Based on the award-winning tabletop card game Lost Cities by world-renowned board game designer Reiner Knizia, Lost Cities VR is a two-player strategy game that transports you to unexplored regions and mythical realms. Can you outwit your opponent and make the most profit as you compete to be the first to discover the ancient lost cities?

Establishing the feel of Lost Cities VR

- by Rachael Hosein

By Rachael Hosein

This is my first time conceptualizing the look and feel for a game…well, a "game" game at least. I’ve done the illustrations, art direction, and planning of many e-learning activities, a few game jam games, and started and stopped a couple mobile games, but for this one the pressure is on. Lost Cities VR Edition is The Campfire Union’s first commercial game, and my first go at leading the visual style for a full virtual reality production. Scary, but also pretty cool.

So where do I start?

The first thing I did was play a ton of the original Lost Cities game (which has quickly taken the number two top game slot in my roster only bested by Settlers of Catan - Cities and Knights).

Step two was meeting with the rest of the team and getting a feel for what art style excited everyone. We crawled the internet and pulled some reference images, talked about what historical timeframe we were going with, and did a fair amount of daydreaming.

(We gathered the reference images above from some of my favourite places - Google searches, Designspiration, Pintrest, and Tumblr)

Next came the research phase. Lost Cities is a game where you go on expeditions to five different locations in search of lost cities - the Desert Sands, Himalayan Mountains, Neptune’s Realm, the Brazilian Rainforest, and an ancient volcano.

I spent a couple weeks putting together research documents for each of these locations - historical info, weather, vegetation, animal life, what kind of gear an explorer would need, and anything else that might help us dream up these virtual worlds. Although only a portion of what we learned will actual make it into the game, it was important for two reason; cred (obviously) and to make sure that all our design decisions are grounded - everything will have a reason and place.

(For the research, I mainly hit up Wikipedia, Google search, travel websites, and Vimeo)

As much as I would have loved to just jump into illustrating at this point, designing for a mobile virtual reality experience definitely has some restrictions that I needed to keep in mind - the main rule of thumb is less is more… or maybe it’s that less usually works better and more often doesn’t work at all.

There are a ton of unknowns in the process. Art for VR is a bit of a trip in that way. It’s very much a give and take between art direction, models, textures, the number of objects, effects, lighting and much more. So, hard to plan for from a designer’s perspective since it involves pretty much everyone on the team (3D modelers, technical artists, Unity developers, and probably a bunch of other roles that I don’t even know of yet). The key is balance (What main thing will "make" the environment? What do we want to spend our resources on?) and flexibility (Don’t fall in love with anything, there is great potential you will have your heart broken).

With all of this in mind, I started on conceptualizing the style with the following guidelines:

  • Simple shapes that are deep with textures
  • A clean minimalistic approach that feels rich and luxurious
  • Objects that are placed in a way that creates depth and invokes a desire to explore
  • Colours that stretch a little beyond reality

Now, a little peak at my work in progress. This is the starting point that will guide the visual direction of the game. They are the building blocks for what will be the core of the environment. I still have some adding and refining to do, but they give a good sense of where we're heading.

The desert sands environment is the one we’ve been featuring on this site. Check out the home page for the version with a cool little parallax effect.

I was going for an eerie but beautiful jungle feel for the Brazilian rainforest.

For the Himalayan mountains, I was stoked on trying to achieve that snowstorm whiteout feeling (you fellow Winnipeggers know what I’m talking about).

Neptune’s realm is my favourite so far, partly because light in water is my new jam but mainly because the Miami Vice colour scheme is at the top of my colour pallet list.

The ancient volcano is still a little too early on to show, so stay tuned for more!

Once the finishing touches are complete, we'll start putting together reference materials for our art team to explore how these ideas will translate into virtual reality and make these environments places that you'll never want to leave.