London-based Ustwo Games had a massive hit with its iPhone and iPad game Monument Valley, and for their follow up they're exploring the possibilities of virtual reality with Land's End. Watch the video above to see it in action.
In development for a very long time - we first interviewed ustwo about the project back in November 2014 - Land's End looks to be a lot more than the demo we first saw. The video gives hints of puzzles involving manipulating blocks and lasers in 3D space, which could be easier to do with precision using VR than on a 2D screen.
However, it might be tricky to play Land's End yourself as it's been designed for Samsung's Gear VR (below). The Gear VR is a headset that wraps around the Galaxy Note 4 phone, which has been superceded in the meantime by the Galaxy Note 5 - which doesn't work with the original Gear VR and isn't coming out in the UK anyway (as the Note 4 sold really badly over here, apparently). A Gear VR for the Note 5 is rumoured, but that doesn't help if we can't buy both in this country.
But I'm glad Land's End is getting a release, if only for a limited audience - rather than remaining locked in ustwo's office.
Watch our interview with ustwo about the inception of the project, and their thoughts on design and navigation for VR experiences.
With many of the Gear VR 'games' and 'experiences' being more tech demos than fully formed apps, we wanted to find out what a developer of the calibre of ustwo would want to make for the Gear VR – plus we were interested in what the follow-up to Monument Valley would be like, whatever the platform.
I got a chance to try out an early version of Land's End at Ustwo Games' studio – the core game engine with its visual aesthetic, mechanics and control system is in place, but the content – the 'levels', if you like – are still in development. Even in its basic form, it's a unique experience. I started on an island that has similar aesthetics and audio to Monument Valley – but of course, it's a complete 3D world. I looked around to take in the scene, then I saw a white dot in the distance that subtly drew in my attention. I looked directly at that and the game told me to stay focussed on it – and after a few seconds I moved through the scene to where the dot was, looking around again, locating the next dot and making my way around the island.
Once I was comfortable with this way of navigating the world of Land's End, I was presented with a series of switches that I could move by focussing my gaze on them. Flipping them moved towers of rock up and down – with the right combination revealing the next dot behind them to continue the journey.
Gaze-based interaction feels entirely natural – possibly more so, I'd imagine, than using the Gear VR's gamepad despite that making it possible for Ustwo to give you freedom to you move around the island wherever you wanted as in a first-person-shooter. Land's End's interaction model works because it's a very different type of experience to a FPS. It also feels quite different to Monument Valley – despite both sharing an aesthetic and being a mix of experience and puzzles – both of which are designed to engender delight.
Land's End is perhaps nearest that original game that let you explore and interact with a series of panoramic locations in a self-contained world, Myst. And like Myst it could be the beginning of something much bigger than itself.
I caught up with Ustwo Games' Peter Pashley (above, showing Land's End in its Unity development environment) and Neil McFarland, who worked on Lands End with two colleagues – with the majority of the games team focussed on the much-anticipated extra levels for Monument Valley.
Ustwo Games is an offshoot of Shoreditch-based digital design agency Ustwo – the unashamedly creative firm founded by a man who calls it his 'fampany' and once made one of our writers interview him in a wendy house inside the studio, but which also makes practical, useful things such as designing the Tesco-branded bits of the Hudl tablet to make it easy enough for your mum to use and creating the fee-less ticket service Dice.
In the video above, Peter and Neil discuss what they make of the Gear VR, what the real appeal of VR is and what's truly exciting about it – both for users and developers, what kind of games and experiences it lets developers create, and why – in general – a device that turns your mobile phone into a VR headset is likely to be more successful than computer-attached VR rigs such as the Oculus Rift.