Creating a VR Character: How We Made Yep


A couple of weeks ago, we shared our process in creating a cockpit in VR. Now we're ready to reveal our process behind creating our lead character Yep!

Yep has been around as a concept since back when Life of Lon was planned as a 2D artistic sidescroller (read the whole story here).

Some important things we knew early on that Yep needed:

  • Yep needed to be the player's primary way of interacting with the surrounding world.
  • Yep should have abilities that engage the player and directly influence progression.
  • Yep needed to be very cute and have some cat-like as well as dog-like qualities.
  • Yep should be both aquatic and able to move around on land.

These decisions came from one place: The writing. If you want to create an engaging character in VR, write a good character.

Inspiration

Growing up, there were 3 games I can think of that very strongly influenced the creation of Yep. The first is a game called, "A Boy and His Blob." This puzzle/journey game was released for the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1989.

The blob follows you

The blob follows you

The blob can become a variety of things

The blob can become a variety of things

What was cool about A Boy and His Blob was that your companion was essential to the journey. Without him, you couldn't do anything. So I thought we should create a companion like this in some ways that will be surprising to players later in the game.

Another game that inspired me was a game called The Secret of Evermore released in 1995 for the Super Nintendo. Evermore had a dog companion that fought alongside you and changed forms throughout the game.

Prehistoric wolf-dog

Prehistoric wolf-dog

Posh poodle

Posh poodle

Sci-fi toaster dog

Sci-fi toaster dog

Just like in A Boy and His Blob, your dog was critical to finishing the game.

The third influential game was Another World (or as I knew it from the SNES release, "Out of This World.") Another World had an alien companion that joined you on your journey and helped you out of trouble.

Fans have dubbed him, "Mike Aruba" because it sounds like he says that early on.

Fans have dubbed him, "Mike Aruba" because it sounds like he says that early on.

Like the prior examples, the alien companion was essential to progression.

Like the prior examples, the alien companion was essential to progression.

The GameGrumps did a really fun playthrough where they meet this character. If you've got the time to watch it, I'm pretty confident you'll enjoy it.

For more modern takes of the companion- we'd be remiss if we didn't mention Dog from Half Life 2.

I don't think anyone would argue with the assessment that Dog was a GREAT character.

I don't think anyone would argue with the assessment that Dog was a GREAT character.

Dogmeat is your faithful canine companion in the Fallout series.

"Stop getting me killed Dogmeat"

"Stop getting me killed Dogmeat"

There are of course other games that have companions, but these were some of the most influential ones when it comes to the idea behind Yep.

 

Concept Art

Let's get into the concept art now and step through how Yep came to life.

These early drawings were based on some descriptions I gave Claudio Rodval, our character artist at the time. I had an idea of what Yep would do in the game, but not exactly what he would look like. Based on these sketches, I was able to decide which features I liked and which I disliked.

I thought the big eyes were a very cute looking feature so I asked for another round that focused more on that look. Some of these guys are pretty funny to look at.

This round of drawings came from Claudio while he was staying in a hotel. You can see that we were starting to nail down the overall shape Yep should take and how his face proportions would look.

I thought this one was absolutely adorable- but still just a tad too mammalian. I wanted Yep to straddle the line between mammal and dragon-like.

These were the first drawings were I felt like the character had emerged. Everything we did following these drawings are derivative. We had solved the core features of Yep's face.

Whiskers? Nope, that looks kind of weird.

No more whiskers and trying to get the 3/4 view of the head looking right.

The first largely-complete drawing of Yep's whole body. The tail wasn't figured out yet, but I was very happy with how this turned out.

The tail was such an ongoing struggle that we iterated on all the way till the final model. I knew it should be something iconic and memorable.

Since Life of Lon was originally a 2D sidescroller, players would have gotten to play as Lon. The interplay between Yep and Lon was going to be an important part of the gameplay. Now that Life of Lon is a VR game, the interaction won't quite happen in the same way, but we think it will be even more engaging and immersive. Here are some drawings of Lon and Yep getting to know each other.

We had planned a section called The Bubble Stream and Yep would float with the player through a bubble-filled underwater river.

A really beautiful render that Matt Vince did. At this point, we still hadn't solved the gem in Yep's tail- so in these early drawings there was no gem.

Claudio created this character sheet that turned out to be very useful while we were modeling Yep.

This is a throw together piece I did to attempt to figure out a solution for the tail gem. Ultimately, I decided that it was important enough that we need to go through rounds of concept art to figure out.

First round of formal concepts around the tail gem. Initially, I was really fond of these designs, but over time, I realized that I didn't like the way they looked. I was determined to go back to the drawing board as many times as it took to get it right.

While we continued to noodle on the tail, I hired a contract modeler to start work on the Yep model. He didn't follow the specs too well, so I had to provide him with detailed notes to get the proportions right.

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A look into the kind of feedback I needed to give this modeler to get the proportions correct.

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Second round of revisions.

We ended up with this as a low-poly version. I wasn't super excited about where we ended up so I found a talented modeler named Brian Olmstead to pick up the baton and take Yep to completion.

Brian ran through a few rounds of cleanup. Things like eyes that can blink and mouth that can open hadn't been solved yet.

An early render of how yep's body might be painted.

A grab from Unity to see how the light would fall on Yep.

The low-poly got dropped into a boilerplate scene where we tested how he might look underwater.

Finally, yep gained the ability to blink and open his mouth!

Alisa Kober animated the low-poly model. We were really impressed by the effect!

A mockup I did showing my idea of where the tail could end up. This version was ultimately the one we've gone with.

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An early animation of Yep popping his head up. We all agreed that it was adorable. He seemed a bit bouncy to me- so that was fixed in later tests.

Yep skin!

The finished high-poly model. The eyes ended up a bit smaller than the original concept art due to blinking logistics. I'm really happy with where everything ended up.

Darryl Dempsey started doing tests on light passing through certain parts of Yep's body.

This was a fun test to look at.

Still some work needed to be done on the tail- but the shape was looking right.

A beautiful render of the high resolution unposed model under water.

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Alisa tests out the facial rig.

An early idle animation by Alisa.

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Our first animation test with the high poly model. It looked great!

After about a year and a half- Yep had finally come to life in a meaningful way. As you can see- you can get a really strong sense of his personality just from the subtle animation cues.

And here he is with the glow applied. All that remains is the glowing tail gem and he's done!

Conclusion

I hope you've enjoyed this behind the scenes look at how Block Interval created our beloved mascot for Life of Lon. Stay tuned for all sorts of new developments by following our twitter! We post new art and progress all the time!

Also if you'll be at the VR World Congress in Bristol UK this April, stop by our booth and try out our trailer for Life of Lon. In it- you will meet Yep for the very first time! Happy trails!

Daniel Allen is the co-founder of Block Interval and creative director of the in-development VR game Life of Lon. For more information about the project, check out lifeoflon.com or the VR announcement.

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