INTERVIEW: Jon Hibbins on Developing VR Titles and Controllers

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

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Windlands | Logo

Windlands is Psytec Games Ltd.’s second VR title. It is a game that takes place in a deserted world where you go out and explore. On October 23, 2016, I sat down with Jon Hibbins, a developer of Windlands, and talked with him about Windlands, developing for the various VR headsets that are on the market, about Move support for the PlayStation VR version, the future of Crystal Rift, and he teased the idea of future VR titles containing multiplayer support.

This is a three-part interview. Part One, where Mr. Hibbins discusses Windlands and its crowdfunding roots, can be found here. In Part Three,  Mr. Hibbins talks about Psytec Games Ltd’s first title, Crystal Rift, the likelihood of Windlands DLC, and what lies in store for Psytec Games, Ltd. in the future. 

You can follow Psytec Games Ltd. on Twitter, like them on Facebook, and check them out at their website. You also can follow Jon Hibbins on Twitter and visit his website.

Windlands is out now on Steam, the Oculus Store, and for PlayStation VR. You can also buy Crystal Rift on Steam and on the Oculus Store.

Interview by Quentin H.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

“The [PlayStation VR] is hard [to develop for]. Really hard. I wouldn’t tackle it as a single developer. I would have said it’s almost impossible.”

OR: You’ve come out in support of ‘custom locomotion systems’ for VR titles, instead of relying upon ‘blink/teleport mechanics’. Why do you feel that ‘custom locomotion’ is superior?

JH: Well, you know fundamentally – the problem is that I am biased in this. I am a particular fan of not having limitations to movement. I do get affected by VR sickness. But if VR is done well, I don’t get affected by VR sickness. So part of it is that. But the second – probably more importantly- is that I think that this problem needs resolving. It’s very constraining [with] every other method I’ve tried. I’ve never found any other method, even the best-in-class teleportation, on games like Robo Recall – there are so many examples, it’s immersively breaking. It’s- the world rotates and you don’t know where you are suddenly. It’s just very unpleasant experience.

I think Windlands proves that locomotion can be done well. In Windlands case, it’s massive jumps and great big swings across huge voids, and there’s all sorts of feelings of vertigo. It can be done. And [there are] other great examples of locomotion that I can think of – quite a few, Onward is another example – racing car games do it all the time. And these games are fantastic games. And in fact, I played one recently called Flight. And it’s full-on locomotion, but they’ve done so much to reduce nausea and [the] majority of people get used to it and get their ‘VR legs’. In fact, we’ve got huge amounts of research.

We’ve got the benefit of having shown Windlands to as many as ten-thousand people in public venues. There are a lot of those people are VR virgins. A lot of those people have never been in a locomotion game before. And that gives me a perspective that a majority of people are absolutely fine with locomotion. We’ve done surveys that thousands of people have responded to that tells me that – my confidence is that most people are fine with good locomotion if it’s done well. For the percentage that are left, they either get their VR legs through playing plenty of VR and learning to switch off the inner vestibule or they get extra benefit from things like cages or all the things we turn on. And there’s a very small percentage, it really is like a very, very small percentage of people that can never do it. I really feel for them, because they are missing out on something. But ultimately, we’re all different, we’re all wired different. There are plenty of people who can’t play Call of Duty because it’s too fast, and it makes them sick. It’s the same scenario. At the end of the day, it’s a new challenge to deal with.

VR can be done well, [VR sickness] can be mitigated to [a] great degree. And frankly, we need to solve the problem – whether that be hardware, animated chairs, whatever it takes to solve the problem of locomotion. We should be plowing forward and resolving it. I recognize that if I get sick in a game, to turn the headset off. And there are very, very fast computers – very, very fast software- that means you can hit rock-solid 90 fps, and never had an issue with VR performance. And that helps as well. But even the best in [teleportation] class – and the most recent one I can think of, Robo Recall – was just completely jarring and an unpleasant experience for me. And I think that they have the best-in-class.

They are doing things I don’t enjoy about teleportation – such as the arc on the grenade throw, you never can get it quite where you want it. You never quite get it facing the way you want it. And in the middle of a whole bunch of action, it’s just a skill that’s unpleasant to learn and use.

And so I’m very vocal about that. I’m not just openly vocal about it – I actually do stuff to try to help. I’m doing some projects with Oculus on locomotion. I’ve been working with some hardware manufacturers through hardware use, like machines and things. I think it’s sad that so many developers shy away from it and we end up producing five-hundred cloned games, basically, because if you set the rule – you can’t be free, you’ve got to stand in this space- you just end up with a lot of trash. And it’s sad to see. And I’d like to see more people to push the envelope and ultimately find more and more ways to resolve the issues.

Windlands l Another stage image

OR:  You’ve now developed Windlands for three high-end VR headsets. What differences did you discover while developing for the Vive, the Oculus Rift, and the PlayStation VR?

JH: They’ve changed those along the way. So the PlayStation being the latest – even though we’ve had the benefit of having the PlayStation VR headset for awhile now- when Oculus first came out, there wasn’t the concept of 3D input. So we had to reinvent ourselves a number of times to support the Vive ones and then eventually the [Oculus] Touch ones. All three headsets are amazing, actually. They are all really comparable. We’ve done such a good job with Windlands. If you were to put each of the headsets on one after another, only a professional could probably tell you which one you were using. Just pure specs – they are the same game. There is nothing cut out from any of the versions.

Visually, they are all running at 90 fps. They all are fully baked, there’s no polygons being reduced or anything like that on any of them. PlayStation [VR] does a good job on Windlands because the PlayStation optics are very good. I’m getting into technicalities here, but, both fields the headset use concentric circles, so you don’t get the same sort of blurry stuff from whatever. And the screen they use in the PlayStation is particularly bright and filled with colors. Not so much with blacks, but with colors it’s extremely good and Windlands lends itself to that vibrant type of color. So those two things together mean they look pretty damn good on the PlayStation [VR].

But the process we’ve been through the last few months converting to PlayStation VR was extremely intense. It took about five people three months to do that. And the main difficulty between each of the platforms is the – Steam is the easiest platform to publish to. Oculus has got their own processes and stuff to get onto the store. And Sony are a completely different level of professionalism. Even basic things like having get ESRB for a rating [and] obviously [Sony] has to invite you to the store to publish your game on there in the first place. It’s a completely different level of professionalism. But the Oculus [Store is] slowly going that way. I think I’m very impressed with how the Oculus [Store is] now adding quality control processes into their systems to make sure that their content on their store is great. And I think Vive pretty much opened the floodgates. Which is common – what we’ve ended up with is that Steam has looked a little bit like the early Oculus stuff where anybody could publish anything and it was all very experimenting. But [un]fortunately, it’s paid stuff, which is even more detrimental to [VR]. But there is a need to be experimental, I just wish it was clearer that some of the content on there was pretty poor.

The [PlayStation VR] is hard. Really hard. I wouldn’t tackle it as a single developer. I would have said it’s almost impossible. It’s taken the best part of six months – it’s the hardest platform to publish for because you’ve really got to optimize for quite not the start-of-art 1080-type hardware that PCs can run. And to do that well in VR, and to produce something, it requires a level of skill that’s taken us about three years to learn. And I don’t think we’d have done as well as we’ve done unless we had all that practice with [a] reasonable large team. It just- there’s a lot of things to do. It actually costs quite a lot of money as well – you have to pay for an awful lot through the process. But hopefully, it’s worth it. We’ll find out Tuesday.

Windlands l Sunset area in a level

OR: Was Sony willing to help you through the development process while you were developing for the PlayStation VR?

JH: Yeah, I think they’ve been helpful. I’ve got great contacts at Sony, and we’ve got people that’ve been involved with what we’re doing. But there’s only so much they’re going to do. They’re not going to sit down and do the programming. And there’s a point where it’s our job to do a good job. As an indie dev on Sony as well, I think you [have to be] ambitious. It’s just not an easy process. I don’t want to terrify anyone who wants to try, it’s just that I’ve found that it a whole different level of development. It’s an awful lot to consider, an awful lot of simple things towards the end of the process that is like creating art with in-store cards and things like that. It’s all quite overwhelming for a small indie developer. And I think that we’re very lucky to have done so well with Steam and Oculus platform[s] which has helped finance, helped us grow the team to be a sizeable enough [team] to deal with it. I think [we’re] one of maybe a handful of companies who’ve all three platforms at launch. And that’s testament to what an amazing team I’ve got behind me on Windlands at Psytec Games [Ltd.]. There’s a lot of very talented people who make this stuff happen.

OR: The original iterations for the Rift and the Vive have THC Vive controller support and will have Oculus Touch support as soon as those controllers are released. Will the PlayStation VR version have additional Move support at launch?

JH: Not day one. But let me explain.

The Vive Controller input came along mid-project for us. And it was a thing people wanted: ‘Wouldn’t it be nice to point both hands and direct where your hooks go?’. And we were looking at Vive controller ‘day one’ here. The very, very release one – We were the third in the UK to get one. It was amazing. When we started to implement Windlands with that, the controller we released – ‘Yeah, we can make this work’- the controller will fight a bit against us, because we’re so analog driven, stick driven, with our movement and the way that the game was designed. The Vive Controllers just have a touchpad, and I honestly don’t think the controllers are amazing. [There’s] disparity- maybe that’s improved with the latest manufacturing cycles- but the early days, it was certainly quality issues with the pads and they’d break on people – you can’t really get a good touch against the edge of the pads. People can slip off the top of the [Vive touch] pads and accidentally hit the button above it. And it makes it like – we’ve had to do an awful lot of microseconds and delays to make things work [for the Vive touchpad]. And we ended up doing a stellar job of giving people a number of choices on the Vive. And generally, it’s really well received and people love playing on the Vive. And so we did a really good job there.

We got early Touches as well. We were lucky with that. And we did the first Touch demo, and from the minute ‘go’, it was going to be the best version of Windlands. It was like: the analog sticks are perfect, they just register right, physical buttons, everything is in the right place, it’s like playing on Xbox controller, but you can aim your hands. It was just like ‘these are perfect’. And I think Oculus had won that for Windlands. The Touch version of Windlands will be stellar and will be there at launch. It’s actually working already exactly as we want it to be.

Now the Move has been a different experience for us. The Move controllers- there are a number of things that are against us. Now partly is the tracking. Windlands requires these big arm movements and stuff. And let’s face it: sadly, we’re still working on last-gen tech camera, last-gen tech Moves. The Moves were made for the PlayStation 3 and a single camera use. They are not ideal for Windlands. So we got the tracking problem with them, the buttons – there’s no analog sticks at all. There’s not even a joypad. There’s nothing. Everything’s physical buttons. There’s no actual sensitivity to it. And so all of this [is] fighting against us. But we went to the drawing board with it. We knew people wanted it. And we’ve done this absolutely awesome job of it. But it’s still in progress. We think we can do better before launch. And I think we’ll find it difficult enough not launching with Move, sadly. It’s no point launching this terrible experience that people are just going to go ‘This is awful’. We’d rather launch it when it’s right.

The last time I played through – which wasn’t that long ago, a week ago maybe- I really enjoyed it on the Move. It was a very good experience. I think we’re getting there, and I think people want it that way. They want the best we can do with Move. I think they’re now comparable to the Vive. I think they’re as good as the Vive. I think we’ve done that well. So that’s good, that’s great.

Actually, a majority of the work now is hooking that whole platform up to internal input manager and doing more playtesting on it, and doing things like models so you can see the towers and things. So yeah, I expect that to be coming in the next few weeks. We launch on Tuesday [for the PlayStation VR], and we’ll patch [Move support] in [at] some point in the next month or so. If Move gets where we’re happy with it internally, then that’ll be great. But it’s coming. I think we’re at the stage where now we can publicly say ‘it’s definitely happening, it just won’t be on launch day.’ In fact, the version that’s coming out on Tuesday was locked and sealed weeks ago. So we can’t update that anyways.

Windlands l Underneath in a level

Windlands is out now on Steam, the Oculus Store, and for PlayStation VR.

Do you have a VR headset preference? What do you think of the difficulties developing for the various headsets?

Let us know in the comments below!

About Quentin H.

I have been a journalist for oprainfall since 2015, and I have loved every moment of it. Do you want to do an interview? You can reach me at