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Ethereon Dev Talks VR Puzzles, Release Plans and Project Morpheus

Despite the lack of a consumer product, virtual reality has already taken off in some videogame genres. Narrative-driven adventures titles are a perfect fit for the technology, while new horror experiences seem to arrive day-in day-out. But one genre that’s yet to fully embrace either the Oculus Rift or Project Morpheus VR headsets is the puzzle genre. It’s one of the oldest, most beloved categories in all of the industry, but it’s yet to see a VR face lift. 

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That’s where Tony Davidson comes in. Having worked on the PC’s Riven, a puzzle title that served as a sequel to Myst, Davidson has resurrected a project he first thought of in the 1990’s for VR. That project is Ethereon, a stylish puzzle title that’s designed specifically for use VR and compatible with the Oculus Rift VR headset. The first section of the title is already available to play, so VRFocus spoke to the developer about its creation, VR’s effect on the puzzle genre and the future. If you’re heading to Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) in Mountain View, California either today or tomorrow make sure to look for Davidson showing off his title.

VRFocus: Where did the idea for Ethereon come from?

Tony Davidson: Ethereon originally started out as a VR-inspired project that I began developing back during the early 90’s and was only more recently resurrected about a year ago, shortly after the release of the Oculus DK1.

As far as where the actual idea came from, I can’t say for certain other than I knew from the very first time I saw somebody wearing a HMD on the cover of a magazine that I wanted to create a unique world for myself and others to explore. I wasn’t too interested in the idea of recreating or duplicating our own reality so I just kind of ventured off into the unknown with Ethereon and allowed things to unfold spontaneously.

For the development process I tried a more organic approach by starting with something small and then allowing it to grow one step at a time. I guess it was more of a cause-and-effect approach where one thing led to another and this created a chain of ideas or events that in the end produced a somewhat novel experience. So overall I just tried to keep an open mind by following my intuition and letting my imagination go to work for me and I guess that Ethereon is the result of that effort.

VRFocus: The title boasts a very distinctive colour palette and visual style, why did you go for this look?

Tony Davidson: Well there were several reasons why I chose to go the direction I did for the visual style of Ethereon but broadly speaking, I see virtual reality as possibly fitting somewhere between our waking reality and a lucid dream experience. It’s simply not the same thing as reality but rather it’s something new and different which I personally find very appealing. I guess you could say that I’m exploiting this gray area by pushing the overall aesthetic of Ethereon to be a little closer to something of a dream-like experience and this has resulted in a more ethereal look which is also part of the reason why I chose the name Ethereon for the title.

From a technical perspective the overall visual design was very heavily influenced by the limitations of our current technology and the rigid requirements of driving a good VR experience. So for example, the entire demo currently has less than 250k polys which is actually less geometry than one of today’s average game characters. Having such a low level of geometry directly translates to a more simplified and minimalistic visual art style.

As for the color palette, I decided to go with the more complimentary feminine colors to help offset the many prominent masculine-shaped objects which make up the surrounding structures. This helped to sort of cancel out the two extremes and restore a balance that is more easily accepted by the mind’s eye. But I also chose to go with this particular color scheme because I felt that it helped to induce the sort of feeling that I was looking to achieve with Ethereon and so that was a very important factor in the decision as well.

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VRFocus: You’ve said the entire experience will be roughly 6 hours. How many puzzles are you aiming for in that time?

Tony Davidson: Well the demo portion of the game that I released has a few smaller puzzles that lead up to one main puzzle and that is one of a dozen or so which all lead up to an even bigger puzzle for the finale of the game. It’s somewhat difficult for me to attach a number to all the puzzles because many of them are so integrated into the environment or experience itself that it becomes very challenging to label them as such.

I would estimate the demo portion as being roughly one sixth of the game and so that is why I am calling it a six-hour experience. But the truth is that I’m the only person on the planet capable of solving the game within six hours so for everyone else it’s going to likely require several days to figure out.

VRFocus: What does VR bring to the puzzle genre?

Tony Davidson: I think there is a lot that VR can bring to the puzzle game genre and this is exactly what I’m exploring and trying to figure out with Ethereon. I very much see VR as being a complementary companion to puzzle-based games provided that the puzzles themselves are designed in an interesting and effective way that utilizes the potential of the medium.

For Ethereon my approach was to create an environment that is by design a giant machine of sorts which can be directly interacted with in ways that just can’t be done outside of VR. All of the puzzles in Ethereon are physics-based and require direct interaction in some new and novel ways that I’m hoping will create a fun experience for people who are looking to VR for something new and fresh. This new level of interaction that VR offers can really elevate the experience of immersion and also make these type of games more interesting and fun to play. So it can also be a symbiotic relationship as well I think.

VRFocus: How big of an impact could the technology have on the genre?

Tony Davidson: This is where things are going to get interesting I think. Never before have we had the opportunity to interact within a virtual world to such an extent as this and I believe that there is a real opportunity for VR to breathe new life into this already established genre which has grown somewhat stagnant over past couple of decades.

I have a feeling that some genres, like the FPS games that have enjoyed a couple of decades of rule, might very well have to take a backseat on this ride and if that happens then there will likely be a very large void to fill and I could easily see this leading to a second coming of sorts for the adventure game genre – especially now that we finally have the proper means to exploit their full potential.

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VRFocus: Could you see Ethereon coming to other headsets? Perhaps PlayStation 4 and Project Morpheus?

Tony Davidson: Oh yes, absolutely. I think it’s important to realize that VR is something that belongs to everyone and not just one single entity. I’m not a fan of brand names and as a developer I want to share my experience with as many people as possible and so it makes sense to look into all the options that we may have available to us.

Sony has a very attractive model from a developer’s viewpoint and I’m very impressed with the direction they are taking to make VR possible on the PS4. There are many advantages to a console-based VR experience that appeal to me but what I appreciate most is the fact that they seem to be open to letting developers figure out what works for VR and what doesn’t.

I’m also very interested in eventually pursuing an Android version of Ethereon and am intrigued by the Android-based HMD’s such as GameFace Labs and others. I think that is another very promising avenue for VR and it’s one that I’ve kept in mind while developing Ethereon.

VRFocus: What are your release plans for the title?

Tony Davidson: Well the intention has always been to have it ready for release by the time the first consumer HMD launches and if I can continue to work full-time as I have been for the past year then I’m certain that I can make that happen. So far Ethereon has been funded and developed entirely by myself and I’m now in a position where I need to shift my focus over from a development role to more of a promotional one so that I can raise awareness and hopefully gain enough interest in the project to continue moving forward.

In fact I just recently partnered with VR union for the first-ever consumer VR conference where I’ll be debuting Ethereon alongside their riftUP! upgrade kit which transforms a standard Oculus DK1 into a full HD quality HMD that really showcases the potential aesthetic of Ethereon. So I’m very much looking forward to getting out there and partnering with others so that I can continue to push the project forward to its completion.