How Devs Design VR Games To Win Our Hearts

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How Devs Design VR Games To Win Our Hearts
October 15, 2016
Introducing people to VR means introducing people to an entirely new, virtual world – and getting it wrong could change the future of an entire medium.

For years, virtual reality has been the future. This week, it might have just emerged into the present.
 
PlayStation VR went on sale this week, hoping that it can bring virtual reality into the mainstream. Sony hopes to do that by offering the system relatively cheaply – it’s still hundreds of pounds, but also hundreds of pounds less than some of its competitors – and by offering gaming experiences of the kind that won people around to console gaming decades ago.
 
Brynley Gibson has been at the centre of that work, producing VR Worlds. That game really serves as a demo of VR, just as the PS VR system does; showing off what it can be and how it might work.
 
“It really is just the beginning,” says Mr Gibson. “We’ve learnt tons as developers – how you can make a VR game, the rules, what’s true and what’s not true, what rules you can bend and what you can break. “The games are going get better: with more unique experiences, more genres, new ways of playing.”
 
For now, VR Worlds and other titles are as much about showing the possibilities of such technology as anything else. But they must be as engaging as they possibly can be – virtual reality might be the future, but it’s a future that can be hard to sell people, especially when so few people have actually experienced it.
 
PlayStation VR – as a far cheaper and easier to use virtual reality system than its competitors – is likely to be the first experience of the new technology that many people will have. And VR Worlds is right at the middle of that experience, created as a way of showing people what virtual reality is, and why people are so excited about it.
 
“It’s very exciting to be the right at the beginning and on the forefront of this new medium,” says Mr Gibson.
 
Being right at that opening means understanding how an entire world works. The challenge is perhaps bigger than any other in gaming or entertainment; it’s similar to the move from 2D to 3D, for instance, but one that requires a much more intense understanding of how to make worlds that people are happy to be in and believe in.
 
The developers learnt that even the “technical or mundane things” that you’d ordinarily just assume about virtual worlds have to be re-thought from the ground up, says Mr Gibson.
 
Simple things like text, for instance, doesn’t often work in virtual reality an can be hard to read. And central things like the user interface or heads-up displays have to be re-designed.
 
Developers also have to re-think how people will actually make their own way around the world. In VR worlds, that happens in a number of different ways – in some that’s done with the normal two sticks on the PlayStation 4 controller, in another it’s done with the two PlayStation Move controllers that can be bought with the game and make you feel like you’re really interacting with the game, and in one there is no way of moving yourself around and the game exists as just an experience.
 
Those interactions can be far more numerous and deep than in a standard game. In one of the VR Worlds experiences called London Heist, for instance, you’re thrown into gang warfare and at one point find yourself in a car.
 
You can shoot at people like you might expect; but you can also pick up and interact with other things in the van, opening the glove compartment and turning up the radio. In a normal game those things would be fairly boring and not at all notable.
 
But because of the way that virtual reality amplifies emotions, those things become important. And without them, the entire game’s world might fall apart. “Something we learnt early on is that something quite passive can be quite intense,” says Mr Gibson. “We wanted people to come out with different feelings – empowered, chilled or scared.”
 
It’s close to real life – and like real life, the possibilities are huge and endless.
That’s part of the thrill of virtual reality. But it’s the challenge, too, because making a world that real and with that many possibilities requires extra hard work by the people making it.
 
“It can’t deal with every single interaction,” says Mr Gibson, but the world has to react as you’d expect it to. As such you “go for the big things that you think people will go for,” he says, “but also put in a few surprises”.
 
Some of those surprises might go unnoticed, at least until people play the experience over again. That means that players will have a different experience when they play, making the game feel even more real and vast.
 
Another difficulty with making virtual reality feel like real reality is that because people are entirely immersed, there can’t be moments of nothing happening. The immersion is such that developers “have to think about every second that [players] are in there”, says Mr Gibson. “We can’t have any dead time – they’re constantly looking, interacting or doing something – so it’s not like a traditional game where you can leave people looking at a wall.”
 
It’s that same combination of complete immersion and the difficulty of escape that can make virtual reality games so terrifying – it’s notable that one of the launch titles with PS VR is Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, a game that’s made extra terrifying by the fact that its horrifying clowns can come at you in all directions.
 
But that’s not necessarily the best of introductions to the new worlds of VR – anything too terrifying might put people off forever. Since the game is likely to be the first thing that someone ever does in VR, it has to be an easy and pleasant way of acclimatising to virtual reality.
 
In Ocean Descent, for instance – a game that sees people lowered deeper and deeper into the sea until they meet a shark – the game can be played in a less intense way to make sure that people don’t get scared.
 
“Although the full version does get quite intense, we split out modes so that you can just sit in the sunshine zone,” which is full of coral and beautiful sights. “You just sit there for three minutes – it’s a lovely acclimatisation moment that you can show to a young child or your gran.”
 
That kind of experience is more important to virtual reality than perhaps any other kind of entertainment before. It’s possible to describe what it’s like to be inside PS VR or any other system; but it’s not really possible to describe it fully.
 
“You really have to play it to experience it,” agrees Mr Gibson. “It’s a real joy watching someone come in, when they don’t know what to expect. “They’re not necessarily convinced. But then you see them have great fun. And they come out with a grin on their face.”

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