By Quentin H. / November 7th, 2018
Back in April 1995, Penn & Teller (yes, the magicians) planned on releasing a video game on the Sega CD called Penn & Teller’s Smoke and Mirrors. Packed with minigames, one of them was Desert Bus. In Desert Bus, you drive a bus between Tucson, Arizona and Las Vegas, Nevada for eight hours. Oh, and you can’t pause it or walk away, or else you’ll crash. And at the end, you get one point before you have to make the return trip.
While this game was never publically released for sale, in 2007, a Canadian comedy troupe called Loading Ready Run began to livestream the game in an attempt to raise money for Child’s Play Charity. Since Loading Ready Run first began doing this yearly digital bus trip, Desert Bus for Hope has raised more than $3.8 million dollars to buy toys and video games for children in hospitals and domestic violence shelters.
Recently, Gearbox Software, LLC, Dinosaur Games, and Penn & Teller teamed up to bring Desert Bus back to the world…but this time in Virtual Reality. I sat down with some of the team behind Desert Bus VR at both Gearbox Software, LLC and Dinosaur Games to talk about creating a VR version and then literally just giving it away to help children without a second thought. This is something that you wouldn’t normally expect a Triple-A studio to do, and so I wanted find out about how Desert Bus VR came about, the process in making it, and more.
You can check out Gearbox Software, LLC at their official website and official forums, on Twitter, on Facebook, on Youtube, on Instagram, on Tumblr, and on Twitch. You can find out more about Dinosaur Games at their official website.
You can visit the official Desert Bus for Hope website, on Facebook, on their blog, on YouTube, and follow them on Twitter. This year’s charity game-a-thon takes place on Twitch, beginning November 9th, 2018. You can also visit Child’s Play Charity at their official website, on Twitter, on Facebook, and you can just donate to them directly via PayPal. You can also donate toward this year’s run of Desert Bus for Hope 2018 via PayPal as well. (Seriously. Donate. It’s for a good cause.)
This interview has been edited for content, clarity, and length.
Operation Rainfall: My name is Quentin H., with Operation Rainfall. And you all are?
Austin Malcolm: My name is Austin Malcolm, and I am the head of the PR for Gearbox Software and Gearbox Publishing.
Elisa Meléndez: My name is Elisa Meléndez, the New Media Manager for Gearbox Publishing.
Jesse Sosa: [I am] Jesse Sosa, I’m the Outsource Manager here at Gearbox, and owner of Dinosaur Games.
Brian Burleson: I am Brian Burleson, [Managing Producer of Development at Gearbox and Senior Producer on Desert Bus VR].
OR: Okay thank you all, let’s dive right into it. Where did the idea of remaking Desert Bus in VR come from?
BB: Uh, yeah, it just kind of came out of discussions with Penn & Teller. We were talking about largely working with them on projects. Then Randy [Pitchford] and Penn were talking about all the absurdities they can do with video games. And of course, Desert Bus came up, right? Because it’s the worst game ever made. And we made a statement that Desert Bus is like having a job. You go back and forth endlessly. That it had never really been released. It was only released as a ROM. But people started loving it in streams. And Desert Bus For Hope came of it. And during the discussions that Randy was having with Penn, the idea came [up] to resurrect [Desert Bus].
Because, you know, Desert Bus For Hope is really something worth supporting.
OR: Now [Desert Bus VR] was released on November 27, 2017. About how far back did the whole process start? for this VR game?
BB: You know, we were working on it for like ten years. The idea to execution was probably that long.
OR: How did you secure the rights to making this game? Who had them?
BB: Penn & Teller. The rights reverted back to them. It came from Penn & Teller.
“And Penn was like ‘No. No, no, no. Don’t do that. Because that’s fun. [We] don’t want to encourage the player to play this game.’”
OR: Stepping back a little bit: How did Gearbox first get involved with Desert Bus for Hope and the Desert Bus game?
AM: So I think- Randy has a hand in magic and stage shows in Parkland. It really was Penn & Teller who actually were part of the original Desert Bus that came out for the [Sega CD]. So Penn & Teller were talking [with him] about what sort of things that Randy can do to help support them making a video game project. So that’s what brought them on, but it was part of this overall larger project we were doing with Penn & Teller.
OR: How did Dinosaur Games get involved?
JS: We just kind of, Brian and I – we were at GDC 2016 independently [of each other]. And we had mutual friends that we had dinner with. And Brian and I ended up sitting next to each other at the table. And I brought up that ‘We’re doing a lot of VR games.’ He asked if I had a portfolio or demo reel. As I pulled out my tablet and showed him my demo reel, [and] he brought up the idea of Desert Bus, which I absolutely loved. I discovered that game in the early 2000’s.
BB: I was just walking down the street and one of our mutual friends was walking the other direction and said “Hey, you wanna grab dinner?”. And that was how it worked out.
OR: So what was the pre-production like [for Desert Bus VR]?
JS: The game development was very straightforward. I mean, all we’re doing is porting it over from 2D to 3D VR. So we had a strong idea to work off of. The digital pre-production didn’t really happen. Because we knew exactly what we had. We just traded ideas around e-mail of – I can talk with my guys about this – it was just so straight forward because we knew exactly what we were hitting when we had that mantra of “We Can’t Have Too Much Fun.”
So there wasn’t a lot we could add to it. So the biggest pre-production that we did was researching the bus. And we looked, and we looked, and we looked for just buses. A perfect bus. And we finally found a bus here in Fort Worth that was like, the perfect style. And so I drove up and I took a ton of photographs of it and drove back. And it was the perfect example. Everything else that would have been caught by pre-production as much as just production, because we had to figure out a lot of issues along the way. Like how to interact with the steering wheel was a big one. Even then, I don’t think we arrived at the optimal solution, but the best solution we could at the time.
BB: In a way, that is just great for Desert Bus.
JS: Yeah, it would seem so. We had to figure out how to make the menu system that felt natural with the environment. And we had to figure out how to tell people [that] this was Desert Bus. There was a lot we had to figure out. It wasn’t necessarily pre-production, but it was a lot of interesting things that popped up.
BB: I think the closest thing that we could consider pre-production was to see this really interesting game experience, you have to make it more fun. Right? So we had a lot of ideas that we kicked back and forth with Penn & Teller, [that we could] make it so that the desert itself and the pirate radio stations and the [bus] stations while driving would tell a sort of narrative. And we thought it would be really cool, because it’d make you want to keep driving the bus. And you could program your stations [into the radio] to learn more of the story.
And Penn was like “No. No, no, no. Don’t do that. Because that’s fun. [We] don’t want to encourage the player to play this game.” And so we’re like “Oh, okay.” So we went back and forth with this idea of a really complicated interactive passages of this game [which doesn’t have] a really funny script but to [make] a statement that this is a really lousy video game.
JS: We were tempted to make the dashboard a lot more interactive than it currently is, but again, it just came down to that we can’t have all these little buttons and knobs because when you’re really driving a bus, you can’t have these distractions.
OR: How big was the Gearbox team that worked on Desert Bus VR, and how much of the overall company’s efforts were devoted towards this game?
AM: There’s several people that came up with the idea, but Dinosaur had a significant part of the resources devoted to it.
JS: Yeah, Dinosaur was – it was me, one of my good 3D artists, programmer, composer, and one other artist that pretty much made it. So it was five at the most, at the largest it was five.
AM: A very small team.
“We had a pretty specific idea for features and achievements as well. Like, Teller wanted to do one with a piece of gum stuck on the back of a seat, and you had to look at it at the right time to watch it fall. And you would get an achievement.“
OR: So you mentioned that there was a challenge in developing the steering wheel. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
JS: So the steering issue is that the lack of tactile feedback. There’s no – you’re not placing your hands on anything. And that proved to be a big issue because of, for the Vive, we would sub- what is it called when you can tell where you are?
BB: Room-scale tracking.
JS: Yeah, room-scale tracking. You can track your hands in 3D space, like you are placing your hands on the actual steering wheel. And that’s great. But people will be holding [their hands] up there for eight hours, and your arms are obviously going to get tired. So people are constantly adjusting their hands and at a certain point, your actual physical hands are going to drift away from the position where the steering wheel is represented and your hands will ‘snap off’. And without a physical representation of the steering wheel, you just don’t know – you can’t rest your hands on there, and it just didn’t feel right.
BB: And because it was just like Desert Bus, you couldn’t hinder the game just because it was a VR game. You couldn’t go in short bursts because you’re actually sitting there for eight hours – that’s the rule. You couldn’t rely on the vibration feedback because controllers generally have batteries in them. The vibration would have to go constantly and would drain the batteries.
JS: Even though you have a VR headset on, you can ‘see’ physical hands. You can see your VR representation. So if you’re moving your right hand from right to left, you will eventually [hit] the ‘hot spot’ where your hand will attach to the steering wheel. But if you keep moving your actual physical hand to the left, the VR hand will stay on the steering wheel, but your brain will notice that it doesn’t ‘match’ where your physical body is. So you create this weird disconnect between your brain and your physical body. And it doesn’t feel good. That wasn’t working, because one of the reasons [was that] it wasn’t tactile responsive.
Eventually we landed on what was [the] third or fourth [attempt]. I think it was the fourth one. Eventually we landed on ‘snapping’ with one hand and you can just grab the other hand and it will allow you to rest one arm, and you can just ‘snap’ back and forth. People are still a little unclear, I think we needed to do a better job of how to drive [the bus], but at the same time people understood it and it worked out fine.
BB: Kind of like if you’re a truck driver, you sit there with one hand on the wheel and one out the window. That’s pretty much how we imagined it: Just imagine if you’re a truck driver.
JS: Yeah. That another problem was trying to figure out how to accelerate.
BB: Yeah, with your foot.
JS: Yeah. We’re trying to figure out how to accelerate while still being able to interact with somebody watching in the world. How do you know when you pull the ‘trigger’? What is pulling the trigger to accelerate versus pulling the trigger to open the door? And who’s to say that your hand won’t accidentally be in a ‘hot spot’ and you pull a trigger and you activate something you don’t want? So we focused on one hand [being] strictly acceleration and the other hand [being] interaction.
OR: You mentioned looking for a bus. Did anyone actually make the drive from Tucson, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada in real life?
AM: We know we considered it from our side. We were thinking like ‘Man, what if we did actually rent out a bus and did a drive?’ But we thought ‘Why would we do that?’ I know from marketing that we considered it. At some point, maybe I’ll find a bus to rent and drive it. But no one from the development team [did it]. Maybe the people who did original Sega CD team did.
BB: I’ve done this drive before, but I was younger. [And] not in a bus. *laughs* From Tucson to Las Vegas. I did the drive in Google Maps as I was working on the game, because I was trying to make sure that we were matching the feel of the road and stuff. So I was just pulling Maps up and scroll[ing] and scroll[ing] and scroll[ing] in View or whatever.
JS: For a while, we were talking about trying to do like an actual representation of the drive. And it was too interesting.
BB: Actually, we found a road down in New Mexico to Mexico that was a perfect road to be used as a representation for the entire game. Just a little two-lane road. It was pretty cool.
OR: So where did the idea for multiplayer come from?
BB: I know I suggested it at some point. But I don’t know if I was the initial person or if I got it from somebody else.
JS: I think it was your idea. Just like a crazy ‘what if’. We pitched it to Penn & Teller. And I think you were the one who pitched it.
BB: Yeah, I pitched it to Teller: ‘We want to do multiplayer, and imagine just sitting in the back of the bus going for a ride.’ And Teller was like “I need to talk with Penn about it” but [said] ‘Yeah, that a pretty good idea to do.’
JS: Just hours of sitting there, watching.
BB: We had a pretty specific idea for features and achievements as well. Like, Teller wanted to do one with a piece of gum stuck on the back of a seat, and you had to look at it at the right time to watch it fall. And you would get an achievement. But it would randomly fall, and that’s the only time [and way] you would get that achievement – to actually see it fall.
I had another idea that we did implement because there came a certain point of time where testing this game was a nightmare. And I had to pull back, because a lot of these features are very easy to add but testing them is a nightmare.
So the big one I believed that we should do was [during] multiplayer. So if you start a game, you get a bus and you can drive it. But if you do multiplayer, you get in the back seat while they drive. Okay, fantastic. What I wanted to do was to have the window – so if someone starts the game, you have a five to ten minute window to join someone’s bus. And if you join beyond that window, you sit at a bus stop and wait for the bus to arrive. You sit there in real time and hope to god that that person does not quit and you get an achievement for waiting at that bus stop for the bus. And when it arrives, you get in the bus and you go back and that counts towards your time allocation for actually being on the bus.
JS: That’s the thing about this game. There are so many ideas you can come up with, and they are so just ridiculous, but there is also a fear of ‘This is not supposed to be a really fun experience’.
BB: We had an achievement we would give you for sitting at the menu for eight hours. But we were going to track the person’s head and make sure they didn’t just place the headset down. We were experimenting with a technique where everything starts to buzz [if you stay still too long], and if it [goes] black without any player input, we would kick you out of the game. And so what you would have to do was you have to have [the headset] on, and keep your head moving around to keep you awake [in the game]. And so you had to sit there. You couldn’t just put the thing down. We had a lot of really mean stuff planned.
JS: We’re creating [stuff] for Desert Bus 2025.
BB: We can do like a prequel to it. *laughs*
“It is a charity game. The charity [aspect] makes it worth it.“
OR: How were the radio programs implemented in Desert Bus VR? You mentioned pirate stations [earlier]. How did you decide upon the ones that were included?
JS: Penn has a radio program. [OR Note: It’s a podcast called Penn’s Sunday School.] He did an open call for solicitations for the radio. And it really just- it was the worst thing you could ever imagine. They sent it to us and we listened to them. It was concerning what people came up with. Have you listened to all eight hours of it?
OR: I have not.
BB: There’s some good stuff.
JS: There’s some ridiculous stuff. Like Teller reads ‘pi’. Teller starts reading street names. And then the challenge is to figure one which one sounds incredibly British. Mainly with a British accent.
EM: One of my favorites was someone just describing a coloring book. *laughs*
JS: *laughs* Yeah, like narrating a coloring book. How do you do that?! You submitted something [Elisa].
EM: Yeah, yeah. I submitted one of my songs, for one. It’s in there.
JS: There was [also] cars being described, I thought.
BB: There was a lot we couldn’t put in there because of copyright and stuff like that too.
JS: Yeah, it was terrible.
BB: The one thing that you made me do that we didn’t do that I was so pissed about was captioning the whole thing. And I sat there and started typing them all. I was doing all of them. And I was just like ‘Oh, this sucks.’
JS: We had to check to make sure that the grammar and typing [was correct].
BB: Yeah, the typing was bullshit. We would have the whole Excel sheet displayed and typed. And we had to figure out how much text we could fit. And I did the entire [trip] as a test to make sure it could all be seen. And oh my God. We could never– you could turn the radio on and off, but it would de-sync or whatever. And it would [desync] with the speed of the bus [too].
Oh man. That was an experience.
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