This interview is part of our employee interview series which features talents from different teams behind the scenes at Valo Motion. Today, we talked with Lead Game Developer Lauri Lehtonen.
What brought you to Valo Motion?
After studying at Aalto University, I was interested in creating games and joined Rovio as a game-level designer. But soon I realized that I wanted to do something more experimental and explore games with unusual interfaces and input methods. I had also personally struggled with exercise motivation most of my life and was really inspired by games like DDR that really made you move but was fun at the same time, so I wanted to explore combining physical activity and games more. I ended up joining a company in Northern Finland that created exercise games and worked there for a while.
At the same time, I was planning my master’s thesis at Aalto, and my professor mentioned that there is a company called Valo Motion on the university campus that is also creating games combining exercise with gaming. He showed me the ValoClimb augmented climbing wall prototype in the university garage. I was very impressed by it and the demo he gave me on it, so I arranged a meeting with the company founders. I joined Valo Motion and became employee number eight in 2017. I was also the first game developer hired for the company.
What is it that you currently do?
I was hired as a game developer but as soon as I started, I ended up leading a new product development and design project. Valo Motion had a new trampoline game platform product idea that they had tested out at the university before, and the company wanted to create its second commercial product from it. My responsibility was to lead the development process of that product later launched as ValoJump, an interactive trampoline game platform. I was tasked to envision what this product would look like in an activity park and commercial context. ValoJump development project also became my thesis work.
“It was both exciting and fun for me to be exploring these completely unexplored new grounds. I felt like I was in my element.”
What was the inspiration behind ValoJump trampoline game?
Two of Valo Motion’s founders, Raine Kajastila (CEO) and Leo Holsti (COO) had done some previous research on this product at Aalto University. They had already validated that the idea of adding a monitor in front of a trampoline where you can see yourself as a game character and have highly exaggerated jump height is fun and motivating for people exercising on a trampoline.
My job was to plan what kind of games this product would have, how they would be played, and what kind of requirements the activity park context brings to the product development. We tested a lot of different-sized trampolines, and different placements for the screens and built a lot of prototypes of how the game interaction would work. It was both exciting and fun for me to be exploring these completely unexplored new grounds. I felt like I was in my element.
For ValoJump's development, one of the biggest inspirations was to empower people to feel like they have superpowers. They can jump high on the trampoline in the real world and we wanted to exaggerate that even more in the game world to make them feel like superheroes.
What kind of games work best on ValoJump?
We realized quite early on that it is good to keep trampoline games simple because then people can focus on jumping on the trampoline. On a trampoline you will be jumping constantly and cannot suddenly stop jumping that easily because of the momentum you have from the previous jumps. You cannot change your jump’s flight trajectory after you have taken off (which in many “normal” video games you can). You also need to keep in mind the limitations of current technology and try to take that into account in the game design so that we can make the games work robustly.
ValoJump development was a surprisingly fast process. Thanks to the previous research we already had one existing game interaction, which later turned into Skytails, the first ValoJump game. We also created tens of other game interaction prototypes. One of the simplest things which was originally just a test for how it would feel if you collided with objects turned into the second ValoJump game called Toywatch, which is still one the most popular games.
“The trampoline games boost the jumping experience, make trampoline exercise more fun, and give you new objectives for instance on how high you can jump in the game.”
What are you focusing on now in your work?
After creating ValoJump, I worked on many new ValoJump games. A few years back, I moved to work on ValoArena, a mixed-reality playground that combines physical movement and group gaming. We repeated the same development process as with ValoJump, by exploring different prototypes and different kinds of interactions. We created close to a hundred prototypes for ValoArena that we tested in our test basement, an abandoned fire department facility at the university campus.
This time the framing of this new product was not as clear as with a trampoline game. It took a bit more effort to explore all interactions and game environments, how to place the body tracking sensors, how to place the screens, and what kind of games would work best in this game arena. It was fun to be working on a completely new platform and interact with games.
What inspired the development of ValoArena?
Previously, we had made two-player games for both ValoJump and ValoClimb, and we knew that people mostly wanted to play together with their friends in the activity parks. We wanted to create a new game platform for bigger groups to enjoy games together.
On ValoArena, up to six players can play together. ValoArena was launched last year, and it won IAAPA’s Brass Ring Award for the Best New Product “Virtual and Augmented Reality” category.
“For ValoArena the inspiration was also empowering people to move and another main focus was to make it a fun group activity”
How do you come up with new game ideas for the products?
We draw a lot of inspiration from PC games and traditional games. We think about how these different games could look in our product context. We were inspired by for instance Fall Guys, Mario Party, and other games that have mini-games inside them.
Because we are combining physical movement with video games, we are also inspired by playground games such as “floor is lava” that children play at the schoolyard. Groundfall, a ValoArena game where the floor becomes lava, quickly became the most-played ValoArena game.
Also AstroBlade and Operation: Money Grab, our two latest new game launches for ValoArena take inspiration from playground games.
What does Valo Motion’s game development future look like?
At the moment, Valo Motion has three mixed-reality attractions and we have dedicated developers in our product team working on each of them. We are continuously developing new games for all of the products because Valo Motion offers regular game-level updates and new games to its customers as part of our service.
We have prototypes brewing in the background while we are working on the production items. Usually, we are testing prototypes and new games 2-3 times a week in our testing facility. We are playing different versions of the games and thinking about what works, what we should improve etc.
Sometimes it can be difficult to think in advance about how game interactions will work in real life. For product development, it is important to understand the end users of the game platforms and the activity park context. Each of our three game systems is so unique that there are many limitations that we need to consider. Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of the platforms is something that takes a lot of exploration. Understanding the nature of the movement on the platform is also one of the key things.
“There is a lot of jumping on the trampoline, running around in ValoArena, and exploring new ideas on the systems going on.”
What do you like about working at Valo Motion?
It has been fun to see the company grow and I have been very happy here. This is a good place for me to work because exploring things that have not existed before is something I want to do. I do not accept that games can only be played with a game controller, keyboard and mouse, or touch screen. Games can be more than that, and I think they will be in the future, they can help people be healthier and get excited about physical exercise. I have loved arcade games with weird input methods like custom-made controllers all my life.
How does Valo Motion’s culture support your work?
The culture is very open and trusting at Valo Motion. I can explore my ideas freely, which is a big plus for me. I can think of new, creative things outside the box than what currently exists for activity park games. I enjoy that a lot. We also have a lot of people who are really enthusiastic about what we do which is really motivating for me.
“I am happy that I get to work on creating new experiences and invent new ways to interact with games.”
Do you have special interests outside working hours?
I have too many interests and don’t have time for all of them sufficiently. I have a lot of musical instruments because I like the process of learning to play a new instrument, maybe more than I like mastering any specific instrument. Currently, I am learning to play the Cajon drum, a boxed shape drum you sit on top of and play. Before that, I was learning saxophone, and before that, I explored piano, guitar, ukulele, and flute. And of course, I am also playing computer games in the evening with my friends but rarely play anything just by myself. I also like all competitive sports where you hit a ball over a net like volleyball, badminton, table tennis and tennis.
What’s a fun fact about you that many people may not know?
In my childhood, I always thought I would become an architect. I am not sure I even knew then exactly what an architect does but I just wanted to be able to create new things. In high school, I was good at technical topics like math so I ended up at a technical university, not to study architecture eventually but electrical engineering.
But after a year I found that too theoretical and not creative enough for me, so I discovered another study program called Information Networks. It felt like a good fit for me because it combined programming, psychology, philosophy, arts, and economics. Maybe similarly to my instrument collection, there I had enough room to explore new things. Later I got into a virtual reality course where we used a game engine and another course called the experimental user interface. Those were so interesting to me that I realized that I want to work on games and I applied for the Master’s program in game production and design at Aalto University.
If you could have any superpower, what would it be?
Having an on-off switch to be able to turn the switch off in the evening and fall asleep. I don’t think having a super power would be good in the long run. Much like using cheat codes in video games it’s fun for a while but ruins the game in the long run :)
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