expression as possible out of as few tools as possible, so I love minimalism. And the first game embraces that in a big way. The first game has five tools, so there's two kinds of sticks, one that collides with each other and one that falls through things. And wheels that go left, wheels that go right, and wheels that don't spin at all. And I always joked that it's hard to sequel, it is hard to sequel Fantastic Contraption, because I always feel like it's a game about less. And like, you the player doing the creative work, rather than me as the game designer. So I always wanted it to be about less, and I always thought like, oh, how do you do a sequel to a game that's about less? Like, I guess you just take pieces out? And literally, this game has less pieces than the original Fantastic Contraption because it doesn't need to have wheels that go both ways. Because you have one wheel, it goes left, but if you turn it around, it goes right. So it has all of the same pieces from the original game, like, minus one. Which is, my game designer, like, best case love that.

[00:11:22.307] Sarah Northway: So we are going to add other stuff, like I'm sure. Colin loves the minimalism, loves the like, you know, it's just Tinker Toys, it's just wheels and pipes, that's it. But there's going to be more, for sure there's going to be more. There was a Fantastic Contraption 2 that added like magnets and moving platforms and some other I can't remember what all it was, but I'm sure all of that will make it back in at some point. Once we have the basics and they are super fun, then we can add decor. What I really want to do is have things that don't even have a use, really, but just look super cool, or do something that's random and maybe not helpful, but is like, how do I beat the level with this difficult-to-use tool?

[00:12:05.576] Colin Northway: Even being able to dress something up like a dragon would be amazing, right? So what type of experiences do you guys want to have in virtual reality then? Well, I think there's a lot of potential experiences. I really like building things, just like as a person, so I like making games and I like making games about building things, so I really like that. I really like some of the other games that are out right now. Job Simulator, I really like Job Simulator. We played that in an early PAX demo and it really inspired us. I think one of the best things about Job Simulator is just that it focuses on that immediate fun of picking stuff up and pitching it around and throwing it around. doing weird things, taking advantage of the fact that this is like a real world and you can interact with it like the real world, but these kind of bizarre, absurd things can happen around you. And I think they do a really good job of that. I think it's really fun. All of the demos are pretty good. Like the blue, the blue demo is like, there's no real interaction with it. It's just, I don't know if I even want to spoil it for people, but it's like you're underwater. You just kind of like look at what happens around you. And while there's no gameplay in that demo version, Just the experience of being in that place is so strong and interesting. So, I mean, even non-interactive stuff is interesting. And then for me, the game that really made, like, contraption click in my head was Tilt Brush and Tilt Brushes. I can't believe how good Tilt Brush is.

[00:13:27.142] Sarah Northway: Yeah, I'm totally addicted to Tilt Brush. Now that we have our own Vive in our office and every evening I'm in there playing Tilt Brush. But what I really want to see though are games that do have like regular game mechanics because I want something that I can just go into and like play for hours and hours and hours. Contraption is one of those games. It really is. The puzzles get hard and actually just beating the levels is going to be tricky in the end. But yeah, that's what I want to do. I want an excuse to spend a good amount of time in VR. And while I love all the demos and all the crazy different spaces to be in and everything, it's like, oh, after 20 minutes or so in each one, it's like I want to move on to the next little candy-coated whatever. So I really want a game that's just a great game, but also in that VR universe. And I'm sure we're going to see tons of them. There's some of them showing today, for sure. Yeah, Tilt Brush is one of them though, right, because it's, you know, it's just an art game. It's just, it's Photoshop, right, or whatever, but it's, you can spend forever in there making stuff, yeah.

[00:14:33.606] Colin Northway: And finally, what do you guys see as kind of the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable? That is, uh, I think the question. I seriously have no idea. I mean, I can imagine the future where VR is like, I mean, I guess not like Virtual Boy bad, but it's clearly an amazing experience, but I can imagine the world where like people don't really take it on for a reason that I can't imagine or, you know, like some celebrity comes out and is like, VR is bad for children. I'm like, all right, I guess that's it. Or like, There's probably some kind of future where that happens, but the future where we literally give up screens and we're all using headsets instead also seems totally possible to me. I mean, nice thing about Contraption is that I always kind of thought of the weird VR dystopian future as being like, oh, people are just going to be in their headsets and never see another human being. But we have contraption parties that are crazy fun. So we've just got a TV set up that shows the point of view of the person playing. And people just sit on a couch. And we're all yelling suggestions. And you can see what people are trying. And when they fail, it's like, oh, I feel that failure. And then when they succeed, it feels really good. It's not that closed, walled-off experience.

[00:15:51.625] Sarah Northway: I can see it replacing screens for sure, like down the road. Like ask Facebook, why did they buy it, right? Like they're not even that interested in games. They're interested in like people connecting socially and like being in a place and like, you know, all these weird ways that you can use VR that have nothing to do with entertainment necessarily. But I think AR is going to be a big thing, like, you know, being able to like be in the environment with other people and maybe also sort of in the room that you're in. I really think that in the future, we will not have TV screens, we will have glasses, but I don't know how long down the road this is going to be. But this is the start of it. It's very exciting. Yeah.

[00:16:28.201] Colin Northway: Yeah, just to kind of follow up with that, because in your trailer, you did have shots of people watching a screen. So you have someone in VR, but you're projecting that on a TV screen, and there's sort of a whole social component of people interacting. And do you foresee kind of adding like multiplayer contraption, or do you just see it as more of this kind of like asymmetrical, like one person's in VR and other people are kind of there as a kind of a party game and watching and enjoying it?

[00:16:53.219] Sarah Northway: I think if the game is successful, we'll definitely keep working on it. Multiplayer is something that we keep tossing around and talking about, like, you know, you're going to build something together or will there be more of like a kind of versus thing where you have separate spaces but be able to talk? Like, when you see each other, can you pass things from one guy to the other? There's lots of questions. Yeah. Will you be in the same room together physically or will you be in separate places networked? Like, how is it going to work? It's all very exciting and we're talking about it.

[00:17:20.493] Colin Northway: There's this great thing even now Andy Moore is one of the programmers working on the game at Radial Games and he put in this thing where we have like a little fly that flies around in the game and so he put in this thing where you could like control another person could control the fly with like a joystick and then talking to a mic and the voice with their voice would like come out of the fly so you can like drive this fly around talking to this person in the world there's just like a lot of weird things that nobody's ever thought of or tried. VR is just incredibly, it's like the best game designer toy right now because you can do all these things that nobody in the world has ever done before.

[00:17:56.943] Kent Bye: Great. Well, thank you guys so much.

[00:17:59.005] Colin Northway: Yeah, thank you. Thanks very much.

[00:18:01.026] Kent Bye: And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash voices of VR.

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