Job Simulator’s developers talk about making familiar spaces work in VR

If you want to simulate a boring office job, you must first model the universe. Or so Owlchemy Labs discovered when the development of Job Simulator became a race to fulfil the wacky but complex expectations their technology had inspired in their players.

Job Simulator was one of the most successful virtual reality launch games. By the end of 2016 it had made $3 million in sales and was the top download of the year for Playstation VR. In a field still waiting for tangible returns from the billions of dollars in venture capital which have been poured into it since the announcement of the Oculus Rift, whose hardware is still only accessible to a small shard of the games audience, Job Sim proved that it really was possible to make money from actual people buying and enjoying your game – at least if it’s a massive commercial success which charms almost everyone who plays it.

Key to that charm was the way in which the game toys with your preconceptions about familiar spaces like offices and kitchens. It’s set in 2050, when all jobs have been automated, and pretends to be a comically inaccurate recreation of 20thcentury labour. The player is surrounded by various ordinary objects and has to us motion controls to manipulate them as a real chef or an auto mechanic might (or rather as an ignorant robot imagines they might).

For all the hoopla about how VR will let us explore an erupting volcano (or whatever), being in a comfortable, ordinary space can actually be more of a buzz. You know what coffee makers and staplers are supposed to do, so it’s gratifying when they act like you think they will and delightful when they surprise you with behaviour that was logical in retrospect.

But Job Simulator wasn’t originally about familiarity. In a talk at the Game Developers Conference on Wednesday, Devin Reimer and Alexander Schwartz of Owlchemy Labs explained how, in their first rush of prototyping after a successful demo of the kitchen level at GDC 2015, they imagined the player doing far more fantastical jobs. Circus performer, skyscraper window cleaner, space station repair person, birthday magician for robot children; the now-famous office was only 8th on the list.

Somehow none of them worked as well as the kitchen did. “The reason was familiarity,” said Reimer. “If you have some understanding of how something is supposed to work then we can play with that, subvert it, or use it to our advantage. The further we got away from something you already understood, the more complicated and weird it got.”

That’s where the trouble began. The kitchen demo had already proved that “expectations can kill you”. “Everyone had preconceived notions of how a kitchen worked, and we realised we needed to satisfy [them],” Reimer recalled.  Players expected knives, so Owlchemy put them in, and knives are supposed to cut things, so they rigged up a cutting system. But it turns out that when you give people two hands, a set of knives, and an oversized cartoon vegetable, the first thing they do is pick up a knife in each hand and turn one simple 3D model into 30 or 40 independently simulated models which kill your framerate. (Framerates in VR games have to be fixed at 90 FPS to maintain the illusion of “presence” and prevent motion sickness.) Modifying the knives so they shattered on impact only produced swarms of knife shards instead of vegetable chunks. An attempt to create a comedy rubber knife which couldn’t cut anything at all instead produced a horrible flapping flopping thing which wiggled eerily about in the player’s hand like a live fish.

Once full development began, things got worse. The problem was affordance, or perceived affordance – a term from design theory which describes how objects communicate their potential uses to their users. In order to maintain the fantasy every object needed to act like it looked like it would act. Add to those the rich associations which players already have with everyday items, and Owlchemy quickly found themselves in a race against the expanding implications of their own designs. The very familiarity which made the game work also put an ever-faster treadmill under their feet.

For example: an office needs donuts and coffee, so donuts and coffee were created. But if you have donuts you have to be able to eat them. If you can eat donuts, you probably need to be able to eat them in multiple stages – the donut model moving from whole to half-eaten to gone – because eating them in one bite is unsatisfying. “Our artist had to build bite states of every single object that was edible, including the sound effect of juiciness,” said Schwartz. And if eating is triggered by bringing an edible object near the player’s ‘mouth’, how do you stop accidental eating? One playtester, who was short, was grabbing things from a virtual refrigerator and bringing them past her mouth on the way to the worktop. She couldn’t understand why they kept disappearing from her hands. Another playtester clipped their face through a vending machine and started gobbling up the items inside it.

Liquid, said Reimer, “made eating look like a cakewalk. 3D fluid simulations are generally just not done in videogames, let alone in VR where you have all these performance problems.” The liquid also had to move dynamically in response to player actions, through a world which could be modified by those actions. “Once you build liquid, all of a sudden there’s these affordances which roll out of this thing. You expect fluid to boil, to be conserved when you pour it from one vessel into another; you expect when you combine different fluids that the colours mix correctly, that when you pour fluid into world elements, those interact correctly…and this was all just to show a cup of coffee!” Hence the article: “Why a cup of coffee in Job Simulator took 850 hours to make.”

“Every new system that we would add to Job Simulator would have fundamental backwards-facing changes on everything we’ve ever built,” Schwartz lamented. “Now that eating and drinking were in, every food-like item in any job, especially the kitchen, which is full of them, needed to now be edible. Every liquid or liquid-like, or anything that produces liquid, or that you expect maybe liquid could come out of by some means – that needs to be tracked and drinkable. You can’t set expectations incorrectly.”

The process for finding “missing expectations” was “playtesting, playtesting, playtesting.” Quite early on Schwartz’s wife Beth Beinke-Schwartz, a level designer for Doom 2016 and Bioshock Infinite, threw a plate on the floor and it didn’t smash; plate-smashing shot to the top of the feature list. Later players tried to pour coffee into a plant pot and were disappointed when nothing happened, so now the plants grow when you coffee them. To meet the demand Owlchemy adopted a rapid iteration regime in which every person had a VR headset at their desk and the necessary skills too prototype, test and refine new features themselves. “We had to live up to everyone’s expectations no matter how absurd they were,” said Schwartz.

An interesting side effect of all this was that almost every real-world appliance included in the game had to be completely redesigned. Real microwaves and blenders with their fiddly buttons were no good for VR, where, according to Reimer, “you’re closer to the interaction level of a 2-year-old or 3-year-old.” But the game objects still needed to look enough like their real-world counterparts that they would activate the players’ sense of familiarity, even if they were controlled in a completely different way. Reimer ended up trawling toy stores to examine the design of children’s play appliances.

Finally the developers began to get ahead of their playtesters. There is a funny interaction in the office job level where players can use a photocopier to produce actual 3D copies of any objects, including, if they scan their own head, their brain. The first time someone tried this at Owlchemy, people who had gather round to watch went hushed because they didn’t expect it to work. “Everyone’s like, it’s not going to work,” said Schwartz. “No one thinks that the developer is going to go that far. Then when the brain popped out everyone started screaming.”

Job Simulator is a game about objects: their qualities, their interactions, their tactility and their capacity to surprise. It feels appropriate that its history is full of weird objects gone wrong – like invincible plates and shattering knives. But it’s doubly so that it exists in its current form because its developers became tangled up with and dragged along by the rapidly proliferating network of objects they had created.