Sussing out Schell Games’ Among Us VR

Sussing out Schell Games’ Among Us VR
| July 25, 2022

Tactics like bluffing are key to keeping screams quiet in Among Us VR. First revealed at The Game Awards in 2021, veteran studio Schell Games would keep its development “close to their chest” for a new way to play Among Us. The hit whodunit multiplayer game first took players and Twitch by storm in 2018. Players only needed 250MB, tested friendships and acting skills to be a crewmate or an impostor.

A lone killer preyed on unsuspecting crew members as they maintained a derelict spaceship. Survivors would have dwindling options to suss out the killer or die trying. Schell Games, already versed in puzzlers like I Expect You to Die and Lost Recipes, took InnerSloth’s collaboration with 3D in mind.

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Among US VR project director Mike Traficante remembers being lied to in one of his test sessions. Aboard The Skeld, he rushed to fix its oxygen supply after a sabotage. A crewmate checks in on Traficante across the life-and-death trek.

“You got it over there at Admin, right?” said Traficante, adding it was nice to have a comrade worried about him.

“They were the Imposter. But that little thing they said sold me on them.”

Among Us’ traditionally flat, top-down view of The Skeld was just a blueprint for Schell’s VR iteration. The 3D version is being made from the ground-up. Players are left to their own devices through empty corridors. All the while being stalked in first person by an impostor. As shown in its gameplay trailer, The Skeld would come to life as a full-scale replica. The infamous ship and murder scene would be explorable. Crewmates and impostors alike are also out of sight. New elements including walls and corners turn The Skeld into a hide-and-seek playground filled with minigames.

For the first time, players in Among Us VR are looking over their shoulders.

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Schell Games has kept most of its development for Among Us VR under wraps. A few brief trailers would show off the cel-shaded iterations of InnerSloth’s original map aboard The Skeld. As the game inches closer to a Holiday 2022 release, CGM’s Clement Goh had a chance to sit remotely with Traficante and learn more about Among Us’ new VR twists. Along with how Schell Games sussed out their own challenges along development.

CGMagazine: What ran through your mind when you found out you were going to be working on Among Us VR?

Mike Traficante: I don’t know about daunting. So what we did is we took the game of Among Us, and we made a VR version of that game. What we got to keep were the rules of the game. A lot of the work we do in Game Dev is coming up with a rule set in play testing to make sure it works. And with Among Us, we already had something that was tried and true.

The basic rules of the flat version of Among Us are good. The game is well-balanced. It’s fun to be an imposter. It’s fun to be a crew mate. So we got to keep a lot of that stuff. We had a nice leg up. For most of the games that we’ve done, where we didn’t have to figure out how to make it fun. We did have to focus a lot on how to make it work in VR.

We’ve had a little bit of a narrower focus than a lot of projects that we’ve done, actually. It was nice, because I think we got a lot of time to spend on it. And we did make – it in my opinion, and hopefully the world will agree – it is fun to move around with VR.

It does feel like a different game. Because that immersion is very different. Like your field of view is different and that the game does play differently because the information that players have is different just based on perspective. So not exactly daunting. No, I think it was exciting to be in this situation. In this position.

CGMagazine: What’s the scale of the project for Among Us VR compared to other games you the studio have worked on in the past?

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Mike Traficante: It’s a tough question to answer. I guess what I can say is how this does connect to those other things. We got to borrow systems and learnings from those earlier games. Until You Fall did a lot of work with making it not cause nausea to move around.

So we took some of those systems. We adapted them a bit. And we took some of those learnings, and we worked them into Among Us VR because it’s a game where you run around a lot. And we don’t want people to throw up, which can happen if you don’t do that well. Then from I Expect You to Die, which has tons of very satisfying and very good feelings of picking up and manipulating things. We were able to borrow that system and bring it in.

Our Crew tasks do kind of have that feel of an I Expect You to Die-type of (mechanic). Moving this thing over here or pulling on this lever. It feels tactile and good. So there’s a lot of “cross play” there for us with people from that team, who could come talk to us. Some of us were on both of those teams at different times. So there’s lots of cross pollination from those two titles.

Lost Recipes as well. We had designers come straight from there to us and help us with one thing that was particularly challenging for us that I feel like we solved quite well. It was when people approach a task, they’re often not looking at it the right way. It’s awkward and uncomfortable to have to turn and face it. And they did a lot of work in Lost Recipes with where you grabbed the table, and you’d slide yourself over. We didn’t go with that. But we got to talk to the designers to solve that problem. And it helped us solve the problem for us. We went a different direction. But we didn’t have to start from scratch.

CGMagazine: Among Us is an experience that’s been on a lot of different systems. Besides working on the VR version, how does Schell Games add their own stamp or flavour to this franchise?

Mike Traficante: Well, I guess it’s important to understand that for us, we built this from scratch. This is a VR-first experience. We took the design of Among Us, but it’s not really like Schell Games putting a stamp on. It’s very much a Schell Games’ (title) from the ground-up. We used lots of our VR systems. And the result is a game that feels very, very different from the flat Among Us game. Like the ruleset is there. But the way you’ll play it is very different.

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Because your field of view is so limited, you can’t see all the people around you. So that changes the way the strategy works. Also, we have our integrated voice chat, which is proximity based. So even during task time, you can say something like, “Hey, I’m gonna go scan myself in MedBay, come watch.” You can’t do that in (base) Among Us. So that changes the strategy a lot. Before (players) go do tasks, they’re just like, “hey, what tasks do you have,” and you either have to creatively lie like “I don’t have any visual tasks,” right? If you’re the imposter, you have to sell that.

While in the meantime other people are just like “I do have a visual task, come watch me do it.” and you can try to bluff that and have people follow you and kill them when you get there. So the way that players interact with each other in VR changes the way Among Us is played. Even the ruleset being brought over is pretty close to exactly how it should be played. We didn’t really tweak much of that.

CGMagazine: What does the active movement normally seen with VR mean for nonverbal communication (NVC)? Is this something that VR players can do, that they couldn’t do in the original versions?

Mike Traficante: So there’s pointing, waving and a few hand poses you can make. We do limit that only to during Discussion Time. If you watch the trailer closely, at times you don’t see (clip), replace hands, and at times you do. I think that’s been something that people have wondered about. And the situation is that we do not show you the other crewmate’s hands during Task time.

The reason we made that choice is because that would make it very, very difficult for the imposter to convincingly do a task. Because they’d have to somehow (mime) and move the controls of a task that they don’t have, which would be almost impossible. So when you’re running around doing your tasks, you don’t see anyone’s hands. So you just see someone stop near a task. You have to assume they’re doing it, or they’re faking it.  Like you don’t know. But in meeting times, you do see everyone else’s hands.

Then on top, we have gestures, and we also have quick chat. So if you’ve chosen to play without voice chat, because you’re uncomfortable for whatever reason. We have – similar to the flat Among Us game – a quick chat that allows you to construct sentences and say “I was with so-and-so” or “This person killed this person” or “I saw this person (blank) vent,” like those kinds of things. So you can have basic communication with chat, and you can point and gesture while you’re doing it. So there’s definitely ways to play without talking.

CGMagazine: Different versions of Among Us were full of mini-games across all of its different maps and levels. What was it like bringing some of these concepts to VR?

Mike Traficante: It was a fun challenge. What we actually did is we looked at all of the tasks that existed on The Skeld. And we sort of thought about “how hard will this one be to port to VR? How easy and direct is it going to be? How fun is it going to be to do this in VR?” The ones that translated nice and cleanly, we brought those over pretty much as they are. Some of them (didn’t) make sense. In VR, this won’t feel good. We just didn’t do those.

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Then we just embedded some new ones that are very VR-centric. I think one that we’ve talked about in the past is we’ve got a whack-a-mole game. It’s in the MedBay. So it’s couched as a reaction time test. Little things pop up, and you have to whack them. That’s not particularly fun with a mouse. But in VR, we tell you how fast you do it, so there’s a bit of an athletic moment. I mean, there’s no reward for doing it fast. But if you want to challenge yourself, you can.

CGMagazine: VR obviously adds another dimension to a 2D game like Among Us. What were some challenges the team came across building it from the ground-up?

Mike Traficante: A big part of the challenge for the art team is when you’ve got that “top-down looking into the ship” perspective, there are no ceilings.

There are corners of the rooms that you’ve never seen that our art team has to invent. But also make it look like it matches. So when I think this was a challenge that they really relished, they had fun with it. Because they are 3D artists. They are always imagining “What must the ceiling look like? What’s in that corner?” So they want to do this work. But it wasn’t exactly easy either. I think they did a really great job with it.

When you’re in there, you do feel like this is actually that ship (The Skeld), and (you’re) in it. You look up and you don’t think about the ceiling. It doesn’t jump out at you, because it does mesh really well. That’s what the cafeteria ceiling would look like, of course, but it doesn’t occur to you that you’ve actually never seen it. We had to invent it. But it’s all pretty seamless and great. We did get to run around in there with the original InnerSloth team and their take was very much like “This is cool. We’re in The Skeld! This thing that I drew, I’m walking around it,” and that was very fun for our team and for me to see them react to it that way.

CGMagazine: could you tell me what it’s like to be crewmates compared to being the imposter in these full-size VR levels?

Mike Traficante: Ah, what it’s like. Early on, it was scary. My perspective has shifted, having played the game every day for a year now. So it’s not scary to me anymore. But there is some level of intensity I think that is up a little bit higher from the flat game. We had a great match where the imposter was doing such a good job bluffing, and they hadn’t killed anyone. We were all turning on each other. It came down to one person.

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One person’s decision was very clear. Because (she’s) in a room with her friends and has to choose to kick one out, it felt very real. It almost sounded like there was a bit of crying in her voice. I won’t reveal who it was, because I don’t embarrass anyone. But it got intense. She’s just like, “I don’t know who it is. I don’t want to choose!” Then someone goes out the airlock and turns out it was the imposter. We all had a laugh, and we could all hear each other the whole time. It’s really intimate and it’s really fun.

CGMagazine: What can players expect when they go through the 3D, full scale level as an Imposter?

Mike Traficante: You need to make it seem like you’re a crewmate. So you do want to run up to some task stations and stay in there for a little bit, to make it seem plausible that you’re doing some tasks. A thing that I found that people – who are good imposters – do effectively is they’ll talk during the game. In a way that makes them seem like they’re not the Imposter. I had somebody say to me the oxygen sabotage had gone off. I was running to fix it. They were like, “You got it over there and Admin, right?” and I was like, “Yeah, I totally do.”

They were the Imposter. But that little thing they said sold me on them. They’re cool because they’re worried about me, but it was just a lie. So, the Imposter really needs to stay on their toes here. You need to be a good bluffer. The other tactic is to try to stay quiet if you’re the Imposter. Extra challenge for the Imposter comes without the top-down view. When you kill, you have to check behind you real quick. Because somebody might have just turned the corner to be watching you kill someone. It’s definitely very cloak and dagger.

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CGMagazine: With the death scenes in the original game, we saw all sorts of different funny animations play out. How does VR kind of change that?

Mike Traficante: I will say: the deaths for us, we do show a cutscene that plays animation. So the experience for the Imposter will be run up, press the Kill button and the person splits in half. The experience for the person being killed is that they will see the cutscene play out, and we have a bunch of animations. Some very similar, some different. There’ll be some surprises there.

CGMagazine: Right, I wasn’t completely sure if players as the Imposter could physically do the motions, or if someone’s going to walk into a room and see their friend in VR “doing the deed.”

Mike Traficante: Yeah, we decided not to go that way for a whole bunch of gameplay reasons. To a lesser degree, but still important for emotional reasons. Among Us is fun. There is a level of intensity already. We didn’t want to amp it up, to have you actually have to jam the knife into somebody. It’s very visceral, right?

VR is a level beyond what a flat game feels like. We already have people that will play, go “Oh the Imposter, I want to be the Imposter. I want to kill my friends.” At least you just have to press a button, right? On top of that, because it is difficult to kill without being seen. Making you have to do something would make it very, very easy for the Imposter to get caught.

This preserves sort of what we had in the flat game where you could just run by, button tap and kill. Which is kind of necessary for the Imposter to have that level of ninja-like abilities. Just sort of dash by and kill somebody and get up in a vent quickly. So we totally held the click a button to kill.

CGMagazine: The original Among Us has been topped up with fresh content and DLC over time. Does the VR version also have to keep up with this trend?

Mike Traficante: Oh, it’s not going to release with everything that Among Us has added over the years. We are going to continue to support it as itself in the wild. But we’re not really sure what that will look like. Honestly, it’s going to look like what it needs to based on what we’re seeing the community need. What people get excited about, if things aren’t quite as good as they should be.

Once we’re out there and have tons of people playing, we’ll know a lot more. So we will reevaluate whatever plans we’ve been making and try to do the right thing. And do right by the folks that are playing the game. Because they’re really the most important piece of making a game. That’s what it’s all about.

Among Us VR is currently in development at Schell Games for Meta Quest 2, and SteamVR with a release window for Holiday 2022.

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