The ZenART VR Pipeline
WRITTEN BY ZenART
Sep 16, 2019

Hello again! By now you’ve probably seen some amazing screenshots and videos from our locations and probably have heard us talk about them. In this blog post, we’ll give you a peek behind the curtains and show you our step-by-step process of achieving the graphical fidelity of ZenART VR. We use Photogrammetry – a sophisticated method of 3D-scanning, real-world objects. But taking an ancient statue and making it an interactive object inside a VR location takes much more effort than flying over with a drone and taking a couple of pictures.

Step 1: Research, Shooting and Scanning

First, we spend quite a bit of time carefully picking the places we want to visit. This includes boring stuff like route planning and hotel booking, but also exciting things like reading in-depth about the place’s history, nature, folklore, and local people. We also make sure we get all required filming permits.

Then, we pack our things and hit the road. There’s a lot to worry about – batteries, raincoats, bug sprays. We can’t get the footage back home if one of us gets killed by a venomous spider!

Once we’re on the spot, the real work begins. Our team members carefully film every nook and cranny of the site. This means hundreds of thousands of pictures – some made with handheld cameras, and others shot from the air.

Once we’re back home, we go through all the footage and archive everything. You wouldn’t believe how crucial little things like a file naming convention and proper backup are to the success of an operation on this scale.

Step 2: In the box

Once we have all the footage ready, we start compiling it into 3D assets. We have a network of workhorse machines that render for days until they give us what we need. It’s a fascinating thing to watch – imagine the sands of a desert shifting in front of your eyes to take the shape of an ancient temple. It’s basically the same, but on a 3D grid.

Then, our talented artists apply textures and optimize the surfaces using a complex combination of software. Smooth framerate while experiencing the location is always our top priority, so we can’t just import assets willy-nilly and hope for the best. A lot of thought is put into the placement of objects and the details on every asset.

After this process, the assets are ready to go inside Unreal Engine 4, our core piece of software. This is where we adjust materials, do the level design and set up our custom weather and lighting systems. All are programmed to react to player input – changing the light or making it snow will make our assets shine or look wet. Meanwhile, the writing team develops the narrative and the player journey for the location and prepares drafts for dialogue and other creative writing work, which is a key component of every ZenART VR experience.

Step 3: Bringing it to life

When the core geography is laid down, we can start adding cool features. Our modelers craft custom props to go with the 3D-scanned ones to complete a realistic and immersive scene. This is where we program the physics and interactions. Basically, everything that you can touch, move, use, or play around with, has to be prepared. There are also plenty of things that interact with one another without direct input by the player – the trees react to wind, falling rain forms puddles, etc.

During this step we also implement all the game design. We program the puzzles, hide little things for the player to discover, and implement all dialogue – sometimes final, and sometimes just as a placeholder recorded by someone at the office. Our writers put all the research to use and finish the rest of the non-dialogue creative writing. The audio department spends a lot of time on preparing custom sounds and effects, does some sound design and programs all assets to interact with each other. Things that are taken for granted, like a rock making a sound when hitting another rock, need to be implemented with care and attention to detail.

In the end, we do all rigging and animation.

Step 4: Finishing up

Once we make sure all assets, interactions and systems are in place, we enter the final stage of production.

Here we implement things like user interface and user experience features. We spend quite a bit of time carefully placing things and moving them around. We highlight certain things and make sure there are no misleading, or improperly functioning assets. If you see a tower, sword, or cannon, you should be able to go there and check them out. If you see a pit…well, you’re generally not supposed to fall in it.

This is where we also put our final music and voiceover clips. We also do boring things like spell-checking texts and listening for editing mistakes.

Playtesting is big. We test all features during the development stage. Every time one of us adds a new asset, feature, or mechanic, it goes in the engine and we give it a go. During the final step we focus almost all of our efforts on testing. Everyone in the company, and even guests in the office, are encouraged to put on the headset and take a walk. As the old saying goes, “the designer is a game’s worst playtester”. We spend so much time on little details and under-the-hood mechanisms, that it is easy to miss a glaring flaw. That’s why fresh eyes are especially valuable in this step.

Finally, we polish everything. ZenART VR is a team of devoted perfectionists and we always want to implement more details. However, working under time and budget restrains means that we have to draw the line somewhere. We generally give ourselves some time before release to take one last look and touch up this and that. Then we package the product and send it to the world.

These, more or less, are the steps every ZenART VR location goes through. For more updates on our progress, as well as news, pictures and videos, follow our website and social media pages.