The story of HTC Vive stealth game Budget Cuts, coming later this year (interview)
Easily one of the coolest SteamVR demos we've played on the HTC Vive is Budget Cuts, a stealth game that uses a Portal-like teleporting mechanic to move you through its virtual rooms. We sat down with Neat Corporation co-founder Joachim Holmér to talk about his upcoming (and highly-anticipated) VR game.
Budget Cuts sits next to Hover Junkers as the two Vive games we're currently salivating over the most. Budget Cuts' name may conjure images of a yawn-inducing corporate accountant simulator, but it's anything but. This is a clever stealth title, where you walk around your own physical space using the Vive's room-scale setup, while a tool in your left hand lets you open portals to blink farther down the hallway or into the next room.
It's physical movement within the confines of your playing space, mixed with wider virtual movement.
A bit like Portal and Dishonored spliced together and placed into VR, the game's teleporting mechanic becomes your strategy for gaining just the right position to fling a knife into the chest of the evil robot sentry making its patrol up ahead of you. Get spotted and you're almost certainly dead meat (something familiar to anyone who's spent time with the stealth genre), so you'll need to strategize your next move and be quick.
Perhaps the most amazing thing about this incredibly fun demo is that the game is the product of a two-person indie studio, and has been in development for less than a year. It plays with a level of polish (and knock-your-socks-off fun) that would suggest a bigger team and years of development.
Gizmag (Will Shanklin): How long ago did Budget Cuts development start?
Joachim Holmér (co-founder, Neat Corporation): Seven months ago, I think. Maybe six.
It all started out when we got a hold of the Vive at last GDC  ... it was kind of delayed in shipments so we got it quite late. But then we took two weeks of prototyping the game, and during those two weeks we experimented and tried to see what works and what doesn't work, and exploring what is VR, what is different in this medium as opposed to the mediums we're all familiar with so far.
We just took a very experimental approach to it, and tried to explore ... and that's how we got started with it.
Gizmag: So I'm assuming the portals and teleporting somehow came out of "we need to move you, but we can't make you sick?"
Holmér: Yeah. So we set the bar quite high in that we don't want anyone to have motion sickness in the game at all.
So any form of acceleration of the player is just, we can't do that anywhere. So we want to have a big level, because we want to have it look sort of like a spy game and a stealth game, where you move around these levels and you ... stealth games in general rely a lot on level design, and layout, patrol spots and whatnot. So we want to push that in VR.
For our locomotion, we started out with just a point and click teleportation. You point somewhere, press the button and then you're there immediately. But it's very jarring, and it doesn't fit the game world either.
Gizmag: Lots of Gear VR games do that, and it always immediately reminds me that I'm playing a video game; it takes you out of it.
Holmér: Yeah. So what we do is, after a lot of experimentation, we started trying to figure out a way to do it more smoothly. And there can't be any acceleration involved in doing that, so the way we did it was you fire a small beacon and when that beacon lands somewhere it opens up a portal. And that portal is stuck to your hand, so you can lift the portal to look through the portal.
The idea of the portal is that when you do the translocation as we call it, there's no motion sickness involved because you're basically just changing what [you're] seeing rather than moving physically. So when we did the transition where it wraps around you, it just changes which camera you're looking through, and that transition is smooth.
The percentage of your view that is one camera and the percent that is another camera, that's a smooth transition. That's the long explanation.
Gizmag: It's awesome, it worked great.
I tried throwing an object through it like in Valve's classic game Portal and that didn't work. Is that something that could at some point be part of Budget Cuts?
Holmér: We're probably not gonna do that, because it has so many gameplay implications.
Gizmag: It would change the strategy.
Holmér: It would. And it wouldn't be as hands-on. So you want to stab a robot, you wouldn't do that physically, you would portal behind it and–
Gizmag: You could do it without any danger.
Holmér: Yeah, and that whole direction is a bit weird. We haven't even tried it, but it's not as physical as standing behind them and doing it yourself.
Gizmag: That makes sense.
Holmér: We already have features like that, that change how you play vs. a regular stealth game. So using the portal you can look around and you can see around corners without physically standing and looking around the corner. So that's ... it's sort of an issue as well, because we like it when people look around corners physically, but we'd just have to adapt the game for those new gameplay mechanics.
Gizmag: Speaking of adapting, how adaptable is the physical space for playing Budget Cuts on the Vive? Up to maximum room-scale down to standing?
Holmér: The game doesn't care about the size of your space. So you can have however large a space you like.
Gizmag: So you could be in a very small space and just use portals for every movement?
Holmér: The game scales upwards, but not downwards. It's probably possible to play on 1.5 x 1.5 m (5 x 5 ft), but it's very small. You're probably gonna bump into things, you're gonna see the Chaperone bounds all the time.
Gizmag: So it's gonna be better with a pretty big space.
Holmér: Yeah. We're designing the game for 2 x 2 m (over 6.5 x 6.5 ft), and if you have more than that, like 2.5 x 2.5 m (over 8 x 8 ft) – I think that's the ideal solution. And the height of that doesn't really matter, it doesn't add to the experience.
Gizmag: We chatted with StressLevelZero recently about Hover Junkers, and it's interesting how the moving platform is one way to move you around in VR, and your teleporting is another way. Both give you the real physical locomotion within your room, but you still have wider virtual locomotion by using those mechanics.
Gizmag: Can you tell us anything about Budget Cuts' story?
Holmér: It's not really fleshed out so I'd rather not.
Gizmag: How far away is it, release-wise?
Holmér: We're probably releasing by the end of the year. That's what we're aiming for, I'm not sure if we're gonna make it ... but we're aiming for that. We might do early access once the Vive gets shipped out to all the customers.
Gizmag: Stealth is pretty much the core gameplay the whole way along?
Holmér: We want it to be primarily a stealth game, but in a stealth game you don't want to be detected, you want to try to sneak around – being detected should be a huge deal and it should be difficult to deal with those situations.
But that being said ... if you're really good at the game, we want the better players to be able to speed-run it while playing it as an action game. It's gonna be a stealth game at first, during the first play-through it's definitely a stealth game. We might have some action parts, but it's not gonna be a core to the game.
Gizmag: If your aim is really good, though, you could pop right out in front an enemy, throw a knife right in their face before they can kill you.
Holmér: Yeah, we want to reward that kind of stuff. It's something we've yet to solve right now, because there's nothing rewarding you for doing longer-range throws. Throw a knife from a long-distance, the only reward you get is if you hit and you're far away from where it fell. But it's much easier to just teleport in front of it, throw the knife and then teleport away. So that's a bit of a problem that we're trying to figure out how to solve. We'll figure out how to do that later.
Gizmag: Are knives a big part of it, or do the weapons vary?
Holmér: I think knives are gonna be quite big, because we found out that adding [firing] weapons to VR isn't as exciting. It's not as fun.
We do have a crossbow in the demo you played. When we started using it, even though we started adding physical stuff to it, like the crossbow dart moves down because of the gravitational pull, so it has this arc. So we wanted to make it a bit trickier to use, but even then it's still too easy. You can just point and click and the robots die.
Gizmag: But the knife you get that visceral feeling; your arm motion has more to do with it.
Holmér: If you kill somebody with a [crossbow], it's like "okay, I twisted my hand and pressed the button and it worked," but if you do it with a knife I'm like "Fuck yeah!"
Gizmag: You do get that feeling from doing it.
Holmér: There's a huge difference between those two.
With the knives you have so much flexibility as well. You have situations where you miss all your knives, and then you jump to the robot, turn around and throw it behind you. Those things ... you can sort of do that with [firearm] weapons as well but not to the same degree.
I think we're mostly gonna aim for the more physical weapons in the game. We're gonna add grenades as well, for instance. That's also a physical motion, throwing a grenade. And trying to catch the enemy's grenade as they throw a grenade, and stuff like that.
I didn't try this, but can you stab too, or is it only throwing?
Holmér: It's only throwing, but we're probably gonna add stabbing as well.
Gizmag: Any multiplayer, or is it just single-player campaign?
Holmér: We'd love to do multiplayer, we'd love to do a level editor, as well. But it's so hard and it's so time-consuming so we're probably not gonna do it. But it would be awesome.
Gizmag: After you guys make millions of dollars on this one you can do multiplayer and a level editor in the sequel.
Holmér: Yeah, Budget Cuts 2 would have that.
Gizmag: What were some of the challenges of developing for the Vive?
Holmér: There's a lot of them, I'm not sure how to separate them from the Vive and VR in general though.
... input design is hard. It's very difficult. For instance, one thing we started out doing was you have different tools, in the demo you played you had the grabber and the translocator. So that's two tools. And then you can find the crossbow, that's your third. So once there are three tools, you need to be able to switch between these tools. So how do you do that in VR?
If you have a console game, you usually do the analog stick, where you turn it in one direction.
Gizmag: Or the D-Pad, something like that.
Holmér: Yeah. So with the Vive controllers, we don't have all of those inputs. We have the touchpad, so the touchpads are super flexible. In VR, you have the advantage of being able to customize the look of the controllers. You can make the controller look like anything, so you can add instructions on the buttons.
The problem with that, though, is that the touchpads ... since we're making a game where you're flailing around with your arms quite a lot and throwing knives, you tend to press these buttons accidentally a lot. So it's not just a little bit.
So we're gonna have to do something with touchpads. But however we use the touchpad, it has to be something where you can accidentally press it without its being detrimental. So that's hard.
Gizmag: It's easy for people like me who play the finished products to just say "this is really cool!" But you guys really are pioneers, you don't have decades of development sitting before you, with people saying "do this, don't do that" ... and so all these little things, just grasping the fundamentals of VR, it sounds like it's a huge part of your process. The tiniest things you have to rethink. The rules from traditional gaming go out the window.
Holmér: Yeah, they do. Especially interaction. There are some game rules that still stick, but most of them don't. So we have to experiment with everything we do. There's no such thing as designing something on paper and then just presuming it will work. That just doesn't exist in VR right now.
Gizmag: I think it's better because of it, because sometimes in more established mediums it's too much of following what's already happened and you lose some of the imagination and creativity – it's all just corporations churning out by-the-book sameness. So it's fascinating, what you guys are doing.
Holmér: And it's good to do play-testing as well, regardless. I think it's good that the medium itself pushes us to do that. Otherwise we could go "I think people will figure it out" and then maybe they don't when they're playing and it's not as good of an experience. I think it's for the better.
Gizmag: Is Neat Corporation still a two-person team?
Holmér: We're two people full-time. We have a part-time coder who's doing AI and also implementing animations for the robots. We have a character artist soon who's gonna do part-time work as well. And we have an audio guy who's doing music and audio, he's freelance.
Gizmag: The game looks amazing, I can't wait to play it again.
Big thanks to Joachim for taking the time to chat with us. You can catch a glimpse of the gameplay of Budget Cuts (which is currently targeted for the end of 2016) in the video below.