In the past few months, we at Sidekick have been working on VR games, and particularly games for the new Samsung Gear VR.
I sat down with Elad Drory, a producer and game designer from our team, to talk about our upcoming Gear-VR game 'Romans 360'. The game will be among the first titles released on the Gear VR, and we've learned a lot about designing for VR while working on it (and on some other, soon-to-be-announced titles)
What is the process of porting a game to VR?
Elad: Well, not all games are good candidates for porting to VR. Out of current games, Romans from Mars was a natural candidate. The original game is, in a way, a first-person shooter - you stand in a fixed position and shoot at incoming enemies. The transition to VR is natural for it. Other games, in particular 2D or top-down games, obviously create more challenges for VR.
So it's just the POV?
Elad: The POV was what made us think of it as a candidate. Once we got into the nitty-gritty of taking Romans to VR, we realized we still had a lot to do. Our first big change was the controls - instead of tapping to shoot at specific points, we changed the aiming to be 'gaze controlled', and by doing we began to discover a lot about what works well in a VR game environment.
One of our biggest challenges was removing all HUD elements from the game. A traditional HUD overlayed on the screen doesn't work in VR - visually, it's disorienting when something is floating and "stuck" to your screen. Beyond the visual issue, though, it's also an immersion issue - VR gives us an unprecedented level of immersion, and we want to enhance it by having all game elements in the world itself. So, we changed all HUD info to be visually communicated in the world around you - your health is communicated by a flag on the wall and visual damage states, your mana is in a bottle, etc.
What about the classic red screen for damage?
Elad: Yeah, the classic bloody screen. We have a slight red flash, but I don't think you want an overlay staying on screen in VR, it's unpleasant. It also raises the question of "Why is my visor bloody if I just got shot in the foot?" It's harder to suspend your disbelief in VR, everything has to make sense within the world.
Can you share other ideas that might seem intuitive at first, but when tested in VR just don’t work?
Elad: We're working on several VR games and one thing you definitely don't want to do is forcefully and quickly move the user. It can create pretty severe disorientation.
So rail-shooters are a no-go?
Elad: Rail shooters are definitely possible! But under certain constraints – your movement can't be too fast, you need a fixed point of reference (i.e. – a gun, cockpit, something that lets you understand you are moving) and the movement itself should preferably be in a single axis. You wouldn’t want to move people in a non-natural way, suddenly doing a yaw movement (turning on the vertical axis) – can make the user very uncomfortable. If we forcefully move the user, we do it in relatively straight lines at fixed speed, and we help them understand where they are moving to using level design. Even in a standard FPS where you control the character, Half-Life for example – the designers still guide the user by using lighting, architecture, etc. You generally want the user to look toward where he is going, and maybe a bit to the sides. You don't want to create gameplay situations that force the user to move unnaturally. For example, if a ghost suddenly appears behind the user, and you want them to turn and face it, that's cool, but don't keep moving them forward while this is happening.
You also need to consider where the person will play the game. What we call "Couch mode". While some VR games are full 360 and can be played standing up, we also want to give players more relaxed experiences that can be played sitting down. If a person is sitting, you're limited by the fact that people can't turn their necks 360 degrees. At the most, you'll have 180 degrees of turning, and ideally you want a playable area of ~90 degrees, so people can keep their head facing mostly forward and enjoy themselves.
Doesn't that take away a lot of the VR feeling?
Elad: No, because the user is still fully immersed in 360 degrees. You don't leave a blank world behind them. You just focus the action in the 90 degrees in front of them. We still want players to experience the full 360 world, of course. In Romans, we have upgrade breaks. These serve two purposes: They let players rest a bit from the action, and they give them a chance to explore the arena. We enhance this exploration with a small "treasure hunt" mini-game. During upgrade breaks, players can look around to find treasures hidden all around them in 360 degrees - behind trees, above your castle wall, etc.
From a development point of view, how does making a VR game differ from non-VR games? One thing we discussed before is the difficulty in play-testing.
Elad: Yes, one of the things that are important to us when we develop games is to use a play-centric approach – we want to get the game to be playable as soon as possible, so we can test whether our assumptions regarding the gameplay are correct. You do that with two things – quick prototypes, and lots of play-testing. With VR we have two issues: One is a minor technical issue, and that's actually seeing what goes on inside the helmet while people are playing. You can't just look over a person's shoulder like in other games. Right now there's no way to output from the mobile (Gear VR) Oculus, but this will likely be solved soon. Even when testing with the original devkit, though, you have to sit a person down next to a monitor and complicated setup; you can't just hand it to someone on the street or in a convention. The bigger issue for playtesting is that VR games rely so much on immersion in the world, and as such, you have to have much more polished graphics when you test. In a mobile or PC game, you can test mechanics and feel using boxes on the screen, but in VR you need a lot more art before you can test on real people. The dev team can use their imagination while prototyping, but playtesters need a more complete experience, and that includes the feel of the world around them.
Would you say that for an indie developer it’s better to take an existing 3D experience and recreate it in VR?
Elad: I don't want to say that, no. There's definitely room for porting some existing games, but the new platform gives us so much power to create innovative experiences. I wouldn't advise people to limit themselves. We're working on a lot of brand new ideas for Oculus at Sidekick. We are very proud of Romans and what we have done with it, but we are also looking to test the limits and possibilities of this new field.
Fortunately we're living in a world where it's increasingly easier to create 3D worlds. My advice to small studios would be to ease their prototyping with things like the Unity asset store or other games' materials for prototyping. Use every trick you can to make the prototyping easy for you, but build a new experience. You don't have to make the whole game, just a small slice that feels good. It can be a single room, or even only part of the 360 space.
Romans 360 - we had a strong visual base to use for prototyping
Any other tips for developers working on their first VR games?
Elad: Well, one thing I forgot to mention - remember you don’t have the concept of ‘off-screen’ in VR – not visually, and not in level design. In games and other screen media things can come into view from "off-screen". Different game elements can pop in and fly out from off-screen, characters can exit off-camera, etc. In VR, you can't hide anything, the screen has no edges. If you want to preserve the immersion, you have to find some way to insert elements into the world in a way that makes sense. In Romans 360's case, enemies are dropped from UFOs that hover in the sky and do fly-bys around your castle. The upgrade menu is like a sudden "pit stop", with construction popping up around your wall and a team of engineers below the wall upgrading your ballista. You want the world to feel continuous and coherent.
What do you think the technology enables us, today, and developers still aren’t using?
Elad: I still don't see enough multiplayer experiences, which is a shame. Right now VR is kind of lonely. I'm sure we'll see online multiplayer soon, but what I really want to see is couch co-op in Oculus. Playing with friends is one of the biggest joys of gaming, but how do I interact with a friend in the same room when we're both in our own VR world? I can sort of envision different solutions to this - maybe each player is "blind" to something only the other can see, and they have to help each other. I can't wait to see what other people come up with.
Another thing that's currently not getting enough focus is the audio experience. The newest kit by Oculus has built-in headphones, and hopefully designers will start thinking of the complete immersive experience, which includes audio as well as visuals.
How about force-feedback? Gloves? Etc?
Elad: In general we don’t want to rely on peripherals if we can avoid them – the Gear VR really lowers the entry barrier for VR experiences. You put a phone inside, you put that on your head and that’s it, nice and simple. Of course, things like the Razer Hydra and the Omni treadmills can vastly improve a VR experience – but I think these things will still remain a niche and we can’t rely on them for VR to the masses.
VR to the masses – is that mobile only or PC?
Elad: I feel like the PC experience is still a bit gimmicky. You need expensive peripherals that tether you to your machine, and for things like shooters, VR makes the experience more clunky and doesn't really add fun. When you're used to quick and accurate mouse controls, separating the camera and mouse feels strange. If you're a hardcore pro gamer, the VR doesn't provide any competitive edge.
For me, VR is amazing for immersion and sensory experience. For horror or exploration games, the extra power of PC can give you better resolution, lighting and effects, but I think we're reaching a point where mobile devices have enough power for those things. For people looking for a sensory experience, the increased freedom and lower cost of entry on mobile are much more appealing. I think those are the early adopters that will really drive VR forward, and not just with games. One of the biggest selling points will be VR cinema. Very soon, the resolution will be high enough that you can get the experience of an IMAX theater in your pocket.
- Thank you Elad for this interview!
If you have any questions for Elad, he can be reached via [email protected].
Have fun developing VR games!