Sarah Northway – My Time as a VR Artist

This was originally posted on the Oculus blog for International Women’s day in March 2019.

At 17, I applied for my first ever tech job with the words “jack of all trades” at the top of my resume. I figured this was a good thing; it meant I was flexible and good at everything I did. Employers, unsurprisingly, saw it as a mark of aimlessness, and a career adviser told me to pick one thing and focus on it.

I chose my greatest love, programming, and in the fullness of time I got pretty decent at it. But I wanted more: to invent, craft systems, write, illustrate and design graphics. So after 10 years as a coder, I quit and went indie.

Sunlight in the tropics made me squint... worth it!
Sunlight in the tropics made me squint… worth it!

My husband Colin and I spent 5 years traveling the world and making our own small independent games. My first game Rebuild was hugely successful, and solo: I’d done all the design, writing, code, and art myself. It was a flat 2d game of course, because I wouldn’t touch 3d models with a 10 foot pole. I’d taken stabs at all the software – 3DS Max, Maya, Blender, ZBrush – and bounced off each one. I couldn’t get my head around the camera angles; I’d wreck things in the Z axis while working in the X and Y. Watching professionals, I felt I’d need years just to memorize all the hotkeys required to use those tools effectively. I swore I’d never make a 3d game.

Until… VR.

Tilt Brush to be exact. I tried a private demo, waving my arms around to paint great huge solid lines of light. I was completely taken by the medium. My husband was too, and we immediately switched gears and teamed up with Radial Games to write Fantastic Contraption VR, a puzzle game where you grab and snap tinker-toy-like pieces together to make lifesized vehicles. It used those same large arm movements we found so neat in Tilt Brush.

Don Piano by Sarah Northway, Tilt Brush + Audio, 2017
Don Piano by Sarah Northway, Tilt Brush + Audio, 2017

I stayed deeply into Tilt Brush. Some of the early sample art packaged with it was mine. And I’m not – well, I had never considered myself to be an artist. I just found it so incredibly intuitive and easy to use. If you want to draw a line from here to there, you just… move your arm from here to there. Nothing like the frustrations I’d had with traditional 3d modeling software.

I wondered if I could make art assets for a VR game inside VR, and the answer was oh yes you can!

Trees made in Gravity Sketch
Trees made in Gravity Sketch

After some experimenting with tools like Medium, Quill, and MasterpieceVR, I discovered Gravity Sketch, and used it to make a little (unreleased) game about gardening on an alien planet. I modeled while sitting cross-legged on my bed, scaling and rotating the object in front of me as I tweaked it, leaning over it to see details, scaling it up to get a sense of how it would feel in the game. The hand motions in Gravity Sketch are so natural, and the basic functions – draw, move, rotate, copy, undo, all mapped to a different button to make creation flow so effortlessly.

I’ve seen the future of 3d modeling, and this is it.

Made in Gravity Sketch
Made in Gravity Sketch

Along the way Colin and I found ourselves in the VR community, and time and again we were intrigued by the incredible art being created. Like Cabbibo’s liquid iridescent creatures made from math, Liz Edward’s paintings which become your whole world when you step into them, or Sean Tann’s interactive rainbow experiments.

VR is a new artistic medium, and the artists experimenting it are wonderfully unbounded in their ideas. We wanted to help connect these artists and share their creations with the world, which is what brought us to create The Museum of Other Realities.

MOR lobby featuring Fruit Tree by Sarah Northway, Gravity Sketch, 2017.
MOR lobby featuring Fruit Tree by Sarah Northway, Gravity Sketch, 2017.

Initially, the MOR was a series of self-enclosed art experiences by a variety of VR-centric artists, joined together via a lobby area with entrances to each one. Entirely digital, the lobby was styled as a traditional brick-and-mortar art gallery with neutral white walls and smaller pieces of art on pedestals.

We thought it’d be neat to make the lobby area multiplayer, so visitors could get that legit museum vibe while watching strangers come and go, or chatting with friends before and after the experiences. The MOR – still in early alpha – began holding monthly “release” parties where all the artists logged on from their respective VR rigs to check out the new exhibit and connect with each other.

MOR multiplayer featuring dresses by Anand Duncan
MOR multiplayer featuring dresses by Anand Duncan

Gradually, the separate experiences fell away and the lobby took over the entire project. Today the MOR (still in alpha) contains nearly 100 works from 30 artists. There are full-room art pieces which move and flow around you, interactive dance halls with ribbons of color, tiny dioramas you can teleport down into, a bar and cocktails you can clink, mysterious floating alien jellyfish, motion captured musicians, photogrammetry villages, wearable dresses, roaring dinosaurs, laughing skeletons, spaceships, and at least a couple Sarah Northway originals, made in Tilt Brush.

I have since moved on to my next thing, but Colin and a growing team are still working on the Museum of Other Realities – beta version now available. If you are a VR artist and want to be involved, please get in touch!

I Was a Teenage Exocolonist!

Exocolonist Logo

Here’s what I’ve been working on!

I started I Was a Teenage Exocolonist a little over a year ago, and am aiming to release it in early 2021. Yep, she’s a big girl! Part life sim, part card game, and all young adult science fiction goodness. A couple months ago I teamed up with two fabulously talented artists, Meilee Chao and Sarah Webb, and thanks to them the game feels more real every week.

Pomona Colony - your home
Pomona Colony – your new home

Setting: You’re 10 years old when your colony ship finally lands on the planet Vertumna. Your parents are geoponics engineers who fled war-wrecked Earth and imagined living a simple, peaceful life on a new planet. Hah! Not so much. Vertumna’s covered in thick jungle and fraught with alien monsters and strange phenomena. But to you – a teenager who suddenly has an entire world at their feet – it’s all opportunity.

Exocolonist takes place over 10 years, with time advancing every week as you decide how to spend it. Inspired by life sims like Princess Maker, you can do things like work in your parent’s greenhouses, or learn to repair the colony’s failing robots, or join a survey crew to explore the jungle. Each raises certain skills and gives you different opportunities to help your colony. The game ends when you turn 20 – assuming you and the colony survive that long. Who you become is up to you.

Exocolonist characters - concept art
Exocolonist characters – concept art by Meilee Chao

For years I’ve wanted to write a book, specifically YA science fiction. Exocolonist is scratching that itch for me. It’s more narrative-focused than Rebuild 3; closer to a visual novel or game book. I custom wrote the parser and have over 1000 events roughed out in the game. Yep: big.

There are 10 dateable characters in Exocolonist (and I may be adding a secret 11th!). They go through puberty with you, through innocence and awkwardness, all those hormones and stupid decisions. I’m getting in touch with my inner teen for this and it’s not pretty. But yeah, you can get down with some of them if you play your cards right.

Exocolonist Megafauna - by Sarah Webb
Exocolonist Megafauna – concept art by Sarah Webb

Cards! That was a pun! Because Exocolonist also has a card-based battle system. This part is still in early design, but the idea is that your deck is made up of memories: all the decisions you make and events you witness become abilities to use in battle. And “battle” can be any kind of challenge you face, like taking a math test, or calming a crying kid you’re babysitting, or performing at a talent show, or… rescuing your teacher from tentacle-faced horrors.

I’ll be posting more development updates here, and you can join the mailing list for important announcements. I may be doing a Kickstarter campaign and/or Early Access, and the target release date is for Steam PC/Mac in early 2021, but a lot could change in that time!

What the heck have we been working on?

It’s waaaay past time for an update. Here’s what Colin and I (Sarah) got up to for the past 2 years. With the power of source control, I can look into the past and see exactly when everything happened!

October 2016: I created a new repo for a project called “There”. Colin was fascinated by the incredible art and experiences people were creating in VR, and wanted a central place where people could go to enjoy it. It was initially going to be a monthly bundle of VR toys and interactive art connected through a free multiplayer lobby. Over time the lobby grew to become the gallery itself – now known as the Museum of Other Realities.

Skull Island by Cabbibo
Skull Island by Cabbibo – one of the original artists featured in the MOR

January 2017: After we added the Level Editor to Fantastic Contraption VR in version 1.6.0, we handed the project off to co-creators Radial Games. They optimized the bejeezus out of it and brought it to the PS VR and Windows MR later that year. Meanwhile…

February 2017: Designer Robin Stethem joined the MOR team. I left to prototype my own VR games.

March 2017: One prototype became Machete Garden, a VR game about exploration and farming on an alien planet. I created the art for it inside my Vive using Gravity Sketch and Tilt Brush. I got all excited about the future of graphics tools, having found 3D modelling suddenly so intuitive and easy in VR. I enjoyed working on the art, something I haven’t done for many of my games.

Machete Garden
Machete Garden – by Sarah Northway

April 2017: Colin sent out the first multiplayer pre-alpha build of the MOR (called TH-er at the time) to friends and VR artists. The online space was a hit, and monthly updates have followed since then, with a private virtual party to celebrate each time a new exhibit or gallery wing is added.

Anchored by Danny Bitman
Anchored by Danny Bitman – one of the first exhibits in the MOR

May 2017: Maris Tammik and Em Halberstadt from A Shell in the Pit Audio began adding sound to the MOR.

August 2017: I shelved Machete Garden.

I just couldn’t see myself wanting to play this game, as it was more about enjoying the space and discovering new species than any serious strategy. I’d hoped to release it through one of the MOR’s monthly interactive experience bundles, but as that project pivoted towards an art gallery I had to consider releasing Machete Garden as a standalone game. I felt that would be pointless unless I radically deepened the gameplay.

I was also sick to death of fighting with 3D physics and optimizing 3D graphics. And finally, I wanted to tell the story of why you’d volunteered to come to this lonely planet, but was faced with having to do it using full voice recording and no justifiable budget. I decided some of these problems may just solve themselves in a few years, and decided to put Machete Garden – and VR – aside for now.

Machete Garden
RIP Machete Garden – for now

Also August 2017: I started a new game, initially codenamed Princess of Mars and now called I Was a Teenage Exocolonist. More about it soon!

January 2018: The Museum of Other Realities was incorporated into its own thing separate from Northway Games. It’s so big you can easily get lost in it now. 30+ works range from intricate tilt brush pieces on pedestals, to recreated 3D photogrammetry ruins, to a whimsical rainbow dance room, to a giant skull filled with creepy cackling skeletons.

Skeletons by Liz Edwards - insane cackling by Em
Skeletons by Liz Edwards in the MOR – deranged giggling by Em

April 2018: The MOR was so bursting at the seams with art that Colin and Robin added a second floor. They started experimenting with a donation system, and a strange crypto currency art-purchasing experiment featuring works by John Orion Young.

Don't Panic by John Orion Young
Don’t Panic by John Orion Young – featured in the MOR

August 2018: After trying to do all my own art for Exocolonist, I came to my senses and hired two artists to bring my game to life. And this brings us more or less to today. More about Exocolonist including concept art in my next post!

Contraption PS VR Launches July 11th

Thanks to a ton of hard work at Radial Games, Fantastic Contraption will be coming to PS VR next week! Here’s the announcement (reposted from the Official Playstation Blog).

Chris Floyd from Radial Games here, with an exciting message from our giant videogame zeppelin flying high overhead. We’ve been working day and night to create a most exquisite and whimsical virtual reality morsel: Fantastic Contraption for PlayStation VR!

Release Date

That’s right! We’ve been having a blast creating Fantastic Contraption for PlayStation VR, and we’re excited to announce that we’ll be sharing all of our hard work with you on Tuesday, July 11th, 2017. National Fantastic Contraption Day, mark it in your calendar! It will retail for $19.99 usd with an extra launch-week-special 10%-off if you have PlayStation Plus.

Seated Gameplay Specifically Designed for PS VR – The Most Relaxing Way to Play FC!

Sure, you could stand around, windmilling your arms in our magical virtual reality wonderland, but now you have the choice to sit back and play Fantastic Contraption right from your couch! Imagine! We redesigned the gameplay experience especially for PS VR, taking advantage of the likelihood that you have a favorite place to relax in front of your PlayStation 4. We’ve included special PS VR-only features that allow you to resize and position your gameworld at the press of a button, which we’re sure you’ll find slick and amazing.

It has fast become my favorite way to play, and makes contraption-building feel a whole lot like model-making, which we are Very Big Fans of here at Radial Games.

New, Unique Levels for PlayStation VR

We have a handful of brand-new, PlayStation-exclusive levels in the release. Try your hand bouncing around some moguls, attacking a big-bricked wall, and more! We’ve designed a few challenges specifically around seated play, and we know you’ll enjoy them.

Dynamically Resize the Entire World in the Brand-New Resize Island

Welcome to Resize Island, where you can dynamically resize the entire world around you! This opens a world of customization for your preferred way to play. You can make the world really huge to fit your standing-style gameplay preferences, or shrink it all the way down to fit on your lap, where you can marvel at tiny Neko. That’s right, THE CAT RESIZES TOO. You can do anything in videogames.

PS4 Pro Enhancements

For those of you with a lovely new PS4 Pro, we’ve spiced up the game a bit extra for ya:

  • 8xAA – We averaged out all those sharp corners for smoother looking curves!
  • Higher-resolution textures – you can almost smell that wood-grain!
  • Improved backdrops and scenery
  • Additional special-effects and visual flairs
  • Extra island decorations
  • 125% resolution oversampling – A fancy way of saying that things look real sharp in there.

Let us know below what you’re most looking forward to, and I hope to see you having a great time with Fantastic Contraption when it launches next Tuesday!

Contraption Anti-Oppenheimer Update 1.6.0

This is the last update we originally planned for the game, making 1.6.0 the final cherry on the Contraption sundae.

But why “Anti-Oppenheimer”? Because:


“Now I am become Editor, the creator of worlds”

Now you too can defy – nay, define – physics as the creator of your own Fantastic Contraption levels using the new built-in Level Editor. To get started, first put on the helmet to enter dark world, then look for a mask above a statue of a two-toed sloth. Don the mask to enter:

The Level Editor

As Andy Moore says in the video above, we think the level editor is a key piece to the Contraption experience. The original 2008 Flash game had 47 official levels, and half a million user-generated ones. Not only did player-made levels give the game more content, they let people come up with whole new ways of playing that we hadn’t even considered.

To be honest, the level editor’s practically a game in itself. Move aside TiltBrush, it’s time for art class with Mrs. Fox:

Next we’ll recreates a cartoonish prison stereotype using dynamic blocks (aka “moon cheese”):

The Sarahfox

Ring the bell to summon the Sarahfox, your tutorial guide to the Level Editor (voiced and acted by yours truly!). She’ll introduce the basic controls: grabbing, stretching, copying, and using the precision movement flowers.

We recorded the Sarahfox’s movement using a system we wrote into the game, so she can interact with pre-scripted objects and give a demonstration right front of you. It’s remarkable how much life a character can have in VR using only 3 points of motion capture data.

Switch the Dog

You’ll meet Button the Dog’s cousin Switch when you first arrive in the Level Editor. Use him to toggle between Build Scale (where it’s easier to reach the whole level) and Test Scale (where it’s easier to playtest). There are no functional differences between the two modes, so you can edit level pieces and build contraptions in both and it’s a cinch to test on the fly:

Contraption pieces will be saved along with the level terrain, so make sure to delete them when you’re done testing, unless you want to include them as a challenge or example to people who play your level. It’s also possible to save levels that don’t have a goal or are missing a goal ball. We recommend testing before you save!

If you save a level you made to any shelf on the save table, it will be published online. To delete your saved level or contraption, throw it into the Trashcan Frog’s mouth.

Lippy the Mouthmoth Keyboard

Grab Lippy or double-tap the trigger to call him down to you in the dark world. Move him over to the maquette minimap to name your contraption or level (if no name is set, a random one will be chosen when you publish online).

You can also move Lippy to the save table to filter it by contraption or level name. For example searching for “mi” will find things named Steep Mitten or Miserly Devil.

Infinite Levels

We’ve seeded the user-made levels with some we designed that didn’t make the official cut, or that we’ve been inspired to create since trying out the new editor (which is much easier to use than our old system!). To check them out, enter the dark world and set the save table’s mode lever (the one on the right) to Levels, then use the left lever to select Levels by Rating or Levels by Date.

Don’t forget you can favorite user-made levels (or contraptions) by giving them a kiss. This feeds into the online ranking for the Levels by Rating shelf.

Zumi the Moon Mouse

Zumi Mouse didn’t live in a house, he wanted to live on the moon!
As the world cat passed by, he rode up to the sky,
And round his head put a balloon.
He munched and he chewed, ’till the cheese moon was hewed,
And Zumi had plenty of holes he’d accrued.
But what a mistake – such a bad bellyache,
Zumi’s home is his favorite food!

Full Changelog

We don’t have any more major updates planned for Fantastic Contraption, though we’ll continue to maintain the game and support new hardware (the PS VR version is coming soon!). Radial Games and Northway Games will be moving on to new (and so far unannounced) things next.

  • New Level editor! To use it, first put on the helmet, then put on the creepy mask in the corner and ring the bell for a tutorial. User-made levels can be shared online and loaded via the save table just like contraptions.
  • New Mouthmoth keyboard lets you name contraptions and levels, and search by contraption / level name
  • Added interactive art elements to side of maquette and Kaiju scale
  • Autohide the companion desktop menu and limit desktop display framerate
  • Show purple building bounds if cheating detected during tutorial
  • Hide black sphere during startup
  • Improve look of pins on Neko’s head
  • Adjust some sky characters
  • Sky color variation
  • Sounds for items including non-spinning green wheels and eyeballs
  • Disable musical sounds if you’re holding an item
  • Tweaked throw force for Kaiju scales
  • Improved haptics
  • Improved tutorial text font
  • Optimized first person companion view smoothing
  • Optimized avatar shadows
  • Optimized Twitch panel memory usage
  • Fixed some menus not updating when language changes
  • Fixed models disappearing after you drop them on a save table shelf
  • Fixed Button the Dog ghosting
  • Fixed disappearing Neko eyes and ghosting
  • Fixed obscure crash bug with some webcams
  • Fixed cat skin modding
  • Fixed sticky tutorial messages
  • Fixed laserpointer positioning for Twitch/camera menu
  • Fixed feedback form submission issues

Cheers and happy 2017 from the Fantastic Contraption team!