CRASHLAND – The Interview

April 3, 2021 ·

Being an intergalactic gladiator would be an interesting profession. Traveling through space and being able to do the job most would not even think about or possibly want to even try. There is something about that freedom of sorts that can really help clear your head. There are pros and cons to everything, but what if you were on the ship and you crash-landed on a planet. Do you think you would be able to survive the elements or worse, the inhabitants of that planet? Would you do what you could until you could be rescued? It’s an interesting thought. So when I heard that Developer Llŷr ap Cenydd made a game that was originally a demo about crash landing on a planet and trying to survive, I had to learn more. So I reached out and Llyr was happy to give us a closer look at his newest game, CRASHLAND, as well as talking about Virtual Reality.

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Interview with developer, Llyr ap Cenydd

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Welcome to THE VR DIMENSION. Would you please introduce to everyone?

“Hi my name is Llyr ap Cenydd, I’m the developer behind the underwater safari experience Ocean Rift and the sci-fi action/horror game CRASHLAND. I create VR apps in my spare time, while also working as a lecturer in the School of Computer Science and Electronic Engineering at Bangor University, Wales, UK.”

You have been working with VR for a while now with Ocean Rift for Google Daydream, Gear VR, Oculus Rift, Go, and Quest which allowed you to explore an underwater world. How has the feedback been for that and do you ever think about going back to it and adding additional content?

“The feedback for Ocean Rift has been amazing. It started out as a 2013 tech demo for the first  Oculus Rift development kit (DK1) and became a popular app to evangelize VR in the early days. The app has been a launch title for most major VR headsets since, including all the Oculus milestones. It has essentially grown up alongside VR – through the dev kits, mobile, motion control, and eventually standalone headsets.

A few extra features were added over the years, including motion control swimming, new habitats like the Beluga and Blue Whales, and an education mode where you can learn about all the animals. I would love to return to Ocean Rift one day. I imagine upcoming technologies like neural interfaces or AR would offer the next step.”

Your newest game CRASHLAND recently released. It originally started as a tech demo and has now evolved into a full game. What can you tell us about it?

“The basic premise of CRASHLAND is that you crash on a hostile alien planet and must survive until rescue. There are 24 missions in the game, and each mission introduces new environments, creatures, and weapons. All the enemies in CRASHLAND are non-humanoid too – giant worms, spiders, ticks, crabs, slugs, terror birds, etc. I do not believe there are many games like it in that regard.

CRASHLAND also started out as a tech demo for the Oculus DK1 in 2013. It was one of the first VR shooter tech demos, using Razer Hydras for motion control. I was also experimenting with positional tracking, teleportation, and full body awareness at the time. With the success of Ocean Rift, my attention shifted there but I kept on refining the tech behind CRASHLAND over the years. Full development of the eventual Oculus Quest version started around 2018.”

So the idea of crash landing to try and survive for a certain amount of time to be hopefully rescued only to crash land again with different enemies and environments is a pretty awesome concept. What was the inspiration behind this and was it always the idea to have leaderboards in the game?

“I took a lot of inspiration from VR arcade games like Space Pirate Trainer, SUPERHOT, Beat Saber, Pistol Whip, etc, which have short intense gameplay experiences you can chain together. I think devices like the Oculus Quest are well suited to that kind of bite-sized gameplay.

I wanted combat in CRASHLAND to feel fast and brutal so that you are always on the edge of control and death. You are quite powerful in the game even at the beginning, especially when you learn to use the teleporter and motion scanner effectively. However, I also wanted to make the creatures totally vicious, so even the lowliest creature can kill you very quickly if you drop your guard or make a mistake. That type of intensity only really works in short play sessions.

People often find the game really difficult, to begin with, but as they learn the mechanics and enemy weaknesses, they make progress, and each mission brings its own rewards. I was greatly inspired by the “30 seconds of fun” design concept Bungie used for Halo, where something new is introduced all the time to spice things up – new creatures, environments, weapons, powerups, perks. This helps keep players engaged as they learn from mistakes, and constantly rewards their hard-earned progress.”

What can you tell us about the different types of perks that you can unlock?

“There are 30 perks in the game that unlock as you level up. By the endgame, you can select up to 5 perks at once.  There is great synergy between perks too, and lots of diverse load-outs to experiment with. Some of my favorite perks include Turret, Puncher, and Berserker:

Turret gives you the ability to request an auto turret that drops from orbit and helps you out of bad situations. This can be useful as a panic button when you feel things spiraling out of control, or when a particularly nasty set of hostiles have spawned. It offers a lifeline or temporary respite, and you feel twice as lonely when it runs out.

Teleports in CRASHLAND are a finite resource (up to 5 charges at a time), and your teleporter only recharges by killing things. The Puncher perk gives you the ability to use three of these charges to smash into creatures with a powerful teleport punch. It is the ultimate risk-reward perk but when you manage to chain them together and wipe the board you feel like a god.

You usually die in CRASHLAND when you run out of teleports, as you become a sitting duck. The Berserker perk kicks in when your teleporter has one or fewer charges and grants 50% extra damage to your smart pistol. This is immensely powerful, as it helps alleviate your weakness when mobility options are low. It also has great synergy with aggressive perks like Puncher. 

Was it always the idea to throw spiders in at such an early mission so players who have the fear to face it early compared to waiting until later on for those who may have Arachnophobia?

CRASHLAND often shifts between action and horror, depending on what creatures are spawning and what weapons have dropped. Sometimes you start off as the cat and become the mouse, other times it’s the reverse. In longer missions, it can ebb and flow between the two. I wanted to stamp down this fact early in the game, so having mission two drops you straight into spider territory was definitely by design. It only gets worse!”

I will say that you captured the movement of the creatures very well. Were there any creatures that you really had to study to get the movements just right?

“Like Ocean Rift, most creatures in CRASHLAND are animated using some form of procedural animation, where AI and algorithms are used to enhance or synthesize animation and behavior automatically. I have a Ph.D. in this area and a lecture on related topics at my University.

In CRASHLAND procedural animation is most often used when you kill something, so you always get interesting ragdolls and death animations which helps make the second-to-second gameplay interesting.

Some creatures like the giant Hellworms use more complex animation systems that synthesize all movement and behavior. I went through a lot of iterations with that animation system over the years, it took a long time to get right. Similarly, the Longlegs animation system is based on my previous research in real-time spider animation which you can see here.”

Were there some missions or creatures that you wanted to have in the game that just didn’t make it? 

“I was flirting with a special underwater mission at one point, where you would fight alien sharks and worse using the Impaler weapon as an explosive harpoon. Unfortunately, it had too many special cases to be viable (water FX, movement, physics, perk compatibility, etc).

Originally the game had 20 missions. However, there were a few creatures I could not get out of my mind so over the last 6 months I caved, and the game expanded to 24 missions. For the time being, I have completely exhausted my imagination, but you never know…”

Is there any chance of future DLC down the road or a release on other VR platforms such as PlayStation VR?

“As a solo developer working in my spare time, I need to be careful about promising extra features or versions! However yes, I would love to bring the game to other platforms once the dust settles.”

Immersion is always important when it comes to Virtual Reality and playing CRASHLAND, I noticed how much of the detail the game shows on the Oculus Quest 2. How important was it to add the effects of weather and capturing the sound of not only the elements but also hearing the bullets hit the creatures as well as the advanced procedural animation technology that is used in the game?

“I wanted each mission in CRASHLAND to have its own identity in terms of creatures, environments, and weapons so that players are constantly rewarded for progressing. Howling winds and weather effects like fog, rain, snow, and thunder are integral to this, as the atmosphere of each mission is central to immersion.

I spent a long time polishing the gunplay too. I think it is critically important for a shooter to get that core gameplay loop to feel as good as possible, especially in combination with the advantages of procedurally animated hit reactions and dynamic ragdolls. Even things like the microsecond delay between the gunshot and the bullet hit sound effect can have a huge effect on how it feels to shoot things. I am happy where it has ended up, the gunplay tickles the brain in just the right places.”

One thing that has been mentioned is the level of difficulty in the game. I know I had some trouble with mission 2 and those spiders just kept coming and it didn’t make me want to quit but keep going, but I can see where some frustration might happen for some players. Is there a chance of adjusting to the difficulty in a future update?

CRASHLAND is quite a brutal game by design, and the current “normal” difficulty is the intended experience. You will die a lot, especially as you learn the mechanics.

I took a lot of inspiration from the Souls games by From Software in terms of progression design. As you play the game you will figure out most creatures have their weaknesses which you can use to your advantage. As you level up and unlock perks, you will further tip the odds in your favor. It is quite rogue-like in that sense. Players also generally find that the mechanics click, they can dance around earlier once-impossible missions and creatures. However yes, while it is not the intended experience a future update will have an extra difficulty for players who just want to blast through the game!”

With your experience, what has been the most challenging and rewarding when working with VR?

“I have mostly developed for mobile VR as lead platforms – from Gear VR to Oculus Quest 2. Getting apps like Ocean Rift and CRASHLAND to run on those devices without ever dropping below 60/72 frames per second is a huge technical challenge. It is very rewarding when you manage it though, especially when you pull off your original vision without too much compromise. Taking off a mobile headset after 30 minutes and have it still be quite cool to the touch is a wonderful feeling as a programmer too.”

If you could go anywhere, do anything, and become anyone at any time in Virtual Reality, who would you be, what would you do, and where would you go?

“I would visit that bar in Gremlins and get blind drunk with them all.”

What’s next for your adventure in VR?

“Launching a game on the Quest store as a solo developer was a huge undertaking, so I am taking things easy for a while to recharge. For CRASHLAND, I am making some balancing changes, and adding a few extra accessibility features like an easier difficulty and left-hand options.

Both Ocean Rift and CRASHLAND have their origins in the dawn of VR in 2013. I am very keen to start prototyping with 2021 VR hardware and see where things go!”

With the library for Virtual Reality continues to grow, what would you say to someone as to why they need to experience CRASHLAND?

“I have genuinely tried to revive and evolve the wave-shooter genre with this game. The interplay between weapons, teleporter, and motion scanner especially adds a novel strategy layer to the gameplay which I think elevates it beyond a typical VR shooter.

I am also very proud of the sheer quantity and variety of creatures in the game, and how intense it feels to fight them. A lot of reviews compare the experience favorably to its inspirations – Starship Troopers, Aliens, Pitch Black, The Mist. The action in those films feels intense partly because the creatures are incredibly dangerous. I have tried to capture a similar intensity in Crashland.”

I really want to thank Llyr for taking some time out of his day and to give us a closer look at CRASHLAND as well as talking about his experience with Virtual Reality.

CRASHLAND is out now for the Oculus Quest/Quest 2 on the Oculus Store.

To learn more about the game, please visit the site.

Also, check out the CRASHLAND review.

In case you missed the trailer, please enjoy.

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