The nDreams guide to VR design: 'Treat your player like a real person'

The nDreams guide to VR design: 'Treat your player like a real person'
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

July 8th 2014 at 5:23PM

“They’re not playing what you’re designing, they’re experiencing it,” says Patrick O’Luanaigh

Virtual reality developer nDreams has shared major insights into developing for the game-changing new technology, emphasising that studios need a completely different mentality when compared to work on more traditional projects.

Speaking during today’s Develop Conference, founder and CEO Patrick O’Luanaigh stressed that devs must remember VR users are ‘real people, not avatars’. This means thinking more carefully about what you’re doing to the player. The example he gave was any situation where objects will hit the player character in the face, such as smashing through a glass window. While this can seem very exciting in a traditional screen-based title, it can be jarring as players will instinctively move to protect their face.

It will also emphasise that they’re playing a game. O’Luanaigh believes that players “don’t want to be reminded you’re not really there”, instead wishing to become immersed another place.

“It’s about experiencing,” he said. “They’re not playing what you’re designing, they’re experiencing it. You need to think about things differently.”

It’s for this reason that the nDreams boss believe slower-paced titles work better than typical action titles.

“People in VR like to explore, look at the detail of environments,” he said. “That’s why adventure games work so well.”

Because you’re dealing with real people, you also need to keep their in-game momentum realistic, O’Luanaigh added. The average person sprints at 5.5 metres per second, while the typical Call of Duty character sprints at 6.95 metres per second. Translate that to VR and the increased momentum is likely to contribute to motion sickness and detracts from the immersion – it feels unrealistic, therefore the brains is more aware that it is not real.

By extension, fast-paced over the top action games may not work as well as people hope in VR. “Flipping players over in a car crash will make them feel pretty ill,” O’Luanaigh said.

With that in mind, the nDreams CEO offered the following advice to virtual reality developers:

  • Don’t use cutscenes with switching cameras. “That’s very jarring in VR,” O’Luanaigh explained. “Cutscenes should be more like Half-Life, experienced in first person. Although you can move between characters very slowly if you’ve clever.” An example he gave was nDreams’ project Spacewrecks, a game in which players actually view the action from the perspective of a drone following their character, enabling a third-person view that still fits with virtual reality.
  • Don’t use 2D GUI. “There is no 2D in VR,” he said. The pixel resolution varies across the player’s field of vision, higher in the middle and lower towards the edges, which can blur text. O’Luanaigh added: “Ideally, you don’t want any GUI, because players don’t want to be reminded they’re not really there.”
  • WASD controls don’t work. Instead, devs should keep control schemes simple, centred around the arrow keys, space bar and other inputs that can be found without looking.
  • Never take control of the camera. Even camera bob, the effect to simulate running in first-person games, can make players feel sick because the effect doesn’t match their own movement, creating another disconnect.
  • Players don’t want to be part of the action straight away. As O’Luanaigh previously said, VR players prefer to look around and explore the environment. Dropping them into a gun battle will be too jarring an experience.
  • Don’t assume you need a player body. “I disagree with the Oculus guys on this – they say you always need a player body,” he said. “But it’s a ton of work, a ton of animation and you need to match the player’s skin ton and height if you want it to feel real. Every action with the hand needs to feel realistic, too. We’ve found that you don’t need one – you’re so engrossed with the world that you don’t notice, and it saves you a ton of budget animation.”
  • Keep every movement smooth. In real life, no one stops suddenly or starts to run instantly, and neither should your VR character.
  • Fidelity is important. VR games need to run at 1080p+, 60fps+, whilst rendering two camera views (left eye and right eye). This is very different to a 720p, 30fps game rendered with one camera view. Anything else will feel too unrealistic and could induce simulator sickness. “It’s possible for developers to destroy VR by releasing really crappy games,” the CEO warned.

These factors, O’Luanaigh said, mean that certain genres won’t be suitable for virtual reality: 2D games, puzzlers, fast-paced shooters and “snackable Starbucks’ queue mobile games”.

But there are plenty of genres that will benefit from VR – horror, in particular, works really well (don’t believe us? Read our feature on the Oculus prototype of Alien: Isolation). As O’Luanaigh puts it, “it’s too good”.

He gave plenty of other examples – adventure games, stealth titles, anything that involves a cockpit – but primarily hopes that we’ll see the rise of new game genres: 360-degree video experiences, tours of museums, and educational titles.

“What kid wouldn’t want to go to the World War I trenches rather than just hearing or reading about it?” O’Luanaigh asked.

nDreams is currently working on six virtual reality games, including adventure game The Assembly.