For the first half of this year, Silverstring was highly involved in VR. We were hired by Radial Games to help design and produce a prototype for an unannounced multiplayer VR title, and so for the last year or so we've been playing with VR, attending meet-ups, seeing talks at VRDC, and designing for VR. We're by no means pivoting our whole business to virtual reality, but it is a fascinating new realm we've been playing in, and the last year has brought about a lot of experimentation and interesting design discoveries.
And so, here are several of our views on VR -- how to design for it, what we've seen work and not, and where it might be going.
Room Scale is Better
360 video and the general ability to look around a space with your own eyes rather than a crudely-controlled camera is interesting, but it's not a game-changer. Room-scale VR, however, is a different story.
360 video is largely playing out like a new twist on existing media -- film and videogames. Stationary rigs do have the potential to take the games we're already playing in interesting directions, but the experience of controlling the view with your head and eyes is actually quite at odds with many of the core aspects of videogame movement and interaction. To put it another way, playing many "traditional" games with 360 video will make you very motion-sick. By far our best experiences with 360 video where ones that had your body seated and stationary, like Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, or experiences that deny or subvert the body entirely, like SoundSelf, which routes your voice into a visualizer.
Room-scale VR, with touch controllers, feels like a new medium entirely. The actual ability to bodily inhabit a virtual space is unlike anything out there, and it's these experiences that are the most interesting and exciting to us. The addition of touch controllers (such as those that come with the HTC Vive) make interacting with that space feel natural and intuitive -- and make even the smallest interactions fascinating and fun! (as expanded upon in the next point)
But that means that you have to design for that experience. None of this porting of old games and design concepts to VR -- doing so is rife with problems and fails to capitalize on what makes VR exciting and new. Make exploring and interacting with your environment a key part of the game! Look under tables, hide behind walls, open drawers and pick up objects to examine them in more detail. Use the space and tools you have to make a new kind of experience.
It's the small things
On that note, those "small things" -- the mere act of interacting with an object, mechanism, or environment with the touch controllers -- is fun in VR. Maybe it's because it's still a novel experience in general, but I think it gets back to a core kind of experience video games don't deliver, the joy of using your hands, of building LEGO or playing on a playground or with toy swords in the backyard.
The simple act of manipulation and exploration is fun, and endlessly engaging. And that means you don't need your game to be full of super deep and complex systems, equipment and levelling up and skill trees, to be interesting. Maybe we can make games about simpler experiences, quieter joys, miniature enjoyments.
Focus on Embodied Interactions
When you feel like you're in a space, you want to have interactions that focus on your presence. Standard UIs and menus in VR are at worst difficult to navigate and pull you out of the immersion, and at best simply missing the ball. It's far better to have those things be part of the world, of the embodiment -- an object you can manipulate instead of a screen to point at.
The Code of Ethics is still being written
We don't know yet what all of the psychological effects of VR are going to be, and it's clear that in the wrong hands, it could be used to damaging effects. Experiences in VR can feel more real, and they could potentially affect the eyes, brain, and even empathy towards others. VR needs a code of ethics, and while we don't have one yet, any creator in VR must be considering it. Design carefully and purposefully; consider what the ramifications might be.
It's not actually a solo experience
Despite the worries and assumptions and thinkpieces, VR is not a solo, distancing, block-out-the-world experience. Every time we put people in VR, we saw how much it was a social experience -- people on the couch shouting suggestions or tips, people in the headset commenting on what they see or how they feel. And that's great! But it's also something to consider while designing -- perhaps an intense, important, binaural audio component won't work as well as you want; maybe we shouldn't assume the player's even wearing headphones; maybe communication can be part of gameplay.
Architectural Techniques have never been more important
The embodied experience of VR means that architectural techniques represent a more-vital-than-ever language and discipline for arranging space around bodies. Directing movement and view -- especially when (unlike framed experiences) you can't force the player to look in a particular direction -- are important parts of any VR design, perhaps far more than other games. With room scale experiences, the designer and their systems must account for two spatial navigations: first, where the player's consciousness and attention is (the game), and second, where their blind body is in their living room. Architecture isn't just about making pretty buildings -- it's a key part of designing how we interact with, experience, and feel in built spaces.
The Experiential Story
With things like movement through large spaces an overall unsolved problem (teleportation is one great answer; joystick-based movement (especially with acceleration!) is not) and the primacy of small interactions, games should focus on the core experience and feel of a game -- and in any narrative-based game, that's going to mean thematic stories and experiential stories. At least in these early days, dialogue trees aren't going to work well in VR (both for UI reasons and for embodiment reasons), so any narrative for the player is going to be more about the emergent experience they have. Their embodiment should be viewed as a great opportunity for storytellers -- embrace it, don't ignore it.
These are just a few of the interesting things we're seeing in this space. And as always, Silverstring is here to help you! We love the opportunities VR presents, and are always available to jump into game, narrative, and architectural design on your projects. Contact us!