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Insomniac, Supermassive, And More Discuss The Difficulties Of VR

by Brian Shea on Dec 23, 2015 at 08:00 AM

Whenever a new and exciting gaming technology hits the market, enthusiastic developers explore new angles to captivate their user base. Never before have developers been able to put their target audiences in the middle of the action the way virtual-reality headsets can. The potential of VR is undeniable, but before it can reach its full potential, several hurdles must be cleared.

The developers supporting the first wave of 2016’s VR boom have worked relentlessly to iterate on their games to make sure they’re fully capitalizing on the potential of the tech. The headsets are impressive for sure, but how these teams got to where they are today is even more impressive.

Developing for virtual reality is undeniably different from developing for a traditional console or PC. Players are no longer looking at the experience from the outside; in VR, players are often inside these virtual worlds. 

For Guerrilla Cambridge, the studio behind the first-person shooter arena game Rigs, developing for VR has been fundamentally different. According to art director Tom Jones, the team had to relearn almost everything when beginning development. “A lot of the things we would traditionally design into a game don't necessarily work for VR,” he says. “Player comfort is really important, and something we had little experience with at the start of the project.”

Even Crytek, a studio known for its technical prowess, experienced technical challenges during its leap to VR with Robinson: The Journey. “Performance and clarity of the image is about meeting the target frames-per-second, as drops in frame-rate often result in physical discomfort,” says Crytek executive producer Elijah Freeman. “On the flip side, reducing rendering artifacts is also a must as it will affect VR players’ comfort in a positive way…Both of these factors make players feel like they are in a believable world and can interact with it. As you can imagine, those elements are often fighting each other, but it’s our job to make sure that we deliver a balanced and comfortable VR experience for everyone.”

Player comfort is a huge sticking point for virtual reality, as simulation sickness can prove to be a major problem for some players to the point where it makes virtual reality unattractive. The tamer experiences might not face this issue as much as the games like the frantic space flight simulator Eve: Valkyrie or the fast-paced Rigs, but it’s something that every developer must consider when crafting their games.

The issue is that simulation sickness, which occurs when the motion your inner ear senses doesn’t match up with what your eyes are telling your brain is happening, affects everyone differently. What causes one person to feel woozy for the rest of the day after just a few minutes in the experience could have no effect on a different person after more extended time in the game. This is something that developers must account for.

Director of PlayStation’s Magic Lab research division Richard Marks says several causes of simulation sickness – like having latency in the VR unit’s head tracking – have already been addressed in the hardware but there are some best practices and things developers should avoid. “You don't want to move the person around the space a lot without their permission kind of, so the virtual camera should be connected to the person's head because that's what they expect,” he says. “When they do want to move through the space, controlling how they move through the space and moving in a way that is conducive to a good experience is what we try to encourage.”

For games like Rigs, the development teams are pulling out several tricks to try and curtail simulation sickness. One such step in the right direction is to have points of references for the player – in Rigs’ case, a cockpit drawn around the player performs this function. For those who don’t have something like a cockpit, however, putting visual representations of the player’s legs or hands also helps.

While Guerrilla Cambridge’s Tom Jones says the visual points of reference are some of the key ingredients to helping to fix this problem, the levels can also be designed in a way that minimizes motion sickness. “We've spent a lot of time analyzing and refining the arenas to ensure that they are not too overwhelming for the player,” he says. “Constant user testing has also shown us how to shape the design and look of the game for maximum player comfort.”

The visual point of reference technique wasn’t something that worked for Solfar Studios in its development of Everest VR, an experience that gives players the opportunity to make the legendary trek up to the summit of the massive mountain. Instead, Solfar starts each sequence with a flyover of the part you’re going to scale, but before putting the player in the middle of the action right away, the flyover begins as a single framed shot, almost as if you’re watching the flyover on television. The area outside of the frame eventually fades into position, completely surrounding you with the mountain’s vista.

“Some [add frames of reference] by creating some kind of platform that you’re on, and we tried that but we thought that broke the immersion,” says CEO of Solfar Studios Kjartan Emilsson. “By having this frame to start with, it seemed to anchor the person to both seeing the motion and understanding the motion is going in that direction. They feel secure and then you dissolve it away and their feeling of security seems to remain.”

Action, excitement, and gameplay are all priorities for making an experience interesting and fun for players, but at the end of the day, nothing is as critical as player comfort. If a studio doesn’t make sure the player is comfortable during the experience, all the rest is for naught. This is something that developers still haven’t solved completely, but they are making great strides toward a common goal.

On the next page, we look at how VR is changing the design process for games.

Several developers agree that outside of making the experience comfortable for players from a technical perspective, the biggest challenges for developing a game for VR present themselves when games enter the design phase. Whether that’s designing the space or designing the way the player moves through the world, it’s an issue that developers are struggling with as new members of the VR community. 

For Frame Interactive founder Ben Throop, the user interface challenged the team during its development of dystopian soccer school simulator Headmaster. “It doesn’t feel good to just slap a screen in front of your face,” he says. “We have to come up with more appropriate methods of communication. In Headmaster we use real life ways of sharing info with the player – a physical scoreboard, loudspeaker, voice.”

Not Always A Challenge
According to some, the leap to virtual reality has proven easier thanks to the original vision for their projects. For Enhance CEO Tetsuya Mizuguchi, the man behind popular music/rhythm game Rez, bringing the game to VR wasn’t that big of a deal. “To me, console game development is and has been more of a challenge because since the inception for this vision of Rez, the image that I had in my head was that Rez would exist in a 3D world," he says. "So 15 years ago – or even a couple years before that – the work that went into creating the original version of Rez was taking the 3D-visioned world of Rez, but kind of almost retro-fitting that in to a 2D tube TV like the original Rez experience. There was a lot of extra work that went into making that as great as possible, but now 15 years later, the tech and the tools that are available and this VR component are almost less stressful for me because I can actually put what I had in my vision and actually make it come alive."

Much of VR to this point has been first-person experiences to capitalize on the immersion of the technology. Some games are defying these ideas, including Lucky’s Tale and Rez Infinite. Insomniac Games is also taking this approach by delivering a third-person action/adventure game called Edge of Nowhere. 

“We did a battery of experiments to figure out how to make a third-person camera work for VR, and what we learned is that you really cannot rotate the camera that much – rotate the player’s head involuntarily, essentially,” explains Insomniac creative director Brian Allgeier. “So we had to redesign all of our levels to be with a north-facing camera. We’ve disguised it quite a bit. You kind of weave your way through this experience, but if you look closely, you’ll realize you’re never traveling east or west for a long period of time. That way, we give people the freedom to look up, down, and all over the place and still advance forward.”

One thing many developers of action games rely on is having a camera that can be directed at the important things happening in the world so the player doesn’t miss anything. In virtual reality, it’s not a good idea to jerk players’ heads around without their permission, meaning players have the freedom to look anywhere, potentially creating yet another hurdle for developers. 

Allgeier says the team uses several ways to attract players’ attention when creating such a moment. Whether it’s 3D spatial audio that harnesses the knowledge that all players will be using audio headsets with their VR headsets or something as simple as visual cues, Insomniac is using every trick it can to draw players’ attention to where they want it to be. “We’re always nervous about putting a lot of work into something that a lot of people will miss,” Allgeier says. “At the same time, we love the fact that you have the freedom to look wherever you want; we’re not grabbing the back of your head and pointing you to where we want you to look. It feels more real that way – a more immersive experience.”

Simon Harris, executive producer of Supermassive Games (the team behind Until Dawn: Rush of Blood), agrees that the versatility of the camera and the player’s field of vision is a new challenge to think about. With virtual reality, however, developers need to rethink the way they design their worlds.

 “We have been building worlds in 3D for a long time now, but so much of this has really been just set dressing, because the interaction from the player required to investigate them was a barrier,” he says. “You didn’t want the player to have to look up and turn around a lot, because using the controller to do so was a little slow and with third-person games, this caused challenges such as camera positions. Now the barrier to looking around, whether it be in 1st or 3rd person view is massively reduced, so games need to encourage to players to use these new dimensions and explore the location and it’s up to us as game makers to make that interesting and part of the game.”

As with any fledgling technology, challenges await those who dare blaze the trails. The virtual-reality community knows that this won’t be an easy path to travel, but they do it any way. It’s not because the path leads to guaranteed financial success – quite the contrary; developing for virtual reality at this juncture is risky. 

These developers push forward because they believe in this technology, and they’ve seen – whether on their screens or in their mind’s eye – what this platform is capable of. Now they just need to make it work.

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