Ability, Games, Interviews

VR’s Potential For Meaningful Accessibility: An Interview with Polyarc Games

VR is quickly becoming the next big thing in gaming with more than 1.6 million consoles sold in 2016 and will bring in $7 billion in industry revenue by the end of 2017. This is an industry shift that allows startups to emerge with revolutionary ideas in a new kind of interactive world yet to be defined. One of these companies is Polyarc Games, born of a few professionals from various game development companies such as Bungie and Oculus Rift.

Polyarc is already growing, and has more than doubled their company since November of 2016. Together, they make up 15 brave souls willing to take a chance in the VR world and make something truly unique. The folks at Polyarc recognize the difference between being a part of a game and playing a game. After two years in existence, they’re getting started in a field that has been barely touched–and they’ve created a world of their own.

(left to right) Tam Armstrong, Danny Bulla, and Chris Alderson of Polyarc Games.

(left to right) Tam Armstrong, Danny Bulla, and Chris Alderson of Polyarc Games.

From this talented group stems a creative game that has already wowed audiences at multiple demos. Polyarc’s first game Moss has the whole gaming world talking. Moss is about the player, or the Reader, and a small mouse named Quill. In the story of Moss, the player guides Quill on a physical and emotional journey through an intricate set of worlds, one mouse-sized and one human-sized. There are many unique aspects of Moss, but one that came up over the last few weeks was the question of accessibility after Animation Director and animator Rick Lico tweeted a video of Quill on August 2nd. In the video, the tiny mouse signs a welcome message in American Sign Language.

The tweet and the video went viral online, receiving over 10,000 retweets and 30,000 likes in less than a week. In addition, more than half a dozen articles covered the unexpected positive reaction. It’s understandable, given that in the past, many players with accessibility issues are often forgotten by developers when a game is being made. Initiatives like Microsoft’s recently announced Gaming for Everyone and conventions like the Game Accessibility Conference bring the topic of gaming accessibility to light, but it’s still just the tip of the iceberg. Addressing accessibility concerns could be as simple as adding larger subtitles or it could be as complex as offering a full alternative gameplay option on top of the original game. Though Polyarc seems to have stumbled upon this accidentally through their innate desire to create games that speak to everyone’s hearts, they have created a forum for accessibility.

Because of Lico’s experimentation with ASL and Quill, and Polyarc’s early reputation for making a special kind of game, these accessibility questions were on our minds. We got to sit down with Lico and Chris Alderson, Art Director, and talk about Moss, Quill, and accessibility options for VR in the future.

Thanks for joining us at Women Write About Comics. Let’s start with Quill and her three toes and four fingers. We’re curious about the reasoning behind this choice.

Chris Alderson: After careful consideration, we decided that four toes felt odd on Quill, and three fingers also felt odd. We landed in this middle ground. We added a fifth finger to her hand to make it human-like, and it didn’t really feel like it meshed well with the character. Same with the toes, it blends more into that humanoid realm and tore away from the cute, pet animal approach that we were looking for.

Now, it’s true that Quill doesn’t talk, but there are other ways of interacting?

Rick Lico: While you’re playing the game she does make little sounds, squeaks, and noises to get your attention. We also tell a story in different ways that don’t involve her speaking to the player.

Alderson: We are toying with the idea of maybe having some narration but that’s still in the works.

Quill, one of the main characters in the game Moss

Quill, the main character in the game Moss

So, a lot of the communication really is like interacting with a mouse. Quill is your companion on a journey. What spurred your idea, Rick, to come up with ASL gestures while you were working on animating?

Lico: I’m always thinking about who Quill is and how to best represent her for our players. So we were just doing a playtest and I was noticing a player watching Quill making a bunch of gestures while they’re trying to solve a puzzle. They were struggling with it a bit and I got to thinking, I want to find a way to try and make her communication with the player as clear as possible but not to the point where she’s flat out saying things because that’s not who she is. I really want her to feel convincing and believable. I figured, why not try using sign language to help ground her in reality, to help bring that extra dimension to her character?

So, as you’re playing, you might go [into a room] and you might encounter a puzzle where you have to open a box or move a statue or something. If you’re struggling with figuring it out, she’ll find either sign language or pantomime to try and tell you about that. Whether we use one or the other will depend on the most clear way to communicate given the situation.

There might be other times when you run her off of a cliff accidentally and she responds and she looks frustrated with you. Then there’s times where she might be in awe of the environment around her and she just reacts to that. There’s lots of different ways in which we have her act autonomously. She is on this quest with you, and by having her be her own character and act in her own ways, and using sign language, it kind of grounds her as your friend and not just a player character.

Alderson: We have a very open environment where ideas are shared with each other, no matter which position you’re in. Rick and Tam Armstrong, our CEO took the idea initially. And Tam thought it was good enough for Rick to give it a shot. We did have plans already to have gestures, to have Quill signal to the player to give you subtle hints as to ways that you can help her. Much like the design of Quill herself, we do try to think through everything. We figured the best way to sell this idea is to be very accurate, and to actually do our homework. With everything, we try to go that extra step and really think through it all.

We know Polyarc is all about evolving video games and making something unique. What are some revolutionary ways that players get to interact with Quill?

Alderson: The coolest thing about starting this company and working in VR is there’s so much potential to evolve the video game landscape as we know it. For the first time, a character can look you in the eyes and you can look at them and you can feel a bond. No longer is the character looking at the screen and breaking the fourth wall, you are there with this character. The question is, what kind of interaction can you have with this character?

From the simple things like you reaching in and grabbing Quill and feeling that bond and that connection and feeling her heartbeat, to using that as another way of actual game design because you reaching in and giving her your energy helps heal her. Really interesting ways that you’re interacting with Quill herself now that you’re within the space. We’re sort of creating this diorama world. We have to think of ways to light the scenes, how to show story moments, now you are there and you’re with these characters.

It’s more like a stage play. We can’t just present you a cinematic moment and expect you to watch the movie. The player can pretty much look wherever they want to in these environments. So, how do we draw your eye towards an item of importance? We’re finding that on top of all that, some aspects of game design are more important. One of them being animation. The importance of really selling a character’s performance is incredibly important now. You notice those subtle hints.

Quill stands before a door in Moss, the new VR game from Polyarc

Quill stands before a door in Moss, the new VR game from Polyarc

Lico: In traditional game development, when you’re looking at things on a flat screen TV on your wall and you’ve got a controller in your hand, it’s this very abstract situation that people have just gotten used to over the years. But if you actually think about it, it’s not the most intuitive way to interact with your character. So when you see your character do something weird in a console or a PC game, it’s okay because there’s already that distraction there, that kind of pulling you out of the experience. But when you’re in VR, you feel like you’re there, and when your character pops or wobbles or does any weird animation things that normal non-VR games do, it really takes you out of the experience in really jarring ways. So for us, it’s really exploring how to make this feel as real as possible, how not to remove you from the VR experience.

“So for us, it’s really exploring how to make this feel as real as possible, how not to remove you from the VR experience.”

Alderson: With VR, early on we decided we had certain things that we really gravitated towards, that we found were important to us in virtual reality. We want to make sure we have amazing places. We want to make sure we build a bond with some sort of amazing character, and build a relationship in a game, we feel like that’s something that’s new and unique. And also, physical interaction. Now you’re able to reach into the world and move objects, and you have a place in the story rather than just accomplishing a goal to beat a level. Overall, when you take all that and put it together, we’re very excited to work with this new medium. As long as you’re willing to take chances and think outside the box, it’s a really exciting place to be.

Have you worked with VR before, or accessibility options? Has ASL come up before for either one of you?

Alderson: Polyarc has been around in one form or another for two years. Before then we came from ex-Bungie, some ArenaNet, some Epic, various companies we’re made up of. But Tam and Danny Bulla were the first to jump ship from Bungie and they both had a brief stint at Oculus. They learned a lot there and it’s funny because we thought that they would be learning from experts, but really VR is so new even today that we’re all still learning. So, it’s really fun interacting with other people working in VR and just learning from each other constantly. Even now, Rick did that animation last week, and we’re learning about what actually works and what doesn’t in VR. It’s such an interesting and exciting landscape. Other than that, I was able to go to Valve a few times to try out what they were doing with the Vive before, though that was also over two years ago.

Lico: Before this, I hadn’t had any experience with VR because it is so new. But you were also asking if we’d had experience with ASL before, and when I was at Bungie, I was an animator for the player, and I directed the player animation. So one of the things that I did when I was there was help establish the emote system for Destiny, and spent a lot of time figuring out what would resonate with people. What kind of emotes would be interesting, and how to communicate with people. So I’ve got a lot of experience trying to understand that relationship between the player and the game itself by doing that work. I never tried sign language when I was there, although I probably think it would have gone over very well. But you know, that was very helpful.

That’s a nice collaborative experience with other VR companies and being able to bring that to the table and thinking about communicating as a player. Do you think that players with auditory disabilities could still enjoy Moss just based on the way the interaction is?

Lico: With Moss, the use of ASL is mostly for helping Quill to communicate, and the intent is not to be as clear as possible, but the intent is to give hints. So if people know ASL, they’ll solve it a lot quicker than people that don’t, but they’re just hints really. Little ways to help the player along, or make the player feel more connected to Quill. They’re not by any means necessary to play the game. There will be tons of audio, and as Chris said earlier, we’re looking at possibly having a narrator and there’s lots of ways of delivering a fully immersive experience.

So has this sparked any thoughts about maybe creating something that does have some accessibility options, or might be a little different, since you guys are in the business of doing something revolutionary?

Alderson: I think we’ll do what makes sense for each game. I mean, we want to make sure as many people as possible can enjoy our games. If it makes sense, then that’s something we’ll definitely explore.

Lico: The difficulty with game development and long term planning is that the ground is always shifting so much. We build on what’s working at a given moment, and keep iterating and keep adjusting based on the climate, and what seems to be working best. That’s actually why I did that Tweet to begin with, is because I don’t know ASL myself and I wanted to be as accurate as possible. So I tweeted that to get some feedback from people who know ASL well. And I certainly got plenty of that. That’s how we like to work here; come up with an idea, try it out, get some playtesters in here, and then just keep making changes. So if accessibility options [are a goal] for us, we’re definitely going to embrace it, but it’s going to be something that we’re going to have to find over time.

What was your favorite thing about creating Moss?

Alderson: There’s so many awesome things. A few really quick ones, and a really long one. The first few are creating an environment that you can actually be in. You’re imported into the game and you’re there. You get this initial reaction and this feeling you just don’t get in a traditional video game. Then, creating these tiny little mouse environments. Tiny intricate aspects of all of that is awesome too. Not just creating these grand environments you’re going to be in, but also making tiny little villages and little houses that these little rodents who have their own little lives use. There’s something interesting about the diorama style of these spaces. Creating their culture and what stories these little characters have. But the main one for me is creating Quill and figuring out who she is and interacting with her as the player.

Some of the responses we’ve gotten while demoing this… I can think of two moments right now where someone put on the headset, saw Quill, and couldn’t handle themselves when they saw how cute she was. They immediately broke down and started crying; someone was actually crying because this character was there, acknowledging them. I can’t say how beautiful that moment is and how proud you feel when that happens. I’m probably bragging, but I don’t remember feeling that way about another game. To be a part of something that’s good and innocent is really rewarding.

Lico: I’m in the same area with Chris on that. I’ve got two girls at home and I’ve been in this industry for pushing 18 years now. I’ve never really had an opportunity to work on a game that I could [show] them. It’s an industry filled with soldiers with guns, it’s so common. So, I’ve always wanted to work on a game where it was more about connecting with the character emotionally, and interacting with that character in meaningful ways, and being able to show my two little girls this character. My older of the two will draw pictures of her. It’s not this super violent game. It’s a real character with real feelings and goals and we’re trying to make her open and inviting. We just want this character and this world to be a positive place.

So in light of that, what would you say is the most important value in the story of Quill and in the book of Moss that players should understand?

Lico: Given the whole story arc, there’s a lot going on in the story but if it ties back to one word, I would say it would be “hopeful.” It’s a story about a character who may not fully understand her world, but she’s coming to grips with a situation, coming to grips with a conflict, and then trying to make a hopeful situation out of it. And the feeling of who Quill is, the feeling of the world, everything that’s in place, it has a very hopeful feeling to it.

Alderson: From the very beginning you meet Quill and you two are strangers. It’s not just like an adventure journey that you’re going on, you’re going on a personal and an emotional journey as well. I think by the end of the game both you and Quill will be really good friends.