Pixel Ripped case study: Old school 2D in VR
When Ana Ribeiro quit her steady government job, sold everything and flew from São Luis to London to study game design back in 2010, her family and friends thought she had lost her mind. In the end, though–with the help of the Unity engine and a healthy dose of talent, energy and optimism–Ribeiro was vindicated. She now has a collaboration deal with ARVORE Immersive Experiences, and her Pixel Ripped game is winning fans, recognition and awards even prior to its release.
A retro 2D game and a thrilling VR ride
Inspired by a combination of the warm, nostalgic feelings she had for the Game Boy titles of her childhood plus her excitement about the latest virtual reality (VR) technology, Ana Ribeiro had a vision of a game within a game. However, creating a retro 2D game within a VR experience did present certain technical challenges. The Unity platform has enabled her to tackle those challenges by making it significantly easier to polish the final product and keep the frame rate up.
- Could create new demo-test versions within weeks
- Increased frames per second (fps) by 20 with the help of Asset Store tools
- Asset Store tools saved months of work
- Featured at Made with Unity Showcase at Unite Austin 2017
- Collaboration deal with ARVORE Immersive Experiences
- Multiple award-winner, including Best VR game at Amaze Festival, Indiecade 2015, and Proto Awards nomination for Most Innovative VR game and Best Original Score
Old school meets new school, and they hit it off
Sit down, put on your VR headset, and get ready to travel back to 1989. Look around: you’re back in high school, kid, and your goal is to complete levels on your handheld game console without getting caught by your nagging teacher.
“I grew up playing games like Mega Man, Super Mario, and Tetris, and I wanted to see if I could use the possibilities of VR technology to let people travel back in time and get that same warm feeling I have for those games,” says Ribeiro. “I wanted people to laugh and feel good and have fun by being transported to the 80s, to the spirit of playing games in the past, the way I remember it.”
Ana meets Unity, and it’s love at first sight
Pixel Ripped started as Ribeiro's final-year game design project at the National Film and Television School in London, where she was first introduced to Unity. In the beginning of her studies, though, she didn’t have the benefit of the game engine.
“When I started learning how to make games, it was from scratch. I had to build everything. I had to build the engine, the camera, everything from scratch. It felt like if you wanted to bake a cake, you had to build the whole kitchen. But I didn’t want to build the oven, build the pumps, the kitchen and the walls just to bake one cake; I just wanted to get to my favorite part. I wanted to make the game.”
So when Ribeiro was introduced to Unity, she says she couldn’t believe her eyes.
“Some of my fellow students were complaining: ‘Oh my God, we have to write a line of code.’ But I was so excited. I was like: ‘Wow, everything’s ready; I can just put the camera there. I can just grab the physics and add it. It was love at first sight,” she says.
Quick prototyping and testing go hand in hand
When she started developing Pixel Ripped, Ribeiro had the basic idea of a nostalgic time-travel journey to the gaming era of her youth. In order to see what might work and where to focus, she tested early demo versions on her fellow students.
“Unity was really useful for me because it allowed me to put demos together fast. Then I could find the mistakes or just parts that people didn’t like and fix them. Unity is great for prototyping; it enabled me to create a new version within a week typically.”
Don’t kill me, I’m just the boyfriend
During testing, Ribeiro experienced two epiphanies about what were the worst and best elements in her game. The first revelation was that players absolutely hated a certain character, not loved to hate, but actually just hated. Ribeiro had thought it would be humorous to have the main character’s boyfriend dancing in front of the TV.
“I thought it was going to be funny because that’s what it’s like in real life when you’re playing a game on the TV and people are crossing in front of the screen annoying you. But people got really mad at this guy. They wanted to hurt him. There were like 40 testers who all wanted to kill the guy,” she says.
So instead, she got rid of that character and focused on the part of the demo that resonated with everyone.
“Initially, the little moment in the game that everyone loved the most wasn’t even going to be important. It was when you follow the main character in first-person point-of-view as she comes out of the console and jumps to another console,” Ribeiro says.
“It took five seconds at most, and then you would be in the other game. It was just that little thing, but everyone, literally everyone, said: ‘That’s the best part, hands down: the moment that that character comes out of the game.”
2D and VR together at last
Ribeiro now had the key to producing the right atmosphere that she was looking for . She now knew how to give people that happy, old-school gaming feeling mixed with modern technology. At least in terms of the narrative and gameplay. But there were still technical challenges to overcome.
“The biggest challenge has always been having two games within one,” Ribeiro says. “You have a 2D game, which is a jumping platform, like Mega Mario. And this game has separate scenes, separate graphics, separate music, sound, code, everything. And then you have the 3D world of the 80s classroom. So the programming behind these two game universes, plus the VR, has meant that it’s always been a challenge to increase the fps and keep it on a doable quality for releasing the game and not making people sick.”
The solution was to go through the game and polish everything in order to make it as light as possible. But that requires time, resources, and the right tools. With that in mind, Ribeiro says that the Unity Asset Store has been invaluable enabling her to increase fps by 20.
A lesson learned the hard way: Look on the Unity Asset Store first!
Ribeiro learned the hard way that it made sense to browse the Unity Asset Store for the right tools before building something on her own. She recalls one particular incident that really drove this lesson home when still at school working on the project with one of her fellow students.
“We were trying to model this Christmas tree, and we saw one for five dollars on the Asset Store. But we really wanted to make everything in the whole 3D part of the game ourselves, including all the modeling. If we had just bought the tree on the store, it would’ve saved us a month of work and stress, and a little bit of disappointment, trying to get it right. I’ll never forget that,” Ribeiro says.
“Now I just always go to the Asset Store straightaway first. If I find it, and I think it will save me time, something I need in the game, I just buy it, and it’s done. That’s that. Sometimes you can even find something for free. I’d say the Asset Store saved me around three months of work at the very least.”
She has used a number of Asset Store tools for effects to create the unique mix of 80’s nostalgia and futuristic time-travel feel of Pixel Ripped. For example, she used Shader Forge to produce the pixelation at the start of the game when you travel back in time. She has also used Skybox for around 300 image effects. Ribeiro even found an asset specifically for the nostalgic feel of her game, which creates an 80s-style blue-camera effect.
This feature made their lives a lot easier
Another feature in Unity that saved Ribeiro and her collaborators lots of time and headaches was the multiplatform support.
“We want to reach all the major platforms, so it definitely helps to be able to just go there and change: PlayStation, Oculus, PC. It makes our lives much easier.”
Having worked in VR from the beginning of her project, Ribeiro followed both the changes in VR technology and how Unity supports it.
“All the headsets had changed through the development of this game, and it’s really, really good that there’s support for them all now. Because at the beginning, in the good old days of VR, you had to download everything, add all the plugins–I remember having to change all the cameras in the game one by one. Now it’s all integrated. You just tick this box “virtual reality support” and you only have to worry about the design.”