When Ashley Pinnick of LA-based virtual reality creative studio, California Rex, set out to develop an adventure game for the new medium, little did she know how much her childhood growing up in a rural town in the Sonoran Desert would influence her creation.
Pinnick had spent most of her early years living in a retirement community on the outskirts of town and was one of the only kids in the neighborhood. The strangeness of growing up in a place that could often be lonely and empty, led her to create her own adventures in the desolate landscape around her, befriending people along the way while she explored the neighborhood.
The thematic influence of her upbringing was a “big draw for choosing the setting and themes” of Dead Bug Creek, according to Pinnick.
Dead Bug Creek is the latest VR adventure game created with her partner in crime Antonio Chang at Creative Rex, and is set to launch on Playstation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive later this year.
The game is a free roaming world explored from a first-person perspective, a seated experience using positional head tracking with gamepad input. You as the player are invited to lean into objects closely, peek through open windows, and observe the environment from every angle to solve puzzles and discover secrets hidden throughout the town.
Pinnick who is an artist and designer, and Chang who is an award-nominated visual effects artist, first debuted the game in September 2015 at Siggraph’s inaugural VR Village. At the time, the game prototype received praise for its story and exploration mechanics, featuring fully animated 3D characters who lead you on your mission to find “The Ultimate Prize.”
Pinnick told VRScout that both her and Chang’s love for absurdity, creative backgrounds, and influence from DEVO, Chuck Jones, Fleischer Brothers and Ren & Stimpy cartoons, worked perfectly to develop Dead Bug Creek with a very cartoony look and feel. “We also feel saturated color and life-size stylized environments can be more comfortable and accessible in virtual reality than photo realistic art direction,” Pinnick commented.
Developing the Absurd
California Rex had been working on some version of the game for a little over 18 months. What began as a prototype when Pinnick was finishing up her degree at Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, has grown into something so much bigger than she would have imagined at the time.
Pinnick shared that some of the more interesting experiences they’ve had so far when creating Dead Bug Creek, besides acclimating to being in a VR headset daily, was making the incidental sounds and voices for the game. The team has had some great help on that front from their friend Odell Atkinson who is now their voice actor. The duo enjoys collecting bits of sounds they hear that are perfect for the game.
“A lot of things that reflect our daily lives have creeped in because of it,” said Pinnick. “We’ve had a hand in everything that it has taken to make this project come to life, the unexpected result of which sometimes leaves me standing in front of my local automated car wash late at night recording the sounds it makes.”
Challenges and Tragedy for Dead Bug Creek
Being a two-person VR creative studio did not come without its fair share of challenges throughout development.
While being a small team has the benefit of executing and iterating on game development quickly, Pinnick states that it was overwhelming at times to tackle the project as a team of two, making development progress slower than they would like.
But probably the biggest challenge during development of Dead Bug Creek was losing their composer and voice actor, Cody Conrad, last year to suicide.
“His friendship and talent in writing and acting convincing characters made our game so much deeper,” shared Pinnick, who considered shelving the game for awhile afterward. Pinnick decided to pick development back up again only a few months ago in earnest, “It’s my hope that by finishing the game people will get to see some of his best work.”
Although Pinnick no longer lives in the rural desert, where new adventures were just around every corner, developing Dead Bug Creek was an adventure of its own and one that many will enjoy when its finally released.
“Every day is a little different and that’s what I enjoy most about making a VR game,” said Pinnick.
Keep up the great work.