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Zarkon Beware: ‘Voltron VR Chronicles’ Immersive 360 Game Roars to Life

Universal and Digital Domain’s new VR game embeds users inside a fast-paced, expertly designed and narratively satisfying ‘Voltron’ action adventure.

Voltron fans, rejoice, for not only is Season 4 of the Netflix original series, DreamWorks Voltron Legendary Defender arriving on October 13, but an exciting new 45-minute VR game experience has just been released as well. The product of more than a year’s work by teams at Digital Domain and Universal Brand Development, Voltron VR Chronicles is an immersive, interactive 360 game now available on PlayStation VR, HTC Vive and Oculus Rift via Steam and the Oculus online store.

Voltron VR Chronicles takes key characters and story points familiar to fans of the series and injects them into a brand new interactive adventure, part passively viewed narrative cinematic, part first person shooter, all experienced within a colorful, stylized world that expertly illustrates the VR medium’s advantages of scale and complex environment composition. Players join Lance, Hunk, Pidge, Keith, Shiro, Allura and Coran as they fight against their nemesis, Zarkon, by solving puzzles that further the action and interactive complexity.

Digital Domain, led by director of creative development Wayne Kennedy, brought considerable visual entertainment expertise to the complex production, a challenging amalgam of Voltron franchise characters and designs integrated with new narrative and often unruly 360 immersive medium technology. Working with Universal’s Chris Heatherly, executive vice president of games and digital platforms, and his team, together they sought to build an entertainment experience anyone could easily understand and enjoy, without getting bored, frustrated, or plagued by the eye fatigue that many of today’s VR projects struggle to eliminate. VR can be unforgiving to a user’s sense of balance and attentiveness – Voltron VR Chronicles’ deft and richly visual use of the medium is, shall we say, easy on the eyes.

My demo at the DreamWorks Burbank campus started clumsily as I fumbled with the VR headset and simple system initiation. But, the helpful and patient demo team never once let me stray too far from the notion that I actually knew my way around VR gear and wasn’t a complete novice. They were unceasingly kind.

The experience was thoroughly enjoyable – the action, the scene compositions, the designs and color schemes, the way characters, props and narrative elements captured my attention were all seamless and fluid. I easily followed the proscribed path, enjoying both the closeup interactions as well as the large-scale panoramas, only occasionally brain cramping during attempts to solve puzzles along that way. By the time I peered up in awe at this enormous robot lion, Blue, followed by taking the helm of a Lion while blasting anything that blocked my path through space, I was completely immersed and happily engaged in the Voltron world.

My 15 minutes demo sadly complete, I had a chance to sit with both Heatherly and Kennedy to get the skinny on the project.

Dan Sarto: I really enjoyed the demo. Right off the bat, from a design and composition standpoint, I was impressed…it's well done. There's a sleekness to the designs that fill the different environment spaces nicely without overwhelming the eye. I’m not nearly as familiar with the Voltron world as the fans are, but I had no problem feeling part of the story from the very beginning.

Chris Heatherly: When I first played, I had the same reaction as you. One of the things that we really spent a lot of cycles on was how to handle the storytelling, take what you see onscreen [with the Netflix series] and do it justice in VR. Digital Domain did a fantastic job of leading your eye around, having the right mixture of action, cuts and interaction, so you don't get that feeling you get in a lot of 360 experiences, where you get bored, you’re looking around and there are just characters talking and the director’s lost you. Wayne did a really good job creating this game. He’s done things like pop-up animation…that's something straight out of the show. But, you've never seen it before in VR. And all these little storytelling conceits reinvented for VR in a really thoughtful way. I was blown away by the mechanics of the storytelling. There were some real breakthroughs there.

DS: That animation could have easily popped up and been distracting.

CH: That's right.

DS: Well, Digital Domain, as a studio, the tremendous eye their talent brings with regards to visual composition, it obviously shows.

CH: The other big thing for me is the way they played with scale. I'm a life-long Voltron fan and you never really appreciate how big those lions know, that scene where Lance is standing see those huge lions in the background and then one comes and opens his mouth. Just the way that's all composed -- VR is great at is playing with scale and this game does a great job with that.

DS: For someone familiar with Voltron, especially the current Netflix series, what do you want them to take away from this VR experience?

CH: I hope they feel immersed in the world of Voltron. I hope they feel like they've stepped into the screen through onto the other side, to live out some of that fantasy, to be there in real life and to pilot a lion and blow stuff up with the rest of the crew. Digital Domain did a great job of making this feel like an animated episode of the television show that's happening all around you. As somebody who tries a lot of VR stuff, I haven't experienced that before. Digital Domain really had some breakthrough stuff here.

DS: That's part of the challenge. What do you really want from an experience like this? Do you want people to just have the fun playing game? Or do you want to propel them forward in a Voltron story as well?

CH: I'd say it's a good mix of both, right?

Wayne Kennedy: I would definitely say so. What do we look for? I simplify it in many ways. It may sound corny, but, for us, we want people to be entertained. That's what we know the product's supposed to do. It's made to entertain, whether you know the franchise or not. But how do you do that? For us, we want people to be engaged, to be immersed in this story, in this world, where I'm going to become a pilot and become one of these characters…or I'm going to watch them and not think of anything else while I'm playing. I'm just there. And that process will make people feel that they’re in some kind of fantasy come to life.  

It's a hard thing to achieve, but that's kind of our goal. We want people to be totally lost in this world, so they don’t feel out of place. If we can accomplish that and make it extremely engaging, we know we've done the right thing. I'm a fan and I love watching the show. I'm all for passive viewing, like most of us, and that's never gonna go away -- I'm always going to enjoy it, but this is different. It's taking the current show and making it tangible. Now I can touch things. Now I can fly something. As Chris mentioned, now I can see the lion at scale, right in front of me. That's a different feeling. It doesn't take away from the TV show. It's adds to it. That makes it an exciting goal for us.

CH: By definition, VR is an interactive medium. It's the only medium that you can't have a non-interactive experience with because, even if it's just moving your head, you're controlling the camera. What I think flummoxes a lot of storytellers that want to do linear stuff in this format is when you're giving the user even a modicum of agency in that world, they can take the story where they want -- you've got to do a better job as a director in designing the experience in a way that keeps them engaged but satisfies their desire to interact. Our game does a really great job of balancing the elements of something that feels interactive but is, at the end of the day, a linear storytelling experience. And if you rip out all that interactivity, I would argue that the experience wouldn't work, because people would stop paying attention. They want to use those controllers. They want to do stuff.

The other thing Digital Domain did that was very clever is provide pretty seamless transitions from different points of view. Sometimes, you're in a third person, kind a of disembodied view, and in other scenes, you are the character. And that could have felt very disjunctive, but it feels very natural here.

DS: Agreed. So how long has this been in development?

WK: It's been over a year for us, starting with the original story. Obviously, it takes place in the Voltron universe but it doesn't encroach upon the TV show. We took some of the best ideas to create this new, exciting tale. We went from that to storyboarding, planning and development, asset building, and obviously the play testing, making sure that we're enjoying it every step of the way. We worked very closely with NBCUniversal and DreamWorks folks to make sure that this holds true, in many ways, to the franchise. That's really important to us as well.

We wanted to take the things we most enjoyed about the show and put them into this other medium. It takes a lot of hard work. We have a great team of people, from creative directors to artists to producers. There were a lot who came together, thinking about what was best for this product and for this franchise. How can we sustain enthusiasm from beginning to end? That took quite a bit of work, to make you feel comfortable, that there was a natural flow. Over time, we were able to achieve that.

DS: All VR projects wrestle with constantly changing technology as well as a myriad of creative challenges. What has proved the most challenging for you on this project?

WK: That's a very good question. Technology is always a challenge. For certain. And everybody who's developing in VR has to deal with that. You gotta make sure it runs on certain platforms and people are going to experience it properly, without any problems. But, at the same time, that's something that I think is easier to overcome. It's a bit more difficult figuring out how to make the story and gameplay aspects work together. For anyone who is creating, whether it's a play or a movie, a TV show, a game, or an immersive cinematic experience, it’s about getting those beats to hit right. Making the pacing feel good. When do people feel fatigued? That's one thing about VR…you’ve got a headset on your face. And it doesn't really feel natural.

You’ve got to create in a way that people forget that and lose themselves. So that, even though they can pause it and play later, it feels good and they want to continue. Being aware of that stuff, when you're telling the story, is essential. It's the fundamentals that are important. Engagement, storytelling, making sure people, when they want to do interactive stuff, can learn and solve puzzles but not get so frustrated that they hate the experience. That takes quite a bit of work to get right.

CH: Most of my day job involves making games. Generally, games are meant to be played again and again and again. The degree it’s challenging becomes encouragement to move towards mastery. But in this case, we're trying to give you just enough challenge. We want you to feel smart, that you can get through these challenges. We don't want you to feel that it's too easy, because then you feel dumb and insulted. We want you to feel like you've found a clever "ahah" moment. That balance, where we're expecting you to learn how to play something new, that you may never play again, that's tough. VR is forcing us to create through an intersection of cinematic storytelling with user interface and game design. It's a lot of different creative disciplines to bring together. 

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.