Thursday, December 1, 2016

Building Accessibility into XING: The Land Beyond

Gamers enjoy immersing themselves into worlds that become their new reality. 

In order to participate and play video games, players must be comfortable and knowledgeable of the controls. 
  • There are a variety of ways video games are played across many different platforms, and it is up to game designers to determine appropriate control schemes for their games. 
  • In addition to thoughtfully setting controls, designers must also avoid accessibility issues of the content in the game itself, such as the effect color blindness or deafness may have on gameplay. 

We began making considerations for the accessibility of XING very early on. 

XING is a game that is played at the player’s own pace, so it naturally fits into a certain category of accessibility for people who may have slower reaction times or may need to make decisions at their own pace. Since XING was already accessible in this way, we began to always ask ourselves if we were designing the rest of the game to be accommodating for other types of needs.


During development, we have had likely somewhere near a few hundred conversations about color choices. One edifying source for color choice is the game Portal, of which playing was assigned as homework to the team of White Lotus Interactive while we were students in Level Design 1 at Chapman University. Portal introduces new mechanics to the player and teaches them how to play in famously successful ways, and color choices are a huge reason why. 

The mechanics the player needs to interact with will often have vibrant color and lighting that sticks out from the duller background elements. With XING we have made careful consideration of styling game mechanics such that they are visually distinct from the environments but retain a feeling of belonging in the game world. In regards to color blindness, no puzzle or mechanic relies strictly on color. Effort has gone into making a diverse and satisfying palette of colors for the effects and symbols of various game mechanics; however, distinguishing those colors is not necessary for solving puzzles thanks to use of symbols and other clues. 

XING: The Land Beyond - Color helps to supplement symbols, but does not replace them. Glowing also helps to distinguish game-play elements vs. environmental decoration.

Here's an example you can A-B through if you click on the photos:

Original Colors
Tritanopia (Very Rare)

In the above example you can see how important glowing and shape recognition is. 

Text & Audio

The story of XING is told through poetry scattered about the various worlds the player travels to. We have a wonderful cast of voice actors read each poem aloud as you discover them, but the text is still available visually in the game world. Any other piece of information that is conveyed through text is shown visually instead of through audio. 

If there is a puzzle that has some musical or audio component, there is always a visual or symbolic way to solve the puzzle too.

A piece of a story told through poetry that you pick up in the game. These also include an audio component.

Temporal Accessibility

Many of the accessibility solutions are clear, easy to ascertain answers. One of the muddier topics has been that of the go-at-your-own-pace rule. XING includes many game mechanics that involve moving large objects around in order to clear a path for yourself. It’s no secret that environmental control becomes a large part of the player’s toolkit, and at various points in development we have thrown in and out other powers. Some of these would have introduced puzzles in the game that would have required users to expertly time a jump, or have to perform an action or series of actions at a certain moment. 

While we felt like some of the mechanics we had made were very cool, we ultimately did not want to break from the pacing rule. This not only allowed us to keep the game accessible in that way, but it also helped to streamline and organize the development of our game mechanics. 

All puzzles in XING: The Land Beyond are go-at-your-own-pace.
This also helped force us to come up with creative ways to make mechanics work in interesting ways with one another, and to come up with ways to make mechanics exciting or even thrilling to use, even if the player did not feel the pressure of time.

Virtual Reality

Building accessibility into virtual reality (VR) content requires a lot of the same considerations that building for other platforms requires. VR also introduces many new accessibility issues, perhaps the largest being that of locomotion comfort, or how comfortable players are moving around the game world. I talk about our various VR locomotion schemes in this blog post, and the challenges in designing for rapidly evolving VR platforms.

Recently, I showed XING and some other VR demos to a friend of mine who is wheelchair-bound and who has some motor-skill impairment. 
Virtual reality is certainly an exciting platform for him, and he had a great experience with nearly each experience we tried. It is beautiful that virtual reality allows him to explore new worlds and explore them in crazy ways, like flying around Paris as an eagle or floating through the vastness of space in zero-g. 

While the latest room-scale gaming with motion controllers allows for complex, high intensity action games that utilize fast reaction time and motor skill accuracy, virtual reality is at the same time providing opportunities to bring people of various backgrounds together. The social application AltSpace is a great example of an inclusive application. AltSpace is cross platform and works on mobile VR headsets as well as setups like Vive with motion controllers. In AltSpace, if you have motion controllers you are able to use them, but you can still participate in the same activities even if you do not have motion controllers. While I don’t think every game developed needs to be changed and made completely accessible, I think that if a game already fits the mold for potentially being enjoyed by a wider audience, then it makes sense to put in the effort.

Pictured: James (Me)
 Virtual Reality also opens up a lot of other doors too.
For example, I've never traveled to so many places with a cat on my lap the entire time!

Next Steps

We are still working hard as ever to launch XING: The Land Beyond and ensure it can be enjoyed by many people. If you have any additional accessibility comments or concerns, please let us know in the comments!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Giving Thanks + New Mixed Reality Photo

Tomorrow many people in the US will be celebrating the holiday of Thanksgiving. Regardless of how it started, it is now a time where families and friends gather together to say "thank you" for everything they are grateful for. For us at White Lotus, we are thankful for so many things.

We are thankful for...

  • All of our Kickstarter backers, who believed in us and helped launch us on this amazing journey. We are starting to see the light!
  • Our parents, who have continued to support us though all of development.
  • Our friends and other family members, for putting smiles on our faces; who have been there for us through our ups and downs, and given us comfort and words of advice in times of need. 
  • Our professors and teachers, like Vinnie Morrison, who inspired us to achieve more, and not to settle for just "good enough" in our work.
  • All of the people who work at Epic Games, for continuing to improve upon and make using Unreal Engine 4 a great experience for all developers, including smaller ones like us.
  • The software that we use, such as Photoshop and Cubase, for just existing, and allowing us to achieve our visions to make digital art and music.
  • All the past and present game developers, who carved the path, and who continue to inspire us with their amazing games!
  • Our supporters who follow us on social media, and who help us share our latest updates, or simply write us kind words and comments. It means so much. 
  • Our health, because there would be no way we could do everything we do on this game without sound minds and bodies to do it all with.

Happy Thanksgiving from James, Koriel, and John :D
(Photo from GDC 2015)

We hope that everyone giving thanks tomorrow tries to look at the positives in their lives, and keeps motivated to live their lives to the fullest. :)

Also, before we let you go, here is the newest addition to our Mixed Reality photo series
featuring XING: The Land Beyond!

Thank you for reading, and have a wonderful rest of the week!

Monday, November 14, 2016

Graphics in XING + The Bright Side of Delays

Hello, John here!

For my blog post today I'm going to ramble about some of the development process we are going through, as well as some of the tougher problems I'm working to solve. I'll also address the ongoing delay of the release.

First, a quick update on development. I've recently been busy integrating the changes made in Unreal Engine 4.14 to our custom 4.12 build specifically to better support the ever changing SDK's of all the VR headsets we are supporting, as well as for a few other nice improvements to the editor. Our friends at Cyan were the ones who really encouraged us to mess around with the engine itself to better suit our needs, and while it's initially a daunting task I'm really happy I dove into it.

We've actually cycled our entire project from engine version to engine version since the original 4.0 release, and getting my hands dirty with the engine code is certainly helping me better understand some of the "magic" that makes up Unreal.

Rainforest Landscape Material

The specific changes I've made to the engine are mostly small, but important for our game. For example, I modified the code used for saving the game on PS4 to run on an asynchronous thread, meaning the game saves without hitches or pausing. Doing this change opens up the opportunity to have saving run in the background and not rely on breaking gameplay to save the game. Of course, having background saving presents the problem of how to let the player know their game is saved - something we'll need to address at some point.


Another important change I've made is modifying the internal Screen Space Ambient Occlusion (SSAO) shader to apply a simple full screen blur for use with Fast Approximate Anti-Aliasing (FXAA). This is essential for avoiding the strange dither pattern on SSAO when we are rendering without Temporal Anti-Aliasing (TAA).

Speaking of AA (anti-aliasing, or "removing jaggies"), I've decided to stick with FXAA as our primary AA solution. While TAA has some awesome strengths and really can completely remove aliasing in a lot of cases, the ghosting and Vaseline effect it gets criticized for in modern games like Fallout 4, as well as adding a slight rendering cost on lower end hardware, has led us to defaulting to FXAA. I'm not sure if we'll be offering TAA as an option as it currently breaks a couple of shaders, but you will certainly have the option to disable AA if you like, as well as super sampling the game if you have the hardware for it.
Scaling Cloud Shader
Scaling Cloud Shader

Graphics Settings

Graphics settings are an interesting point of discussion regarding PlayStation as well. While I've seen a few titles offer some settings to players in the past, it seems like more and more games are giving players some presets to play with on consoles - things like sacrificing frame-rate for resolution and vice versa. I'm honestly not sure what we are going to offer on that note.

All of our demos on PS4 so far have been 1080p unlocked frame-rate that sticks pretty close to 60 at all times, but to be fair we've been mostly demoing some of our less-demanding content. I personally prefer the game to be running at 45+ fps - any less and I start to "feel" the frame-rate, but I know some people strongly prefer 60 fps, even if it means sacrificing quality. I'm not super keen on providing a 900p setting, although I think a lot of games are 900p and most people don't even notice. Interestingly, another puzzle game (The Witness) decided to stick with 900p to lock the frame-rate to 60 on the PS4.

Obviously the PSVR has a strict frame-rate requirement that we are required to hit, and to do so there is certainly a hit to post process quality and scene detail. I'm not gonna lie to you and say all these screenshots you've been seeing are coming straight off of a PSVR - the settings are noticeably dropped to maintain frame-rate (not to mention VR photos are pretty unsightly at the moment - I wonder if we'll see a better solution to that in the future?). In the interest of transparency, here's some work in progress photos demonstrating what some of the scalability settings will look like.

Work in Progress - High Preset
Work in Progress - Medium Preset
Work in Progress - Low Preset


On a concluding note, I'm very much interested in making sure XING is an extremely polished experience no matter the hardware you are playing on. I hope this attention to detail somewhat alleviates the admittedly extraordinary duration some of you have patiently been waiting for.  The scope and reach of this project has FAR exceeded my expectations setting off, for better or for worse.

But don't worry, this multi-year delay has some fantastic benefits for you, the player:

  • The game has about four times the content than we had initially designed
  • Voice-acted characters
  • A massive set of optional puzzles and content
  • Literally three years of polish
  • A completely ridiculous amount of art for a 3 person indie team to try to push out
  • Way too much music - levels that were going to have one track now have 4+ with variation
  • PS4 support
  • Support for the three major VR headsets, including tracked hand controllers
It's been a long wait, and because we still have a lot of unknowns ahead of ourselves there no point in specifying a target date. What I can say is we are very far along - things have never looked better for the future of the project, and we are in no way in any danger of disappearing. We've all worked extremely hard to get to where we are now and we will continue to do so until we are happy with the entire package we are releasing to the world.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Obduction - From the Perspective of an Adventure Game Developer

Early last week the independent game developer Cyan released a virtual reality version of their latest creation, Obduction, into the wild. This marks Cyan’s first foray into VR and a departure from working on sequels to their acclaimed Myst series. Obduction’s game design and atmosphere feel deeply rooted in the company's previous work, yet remain feeling fresh and wholly original. Instead of writing about our game XING’s development directly, this week I will be doing so through the lens of the release of Obduction.

Gamers have seen the release of many great puzzle and adventure games in recent years, including The Witness, Firewatch, The Talos Principle, and Monument Valley to name a few. Despite the emergence of so many titles which credit Myst as an influence for their game, there is actually a significant lack of a pure Myst-style game design actually deployed in these games. That is to say, there are few puzzle games released which stick to the original formula of Myst, which features what I’ll call world-scale puzzle solving, as opposed to room-scale puzzle solving. I’m not talking about room-scale VR here, I’m talking about the scope of puzzles and how they are presented to the player.

Standing Apart from Modern Formulas

Among the modern puzzlers I mentioned, possibly the most unlike Obduction is The Talos Principle. In Talos, the player is presented with multitudes of puzzles at a time, and the player can solve them in any order. In Obduction, the player seemingly has only one objective to do at a time, or perhaps the player is still trying to figure out what that singular objective even is. At a macro level, the player is rarely wondering what they should be doing in games like Portal or The Talos Principle. The finite puzzle solution may not be ascertained, but the player at least knows which door they are trying to get through. The player is confined to a “room” and must unlock that room. This starkly contrasts the core world-scale theme of Cyan’s design vocabulary, which the company has fine tuned in their latest release.
Screenshot from Portal

Screenshot from The Talos Principle
In Obduction, the metaphor for room-sized puzzles doesn’t exist, and instead the entire game world is the puzzle. Pulling a lever or uncovering a secret code may unlock a door for you on the other side of the game’s universe. This not only contrasts The Talos Principle but also other modern puzzle games like The Witness and even Monument Valley, which each confine puzzle-solving to specific zones. While The Witness also has some larger world-scale puzzle solving that, along with an island setting that really harken it back to Myst, Obduction relies on world-scale puzzle solving exclusively. By doing so, Obduction easily distances itself from these modern formulas, yet remains deeply compelling.

The narrative-adventure game Firewatch tells its story across an expansive game world like Obduction, but without traditional puzzle solving, and instead, allowing the player to explore and observe the story in their own way. Both games use visual spectacle as a way to reward the player for making progress, and utilize the environment as a storytelling device. A desire to see the next vista also becomes a driving force for the player in our own game, XING: The Land Beyond.

Screenshot from Firewatch

Differences with XING

While the formula for XING has evolved over the course of development, we can still look back to our Kickstarter days and see how the initial seeds of design naturally grew into what the game is today. You can absolutely point out aspects of XING that are reminiscent of Portal, The Legend of Zelda series, Golden Sun, and yes, Myst. XING features a hub world and a collection of lush and diverse outdoor environments, but perhaps the similarities with Myst end there. More akin to Portal, we linearly introduce game mechanics and puzzles, which are typically confined to specific zones. Influence from The Legend of Zelda franchise, especially the dungeon design of Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask, can be seen in the effort we have put into creating novel puzzle moments crafted for unique environments. This idea of uncovering novelty became important for XING, and seems universal to all adventure games.

I have been playing through Obduction on the Oculus Rift without looking at guides or hints, and the experience remind me of the magic of earning discoveries. Our development team is careful about releasing screenshots of new content or talking about puzzles, as we know those moments of surprise are special for gamers. We are continuing to polish up those special moments in preparation for what we hope will be a novel and memorable experience for gamers. Stay tuned!

Monday, October 24, 2016

Quick Update + Mixed Reality Photos!

Hi everyone!

Koriel here. Just a quick update since we have a lot we are trying to get done right now!


John has been off in music land these past few days (working on a bunch of sweet tracks for the game). The new music pouring in is getting us all pretty excited. :D

James is working on integration for VR platforms. There are still a lot of adjustments to be made to get everything feeling right on the Rift, the Vive and PSVR.

I've been mostly working on getting into better shape, improving and creating some art assets, and finishing up some in-game text.

Mixed Reality Photos

Some of you may have seen our fun Mixed Reality photo posts over the past weeks, so I thought it would be nice to put them all together in a post. In these photomanipulations, using both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, we try to capture the wonder and thrill of playing XING: The Land Beyond in Virtual Reality.

We still have more to come, but here are the newest two, plus all the other posted so far!

Be sure to follow us on Facebook or Twitter to see the new releases each week :)


Photo 11: "Sakura"

Photo 12: "No Sunscreen Required"

The Rest:

Photo 1: " Lost in the Jungle"

Photo 2: " The Flaming Durian"

Photo 3: "Crouching Lilypad, Hidden Rainforest"

Photo 4: "Virtually Snowing"

Photo 5: "Tablet on the Beach"

Photo 6: "A Flurry of Petals"

Photo 7: "Moon Path"

Photo 8: "The Hungry Tadpole"

Photo 9: "Pinecone Pickup"

Photo 10: "Desert(ed) Towers"

More to come!

Thanks for reading, and as always, have a lovely week!


Monday, October 17, 2016

Music and Game Development

Welcome back to another XING Development experience. John here - it's been a while since I wrote on the blog, so I figure I'd update everyone on some of the work I've been up to. We are returning from a few XING related events this past week, namely the annual IndieCade (this year at USC) and the biennial Steam Dev Days in Seattle, so I'll give a quick recap of our travels as well.

Steam Dev Days

Going to events like Steam Dev Days feels like one of the most effective ways to refresh our development and keep us looking at the big picture. Despite our best efforts, we are still a relatively isolated company and can sometimes find ourselves working in a vacuum, so getting out and socializing with a ton of developers, seeing talks about gamedev, and having in-depth meetings with our partners can really help revitalize development.

Arriving in Seattle
Keynote about to start!
The Main Session Room
Lunch Day 1
After Party/Mixer hosted at the Convention Center by Valve
Staying until the very end. We made some friends :)
Unreal Slackers group photo!

IndieCade and PlayStation VR

Sony graciously hosted XING: The Land Beyond at IndieCade this year, and alongside their usual IndieCade setup they crafted an excellent PS VR demo station for us in the Steven Spielberg Building. This help was especially useful for us this year given the nearly overlapping dates between IndieCade and Dev Days this year! This was the first time we've shown XING on PS VR to the general public. Maintaining feature parity along all of our platforms has been a huge priority for all of us, so seeing people lining up to play our game on PS VR hopefully is a good sign for XING and the platform in general. Shout outs to the other PS VR games: GNOG, Psychonauts: In the Rhombus of Ruin and Headmaster for joining us this year!

And of course, happy PlayStation VR launch!

Koriel goes to IndieCade
People playing XING: The Land Beyond on the PS VR
More lovely games in the PS VR room :)


Last week we were able to make great strides on a number of important elements for the game. As Kori mentioned two posts ago, we have a "full" build of the game - meaning all of the levels are present in a single executable. What we don't have, and what we've been working on, are the transitional elements between content; things like a cohesive way to introduce new players to the game and letting them understand some of the core objectives they will want to accomplish during their stay. Some of this work is strictly polish, like refining level design, but much of it has to be treated like new content. We've added a new introduction sequence and area into our latest internal build, and will be looking for feedback this week.

Checking things in and out of  Perforce Source Control
Personally I always have 50+ tasks I could be doing at any moment, so I like to use some time at the beginning of each week to set some goals for production. Sometimes I'll need to prioritize tasks based on events, like getting the PS VR build prepared for IndieCade, but usually I'll try to group my work together based on what discipline it lies in. I tend to get into a "mode" of working on a particular type of task; last week it was mostly post-process and shader work, and before that was systemic programming. This week I'll be focusing on music.


Making music for a game I also need to be actively developing has proven to be a challenging mix, no pun intended. It's a catch 22 - on one hand, I need to make the game function before I can write the music; on the other hand, the game needs music to function. I often tell people I feel like I'm not spending enough time writing music for the game, but in reality it's going to take as long as anything else - we won't release until it all works.

My Library
I think structurally XING's soundtrack it shaping up to be a somewhat unique experience. In an era of ambient, moody soundtracks that expertly combine descriptive soundscapes and lush atmosphere, I've decided to look to the past and tackle the soundtrack with a more thematic approach. Locations have their own recurring motifs and instrumentation, with persistent melodies tying the tracks together.

Deciding on the fidelity of the music was also an interesting choice. While there are obvious economic reasons why taking a 100% live audio approach may not be the most appropriate option, I'd argue that a MIDI centered soundtrack actually grounds the project closer to it's nostalgic first-person adventure roots. That's not so say that the entire soundtrack is programmed MIDI - many of the tracks feature a live instrument or two, or a live preformed midi instrument (for example a piano). Ultimately I would say I'm targeting a fidelity level similar to Donkey Kong Country Returns, Fire Emblem Awaking, and A Link Between Worlds - all do a great job feeling modern with their production while still retaining the "retro" vibe of their predecessors.

Making Music

As we get closer to release we'll start revealing more of the soundtrack, but for now you can listen to some of my work for the game in our various trailers and gameplay videos.

Until next time!