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Robot Invader Talks Dead Secret, VR Development and PS4/PC Ports

Over the past year indie developer Robot Invader has been keeping a fairly open development process going for its first virtual reality (VR) videogame, Dead Secret, which recently earned a great review at VRFocus. The team has written a number of blogs over on an official site talking about how it designed the first-person murder mystery for the technology. All of its work paid off earlier this month as Dead Secret was finally launched on the Gear VR mobile-based head-mounted display (HMD), with PlayStation 4 and PC versions planned for 2016.

Dead Secret screenshot

VRFocus recently got to speak with Robot Invader’s Chris Pruett about its debut VR effort and what fans can expect from it. In the interview below Pruett talks about how development on Dead Secret got started and the decision to make it into a VR title. He also talks a little about what to expect for the upcoming ports of the title as well as Robot Invader’s own future in the VR industry itself.

VRFocus: How long has Dead Secret been in development and for which platform did it start out on?

Chris Pruett (CP): Dead Secret started life as a side-project in 2013.  It was originally designed to be played on tablets and TVs using a touch screen or game controller, and early versions were focused on achieving a distinct art style and atmosphere.  After a few months of work we had something that was pretty promising, but we shelved it in favor of another title (Wind-up Knight 2).  Dead Secret came back to life as a VR game in the summer of 2014.  We spent months reworking it to be playable and comfortable in VR, and then another year building the game out to its completed state.

VRFocus: Describe the title for those that haven’t heard of it before. Is it a narrative-driven experience? What mechanics can players expect to encounter?

CP: Dead Secret is a suspenseful mystery thriller in which you must investigate the home of the recently-deceased Dr. Harris Bullard.  It is a narrative-driven experience in which you must uncover the truth behind Bullard’s bizarre past and ingenious murder before you become the killer’s next victim.  Heavy on atmosphere, Dead Secret tasks you with exploring the crime scene room by room, solving puzzles and collecting information as you go.  The clues you need to name the killer are hidden here somewhere, but nothing is as it seems and you are not alone.

VRFocus: Why did you decide to make Dead Secret a VR title?

CP: An early experience with an Oculus dev kit (the pre-DK2 Crystal Cove) sold us on the potential for VR and Dead Secret was a natural fit.  Once we had a version of the game running on an early Gear VR prototype, we found that the environment and atmosphere were incredibly compelling.

Horror game designers have been talking about “sense of presence” for years.  In non-VR contexts it refers to game design that does everything it can to keep you immersed in the game world that you are viewing on a TV or computer monitor.  Horror games go out of their way to remove extraneous HUD elements, leverage 3D spatialized sound effects, and keep you so focused on the screen that they can scare the bejesus out of you.  The first time we ran Dead Secret on an HMD it was clear that all of the work we had done to achieve a “sense of presence” on flat screens was dramatically amplified by virtual reality.  The translation was amazing; we were no longer looking at our crime scene on a screen, we were standing there in the room.  At that moment I knew that Dead Secret needed to be a VR game.

There’s also a mundane reason that VR is attractive to us.  The mobile market has solidified and the window of opportunity for small developers like ourselves has closed.  Our mobile games were well received and profitable for a few years, but these days the market has become so competitive and advertising-driven that independent developers like us don’t really stand a chance.  VR, particularly mobile VR, represents a new area to which we can apply our years of console and mobile game development experience.  The market and design space for VR games is wide open, but building good games in VR is hard.  Really hard.  It’s exactly the sort of tough technical challenge our team at Robot Invader came together to take on.  We’re really excited to be on the forefront of this new medium.

VRFocus: As your first VR project, how did development differ to your other mobile titles?

CP: Yes, although Dead Secret has always been an odd duck compared to our other games.  It’s our first title focused on narrative and it’s also our first adventure game.  We’re known mostly for humor, beautiful graphics, tight controls, and tough-as-nails gameplay.  Our previous titles Wind-up Knight, Wind-up Knight 2, and Rise of the Blobs all fit that description.  Dead Secret was quite a departure for us.

One of the main challenges we faced in designing Dead Secret for VR was figuring out how to display text legibly.  Dead Secret has a lot of text.  There are documents to find and diary entries to read, but Patricia, the protagonist, also comments on everything she sees.  Traditional subtitles don’t work in VR, and it took a while to figure out how to render Patricia’s thoughts in a way that isn’t hard on the eyes.  Our solution was to stick our text on objects in space; Patricia’s thoughts might appear sitting on a desk, or stuck to a wall, or as if they are laying on the floor.  This approach resolved a number of focal distance problems but also led to an art style for rendering text in 3D, which we ended up using throughout the game.

Comfortable first-person movement was another big challenge.  We iterated on a lot of movement systems until we settled on one we felt good about.  That wasn’t enough though—we needed real-world usability tests.  We took the game to conferences and conventions and put it on as many people as we could to gauge their reaction.  After a lot of demos and tons of tuning, I think our movement system is comfortable for just about everyone.  For the 1% who don’t like it, we also included a Comfort Mode which omits all motion.

VRFocus: How long can players expect to spend with the experience?

CP: Our play testers clocked in between four and eight hours.  There’s quite a lot of detail so we encourage players to take their time and explore every nook and cranny.

VRFocus: The title has been out on Gear VR for a few weeks now, what’s the reaction to it been like?

CP: The reaction has been universally positive.  We have been working on Dead Secret for so long that it was hard for us to guess what the reaction would be like, but it’s been much better than we imagined.

VRFocus: Dead Secret doesn’t appear to offer controller support. Why did you decide to leave support out? Could we see this support added in later?

CP: Dead Secret does support controllers.  You can use just about any standard Android controller to play the game and never touch the Gear VR trackpad again.  However, the controls are not traditional first person movement controls.  Using a controller allows you to rotate (via “blink snaps”) without moving your body, which is important if you wish to play Dead Secret in an airplane or Lay-Z-Boy.  The movement system is the same whether or not a controller is used: select an area to investigate, click the investigate button, and walk over to that area automatically.  We did it this way to maintain the very careful balance we’re striking between expressive movement and comfortable movement.

VRFocus: How will the PC and console versions of the title differ from the Gear VR release?

CP: Coming in Feb 2016, the initial Steam and Playstation versions will not be VR games—you’ll play with a controller or mouse on a monitor.  There will be more VR versions, of course, and these will sport improved graphics over the Gear release.  We’ll have a lot more to talk about (and show you) as the release dates get closer.

VRFocus: Does Robot Invader have any other VR titles planned at this moment?

CP: We sure do!  No details to share yet, but please feel free to get excited in anticipation.