Maintaining presence - Virtual reality developers' responsibilities

Maintaining presence - Virtual reality developers' responsibilities

By Preloaded's Katie Goode

August 15th 2014 at 11:00AM

Preloaded's Katie Goode discusses how we have to treat players in virtual reality and what that means for game design

As game developers we need to approach VR passionately but with caution. In such an absorbing environment we have a responsibility to take care of players, in order to allow them to be fully immersed (maintaining “presence”). We also have to be aware that such an intense experience can have both positive and negative effects.

VR Basics

Developers all over the world have been working as a community trying to solve some of the common problems and technical design issues with VR. Oculus VR Best Practices Guide is an excellent read, and Enter The Rift also has some guides on various elements of games.

The player’s first step is to properly calibrate their HMD, so it’s best that you guide players through this process. On doc-­ok, Oliver has created a few videos to discuss why calibrating is so important.

There are countless papers on how to combat motion sickness. The golden rules seem to be: don’t freeze the screen, even in menus, and keep in­game G­force pointing down, as the player will be experiencing those forces while outside the application.

Some developers use predictably sized incremental turns for allowing the players to rotate using the pad. We found using an “e­nose” or a cockpit as a static point of reference in the view helps.

Don’t Alienate Players

After taking all of the more technical aspects into account, the next step is making sure that players stay within the game. To do this, it is important to make them feel part of the world.

Appearance

When a player enters the VR space and is not introduced to their character, they expect to be playing themselves. VR replicates the view from daily life, so if there is anything “off” about their appearance then this will take them out of the experience ­ this could be gender, race, size, or general appearance.

If I’m playing as myself, as a female, when I look down I expect to see my breasts. I lose presence on demos which I have been forced to play as male avatars. It is important that people who associate themselves as a certain gender can play as that gender when they are physically forced to walk around as it.

Beyond implementing a custom character creator, clever design of the avatar model will help cover a lot of issues ­ for example, having armour on the player to cover much of their proportions and skin, or even not having an avatar at all.

It would be interesting to experiment playing as alternate beings such as monsters or aliens. Not being close to the player’s appearance will allow them to accept roleplaying, using the avatar more as a tool than as a virtual representation of themselves.

Being in the world

For the player to really know they are within the world having an effect, their character needs to create an impression. This can be achieved by making sure the avatar has shadows, reflections or footprints. Be careful of true reflections of the player if the avatar does not appear as they do in the real world.

Contextually fitting menus

A game will need menus of some sort, be they options or help screens. Menus which the player can move away from such as floating UI, is the minimum for keeping the player involved with the world. The problem is that these menus never appear in real life, so serve to remind the player that they are playing a game.

More powerful is the use of a prop that the player can pick up or take out of their inventory when they need to interact, such as a tablet. It is better to place information directly in the world as part of a static prop. For example, in Surgeon Simulator the heart monitor was changed to be an actual monitor within the world which the player can glance to when they need, rather than a static piece of UI at the edge of their screen.

Forced behaviour

It’s important to realise that people react in very different ways to events in real life, so being in VR may trigger those reactions rather than an expected “game” reaction. When forcing the player to complete an action, if that action is so opposite to what they would do in real life, then they will possibly end up feeling removed from the experience and cheated by the game. Even worse would be leaving the player with no other choice, or taking power away from them and performing a cut­scene. For example, in a moral choice activity if it is a possibility to place a positive spin or context on an otherwise negative decision, then it will be easier to accept.

Player’s interaction with AI and NPCs

Being Social

An interesting side effect of playing in a virtual environment is the fact that, as a player, you feel very alone. There is a realisation that you are the only person in that whole environment, possibly in that virtual world. As the player is also isolated from the outside world because of their HMD device and headphones, they cannot simply look away to remind themselves where they are.

Because of this, players will naturally seek out social interactions. Be it other players or AI, these will have to feel real enough to satisfy the thirst for human interaction.

Of course, a game which is based on a horror or survive genre may actually benefit from not having any human contact in it.

Real Personalities

When players encounter a humanoid AI character that behaves unnaturally, the player will immediately be taken out of that moment of immersion, and break the sensation of a real world.

The player’s new ability to judge a character can be a benefit for a designer. A NPC moving into the player’s personal space, overlooking them, will force the player to step back by instinct. Depending on the context the player could feel small or agitated.

Personal Connection

It’s important to make sure AI personalities stay consistent. Players will more likely form bonds with NPCs which they can interact with­ because of the need to be social­ and any change will be obvious to the player.

As developers we have to treat these social bonds with respect. If an NPC who is close to the player gets killed, give the player some breathing space to almost mourn for their loss.

Level and prop design

Believable interactions

One of the key areas for design to be aware of is level and prop design, and the need to create a coherent, believable environment that the player feels like they can interact with. They will be expecting rules of the world to be predictable, for example when the player drops a glass container, it falls and smashes. The world can have its own made­up rules, as long as the player feels part of it and those rules make sense in context.

Show off your assets

Anything at eye level to the player will get the most attention, and should look “3D” when up close. With positional tracking, players will try to move their heads around an object, and closer to it, to take a closer look. They will also directly interact with objects to take a closer look, pick props up and rotate them in front of themselves ­ which can lead to some interesting puzzle­like gameplay.

The flip side of this is that the player will look everywhere, so make sure you create assets that are ready for this eventuality.

Jumps and scares

As developers we have the responsibility to look after players that have become so absorbed in our game. Players will feel much less safe while playing a VR game than a traditional one as they are themselves, and as such vulnerable to the outside world. When frightened during normal games players can look away from the TV, but they cannot do this in VR ­ making them feel potentially trapped, encouraging them to remove their headset. We have to be aware how we scare the players, to what level, and consider the need for a “safe space” in the level or an easily entered pause/rest mode.

For example, how one of our developers feels:

“The act of putting on the headset is actually enough for me to feel a bit unnerved. I feel I'm putting on a blindfold to the world, and telling the world it can mess with me. I want to be in a safe place with people I trust before using it.”

More interestingly there will be players with very strong phobias which are not normally triggered while playing games. If those players are believing they are somewhere for real, then their phobias may prevent them from participating in certain activities. Being scared of heights, darkness, or being claustrophobic may stop some players from entering areas of levels.

We’re experimenting with solutions, but introducing smaller elements gradually, giving players the choice, or warning them before they start the game may prevent the players taking off the HMD if they are too frightened. Of course, these may also be used to purposely give the player a little fright too, and can be applied to creatures/enemies in the game.

Watch out for real life

This is pretty obvious, while a player has a headset on they will have no idea where they are turning or walking. Keep this in mind if you wish to create an experience where the player is asked to explore or move around a lot in real life.

“How long was I in there?”

In a virtual world where time can be going at any pace, or even be still, it’s important that the player is aware of real time. They need to know when outside events may be happening, remembering to have food for example. A watch on the player’s avatar’s wrist showing only real time could be a non­presence breaking way to allow them to check the time without exiting the VR experience. It’s not just knowing what time it is, but also how long you have spent in VR that’s useful to know.

The length of the game experience can have an effect on how someone feels after they have stopped playing. Through my own personal experience I have found if I spend all day “in the rift” playing VR games, I feel like I’m day dreaming for the rest of the evening. Allow the player to have clear stop points, more frequently than in other games, just to allow for quick breaks and getting used to the real world again, before progressing.

Conclusion: Respect the player

We are still in the early days of VR game design and implementation, there will a lot to learn on the way. What is clear is the fact that creating a fully immersive experience is challenging, requiring ideas outside our normal experiences as developers. It’s critical though that as we create another world for players, we respect them more as real people within our world rather than just as gamers having a fun time.

At Preloaded we create games with purpose that focus on the player experience, and with VR this has never been more important. Over the coming months we will be releasing a number of prototypes which will explore how to make better player­centered VR games, and document our findings on our website.

Katie Goode is a Game Designer at Preloaded, a BAFTA-winning applied games studio creating games which improves the way people live, learn and engage with the world around them.