'ASTRO BOT' Behind-the-scenes – VR Insights from Sony's JAPAN Studio

From the very first time we previewed an early build of ASTRO BOT Rescue Mission, it was clear that there was much care and craft behind the work. At its early October launch the finished game not only didn’t disappoint, it saw critical praise, quickly becoming PSVR’s top rated title and even one of PS4’s top titles overall for 2018. The reception was a testament to the undeniable art and skill of the creators at Sony Interactive Entertainment’s JAPAN Studio. But how did they succeed where so many others struggled? For the latest in our Insights & Artwork series, we spoke with Astro Bot’s Creative Director and Producer, Nicolas Doucet, who gave us a glimpse into the game’s design process and a look at some of the artwork which guided the way.

Winding Roots

While Astro Bot has only been out for a month now, the game’s origin stretches at least back to 2013 when JAPAN Studio released THE PLAYROOM, a piece of PS4 bundleware which was designed to show of the console’s then new camera peripheral. The Playroom included a series of mini-games where the studio’s adorable ‘bot’ characters were heavily featured. When PS4’s next major peripheral came along—PlayStation VR, which launched in 2016—JAPAN Studio was tasked with creating The Playroom VR. Just like the game before it, The Playroom VR was bundled as a showcase, and included a series of VR mini-games with the bots back in action.

It was there in The Playroom VR where Astro Bot’s foundation was solidified. One mini-game called ‘Robot Rescue’ had players guiding one of the bot characters around a fantastical world from a third-person perspective, but still embodied the player as a first-person character in the game world. Looking back today, the fundamentals of ‘Robot Rescue’ and Astro Bot are one in the same, but with the latter, JAPAN Studio had the time and resources to fully explore what the mini-game could become.

“To be honest, [‘Robot Rescue’] was the odd one out as all other games [in The Playroom VR] were built as quick-fire party play.” Nicolas Doucet, Astro Bot’s Creative Director and Producer, tells Road to VR. “As we released The Playroom VR, the gamers inside us loved ‘Robot Rescue’ because it is a game closer to classic gamers’ taste re-invented for VR, so we wanted to make a full game.” As it turned out, the interest in ‘Robot Rescue’ wasn’t just from within the studio. “The vast amount of [player] comments on the forums, videos, and petition gave us the boost we needed to go full steam. So shortly after releasing our DLC for The Playroom VR, we started working on Astro Bot Rescue Mission.”

18 months later, and with a peak development team of 25, Astro Bot was born. Packed full of smart VR game design, a distinctly ‘playable’ feel, and enough meat to feel satisfied by the end, Astro Bot is the first game we’ve rated a 10 out of 10.

A game like Astro Bot doesn’t just happen; it’s the product of talent, time, and direction.

“One thing to establish first is that [JAPAN Studio’s] ASOBI Team is articulated around four key pillars that define the emotions our games must convey. They are ‘Magical’, ‘Innovative’, ‘Playful’ and ‘Inclusive’. These words are to be considered in their broad meaning and anything we create should be relatable to these four key pillars.” Doucet says.

Months of Experimentation

With that framework in mind, the team set aside one-third of the game’s development time for experimentation, before locking in key mechanics and interactions.

“We prototyped lots and lots of mechanics for the first six months, as we always do. We then assembled the entire game from the various successful ideas,” says Doucet. “These prototypes happen over a very short time and are mostly made by programmers working on their own. We then gather everything that is fun and that gives us our tool set for interactions. We only bring art in once the gameplay is robust so there is no temptation to rely on graphics before the fundamental gameplay is proven.”

Doucet and the team specifically set out to make sure Astro Bot was more than just a third-person platformer thrown into a VR headset.

“[…] there was a strong desire for the game to not become a traditional platformer in panorama view. That would have no value for PS VR,” he says. “[…] so a checklist of ‘VR-ness’ was created, such as verticality, lateral gameplay, volume play, perspective play by leaning your body, proximity play to create a bond, far-distance play to create dramatic moments, and also physical play via the player’s head, blowing mechanics, etc.”

Central to the game’s “VR-ness” is the way that it embodies the player as not just a camera but an actual character that’s present inside the virtual world. That’s reinforced especially with the PS4 controller which is motion tracked inside the game and becomes as critical to the gameplay input from buttons and sticks. This happens primarily through ‘gadgets’, virtual tools that attach to the in-game controller allowing the player to uniquely interact with both Astro and the environment.

“It was important that these gadgets worked on several layers, at least three strong use cases to be precise,” Doucet says. “This is why the water gadget for example can be used to grow vegetation, activate propellers, and also harden lava. All of these use cases have a direct correlation with platforming (they essentially create a path for Astro and support the various ‘VR-ness’ [we were seeking].” In fact, there were a few gadgets—like a magnet and a vacuum cleaner—that got cut because they didn’t meet the bar of interactivity that the team had set.

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