The Develop guide to designing for virtual reality

The Develop guide to designing for virtual reality
James Batchelor

By James Batchelor

October 13th 2016 at 1:07PM

Virtual reality is the most groundbreaking technology developers have got to grips with in decades, and we’re still just beginning to unlock its full potential. James Batchelor asked VR experts about the many aspects of games development that need to be completely rethought for the new medium

Presence. Immersion. These are the words used in vain attempts to convey the experience of virtual reality to those yet to try it for themselves.

Encapsulating the two concepts in VR projects you develop is perhaps the toughest challenge games makers have ever faced – but one that countless studios around the world have embraced with gusto.

“It’s a magical moment the first time you look down and see your virtual body, or reach out and see your avatar’s arms in perfect sync with your own,” says Andrew Willans (pictured below), lead game designer on Eve Valkyrie, CCP’s poster child for VR action games.


“You instantly feel connected to the game world in a way never before possible. It’s incredibly important because the deeper this connection is, the more invested and emotionally involved you feel within the experience. It can amplify moments of wonder, or fear, or excitement because you feel present and a part of the events. You are no longer watching them unfold from a window within the real world.”

But Vincent Martel, executive producer at Fated: The Silent Oath dev Frima Studio, warns that achieving this sensation is no easy task: “Everything in VR is so fragile. The smallest thing can break the immersion and when you’re trying to generate emotions, immersion is key.”

Triangular Pixels’ creative developer Katie Goode agrees: “In order to keep players feeling as though their world is real, you have to allow them to interact with it in all the natural ways that humans can. As soon as players try to interact with something as they do in real life and it doesn’t respond, the immersion is broken.

“The environment and objects within it don’t have to be realistic, they just need to be able to respond and their behaviour be consistent to the world you have created.”

THE INITIAL IDEA

Developing for virtual reality is not something you can dive into with nought but good intentions and a winning concept. Studios should be prepared to spend a considerable amount of time prototyping their ideas – and even shunning anything, perhaps everything they’ve ever learned about games development.

“Throw away everything you know and start over, approaching each new problem as a whole new thing,” advises Adam Orth, CEO of Adr1ft dev Three One Zero. “It’s one of the biggest things that makes VR awesome for developers. You have to constantly try new things and fail spectacularly at them – that’s where the good ideas come from. 

“Even the most mundane in-game action such as opening a door becomes a challenge you have to think about from a whole new perspective.”

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It's a magical moment the first time you look down and see your virtual body.

Goode adds: “As developers, we’re also experienced gamers and can see what works and doesn’t due to years of both making and playing games. When it comes to VR, no developer has that kind of experience yet. The kits haven’t been out for 20-plus years with countless examples of similar gameplay to call upon. 

“What this means is that we’re often having to look at the limited pool of current experiences, recall how humans tend to behave in real life, and go with our guts to what seems like it will be fun. We have to always test our theories.”

Peter Pashley (pictured), head of development at Ustwo Games, stresses that both prototyping and usertesting is essential to honing your VR concept because it’s “impossible to tell how well a feature works without trying it on a range of other people”.

“In building Land’s End, we were constantly surprised by how our assumptions did not work as well as we expected when we tested them in VR,” he says. “We also found there was a huge range of unpredictable reactions from different people. So you need to test things frequently, on device – and not just the dev team.”

Willans suggests devs reign in expectations and keep their concepts high level until they’re able to try them out properly in VR: “As soon as the initial idea has struck, open up an editor and place some assets in a scene that even remotely represents the one in your head. It will inform all critical choices you make and avoid the pitfalls of applying traditional design methodology to a medium with a work-in-progress rulebook.”

TESTING VR

Testronic’s head of VR testing Julian Mower (pictured) offers some key learnings on how to ensure your title performs correctly:

"We have recently concluded testing on one of our first VR titles, with it successfully passing submission for the PSVR platform on the first attempt.

"During testing of both this title and other games on different HMDs, we learned some very interesting things. Firstly, when talking strictly about Functionality and Compliance testing for VR titles, the differences in how to test and what needs to be tested are minimal when compared to ‘normal’ games. Indeed, certain aspects of testing can become easier in VR when testers navigate a game environment by way of a camera fixed to their heads. 

"Audio testing is an area that is often given too little focus in QA, but with VR concepts such as attenuation, radius can be immediately perceived due to a first-person perspective. 

"The same is true for camera collision within a VR title, as the tester is operating with a heightened sense of awareness and will perceive risk factors much earlier. If your game dictates that the character is able to jump or crouch/crawl, then you can definitely expect testers to jump/crawl to replicate the action. 

"Due to the above, exploratory testing can be a more efficient method than scripted testing when it comes to VR games. Whilst the latter is still essential, the narrower remit of most VR titles allows more time per area to check all possible interactions."

SEEN THROUGH NEW EYES

One of the earliest considerations for VR devs will be the art style. Since the medium requires a game to be rendered twice – once for each eye – achieving realistic graphics without affecting performance is tough. But then some may argue that anything other than a realistic style defeats the purpose of VR and makes it difficult for users to believe they have been transported to another world.

Mindfield Games CEO Ville Kivistö (pictured below) stresses that the “art style should be chosen by the need of the product”. His studio’s first VR venture, sci-fi outing Pollen, pushes for realism and highly-detailed graphics, but his team also have a more cartoonish project in the works.

“This is because the second game’s design requires a much more vibrant and casual look and feel,” he says. “Immersion can be achieved with any sort of graphics, realistic or not – just as long as the rest of the experience is done well enough.”

Kirill Yudintsev, creative director at War Thunder dev Gaijin Entertainment, adds: “Gamers’ imaginations are usually very vivid and virtual reality helps to expand it even more. Realism probably gives you more empathy. You can draw a parallel between what happens in the game and what you experience or see in the real world. 

“In War Thunder when you are in the middle of aerial battle and you can see your teammate from your cockpit, his plane on fire, about to crash at any moment – it wakes up your feelings. You remember what you’ve read in history books or seen in movies. That makes you empathise with him stronger than if he was just a robot or cartoon.”

Willans believes there are arguments to be made for both styles, instead stressing that consistency is paramount: “If I’m in a highly stylised world, I expect that any visible parts of my avatar would match that style. I’m sure there’s also a case to be made for a Who Framed Roger Rabbit approach to mixing media, but right now I think we’re seeing great results from fully embracing the fantasy of leaving our real bodies behind.”

Martel (pictured) points to his own team’s Fated – a narrative VR adventure with visuals reminiscent of animated films – as proof that you can make experiences more engaging with a stylised look.

“The style we chose proved to be right for both game performance and the ability to connect emotionally with our characters,” he explains. 

“Hyper-realistic characters in VR are often creepy and a lot harder to connect with. A more stylised world is also usually a lot more colourful and works surprisingly well in VR.”

Pashley maintains that the current limits of the technology means there is “no such thing as realistic VR graphics”. 

He continues: “The mind expects much higher fidelity in VR and even the most state-of-the-art graphics engines can’t deliver realism that fools the eye. Immersion doesn’t require photorealism, but it does require not breaking the rules of the place in which the player thinks they are.

“A simple environment also helps with motion sickness because the player’s unconscious has less detail to inform its motion detection and therefore can accept what it sees more easily.”

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Throw away everything you know and start over. Approach each problem as a whole new thing.

SMOOTH RIDE

Motion sickness is, of course, the caveat to virtual reality’s mighty promise. It’s the demon VR devs fear unleashing as they delve into the possibilities the technology affords. While we have learned valuable lessons in the past few years – maintaining a high and consistent framerate, avoiding unexpected acceleration, and so on – there is still much to learn as the games industry targets a wider demographic.

“People have a wide range of tolerances when it comes to motion,” says Willans. “The most common reports of motion sickness come from passengers within vehicles, but those sensations are not reported when the same person is actually driving the vehicle. Focus of attention through direct control is a strong factor in such circumstances.”

Yudintsev adds: “The reason for motion sickness in real life is that the signals your brain gets from your cerebellum do not match with what you see, like acceleration or gravitation. The same thing happens in VR.

“Focusing on the horizon or at far away objects can reduce any symptoms of motion sickness while driving a tank, an aircraft or a ship. Luckily, you always need to do that in the game.”

Simon Gardner (pictured), CEO at Climax, adds that his team were often warned that a concept or mechanic would trigger motion sickness, but when they prototyped the idea they found it actually didn’t affect people.

“Avoid what we call rollercoaster moments,” he advises, thinking back on everything else his team has learned. “It’s also critical to avoid any lag and framerate drop – this can make people feel nauseous very quickly when the world they are seeing is not behaving in the way their brain is expecting it to. Keep the framerate as high as possible, try not to drop any frames, since that will result in a worse experience and increases the chance for motion sickness.”

Orth added that, providing the framerate is high enough and the player’s gaze is never controlled, devs can push for that sense of inertia that truly brings players into their world.

“For Adr1ft, we embraced the simulation aspect of being an astronaut and fully went for it,” he says. “It’s akin to a rollercoaster – you expect to feel a little of that. We did a lot of work to make sure it was as comfortable as it could be, but it’s not for everyone. I personally don’t have any issues. I can’t go on a rollercoaster in real life, though. I get very nauseous.”

The danger of motion sickness goes hand in hand with movement in VR, particularly when that movement is controlled directly by the player. Since inputs are becoming wildly different to traditional games, devs have to consider fresh approaches to movement.

IN CONTROL

At first, VR devs relied upon the conventional gamepad but the advent of motion controllers has combined stick and buttons with one-to-one gestures. And a good thing too, as Force Field VR’s Martin De Ronde says gamepads aren’t as intuitive as you might think.

“Players can press buttons without having to look down whilst playing Call of Duty,” he says. “But now they struggle in VR when they cannot see the controller. Our mantra is the fewer buttons used in VR, the better. It also adds to the immersion if you are not constantly reminded that you are holding a joypad.”

Fierce Kaiju’s Paul Colls adds: “Motion controls in VR are the holy grail of gaming. They allow you to reach into the worlds we create and interact with them. It gives developers more options, having a representation of your hands in the game can allow you to feel more agency within that game world. We’ve seen people literally slapping ammo clips into a weapon.”

Goode agrees, adding that “there’s no going back after hand-tracked controllers”. However, the devices are only as good as the input schemes that make use of them. You also have to predict how players will expect to use them.

“As programmers and designers, we need to deal with the many different ways people pick up and use objects,” she says. “Take a screwdriver as an example. If we asked players to use a powered screwdriver, they would hold it to the screw, and press a button. When we ask players to use a manual screwdriver in Unseen Diplomacy, we’ve seen players do a Wii-waggle, twist their wrists back and forth, or actually try and use it as a real screwdriver.”

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Paul Colls (pictured), creative director at Viral dev Fierce Kaiju adds: “Traditional stick or yaw control is not well suited to VR, so new methods of traversal are required. Fortunately there are some strong examples out there. If possible, look at ways to tie the movement up in the narrative, mechanics and visuals – this will help to make the project feel more grounded and cohesive.”

Force Field VR’s CCO Martin De Ronde points to Damaged Core and Budget Cuts as prime examples of Colls’ point. The former sees players hacking into different robots and cameras to see the world from their perspectives, while the latter uses portals in a fashion similar to Dishonored’s Blink move.

“Both create a contextual wrapper around the mechanic of moving around in VR without making you motion sick,” he says. “Not only do they do it in a believable way, they also manage to turn the feature into an actual interesting mechanic, opening up tactics.”

Meanwhile, Land’s End by Ustwo Games shuns such rapid jumps in favour of a system in which players click on pre-set points in the environment and the camera casually wanders to the chosen destination.

“Some people think that teleportation is the only way to move around in VR, but in our experience it very quickly disorients the player and ruins their sense of place, which is key to immersion,” says Pashley.

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VIRTUAL WORLDS

The movement mechanic of Land’s End is also a prime example of how developers need to design their VR environments around their traversal system. After all, there’s no sense architecting incredible levels if they are difficult, perhaps nauseating, for the player to explore. 

“The only way to create successful environments is to iterate their design alongside the way that you move around them,” says Pashley. 

“The points that you can move to in our game are pre-ordained, so it was critical to design the environment so that these points felt natural, were easy to notice, didn’t feel repetitive, didn’t involve uncomfortable trajectories between them, didn’t take too long to get to and so on.”

Orth adds: “Walking down a hallway and opening a door in an FPS is something developers and players know how to do. Doing that in VR is very, very different from every angle and all of that has to be considered into the overall level design. I have to reach out with my arm in the physical world to grab a virtual knob, twist it and pull the door open so I can walk though. That’s a complex thing that needs to be carefully considered from many new points.”

SUBTLE DIFFERENCES

Mindfield’s Kivistö says his team had to redesign a level after they found a seemingly simple piece of architecture caused motion sickness. 

“We had a circular staircase,” he explains. “While iterating our movement, test players got nausea after walking these stairs. Quite soon we found out that players moved up the stairs too hastily or too many times up and down, doing movements that would cause nausea even in real life. 

“It’s just too easy to forget that in VR you’re missing all the feelings of acceleration in your body. So we had to replace the circular stairs with a regular straight ones.”

It’s not just the grand concepts like traversal and level design that require a unique approach when it comes to developing for virtual reality. Even designing your UI and presenting basic game information clearly will be vastly different from traditional screen-based games.

“A traditional style HUD would likely need putting into a helmet or cockpit,” Colls offers by way of example. 

“You can have fun with this, though. Think of ways you could build the information required into the world, on control panels, weapons or even the characters themselves.”

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Camera is also a crucial consideration. While the vast majority of VR games are played from a first-person perspective, that doesn’t mean their development is synonymous with the first-person games of the past. 

Equally, some developers are experimenting with the possibility of third-person cameras and the impact these might have in VR.

“With third-person VR games there is less control over the camera, so level design is different from traditional third-person games,” explains De Ronde. 

“We are currently working on two games where we have made the explicit choice to go for a static camera and build a game around that. Not all games or genres require immersion, especially third-person games. Yet they can still be introduce lots of interesting new takes on the genre as a result of VR.”

Oculus has proved this with virtual reality 3D platformer Lucky’s Tale, which controls much the way you would expect a Mario game to but positions players directly within the level itself, watching as Lucky leaps between platforms around them.

The imaginations of gamers are usually very vivid and virtual reality helps to expand it.

Gardner’s team at Climax has also dabbled with this: “We’ve made third-person VR games with a character moving through levels using a camera to follow them. 

“We’ve avoided having tight bends – 90-degree turns into side corridors, for example – because having a follow cam suddenly sweep around a tight bend makes people feel nauseous. 

“We’ve had to design levels to either be far more linear with gentle curves to create a smooth follow cam experience, or have the avatar move through more open spaces where the player can easily follow their character just by looking left or right.”

PHYSICAL REALITY

Virtual reality opens itself to all manner of possibilities in terms of how it gets players engaged with your games. No longer do they sit there mindlessly pressing buttons – now they can physically perform in-game actions like aiming a gun, sword fighting or even opening a door.

The majority of virtual reality experiences – particularly those designed for motion controllers – require physical activity from the player. But not all users will be able to duck, weave and crawl around.

Triangular Pixels’ Katie Goode (pictured) says despite the ‘assault course’ nature of  Unseen Diplomacy, it has still been developed with accessibility in mind.

“Physically disabled users can still play the game –  and this goes beyond just button remapping,” she says. 

“Many players cannot crawl around on the floor due to either unseen disabilities, old age or even being in a wheelchair. For those players, we had to create variants which were wheelchair-friendly, with widths of spaces being the width of a chair, having tools on a table rather than spawning on the floor, and making sure that lasers don’t go too low for those players. 

“This wasn’t a small amount of work, and we would not have needed to do it if players were just in a cockpit, but it greatly opens up our audience.”

While it’s important to ensure your game is accessible, devs should still feel free to experiment with how active they want players to be.

Unseen Diplomacy is one of the most active VR games available, with players being asked to crawl through vents, roll under and dodge past lasers and running between points – while actually having to walk themselves around a large environment,” says Goode. “Although, I can say for sure that more active games are harder to develop.”

Alternatively, the required level of immersion in your virtual world may require a more sedentary experience. Seated players will soon forget that they’re sitting on a nondescript chair if they believe they’re in the pilot’s seat of a starfighter.

“Designing a cockpit-based game is a little easier, because the player is contained and restricted to a very specific and limited set of abilities,” says Orth. “It allows you to control the experience a little more and has the ability to reduce motion sickness due to the static HUD and geometry that’s always onscreen, moving with your gaze as a single object. 

“This allows the player to have a visual point of focus to stick to during the experience. Unfortunately, most cockpit-based games also are built around flying something, so there’s a balancing act there.”

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Either way, there is a potential obstacle that no non-VR developer has to concern themselves with: unpredictable player movements. In a conventional game, users may try to break the mechanics or limits of the world but will do so through a more limited, pre-set control scheme. Motion control-equipped VR users, meanwhile, can move in any direction physically available to them, and your game has to be prepared for this.

“The player can – and will – look anywhere at any time,” warns Gardner. “Use camera target triggers to launch special events when the player is looking in a certain direction rather than just walking in to a trigger as they might miss something important.”

Goode advises: “Create systems, rather than scripting individual actions. Give objects properties, try to program them in a way in which seems natural in real life. Our game has big rocker switches which react to any physics collider that presses them. This means players can use a broom they find, reach through lasers, and press the switch – something we only found out watching a Let’s Play video.”

Herein lies another secret to achieving the level of immersion we all hope for in virtual reality: a world that reacts to you and your actions. Frima’s Martel says this even extends to seemingly minor details, like eye contact with NPCs.

There's a huge range of unpredictable reactions from different people. Test things frequently.

“You need to build a very good ‘look-at’ system,” he explains. “You don’t want characters to stare at you without blinking when you’re talking to them. That would be creepy. You need ‘natural’ eye movement and blinking. NPCs should also be aware of your presence, or you’ll feel like a ghost.

“You also need to create a lot more content. Someone can decide to look around when they should be focusing on the action right in front of them. There’s a lot of stuff in Fated that nobody will ever see. For example, in our cart chase scene, there are very few reasons to look behind, but if you do, you see the other characters reacting to the scene.

“While it is very important to steer the player in the right direction, restricting actions and movement too much can also shatter the sense of presence. At some point you need to assume that the player is willing to ‘roleplay’ a little. Sure, they can walk away during a conversation and miss an important piece of the story, but people don’t normally do that. Don’t ruin the experience for everyone by locking the controls just because one person might do it.”

De Ronde (pictured) agrees: “Many players ‘maintain’ the immersion themselves. We have a game where you are on top of a tower and people could easily step off without falling, or in other areas reach their arms through the walls, but they don’t. It doesn’t help them and it detracts from the experience. I guess it’s similar to playing a traditional RPG and constantly pressing the jump button. People don’t usually do that even though they can whilst for example chatting to NPCs, cause it breaks their experience.”

Kivistö adds that Mindfield made the screen fade to black everytime Pollen players did something the game wasn’t designed for. Rather than breaking the immersion, users soon learned how to avoid triggering this.

Another unpredictable factor for developers is play space. While Unseen Diplomacy is designed for a specific area at events, there’s no way to know how much room players have at home.

SPACE INVADERS

Colls suggests implementing alternate control schemes to account for this: “If you take a room-scale experience where you are supposed to physically walk around, how would you do that on a device that is unable to do room-scale? 

“Different control options allow the players to move around that space without walking around. It also means your game can be adapted to various HMDs, reach more people and potentially make you more money.”

When you think of the investments made in the medium over the past few years, it’s no secret that many believe VR is the future – but it’s crucial to bear the future of VR in mind. While the technology continues to amaze those experiencing it for the first time, as it becomes more widely available that initial excitement could wear off.

“In my experience, ‘presence’ is quite subjective,” says Colls. “Experiences where I once felt ‘presence’ don’t make me feel so in awe these days. 

“Ultimately, presence is about building a convincing enough experience so that the player is fully immersed in the world that you create. Ensuring you have a slick, well crafted project will go some way in helping ensure that the illusion doesn’t slip, then people are perhaps more likely to get that connection with your title.”

Immersion can be achieved with any sort of graphics, as long as the experience is done well.

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Fortunately, there is a plethora of VR tech demos, experiences and full products – led primarily by the games industry –  to learn from.

“Don’t ignore what the VR community has been sharing over the past few years,” urges Goode. “Take it in, evaluate it, implement it and see for yourself why we’ve been saying these things by testing your ideas on others. Then try to do something new.”

Three One Zero’s Orth (pictured) concludes by reminding devs of the end goal: mainstream VR able to transport the broadest possible audience into new worlds of entertainment. 

“If you want to do a big virtual reality experience where the goal is to penetrate a mass market, you may want to guide the player and treat the experience as casual rather than hardcore,” he suggests. 

“It’s important to remember only a tiny fraction of the potential VR audience has ever even seen a HMD in person, much less tried one out. Most of these people might not be gamers either, so the interactivity has to be simple, intuitive and universal in order for anyone to grasp an interactive experience, let alone VR.”

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PLAY TIME 

One final but crucial topic of debate in VR development is how long a play session do you design for? 

“For player onboarding we offer shorter, less intense scenarios,” says CCP’s Andrew Willans. “But our game modes range from a two-minute free roam round an asteroid field, to a 20-minute action-packed fight versus a capital ship. Some of our sessions are up to three hours. Of course, there is some downtime between battles to allow players to catch their breath.”

Frima Studio’s Vincent Martel says the five acts of VR adventure Fated weigh in at around 20 minutes each, with players able to take a break in-between. Fierce Kaiju’s Paul Colls says Viral’s stages were designed to be small so players using the Gear VR touchpad could have a rest –  but he believes they will want more. 

Climax’s Simon Gardner adds: “Research shows that average VR gameplay sessions are up to 45 minutes. Our first games had levels of three to four minutes as we thought that players would get fatigued quickly – but they don’t.

“We’re now designing games that cater for longer sessions. I think seated gameplay, with games that have a gentler pace to them – like an adventure game – are a great fit for longer VR gaming sessions. This is something we are exploring right now.”

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