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Going Full LumberJack with Douglas North Cook

Today I’m joined by Doug, founder of Decoder VR, a Pittsburgh based development studio and the creator of the VR game Forestry. Doug is also a Professor of Design at Chatham University and runs the local coworking space Stack.

I hope you enjoy our conversation as much as I did.

Zach: Thanks Doug. Thanks for coming on.

Doug: Happy to be here.

Zach: Could you describe the gameplay of Forestry for us?

Doug: Forestry is a game built for room scale virtual reality and it's an open a world destruction and construction game. You're on a four-square kilometer island and you've got chopping tools and there's a lot of trees and objects that you can go around and chop down. Every object in the world is fully destructible and can be chopped into whatever shapes you want to chop them into and then you can pick up all those pieces and use those to build new things. That's the core gameplay of what we built with Forestry.

Zach: Would you say it's a game of infinite destruction or infinite construction?

Doug: I'd say for most people it ends up being infinite destruction. Most people seem to have a bent towards destroying everything.

Zach: What was your inspiration for creating this game?

Doug: Originally, we wanted to make a wood chopping game. We built this really simple mini game, where you're standing at a pile of logs and you can pick up logs and you can chop them in half. But, we realized that was fun for about five minutes. We realized that we built a lot of the core mechanics to make something a lot bigger. So, we expanded out those mechanics and added in a lot of new mechanics and a lot of new elements. We made the world a lot bigger and ended up spending a lot more time making something that was a lot bigger and had a lot more features.

Zach: So, in the game, you're in the forest and you have axes. You can throw these axes, chop down trees, craft the trees into different products, or even create statues. What's been the most creative or fun thing that you've ever personally crafted in the game?

Doug: I spent a lot of time building a log cabin one day, which took a long time, because you have to mill all of your own lumber and cut down your own logs. That's probably the most complicated thing that I've built. But, I've also used lumber to spell out huge words in the sky, because when you start out the game and finish the tutorial you unlock the ability to use telekinesis. So, you can levitate objects and then squeeze them in place. I've tried to get really good at levitating objects and then freezing them and then chopping them and then levitating them again to form things that are floating in space.

Doug: That's what I end up spending most of my time in the game doing these days.

Zach: Is there an adventure element to the game as well? In the description, mentions 'secrets' within the forest?

Doug: Yes, so, the island is pretty huge. It's about four-square kilometers. There's some caves to explore that have secret items in them that unlock a little bit of new game play. There are other camps and other items to find. There's an axe target throwing range you can find. So, there's a lot of content scattered throughout the map and we're working on a couple of new updates for the game that will introduce new content and new secret stuff to find.

Zach: How fun is it testing a VR game? What's the process? Is it a little rough at first, or maybe a little nauseating, and then as it improves, get better? What was that process like?

Doug: Well, our focus has been on comfort from the beginning. So, there was never really any discomfort or nausea because we built the game to be as optimized for comfort as possible, so that was never really much of an issue. I'd say that most of the time when we've been doing testing, it's definitely fun, but it's also work. We're there looking for bugs, we're looking for errors, we're looking for objects that are out of place or out of alignment. But, sometimes testing is just going in and seeing; "Is this fun"? It's about trying to have as much fun as possible and play around with new mechanics and prototype new stuff. So, overall, it's pretty fun. But, every once in a while, it gets a little old going in and testing for frame rates and all that kind of stuff.

Zach: Tell us a little bit about your personal background and also who else is on the team?

Doug: The team is me, and also Mike Ferchack, who is our technical director. He is the one who's oftentimes buried in code and trying to figure out weird problems that we uncover. Specifically, for Forestry, we also brought in a handful of other people to help out on some some smaller projects. For instance, Justin Nixon, a phenomenal 3D modeler and Paul Zito helped us with our audio and our soundtrack. He's a composer that lives in Portland. We had several other musicians, Josh Dugay, Ricardo Enerrie, Ross Reilly among others recorded original music for us. And then a big group of beta testers and a handful of people that helped us run our release party as well. So, the core team is really just me and Mike but we definitely had a lot of help along the way. My background is really in design. I've been doing graphic design and web design for the last several years. I really started to dive into working with VR and working in Unreal Engine about two or three years ago and I've never really looked back. I try to spend the majority of my time working on projects related to VR now.

Zach: What sort of systems and platforms has the game launched on?

Doug: Yes, so the game is out right now on Steam and probably later this summer will also release on the Oculus store. It's already compatible with the Oculus through Steam and we've also been talking to Sony about bringing a version of the game to PlayStation.

Zach: How does developing a VR game work in regard to platforms? Is Steam the dominant player or does every system have its own set up and different nuances? Or, are you able to make one game and launch it across multiple platforms?

Doug: We're able to make one game and push it out to multiple platforms. To me, the trick comes in dealing with the different marketplaces. Each has their own submission processes, curation processes, and internal Q&A process. Sony is a little different because their hardware is drastically different from what Steam and Oculus are using. So, if we end up trying to push it on the PlayStation, we'll end up doing a fair amount of reconfiguration and redevelopments to make sure that its running optimally on their hardware.

Zach: What's been your experience like launching a VR game in Pittsburgh? Is there a strong VR community here?

Doug: It's been interesting doing it here, because a lot of game development and VR in general, is happening out on the West Coast. Pittsburgh is definitely a smaller city for this kind of stuff. We're lucky that we have Shell games here. There are pretty huge studio and they released a really great VR title in December called 'I Expect You to Die'. It's a really great first-person puzzle game. Overall, it's been good. There's a good but small community here. We had hoped there would be more interest from the broader community, specifically from the newspapers and the press, but the press doesn't seem that interested in covering anything related to technology unless it's about Google or Uber or some sort of crazy thing that's going on. So, we got really good write ups in the national press specifically from VR and gaming publications but local press was pretty silent.

Zach: So, what's next for DecoderVR? What are you guys thinking about and testing out?

Doug: Right now, we're working on a big update for Forestry, where we're rebuilding our tutorial system and adding in a little bit of new content. Then, we'll be working to push the game out to Oculus and Playstation. In the meantime, we're also working on some internal prototyping related to possible new projects, but those are all kind of too early to talk about too much. :)

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