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How Playful is mapping the frontier of VR game development

How Playful is mapping the frontier of VR game development

November 4, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

November 4, 2014 | By Alex Wawro
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More: Console/PC, Design, GDC Next



The field of VR game development is growing fast, and Lucky's Tale developer Playful Corp is getting a lot of attention for its twist on the form.

The Texas-based company was founded in 2012 and signed a partnership with Oculus VR soon after to develop VR games. Speaking at GDC Next today, Playful design director Dan Hurd compared the feeling of agreeing to develop a VR game to a "deer in the headlights" moment as the team realized that they had no established body of development wisdom to draw from.

So Playful sought solace in the success of Wii Sports, another novel game concept designed around untested hardware. They also began rapidly prototyping to figure out what could work in VR, developing 30 or more VR game prototypes in three months.

Hurd noted that Playful noticed a similar pattern between Lucky’s Tale and its earlier work developing Words With Friends when the mobile game market was just starting to explode.

The unique demands of the iPhone ecosystem – touch interaction, very brief gameplay sessions, and the like – reminded them of the unique problems they were discovering in VR game development.

Learning VR game development through trial and error

“Your ability to look at things and use your head as a very high-fidelity controller is an example,” said Hurd, with a rueful laugh. Though it seems silly, Playful discovered that using natural head movements as control input was indescribably satisfying.

“What if your face is a wok? What if it’s a hammer? That’s just kind of what our development process turned into for a while,” joked Bettner.

The team also began experimenting with the inter-pupilary distance -- the virtual space between the two cameras which act as your eyes in a VR game. Oculus' initial developer guides warned game makers against messing with the IPD settings ("they said don't touch this, it does bad things," said Bettner) but Playful did anyway; they discovered that changing the distance between your virtual eyes is a great way to make players feel like they’re growing or shrinking.

“You don’t even notice it – just suddenly you’re like ‘whoa, I’m huge now!’” added Bettner.

And according to Hurd, it doesn’t really provoke any additional nausea. Thus, the perceived size of Lucky and his relationship to the player is decided by Playful’s manipulation of the IPD.

"We actually changed the IPD so that your eyes are like, eight feet part,” said Bettner. The end result is that Lucky -- who had initially been much closer to human-sized -- "shrunk down so that he seemed to be in arm’s reach, almost like you could reach out and pet him.”

Bettner claims that during Playful’s research into human perception, they found that humans often unconsciously pay more attention and take objects more seriously when they’re within arm’s reach.

Playful shrank the levels down to match, and as a side benefit Lucky’s movement slowed from five miles an hour to roughly five inches an hour. That slowed the tagalong camera down, smoothing it out as it follows Lucky through each level and making the game much more comfortable to play in VR.

In fact, it's worth noting that Hurd admitted Playful had to commit early on to sacrificing design elements in the interests of making VR games as comfortable as possible. “If we don’t buckle down and commit to comfort, we can make people extremely sick – and then their first Rift experience could be their last.”

First-person games might not be the best fit for VR

He noted that lots of things that work well in 2D game development fall flat in 3D; user interface design is hard, throwing objects away from the camera tends to look silly, cutscenes are a challenge and -- perhaps most surprising -- first-person gameplay feels remarkably fake in VR.

“The DK1 has its flaws that make it uncomfortable, but it was more than that. For me anyway, first-person is the most tantalizing thing that sounds like it will work in virtual reality, but doesn’t,” said Bettner.

“I think first-person is a bit of an uncanny valley in virtual reality; the closer we try to get to simulating things that look realistic and correct in virtual reality,” at least with today’s technology, “the more our brain rebels.”

Bettner suggests that trying to solve that problem is wasting resources that developers could use to try and produce new VR experiences, like strategy games, space games – and platformers.

“We found a way to sidestep the uncanny valley: by making a third-person platformer that’s comfortable to play for hours,” said Bettner. The game was one of many VR prototypes Playful built; when Oculus asked them produce a full game for the Rift, the Lucky’s Tale prototype seemed like the best bet.

Bettner posits that third-person platformers are actually better in VR, because “it’s like we’ve taken all the camera controls and angles and offloaded that to your brain, where it comes naturally."

“Just think of the last 3D platformer you played on a 2D screen,” added Hurd. “You’re clinging to those character shadows to know where you’re going to land; in VR, you can rely on your own natural sense of depth perception for that.”

There's still lots more to discover

Bettner referenced Valve’s Half-Life 2 multiple times throughout his talk, citing the game’s ability to provoke an emotional attachment to your sidekick Alyx as direct inspiration for making Lucky look at the player and occasionally wave at them.

“The moment Lucky’s wave at you is so magical, and we catch people – like, every third person – waving back,” added Hurd. Since your head is within the game, the character’s in-game emotes feel much more "real."

“It creates a sense of connection, like we’re partners and we’re cooperating here,” said Bettner. “And we discovered that almost by accident.”

That's perhaps the biggest thing that developers should take away from Playful's experiences: VR game development is being figured out through trial and error, and there's still lots of uncharted territory waiting to be discovered.

"Real-time strategy games, god games… there’s just so much more here for us to figure out," said Bettner. "When people were first starting to work with film, they tried to film plays because that’s what they knew; it was only when pioneers stepped away from that, that we began to discover and write the rules of film."

You can catch up on Gamasutra's GDC Next coverage all in one location. GDC and Gamasutra are sibling organizations under parent UBM Tech.


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