I am a game designer before anything else and when I first saw a virtual reality (VR) headset in our studio, I had very high hopes. I got to try out an early Oculus Rift and despite its low resolution, I was inspired with all the potential that devices like that could produce. Since then, our team at Creative Assembly dabbled in VR with Alien: Isolation and produced a demo with Oculus to show at events and trade shows.
Thanks to many events like this, friends in the industry and a passion to hunt this stuff down, I have also managed to get some “hands-on” time with Project Morpheus, Samsung Gear VR, Oculus DK2 and more recently the HTC Vive. I spent a good amount of time downloading everything I could from the Oculus store and have seen some interesting VR projects come my way from places like the Wales Game Development Show, the Animex Festival, Birmingham Digital Week and several Ludum Dare entries. The more I have been delving into VR the more I have found myself drawing a set of design rules, findings and most importantly, predictions.
These are largely my own opinions and personal beliefs but if I was to start working on a VR game, I would be proving these findings out as fast as possible. Some of this may be really basic principles that people working in VR have known for years, but many people don’t work in VR and if all goes well, I think a lot more people will be working there soon and may benefit from this…
VR Makes you ill?
Lots of people have mentioned to me that VR makes them ill and this fascinates me. There is a disconnect in the brain between what you see and the sense of movement that exaggerates this feeling of queasiness. Also a drop in frame rate can trigger this feeling. At GDC this year there were a lot of talks on VR, but one specifically stood out to me and that was “Practical Virtual Reality for Disney Theme Parks” by Bei Yang.
In short, he went into detail about how being drunk, is the feeling of your body reacting to poison. Part of this is the disconnect between what your brain sees and what your body feels. The more drunk you get, the more likely you are to be sick. Similarly with VR, the more of a disconnect there is, the more the user starts to feel ill because your brain is saying… “This isn’t right, I have been poisoned” in essence, Bei says “Motion Sickness feels like being drunk because perceptually they it’s the same” He also goes on to say that “what makes you sick in real life, will also make you sick in VR”
I have experimented with this and tried to put myself through VR experiences that would trigger this feeling. I have a fairly solid body with regards to dizziness and perception so very little in VR makes me sick, however I have noticed the extremes that trigger it and discovered a really interesting factor. If the player is in a virtual vehicle or cockpit and has a frame of reference, this feeling of motion sickness is greatly reduced. Further to this, if the player has a virtual body that is not doing what the player is doing, then this feeling is greatly exaggerated. My examples that have proven this are found in the links section at the end of this article. In a demo called Air Drift the player is flying over virtual landscapes and the direction of flight is covered by the look direction. Tilting your head also rolls the angle of flight and you can have some serious vertigo from zipping around the environments. Many people who have tried this, have said that it makes them feel ill. However, another great piece of software is Titans of Space. A Virtual tour of the solar system. This has swoops and dips and a large amount of rotation, however the player has a virtual body that is in a seat. A small monitor attached to the seat is always in view in front and if the player looks down, they see a space suit in a chair. If the player sits still with their hands on their knees, then the motion sickness feeling is dampened somewhat.
If you take a look at Architectural Visualisation on Oculus Rift Share, you can explore a nice looking apartment with a skyline view. One option this experience has is to toggle the players “hands” on and off. Toggle them on and move your hands around and that feeling of motion sickness gets worse. Even more so if you rotate the camera and your virtual arms are to the side, yet your real arms are holding a control pad in front of you. This is an area we spent a great deal of time investigating on Alien Isolation as the player had to hold a motion tracker in the game world to get information on the location of the Alien, which was vital to gameplay. As soon as the player thinks “those are not my arms”, subconsciously, the brain reacts and the body feels sick.
With the HTC Vive however, the player has an ability to interact with and move things by using controllers similar to the PlayStation Move Motion Controller, or the Wii Remote. This gives a much higher level of interaction and immersion but also comes with its own drawbacks. As a lifelong gamer, I can tell you that if a game is immersive enough, I can sit for days on end needing minimal sustenance, hygiene breaks, sunshine or social interaction and just play a game. Countless games have seen me drawn my curtains and emerge from my room days later having completed the adventure. (Obviously this is not recommended by any developer so please take regular breaks, showers and go outside! Read the health recommendations and warnings on your games and systems.) When people are having so much fun in a game that they don’t want to leave, the last thing the game should do is actively stop them from playing….
Many years ago I was working in a test department in EA. I ran a small team that had to test a portion of a Harry Potter game that featured use of the new PlayStation EyeToy. An interesting thing happened. Our testers were getting destroyed. These hardcore gamers who spend days on end playing videogames for work and then at home for pleasure, were talking about arm ache, fatigue, leg strain etc. If I say hold your arms out in front of you, you would think, “that’s not so hard”. If I said to keep them there for ten minutes, suddenly that is a whole lot harder. Spend an entire day waving your arms at a sensor and you have performed a marathon workout. This is the issue with Wii Motion Controllers, Kinect, PlayStation Move and many other devices including the HTC Vive. The game time becomes limited by the player’s muscular stamina and ability to move around for long periods of time. Videogames, whilst exciting and action packed, are actually a very relaxed interaction. Mostly played sat down with a control pad or a mouse and keyboard setup. Introduce standing, waving, pointing or aiming with arms, and this has a large impact on the player’s ability to stay immersed in the game. A parody video about an Assassin’s Creed Kinect edition shows the extreme of this. The more you ask the player to move, the less time they will spend in your game. Whilst not a deal breaker, this is vital to consider in game design. Games to me, are about doing what you can’t do in real life. The ability to explore incredible worlds that could never exist or escape into a story as a main character, participating in the events around you. VR is a huge step to making this feel even more real. But with this step comes a couple imitations that must be considered.
“When will we have Call of Duty on VR?”. I am going to make a bold prediction here. We won’t. That isn’t to say we won’t get a game with the Call of Duty branding on a VR platform, just that the game we all know as Call of Duty will not exist in VR. Allow me to explain my thoughts here. Call of duty is an incredibly fast, action based game of pin point accuracy, bunny hops and no scoping headshots. Play any VR game or experience that involves moving a character in the world and the first time you start to move, the familiar motion sickness sets in. It subsides quickly for most, but the faster you move or turn, the worse it can get. Here is where I will again reference Bei Yang’s talk. Zero Point Turns. In Call of Duty, you can turn 180% in a split second and shoot someone in the face. Do that in real life and you will get dizzy. Do it every second whilst bunny hopping and throwing grenades and you will be a wreck on the floor. This is the basis of Call of Duty. Change that to suit VR, and you are losing what Call of Duty is. Allow the player that freedom of movement, and you are creating an experience where the player needs to actively detach their perception from their real world rules. Either the player has to snap their head to look at their target, which cannot be as fast as a controller, or have their mouse and keyboard or control pad take over the looking, which completely removes one of the major benefits of VR. I look around, and the world is all there. Look with a controller, and you are passively experiencing a 3D environment. There are solutions and approaches to getting an action FPS working on a VR device, but I don’t think any of them would allow for a game like Call of Duty to still be the same game.
In my digging around the Oculus Share page, I noticed something after playing multiple demos. Graphical fidelity did not seem to impact the experience. This first occurred to me when I downloaded The Battle for Endor. I thought the graphics were fairly low quality from the screen shots and promo video but I was keen to see what it played like. I booted it up and there I was, sitting in the cockpit of an X-wing. I flew around and shot at some Tie Fighters, the star wars music swelled and then I heard beeping. I turner my hear around to look into the back of the cockpit. R2D2 was right behind me! And that was it, I was THERE! I flew a couple of attack runs on a star destroyer, flying the length of the ship whilst spinning and yelling. It was incredible. The more I looked at demo’s like this I realised that the whole package was brought to life more by audio, game design and presentation than any high graphical quality. Developers could go for a stylised approach to the graphics to keep that important frame rate high, or actually, just settle for lower definition visuals. As long as the whole experience is there, I don’t think a game in VR needs ultra-high graphical fidelity.
VR has the potential for game designers to do some really interesting things without needing incredible graphics to hang on to. One mechanic that has jumped out at me (literally) was presented in a game/demo called Pixel Ripped, where the expectation of the player matched with what we know as real world rules are flipped and to great effect and surprise. VR Karts by Viewpoint Games is another great example. A classic karting game, but in VR looking behind you to launch weapons is a tricky skill and feels incredibly immersive. Elite Dangerous does some great things with the UI and look direction to activate components and the Emergency Water Landing experience has you actively assume the brace position by looking down as your plan prepares for impact. People have gone to a lot of effort to re-create their favourite moments from films or games such as the observation deck from Sunshine, Hogwarts and the interior of the Millennium Falcon. The more designers explore these experiences the more gameplay opportunities and innovations will arise. I personally would like to experience the following:
- The space zoom-out intro from the movie Contact or the wormhole travel sequence
- The sequence in Tron where Flynn is sucked into the machine
- Cloverfield – Running away from the monster, represent the scale of the event
- The Matrix – shelves scene/gun racks etc.
- Driving “Gypsy Danger” from Pacific Rim or a Titan from Warhammer 40,000
I am a big fan of Jesse Schell. As a game designer, a lot of what he says makes sense to me and he also is a firm believer of making predictions. He says that, like anything, the more you do it, the better you will get. He even has a YouTube channel where he makes his predictions. So I would like to make a prediction. The first company to make a great VR multiplayer or party game is going to make millions. Here is why: VR is a solo experience. Technology that explodes into the mainstream, does so because people talk about it and share their experiences. No matter how good the advertising or marketing for a product, it will only reach huge success if people are talking about it and convincing each other to buy it. Take the Nintendo Wii. It has sold over A HUNDRED MILLION units globally. My Mother-in-law owns one. People played it at their friend’s houses at parties, and they were hooked. “Honey, we should get one of these” they would say after spending twenty minutes virtual bowling. However, VR is a solo experience. Have a group of people together to look at VR and one person gets to travel to another world, whilst everyone else looks on, waiting for their turn or discussing the experience they just had. One thing that I love about the Nintendo Wii U is the games that utilise the second screen as a gameplay tool for multiplayer. Multiple players on the main TV can hunt the ghost, controlled by a single player who uses the game pad with a screen. We have had countless party nights of playing the Nintendo Land games, such as ‘Sweet Day’ and ‘Mario Chase’. This is prime ground for some interesting design for VR. Likewise, Nintendo make some very accessible experiences which brings me to another prediction.
The first company to make a great VR multiplayer or party game is going to make millions Whichever virtual reality device is the most accessible, will be the biggest success. Look at all the huge successes in technology over the past few years in games and media. Apple, Nintendo, Google, all simple to use and owned by people from all walks of life. Jesse Schell once said that “3D TV is like Surround Sound, In that, rich geeks will have it, and everyone else will go to their house”. I think VR will be confined to the “wealthy tech enthusiast” category until a mass market and accessible version is produced. If my mum could put on a headset, plug it in and play, then she would buy one. The best part about a mainstream audience is that the fidelity of the experience does not have to be the highest. I believe you can take a hit on graphics and processing for accessibility and usability. Of all the headsets I have seen so far, I think Morpheus is in a prime situation to fulfil these criteria. Plug it in and play, have additional players on the screen interacting with the world that the VR user is immersed in and there is your formula for success. Take the graphics down a notch to support the rendering and as long as the experience is there, then you have it made. Tech enthusiasts will buy things like the Oculus Rift or the HTC Vive because it gives a higher fidelity graphical experience with more advance tracking, but with that comes more intricate set-up and a higher hardware barrier for entry.
In conclusion with the learnings I have seen, the games I have researched and my experience in the industry, if I were to start a team from scratch today, I would create a Virtual Reality Project that concentrated on a group experience, with manageable stylised graphics where the gameplay took into consideration motion sickness and usability. A team that I see doing all the right things are Fireproof Studios in Guildford. Take a look at their new title, Omega Agent in relation to this article. Clean and clear graphics, frame of reference for the players eyes, no sudden spins or zero point turns and it looks very promising. As VR Evolves I am super keen to see what experiences are created and how games as a whole will be impacted by this wonderful new tech.