In Design is a TLS column examining a particular aspect or topic of the games industry, development, or design, with a member of the development community.
A standard cycle of the video game industry is the arrival of new technology. It’s this arrival of tech which allows developers to create new worlds, some of which may have been impossible to do before. While the release of a new console is exciting, players expect it and the accompanying graphical boost it brings.
The arrival of the much lauded virtual reality platform has brought tech which provides more than simple superficial visual upgrades. After years of desiring it, players now have the opportunity to delve into the worlds they’re playing. But exactly what is it like developing a VR game, especially one striving for originality by being a new IP?
THE MAGIC OF VR
For developer Martin Wheeler of Recluse Industries, his exposure to VR encouraged him to make the development leap. After making experimental projects for the PC and mobile platforms, Martin wanted to try developing his style of game in the open format VR offers.
Compared to traditional platforms, titles simply can’t be ported to VR. What may work in a regular 3rd person action game may otherwise by unthinkable in VR given the immersion and viewpoint it offers. So the approach developers such as Martin have to take in VR is drastically different compared to regular development.
In SEPARATION, Martin’s VR title, he went with an approach that not only suited the format but his personal desires as well.
“One of the first decisions was that I should approach SEPARATION more as an ambient exploration experience than as a puzzle-solving game,” he said. “I think the sense of immersion in VR, the ability to look around, naturally, as we do in the real world, without needing to drag a mouse or move a joystick, is one of the most amazing things I’ve experienced in games.”
Speaking further Martin said, “I don’t want to waste that magic by making the player spend time standing still, staring at logic puzzles. I mean, if that’s the core experience, why use VR? You could just as well pick up a Sudoku. My goal for SEPARATION has been to create a place with a dreamlike, evocative atmosphere. A mysterious landscape painting for players to explore. There are puzzles, objects to move and align, but the core experience is one of ambiance – crossing a lake at sunset, beneath the silhouette of a ruined temple.”
A COMFORTABLE WORLD
For Martin, despite his skills, he had to learn the finer points of VR development to provide the best possible experience. With SEPARATION, this meant making sure players felt comfortable while exploring the world he created.
“Movement feels far more intense in VR. I restricted the player to warping between static waypoints, later adapting that to let the player warp to any point they gazed at. I came to feel that movement in this way was too stilted and restricting. So I opted to go for a more natural walking simulator with a gentle forward motion in the direction of gaze.”
Martin’s design of movement in Separation didn’t stop there since it required additional tweaking. With how players feel as if they’re in the world when playing a VR title, it can be easy for someone to get sick when looking up at an object. “I find the worst thing for nausea is rotational vection.” For the non-developers out there, rotational vection is what’s caused when someone has the sense of movement while being stationary. As such, this can lead to an uneasy feeling if it appears during a VR game.
“I’ve avoided that [rotational vection] since my first attempt at getting the player to steer a boat. Now, when the player travels by boat, the boat actually turns to follow your gaze, rather than the player rotating to follow the boat. It’s not obvious from the player’s perspective and it does reduce VR sickness.”
THE SHELF LIFE OF ENTERTAINMENT
VR may be something that has an immediate wow factor, but like any medium or game, the amazement wears off. The expectations and perceptions players have of VR have at times left developers struggling to make both entertaining and attention retaining games.
“Completion is a real problem these days, with so much media competing for our time. As a solo game dev, I’m time-stretched. I didn’t finish a single game last year: Doom, The Witness, Obduction – all games that I still haven’t completed. The size of these games can be kind of daunting if your free time is limited. It’s easy to lose track of what I was doing the last time I played, or where I was going.”
“SEPARATION is a short game. I’ve tried to design it so there aren’t any sticking points, where they player feels frustrated or unable to progress. The whole game can be finished in a couple of hours, which is a reasonable size for a VR experience,” said Martin.
In SEPARATION, Martin’s approach to keeping players invested was to have a constant sense of direction. “The player’s role is that of a ‘torch bearer’, guiding a beam of light through the landscape. As you explore, lighting up each beacon and looking for the next one, the beam gives a visible sign of progress toward the final goal.”
“This means the player can wander as much as they like. But there’s always a beacon, to lead you back to the journey. I hope players will want to complete the game because it resonates with them on an emotional level, like an album you come back to when you’re in the right mood.”
Besides what it offers in gameplay, VR is also capable of changing the structure of games as well. These changes extend to the narrative as well and allow developers like Martin and writers such as Richard Pearsey to do new things. Many years ago the premise of playing as a mute protagonist in an FPS was unimaginable, and now VR is changing player perceptions once again.
“VR has enormous potential to convey narrative by removing the fixed frame we’re used to seeing the world through. This can make the viewer a part of the view,” said Martin. Continuing, he went on, “It’s an area we’re only beginning to explore. My approach to narrative in SEPARATION is definitely ‘less is more’. I want to convey enough story without going into exposition. It’s important that the player brings their own imagination to the game. So I’m trying to tread lightly, using symbolism, hints, and a few set pieces. On a practical level, that’s also the most achievable goal for a solo dev on a small budget.”
At this point, a VR game hasn’t arrived to pave the way for game narrative like Half-Life or Metal Gear Solid did years ago. As developers become more comfortable with VR, the risk takers will surely come to the forefront to push the next step for game narrative; tied closer to the imagination of players.
It’s still early in the gen 1 lifecycle of VR platforms as both consumers and developers continue to become accustomed. Compared to other tech advancements, the sandbox of VR is one with endless potential for both genres, and the talents of developers.
Designers are continuing to explore new VR concepts, and there’s one in particular that excites Martin. “I’m most intrigued by is telepresence. This is the ability to experience locations in the real world through VR, via a drone or avatar. There’s a lot of buzz about AI and robots replacing human jobs. Telepresence is something I can imagine having a profound effect on society in the near future. Before we see robots walking the streets, we’ll see humans doing that virtually, in robot bodies.”
THE IMPORTANCE OF CONTROLS
Besides their pricing and graphical fidelity, control methodology also sets apart the VR platforms. Compared to the standard controllers of consoles, the input of VR control has been integral for certain games.
“Controls can make or break a game and everybody has different preferences for how they interact,” said Martin. “I haven’t tried Touch [Oculus Touch] yet, but it looks like a great control system. It’s perfect for shooters and adding even more to the immersion of VR.”
“When I began SEPARATION, the intention was to keep interaction simple. Trying to the lower barriers to VR for as many people as possible. So the original spec was for the game to be hands-free, using ‘focused gaze’. That approach compromised immediacy and I decided to implement gamepad control. Using a gamepad with VR is in some ways problematic – you can’t see the buttons for starters. But it’s also the controller players are most familiar with, and that makes it a good starting point.”
It’ll be interesting to see how developers adapt traditional controllers into their VR games, and what new controllers may appear. Will a hands-free VR solution ever appear? Likely, but not in the foreseeable future and certainly not for a consumer friendly price. This means developers will need to continue being clever when designing their games, and hope for some engineering assistance from the VR manufacturers.
Despite the feelings of some players, VR isn’t going away anytime soon. Sony’s PSVR has sold better than expected, and there appears to be an interest in VR among video game players.
Having first-hand experience developing for VR, Martin is optimistic about what the future holds. “VR is never going to reach the kind of mass adoption that mobile has achieved. All the same, every time I see somebody’s grandma playing Candy Crush on the bus. I’m reminded how a medium that was once a niche form of home entertainment has come to occupy the sort of demographic that once only television enjoyed.”
“The biggest hurdle is still the hardware. The headsets need to be lighter and the resolution needs to be sharper. VR will remain very much a niche technology until these things happen. But twenty years from now, if we’re still here, who knows?”
VR may not become the defacto standard for video games, but players can at least look forward to titles like Separation and the developers such as Martin to help push the medium forward.