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Uncharted Territory: What 8 Years in VR/AR looks like

2020 was a year of uncharted territory, to say the very least.

Remote work, events gone virtual, industries evolving almost overnight. As a team of VR adventure guides, we’re no stranger to the unknown, and so we did what we’ve always done: we packed light, and made trails.

In fact, it was the perfect opportunity to forge ahead in the industry, and fully step into our fresh new role...

Hi there. We’re Archiact, and we’re your VR adventure guides.

Follow along, and we’ll show you what’s next.

Yes, that’s a fresh coat of paint on our website, our splash screen, and our socials! But this evolution as a VR/AR game development studio didn’t happen overnight, and we’ve been down some truly wild paths on our way to this point.

Welcome to Uncharted Territory, a series of blog posts where we’ll share where we’ve been, what we learned, and what’s next.

Each post will delve deep into a stage of our 8-years in the VR/AR industry, and tell you all we’ve learned:

  • The evolution of VR locomotion: what works, what’s next?

  • Audio dramas and graphic novels: leveraging non-VR media to build our worlds

  • CVR: our foray into the world of consumer conferences

  • Diegetic UI, emotional design, and more!

(You might think you know it all, but did you know we had a secret robot-building division? Yeah, stay tuned.)

In this first post, we’ll give you a bird’s eye view of the trails we’ve blazed, and even a glimpse of what summits we’re aiming for next. Let’s go!

Header art: Over a vivid orange and blue mountainscape, white text reads: "Part One: A New World"

“So y’all kicked things off in 2013?” you ask with eyebrow fully raised. Three entire years before the release of the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and HTC VIVE, and the first wave of modern VR?

The answer is yes!

2013 to 2015 marked the fresh-faced start of VR in its infancy, when newly-formed teams of devs were gleefully unboxing their Oculus DK1s and dreaming of what the industry would become once VR became a real product consumers could buy and experience for themselves.

For us, things started a little differently. Archiact began in a Vancouver basement as a mobile-first games studio, with our eyes on the worlds of Samsung Gear VR and Google Cardboard, which released in 2015 and 2014 respectively.

Of course, we had an inkling that head-mounted devices (or HMDs) for PC and console were on their way, and that their 6DOF (six degrees of freedom) experiences would almost certainly be favoured over the 3DOF limitations of mobile VR. But that felt more like a challenge than a deal-breaker, and we were eager to get some real VR development experience in preparation for the big HMDs coming in 2016.

Our first gamesLamper, Waddle Home and morewere compact and family-friendly, but their ambitions were far-reaching. It was challenging to envision the future of VR when 6DOF and separately tracked controllers were still so far away, but there was no denying the novel joy we saw in players’ faces when we put the Google Cardboard to their eyes.

When Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and HTC Vive finally landed, we made sure to launch our cozy puzzler Waddle Home on PS VR, and ended up getting front row seats to the advent of modern virtual reality gaming.

Audiences were small to begin with, but the enthusiasm of early adopters was infectious. It wasn’t long before the numbers shared by the platform owners told a story of similar optimism.

But is excitement alone enough to build a viable studio on? If not, what is?

Header art: Over a vivid orange and blue mountainscape, white text reads: "Part Two: The Wild West Days"

Thriving as a VR/AR company means getting comfortable in unfamiliar territory.

It’s good to have a plan for those moments when the trail thins out and your landmarks are far behind you. When we find ourselves in that uncertain place, we like to find the small spark of what seems to be working, and follow it.

At this point, the spark we had was simple, but solid: VR pulled users into an instant sense of presence, wonder, and novel joy.

We took that fundamental promise of VR/AR and applied it to just about every medium, model, and method we could think of, just to see what caught.

We hosted VR game jams and consumer conferences with thousands of attendees; we published dozens of titles on leading platforms here and abroad; we made an AR game that put some penguin puzzles right in your living room; we made a robot designed to rescue you from dangerous places a human couldn’t reach.

This is a topic we have so much to say on.

Stay tuned for another post diving into this strange and wonderful time of our lives soon!

From the outside looking in, that might all seem like...a lot. (Sometimes even we look back at our output from 2016 to 2017, and our eyes get sort of big and glassy.) But our goal was rapid exploration: to prototype and connect and experiment as widely as possible.

If VR/AR is uncharted territory, we wanted to sweep the area and map its edges before deciding where to put our foundations.

Header art: Over a vivid orange and blue mountainscape, white text reads: "Part Three: Making Camp"

At the end of the day, that place ended up being the world of VR/AR games. An obvious path, maybe, considering our beginnings as mobile game developers and steadily building expertise in modern game development. But after years exploring so widely, we were confident coming home to the world of games.

Best of all, we felt ready! We had learned things about locomotion, comfort, diegetic UI, and gestural interaction that gave us our edge. These were the tools we needed to execute on our vision for truly immersive, fully responsive VR games.

(All are topics we’ll be covering in future posts, keep an eye out!)

Leveraging that hard-won expertise, we took our first big step towards that vision in October 2018 with Evasion, a sci-fi co-op shooter where players pick their hero class, then fight solo or team up to save an embattled colony from swarms of lethal Optera.

As the name suggests, freedom of movement is everything in Evasion, and one of our critical compass points during development was ensuring movement was intuitive, comfortable, and offered options for as many play-styles as possible.

One of our proudest moments was the creation of “jogging” locomotion, which encouraged players to run on the spot, and translated their subtle head bobs to in-game locomotion. It may not have become the industry standard, but that innovative solution to the challenge of VR movement led us to some even more interesting learnings down the road.

If Evasion was all excitement and bombast, FREEDIVER was an exercise in careful refinement; a concerted effort to distill all we’d learned from the original game into something slick, clever, and uniquely VR.

Out of that, we produced the immersive magic of gestural locomotion with the game’s one-to-one swimming movement. To our delight, FREEDIVER’s innovative mechanics and narrative chops led it to critical success, and even a nomination for VR Game of the Year!

Finally, we felt like we had our first true landmark, something that would both inform our future explorations, and provide something solid and tangible to look back on in challenging times. This led us to expand the world of FREEDIVER with a gutsy Extended Cut for Quest and PlayStation VR, a graphic novel, and an audio fiction podcast.

Of all our original titles, FREEDIVER is the one we’re most excited to explore more in the future!

Promo art for the audio drama fiction podcast, The Triton Incident. Over a blue background of ominous water, white and blue text reads: "THE TRITON INCIDENT, A Freediver Story. All episodes available now." The image of a smart phone appears next to the text, its screen displaying an episode of The Triton Incident being played.

One thing soon become clear: the more we proved ourselves in the wild fields of VR games, the more exciting our inbox got.

We soon had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to work with partners Disney and Lenovo to create the smartphone-powered AR Super Hero game, MARVEL Dimension of Heroes.

No sooner did MARVEL Dimension of Heroes emerge, we found ourselves with the opportunity to join another once-in-a-lifetime partnership. This time, it was with game giants Bethesda and id Software, who entrusted us with the official VR adaptation of DOOM 3.

DOOM 3: VR Edition just launched on PlayStation VR on March 29th, and remains our splashiest title yet. The game’s iconic action-horror experience was well-received by fans of VR and the original DOOM 3 alike, and also led us to some of our greatest VR design discoveries yet, which we’ll tell you more about soon!

The project lasted about a year, but looking back on all the ground we’ve covered and everything we’ve learned exploring it, we’d say it and all our future projects feel like they’ve been nearly a decade in the making.

Header art: Over a vivid orange and blue mountainscape, white text reads: "Part Four: A Summit Bid?"

That’s why now, on the day of our 8th anniversary, it feels like a great time to talk about our new look.

A photograph of a laptop that sits on a desk, with a computer mouse, a pen cup, and plants nearby. On the laptop screen, the orange and blue website for virtual realty game studio Archiact appears, featuring the triangular blue logo and the word ARCHIACT in bold white text.
The new Archiact website.

VR/AR is the ultimate wilderness, and while we’ve forged some pretty interesting trails so far, we know as well as you do that there’s so much left to discover, and the industry is just warming up.

What adventures are we guiding you to in the future? What’s next? Answer: the big leap. Well, a few big leaps, if we’re being exact. Leaps into impossible galaxies, into the human body and mind, and even deep beneath the surface of the waves.

We can’t share any details just yet, but if you take a close look at the paths we took to get here, you might just be able to guess what summits we’re aiming for next.

Next up in the Uncharted Territory series:

We’ll see you out in the wild, friends!


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