Designing Games for the Oculus Rift

Oculus Rift

If you’ve been following game news for the last few months, you’ve probably heard of the Oculus Rift. An affordable yet advanced stereoscopic head-mounted device, it’s causing something of a resurgence in the seemingly dormant field of virtual reality games.

I’ve been going back and forth on ordering a devkit for a while, and finally took the plunge last week. This is already a cause of much regret, as I find myself at the back of a queue thousands of developers long. If I’m lucky I might see a device this side of the autumn equinox.

Patience never was my strong suit :(

Self-pity aside, I’m now turning my thoughts towards what I’m going to do with the thing. I realized pretty quickly that despite my long experience in game development, including working on many first-person shooters dating back to the original PlayStation in the mid-90s, I’ve never actually thought about designing specifically for VR.

On the face of it, you might think that a conventional FPS was well-suited to a device like the Rift. After all, the viewpoint is the same, how much more to it could there be? Well, as it turns out, a lot!

The first issue is the player’s disconnect between their awareness of their own body and the avatar they’re controlling in the game. VR delivers a sense of presence, yet our current control interfaces break that immersion just as it’s getting started. We can’t yet move our avatar by walking or running, we need to move a control stick. We can’t swing our arms around to aim a weapon; again, we need a control stick. When the player looks to the right or left in a VR game, the inclination may be to rotate our elbows or shoulders to try to bring a gun around with our viewpoint. That’s similar to how many people tilt a controller left or right when navigating a corner in a driving game, and just as ineffective.

From this we can see that controls that complement the VR experience will be a thorny issue, at least with current input devices. TeamFortress 2’s Rift integration apparently comes with seven different control schemes offering different methods of aiming and moving. That sounds like a lot, but more choice can only be good as the industry begins to figure out these new problems.

Next up are problems of scale. Speed especially is unrealistic in most games – this PAR article points out that the Scout character in TeamFortress 2 runs at 40mph! That’s incredibly disorienting for a player and may well be a cause of some of the not-infrequent reports of nausea and motion sickness that a device like the Rift can produce.

That Penny Arcade article talks about (and in fact is predicated entirely upon) another surprising fact, one that I’ve seen reiterated many times by many different commentators. That’s the fact that the true joy from a VR game seems to come mainly from immersion and the sense of physical freedom it conveys rather than any combat or competitive element. It’s been compared to lucid dreaming; the wish-fulfillment of finding ourselves a superhero, or journeying to another world.

“I could have easily spent an hour just flying around from rooftop to rooftop in Hawken, without any care for the game’s intended purpose as a mech war simulator.” – The Verge – I played Hawken on the Oculus Rift and it made me a believer

“I didnt race right now, only sitting in AIs car watching and looking around, but i could do that for hours being amazed and not getting bored :)” – vittorio, rFactor 2 forum post

Perhaps this is simply a passing phase, and as we get more used to and comfortable with VR devices we’ll want to get back to the game mechanics we’ve been challenging ourselves with for the last 40 years. Or maybe this really is a sea change in what we want from our games. Either way this development is more exciting to me than almost anything else I’ve ever seen in this industry – and I’ve been doing this a long time!

So what am I thinking about for my first hobbyist VR project? I have a specific design in mind but I’m not letting the cat out of the bag that easily! I’ll go over some of the factors I’m considering though.

In keeping with the articles I reference above, I’m thinking that a game based around exploration and free movement with possibly only some small element of challenge is probably the best idea at this point in time. It’s also been pointed out in several pieces of Rift coverage that vehicles seem to provide a better sense of immersion than controlling a humanoid avatar – the act of sitting in a virtual car or cockpit seems to map much more closely to the probable sitting posture of the player and removes some of the body-disconnect I discussed earlier.

ME - VR?

The perfect VR game? Or would it be too much to handle?

When it comes to level design, it seems to me that a sense of large scale, depth and height will come across impressively well on a stereoscopic device. This is without any personal hands-on experience, mind you, so it might be that when I finally get a kit I try a level like that and it’s barfy time. But for now I might as well go big and scale down if necessary. A game where you play as something small, such as a fly or a toy car, might fit the bill; or maybe hiking and climbing in the Grand Canyon or Manhattan would be fun.

I like the idea, suggested by my friend Martin in this thought-provoking article on VR design, of having a reason for the player to look around, to force that immersion provided by low-latency head-tracking to be used to its fullest. Maybe we don’t need a HUD anymore, and can look at our own character or equipment to get all of the state information we need. Maybe the player needs to identify things in the world by hunting them out visually. And maybe we are no longer forced to make important events happen directly in front of the avatar.

And finally, I’m a coder (and closeted designer), not an environment artist. For my one-man side projects, an abstract world is going to be easiest to put together, Unity Asset Store notwithstanding. Style is something I’m not too worried about for now. I imagine a VR environment will be effective with cubes as long as it’s lit reasonably well, and is built with lots of depth and reference points to provide an appropriate sense of speed.

These are only my initial thoughts. As I get stuck into this I expect I’ll change my mind about some things. I’ve likely got a few months before my kit arrives so I have time for some experimentation. If I produce anything interesting I’ll keep you updated!

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