The cutting edge of virtual reality tech and game design discussed at Develop's An Audience With
Last night’s An Audience With Project Morpheus welcomed some of Sony’s top VR specialists as well as leading UK game developers in the virtual reality field.
The packed audience at the Ray Dolby Thearte in Soho, London heard SCEE senior development manager Simon Benson, SCE London Studio director Dave Ranyard, SCEE senior account manager Agostino Simonetta, nDreams CEO Patrick O’Luanaigh and Bossa Studios co-founder Imre Jele all discuss the latest developments in VR. The event was sponsored by Testronic Labs.
Below are some of the highlights of what we heard during last night’s event.
Sony’s Simon Benson gave an overview of some of the features and considerations the console firm is taking for Project Morpheus.
He explained the Morpheus headset would have 360 degree head tracking via lights on the front and the back of the headset, enabling players to look all around them just like they can in real life. He added it was important the technology could accurately track the player’s head movement and a controller at the same time.
“This allows us to keep tracking the device no matter what orientation you’re in.”
Benson also explained that camera tracking would have a field of roughly four metres deep to four metres across. He stated however that at this stage the tech is just a prototype so this could be subject to change.
“The camera itself helps an awful lot. This pretty much anchors our play space if you like.”
2. Access to hardware
Developers across the UK will be able to get in touch with SCE to discuss their ideas for VR games and gain access to Project Morpheus tech.
SCE’s Agostino Simonetta said Morpheus was still in its early days, but its policy for the tech would be somewhat similar to its openness with the PS4.
“With the PS4 and Morpheus we are really involved with the development community much earlier than we ever have been before.”
3. Content is everything
As Benson says: “Content is the glue that holds everything together”. He explained that the key to content is it has to be tailored specifically for the device to ensure immersion in games, highlighting the importance of a player’s ‘presence’ for a believable experience.
London Studio director Dave Ranyard echoed these sentiments, and stated VR games need to be more than just ports.
“You need to design from the ground up, it’s not about porting an existing game. “
As Simonetta said, Sony is looking to be as open as possible with its Morpheus hardware as it has tried to be with the PS4, offering access to hardware where it can.
Bossa’s Imre Jele also said he felt there was potential for indies to succeed with VR, even if they have to develop for the PS4. He explained one-man indies or teams of two or three developing a game at minimal cost could easily make their money back if they sold between 10,000 to 30,000 copies – enough to be able to make their second or third game.
“I don’t think you can lose in this process. Obviously if you make a bad game, that’s awkward. You don’t need a big installed base to be a success.”
Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus may have angered many who wanted games to be the sole centrepiece of the virtual reality revolution, but its hard to ignore its potential in other industries as well.
The panel of developers agreed games can drive adoption of VR, and nDreams Patrick O’Luanaigh said consumers can expect to see many different kinds of games, some of which can be used for purposes outside of strictly gaming.
“The great thing about gaming is there’s so much diversity in developer budgets. You’ll see content stretch out in a few years and you could see VR used in schools, such as being in the trenches in WWI for example.”
Benson’s advice for game developers was simple – once you give players head tracking, never take it away. He explained even subtle typical game mechanics like pausing can be quite jarring, as this never occurs in the real world.
“Sense of presence is a fragile thing. Once you believe you’re in a virtual world, you expect certain things.”
He used the example of putting your hand on a desk in real life and being able to touch the physical object, whereas in VR players won’t physically feel that pressure.
7. Motion sickness
Always a big topic of debate in VR, particularly after early prototype hardware, is motion sickness.
Benson stated that many of the issues with motion sickness could be put down to content, rather than the technology itself. He explained if a developer puts a player on an intense rollercoaster ride, that would probably make them feel a bit sick in real life as well. He used another example of an FPS where a player might step on a landmine which then shakes them up in the air – something that would an odd experience in a VR game.
He suggested that developers recognise the potential for motion sickness in these situations, and perhaps take the player out of the first person view for some of these moments.
“We need to think of ways of mitigating that. So if a car crashes for example, you see the car roll off in the distance instead”.
8. Control inputs
The question of the right control input for the ideal VR gaming experience was a big topic of debate amongst the panellists, and VR in general.
Benson said he wasn’t sure yet if analogue sticks, currently used in most console games, was the ideal input. He explained developers needed to discover and understand what the de facto control scape is, and just because analogue controls were what players were now used to, it doesn’t mean it’s right for VR.
He used the example of moving from keyboard and mouse to control sticks in the 90s as an example, describing the experience as almost alien at the time.
9. Player position
One aspect of virtual reality game development that could be overlooked is the player’s position. Should the user be standing up or sitting down? And what restrictions or opportunities does this then give the player?
Benson said for a car game, players should probably be sitting down, but for titles like London Studio’s The Deep, which puts players into the role of a deep sea diver in a diving cage, users might want to be standing up instead.
More than ever before developers will have to consider player stances and recognise the various controller inputs and types of experience they want the player to have.
“If you want people to move around a lot, you’ve got to consider how to implement that into your game,” said Benson.
The issues of presence, accurate head tracking and player position all form key parts of creating an immersive experience. But another aspect developers need to think about is the player avatar. While it’s easy to play an odd character or take on the role of a protagonist of a different gender when playing on a television screen, the experience in VR could potentially be jarring.
Benson said developers can play a few tricks to avoid this should it prove a problem, such as putting gloves on characters to hide differences in the avatar compared to their real self, such as skin colour.
“These things are far more destructive than they ever were now. It’s hugely devastating when it comes to presence.”
nDreams’ Patrick O’Luanaigh was not convinced however that players have to have themselves mimicked in-game, and suggested developers could do away with seeing the avatar’s body completely if it was an issue.
Benson then added that for some games, being in another body could be made into part of the experience if it suited it.
Locomotive technologies are slowly coming to the fore as VR tech becomes feasible for consumers. Virtuix’s Omni treadmill for example just received $3m in funding following its $1.1m Kickstarter campaign to expand mass production and launch the hardware later this year.
The panel was not convinced such tech would take off however, and developers may decide not to develop experiences where players need to run around.
Jele said he did not see himself using a treadmill in the middle of his living room.
“Lets learn to look around before we start to run around,” he said.
SCEE’s Simonetta added VR was already "mind-blowing" for users to just sit down and look around and believes it could be dangerous having players running around while wearing a VR headset, as they have no idea where they are or what’s happening in the real world.
12. VR is not the next 3D
Jele and Benson were adamant that virtual reality would not be the next 3D, but a true next step in technology and game design.
Jele suggested 3D was in some ways doomed to fail because it was a technology chased by big business, whereas VR is being clamoured for and built from the ground up by developers. He called VR a “natural evolution” and something that players want as much as developers.
“The opportunities are enormous. [Interest] won’t run out, as long as we get it right,” he said.
Benson went on to say that 3D and VR were completely different, and questioned whether any lessons can be learnt from the adoption of 3D when VR headsets are launched.
Develop's An Audience With events are sponsored by Testronic Labs.