TOSS! – The Interview

September 3, 2023 ยท

If we could go beyond our own limitations in space, would you take the journey or would you send a test subject first? Where do you think you would go and how long do you think it would take you to get there? If you crash landed on a planet, what skills do you think would be needed in order to make it back home? It’s interesting when you start to think about what the possibilities could be and how well we would do if we were faced with that situation. But when I heard that the developer, Agera Games, was making a game where you crash land and play as an acrobatic monkey, I had to know more. So I reached out and the CEO and designer, Albin Ahlstedt Grafman, was happy to talk about their newest game, TOSS! and Virtual Reality.

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Interview with the CEO and Designer of Agera, Albin Ahlstedt Grafman

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Hello and welcome to THE VR DIMENSION. Will you introduce yourself and what you do at Agera?

“Thank you, a pleasure to meet you! My name is Albin Ahlstedt Grafman, and I am the CEO/designer at Agera and of TOSS!๐ŸŒ. As a team of three, we have a generally flat structure in which we get to dip into each other’s roles and together push ourselves forward. My main role is to make sure the ship has wind in its sails and that it is steering somewhat in the right direction.”

For those who may not be aware, what projects have you been a part of?

“While TOSS!๐ŸŒ is my first ‘full production’ game, the rest of the team has a history of making children’s mobile games. I come from a filmmaking and theater/opera production background and have picked up what’s required along the way. When we established Agera we started off financing our game studio by offering solutions to companies using the capabilities of the Unity engine. Basically, all things related to the buzz of AR, VR, Digital Twins, etc. which in hindsight has been an experience proven to translate really well into the production of TOSS!๐ŸŒ.”

Growing up, what were some of the most influential gaming memories you have and what was that one VR moment that made you want to do more with Virtual Reality?

“I am a huge fan of RPGs, so most of my gaming time has been spent in the worlds of the Elder Scrolls games and what influenced me heavily as a young kid still applies today; immersion and to do things my way. My love for big RPG titles might come off as the total opposite of the physical platformer aspect in TOSS!๐ŸŒ, but it really comes down to the same thing: immersion and getting to do things your way.

The first VR experience that really blew me away and realized its potential was the First Contact experience on the Oculus Rift. I retried it the other day and I can still see why that affected me so much. It’s emotional, playful, and super polished – Mwah๐Ÿ‘Œ!”

Your newest game is coming out soon, called TOSS! What can you tell us about this game and what was your influence on the game?

“Yeah, the launch is right around the corner – September 7th. And we are extremely excited to share it with everyone! TOSS!๐ŸŒ is a vibrant, platformer action fest. You take on the role of an acrobatic monkey who has just crash landed on a vibrant cloud planet full of daring playground obstacle courses. With the power to swing and toss yourself about freely, you need to traverse these spacey jungle gyms and find all the pieces of your broken ship to be able to return back to space again. Along the way you encounter classics from the platformer genre tuned laser sharp for first-person VR: Spiky walls, Homing missiles, trampolines, and much more. It’s an exhilarating rush of a game!

Initially, when looking for material we could draw inspiration from to apply our toss mechanic to, we began investigating stuff like American Ninja Warrior, Olympic speed climbing, and children’s playgrounds. And though we definitely draw some inspiration from these; such as the button from speed climbing and the visual playfulness of playgrounds, we couldn’t really translate the challenging aspect of IRL “climbing” counterparts. Also, The Climb had done that already. As you practically weigh nothing in VR and can do pullups with your pinky finger we realized that the most fun was to go bananas with this as sort of a superpower. So instead of looking at ourselves as a climbing game we began identifying as a platformer game and began taking our inspiration from Super Mario, Crash Bandicoot, and the like.

Although the climbing genre in VR has developed since we first began with in 2018, we have not yet seen much from the platforming genre and it is super fun to take a very classic genre to the VR medium and discover how extremely fresh it feels.”

What can you tell players about the climbing and swinging mechanics?

“Imagine you have the gripping power of a gecko and the muscles of a prime chimp. Just grab ahold of the environment and toss yourself away!

The prototype of our mechanic that lets you grab a hold of a surface and then move your body around the grab point was developed in 2018 already, and while it has been iterated through various gameplay scenarios, it has stayed much the same. We have polished it in terms of accessibility and intuitiveness.

Climbing and swinging is fun, but the tossing aspect is what really cranks it up to eleven. It is our equivalent to the jump mechanic in platformers. It lets you traverse gaps, dodge homing missiles coming at you, and probably firstmost, gives the player a choice on how they wish to complete a level. Since they are enabled a creative reach, vertically and horizontally.”

Because the player will be swinging and climbing with the chances of falling, what have you done to reduce or eliminate motion sickness?

“Fighting the VR industry’s enemy number 1: ‘motion sickness’, was in part why we made TOSS!๐ŸŒ initially. As we began experimenting with VR games there were loads of incredible and immersive experiences, but when the movement required you to teleport or glide around like a ghost the experience was: 1. compromised and 2. could make you sick.

While testing different mechanics and game ideas for VR we sort of used those unwanted lessons as a filter. We wanted to create a game that fitted naturally into the limitations of VR and was comfortable. At the time we thought of Beat Saber and Super Hot as the benchmark of this.

And though our benchmarks had designed their way out of the problems by being fixed space experiences with no VR locomotion we allowed ourselves to creatively, at least test ideas that explored what fun VR movement could be.

The mechanic of using your hands as a means of traversing, as seen in TOSS!๐ŸŒ today, was like the third mechanic we prototyped – and just stuck with us. It was comfortable movement and fun, and fitted well to virtual reality. Perfect. The question for us has always been how far we can take it and remain a natural fit.

Since providing a comfortable VR experience is one of the core pillars for us as developers, we needed to understand what motion sickness was, why our movement mechanics worked, and how we could expand on it in a game.

From our research, we found that the root of simulation sickness can be described as a reversed sea sickness. Seasickness is derived from the conflict of a bobbing motion registered in your inner ear while your eyes are depicting a seemingly steady cabin and/or horizon line which causes a sensory conflict and thus makes the body believe it is poisoned. The same phenomena/discomfort can be felt in some VR experiences but in reversed conditions: a bobbing horizon line and a constant ground.

To combat this sensory conflict – while making a physically thrilling experience – we decided to design the entire game based on the player’s true expectations. This establishes a strong correlation between what the player believes will happen and what really happens. No sensory conflicts are permitted in TOSS!๐ŸŒ.

When developing and designing for player expectations we identified 3 core areas which we applied rules to:

The movement mechanic – Shall always be a 1:1 translation of your physical body coordination to your virtual body. The players IRL movements shall mirror the actions in game.

The level design –  Streamline the design of the levels to promote readability and a playstyle that minimizes cumbersome and awkward scenarios such as: 

  • sharp bends (having to physically turn around creates disorientation)
  • long stretches of vertical walls(tilting your head for a longer time puts stress on your neck)
  • long stretches of monkey bars(having to raise your hands over your head for long time can be exhausting)

Realistic physics – As for the areas in TOSS!๐ŸŒ in which the players can encounter a sort of forced camera movement, as when the simulation of the physics applies its effect on the player:

  • soaring through the air from tossing
  • falling
  • bouncing
  • swinging

… we return to the idea of expectations. If a player grabs a tree branch and then releases the grab while they are jerking themself forward, they EXPECT to be launched forward. At the direction they flicked themself, at the speed they made the jerk, at the drag of realistic air resistance, at the pull of 1G in the ballistic trajectory. The same goes for obstacles – you expect to bounce, you expect to swing. So we deliberately created these obstacles that are familiar from the real world, such as bouncers and swings, so that people can transfer their irl intuition of how they behave into the game.

Following this rule of expectations, we have playtested repeatedly what feels good and not, and thus boiled down what makes obstacles and movement of a comfortable platformer in VR.

While being a thrilling action sensation we can thus guarantee an extremely comfortable VR experience. As I said, expect an exhilarating rush – in the best of ways.”

How many different types of challenges are in the game?

“Each of the 79 levels has 3 Challenges you can accomplish. So besides hurdling yourself through it and pressing the button to progress you can also prove your master tosser skills by:

  • Pass the Time Attack: Complete the level under a set time. For the speeders.
  • Get par of Grabs: Complete the level under a set number of grabs. Makes a more strategic play.
  • Collecting the Banana: Collecting all the slices of the banana in the level before pressing the button. These are placed in certain areas which are difficult to reach and require impressive stunts to get to.

There is a playstyle for everyone.”

There is a Social Competition part of the game. Can you provide more details about this?

“Yes, you will not feel alone in TOSS!๐ŸŒ. While it is not a real time multiplayer game, we are making full use of the platform’s capabilities in regard to sociability. The platforms themselves provide different types of features/services, and thus the game can vary a bit on which platform you are playing on. But to answer this question, I’ll use the Meta Quest Store as a reference.

As you complete a level you automatically register your time on a leaderboard. And leaderboards are a big thing in TOSS!๐ŸŒ as you’ll notice. The levels are quite tight and you will find how addicting it is to discover creative routes and tricks on how you will be able to shave off seconds and microseconds from your best time.

When competing on the Leaderboard you can filter your rank to your personal position among all players globally or see how you stand among your friends.

In addition to your time, you are also registering your ghost to the entries made on the leaderboards. Ghosts are turned on and visible as soon as you replay a level you have cleared. By default you are pitted against the ghost ranked one position above you on the leaderboard. This makes for extremely balanced competitions and will make you evolve as a tosser super quick. You can always do a little bit better.

But if you feel like competing against someone in particular – like your friend or the top tosser in the world – you can enter the leaderboard and simply click on their name. This will stick their ghost to your world and you can play against that person specifically.

If you have notifications on and a friend beats your score you’ll get a message prompting you to reclaim your position. If you click on it, you will be able to load into the level and show who’s the TOSS!๐ŸŒ boss.

The asynchronous multiplayer is extremely amplified by the platform services and fits like a glove to the game loop.”

Virtual Reality is about immersing the player. When it comes to the visuals, what have you done to immerse the player as much as possible?

“From the get go we knew that we wanted to make a game that would be accessible on a range of VR headsets so from a technical standpoint we began by aiming to create as crisp visuals as possible for a mobile experience and go from there.

From a player’s perspective there were four main aspects that the visuals would help fulfill: 

  • You should become happy when entering this world – Hence the vibrant and joyful theme
  • It should look good when looking at assets from a mile distant and when pressing your headset up close to a surface when climbing
  • You should feel safe when falling – Puffy clouds are somehow safe to land on we concluded from playtesting
  • Readability – I am a big fan of the Bauhaus movement and their theories on form and color communication to explain functions were basically poured into TOSS!๐ŸŒ

Sound is also an important part of immersion. Did you do anything special to make sure the sound immerses the player into TOSS!?

“The music and sound design was made by an absolute stellar group called Cuebricks. They simply knew what to do to amplify the physical nature of TOSS!๐ŸŒ. The music and sound go hand in hand to encourage interaction with the obstacles, and to get your body moving.

Fun fact, they initially pitched the music as Japanese-surfer-ska-punk. I had no idea what that was, and still really don’t – but it slaps!”

TOSS! is coming to multiple platforms including Quest 2/Pro, PlayStation VR2, Steam VR, and Viveport. When it comes to the PlayStation VR2, how have you used its features for the game?

“Similarly to the Quest, PlayStation has great services available for social competition that we have enabled into the game by default. It’s just so fun to compete with my friends and show who is the true black belt tosser.”

Do you have any tips for the players?

“If they come across “albin_agera” on the leaderboards they can click my name and my ghost will show them the best routes I know!”

If you walked through the door into THE VR DIMENSION, but it was in the world of TOSS! and could have anyone from any time period to try and become a TOSS! Master, who would it be and why?

“That is a great question. Asking my two colleagues they were quick to mention Siddhartha Gautama (Buddah) and Steve Irwin. If I had to answer, I would say my future grandchildren. That would make for some excellent chat on where we are today in VR.”

With the library continuing to grow for VR, what would you say to someone as to why they should experience TOSS!?

“If they want to feel what it’s like to crawl around like Spider-Man and dodge obstacles like Super Mario in VR – they should definitely give it a go!”

I really want to thank Ablin for taking the time out of their day and for giving us a closer look into TOSS!๐ŸŒas well as talking about Virtual Reality.

TOSS!๐ŸŒis releasing for the Quest 2/Pro on the Oculus Store, PlayStation VR2 on the PlayStation Store, Steam VR, and Viveport on September 7, 2023.

To learn more about Agera Games, please visit their site, like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and subscribe to their YouTube channel.

To learn more about Vertigo Games, please visit their site and make sure you like them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and subscribe to their YouTube channel. 

In case you missed the trailer, please enjoy.

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