Virtual Reality is edging closer to being a tangible way for people to experience video games differently. By next year gamers will finally have the chance to purchase consumer-grade virtual reality headsets, from the Oculus Rift to Sony’s Project Morpheus. In preparation, a plethora of game development studios have announced in recent months that they’re developing their own VR games from the ground up. And they’re having to totally change the way they make video games.
As with any new type of technology, especially one that’s so different from anything these studios have worked with in the past, new obstacles arise during development. With a hi-tech headset strapped to your face, virtual reality games can be incredibly immersive, making players truly feel like they’re physically in another location—partially, at least. And while that can make for incredible gaming and entertainment experiences, it’s not easy for game developers to really nail it.
Studios have to abandon the way they’ve been making video games and adapt to new goals, guidelines and design choices. I spoke with a few about exactly that.
A LIGHTER SIDE
“The difference in approach for making a VR game comes into play with design,” John Pearl, lead designer on Gunfire Games’ upcoming virtual reality action game Chronos, tells me. “When we plan things out we need to consider what would be cool in a VR experience. For us there is an equal level of importance placed upon the visuals as there is on the gameplay.”
Gunfire Games was recently founded by former employees of a different game studio, Vigil Games, the folks who worked on a series called Darksiders—games in which you take control of the mythical Horsemen of the Apocalypse and slay enemies with powerful weapons. These games borrow equally from modern action games and from the classic Legend of Zelda series, so their developers are very familiar with the way regular game development works. But with VR, players experience games in a wildly different way. Precautions have to be taken in order to ensure that an upcoming project truly feels like a virtual reality game, and not one into which VR technology was carelessly shoehorned.
“The feeling of ‘being there’ is one of the coolest things in VR,” Pearl says. “We wanted to find ways to take advantage of that with scale, atmosphere, and lighting. For example, in our previous games we’ve had huge characters, but their scale was never felt as imposing as the cyclopes in our E3 demo [in Chronos]. We’ve made games where we had a traditional third-person camera that followed the character, so when we tried that camera setup with VR, it didn’t work. That’s why we went for the stationary camera that actively switches to allow the player the best view of the action. We’ve found that a stationary camera allows the largest audience of people to enjoy the game comfortably for extended periods of time.”
They applied a similar thought process—examining their previous design choices and overhauling them where necessary—when it came to the game’s interface, the way it conveys things like your character’s health, and menus.
“One of our goals is to not break the immersion the player feels while playing Chronos,” Pearl says. “One way we’ve done this is eliminating in-game UI [user interface] elements. While UI can work in VR, we found it was distracting in Chronos. If you have a lot of floating icons and health bars in VR it can feel out of place. This has proven a bit challenging since we’ve had to abandon some ideas that would have required in-game UI. An advantage of the game being built for VR from the start is that it has informed all of our decisions while making it.”
STANDING STILL IN ANOTHER PLACE
Developer Coatsink Games, which previously worked on phone and tablet games but is now making a game called Esper for Oculus Rift and Samsung’s Gear VR headset, also has to find new ways to implement UI into a VR experience. Esper is a puzzle game set in 1975 in which you see from your character’s perspective, like you’re looking through their eyes.
“When we began developing for Virtual Reality we quickly learned that a lot of things that are trivial or taken for granted during development of ‘regular’ games are more of a challenge in VR. UI is a great example of this,” says Tom Beardsmore, CEO of Coatsink Games. “If done traditionally, an in-game interface would strain your eyes (you have to consider depth now). It would be like gluing stickers to the inside of some sunglasses.”
Alongside UI, there are a bunch of other compromises and changes the studio had to make, and all of them were caused by the technological possibilities—and in some cases, constraints—that VR headsets offer. For one, Coatsink is making Esper with the stationary reality of current virtual reality in mind—meaning as of now, when people wear these gadgets on their faces, they aren’t able to move their bodies around freely. It isn’t a totally streamlined experience in that respect, and that has significantly influenced Esper.
“Currently, Virtual Reality is still very young and there are limitations that are best kept in mind if you want to create a comfortable and memorable (in a positive sense) experience for the user,” Beardsmore says. “As it is, you cannot safely walk around freely with a Virtual Reality headset on, so we decided to build Esper around the idea that the player remained stationary. The lack of movement makes the experience a gentle one and allowed us to focus our efforts in other ways.
“Another thing we considered was that wearing a Virtual Reality headset for a prolonged amount of time might become uncomfortable for some players, so we designed Esper as a game that could be played in short intervals (frequent auto-saves, relatively short ‘levels’ etc.) As a result, the user doesn’t feel inclined to do long stints.”
THE LITTLE THINGS
Minority Media, the studio that previously made the heartfelt fantasy game Papo & Yo, is paying close attention to the tiniest details in their upcoming VR game Time Machine—an adventure involving close encounters with animals. The developers are hoping that every single object in the game world, from a chair to a painting on the wall, will be able to elicit a powerful reaction in players. So it’s paying close attention to these tiny details more than it ever has before.
“Making games for VR is entirely different,” says Vander Caballero, creative director on Time Machine. “In virtual reality, when an object is in front of you, your brain perceives it as being real, and it naturally assigns it the properties of its real-life equivalent. But if that object behaves unexpectedly—say a heavy-looking metal ball starts floating weightlessly in the air—your brain says ‘what the hell is happening?!’, and you become intent on understanding this new object. Working with VR, we become aware that we’re not making a game; we’re actually creating another reality.”
Though VR development is as tumultuous as it is an exciting new frontier for companies to explore, it will become more and more familiar over time. Studios will be able to, hopefully, really understand what it truly takes to make virtual reality games. Technology will improve on both the hardware and software side of things, and studios will have more examples to look at over time. VR might eventually even become the standard for gaming and entertainment. but in the meantime, this frontier needs to be thoroughly explored, and it’s adventurous game developers like these who are doing it.
Alex Gilyadov is a freelance writer with an eclectic taste in film, music, and games. He believes Breaking Bad is the greatest show mankind has concocted, and that The Sopranos is actually a bit overrated.
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