theBlu: VR learnings over 5 years, even more relevant today
With the release of Gnomes & Goblins quickly approaching, now seems like a great time to revisit some key points along the journey that led Wevr here – in particular, some of the key VR learnings from our original title, theBlu.
In many ways, Wevr’s story goes hand-in-hand with the development of our first IP, theBlu – a 10-year history predating the VR version.
In early 2014, Valve Corporation in Seattle invited Neville Spiteri (cofounder/CEO, Wevr) and Scott Yara (cofounder/Chairman, Wevr), creators of the original version of theBlu (social app), to check out their virtual reality “Room Demo”. Wevr became one of the very first companies in the world to receive the “-1” prototype headset in December of 2014, with an opportunity to build a demo for the device that would eventually become the HTC Vive.
Around the same time, Neville reconnected with Jake Rowell (Call of Duty, Superman Returns) through colleague and Wevr collaborator, Andy Jones. Neville asked Jake if he would consider directing a VR experience using the HTC-Vive prototype and focusing on theBlu’s ocean theme. Having experienced true VR presence in the prototype at Wevr, and being an ocean fan himself, Jake agreed.
Together, Jake and Nev got to work on exploring the potential for an emotive, expansive VR experience that could deliver a sense of awe and wonder. They developed the VR experience now known as the theBlu: Whale Encounter – a deeply immersive introduction to VR that transports audiences under the ocean to come face-to-face with an 80-foot blue whale, the largest species on Earth. Andy Jones (two-time Academy Award-winner, Avatar, The Jungle Book) also helped, animating the final animation of the blue whale. The experience creates both a sense of scale and empathy, which to this day is still considered one of the best ways to introduce new people to VR. We are very grateful for all the support and feedback from the VR team at Valve.
Carrying these learnings forward, Jake and Wevr began to develop theBlu: Season 1. Jake directed two more episodes – Reef Migration and Luminous Abyss – focusing on expanding the scale and presence that made Whale Encounter so successful, while shaping a collection of memories that felt like wish fulfillment for those who had enjoyed the original experience and were left wanting more.
Following the success of Season 1, as the VR industry evolved through 2017, Wevr recognized an emerging trend in Location-Based Entertainment (LBE). This presented the opportunity to introduce more people to VR, not just those who own a VR headset, but anyone who may be simply walking around a mall and may not even be familiar with VR at all.
Wevr and Dreamscape partnered to develop a whole new edition of theBlu as a multiplayer LBE – theBlu: Deep Rescue. This process presented a new set of challenges. For this project, Jake, as director and producer, teamed up with Scott Reeser, Wevr’s first employee and the lead engineer on the original version of theBlu, to develop a much more elaborate experience with full character avatars inside a world that was far more complex than the previous iterations.
Jon Favreau visited the Wevr offices early on during TheBlu’s development, where he experienced theBlu: Whale Encounter. Jon loved the moment of connection between the human participant and the enormous blue whale, and was admittedly a bit overwhelmed. Shortly afterward, Jon came back with a pitch for a VR experience called Gnomes & Goblins. His idea was to play with scale, and instead of the human participant being small relative to an enormous whale, the participant would interact with tiny creatures. Jon shared a sketch of a tiny, cute, enigmatic goblin named Buddy, who would become the heart and soul of the Gnomes & Goblins world.
Gnomes & Goblins takes everything Wevr, Jake, and Nev learned while growing theBlu from a short, single-player experience into a fully interactive, multiplayer expansion and enhances those feelings of connection with new creatures, immersion within an enchanted world, and a sense of wonder, scale and presence. The key VR learnings include:
- connection between the human participant and the virtual characters;
- a sense of place with detail and scale;
- the importance of player agency and affordances to participate in the experience;
- how narrative can be a supporting element;
- keeping the experience as accessible as possible for everyone.