5 game design rules to unlearn when working in VR

Minority Media's Patrick Harris is coming to grips with VR game design as he works on the VR-only Time Machine, and at Oculus Connect today he shared 5 examples of the critical lessons he's learned.

Game designers know that the process of game design is inherently fraught with failure. No one has made a game that was perfect at conception.

Patrick Harris, designer at Papo & Yo developer Minority Media, is currently designing the VR-only game Time Machine (pictured above.) At Oculus Connect in Hollywood today, he had some good news: In VR design, you’ll be failing in whole new ways!

“I was completely wrong about how prepared I was to make a VR game,” he admitted.

Harris, who comes from a decade of making non-VR video games, said people like him need to un-learn some of the most established game design rules. After noting that he knows more about failure in VR than succeeding, he went over five game design rules to un-learn.

Un-rule: Targeting

Targeting as a shooting mechanic might be one of the most refined mechanics in game design, said Harris. But in VR, Harris said he screwed up that fundamental mechanic.

“I went into [Time Machine] to shoot something, and it totally sucked,” he said. He had attempted to use a small reticule as in traditional 3D-rendered games. But the issue was that when you put that reticule over each eye in a stereoscopic VR display, each eye is focused on two different reticules, and two different targets. It was impossible to hit anything.

“Having a fixed iron site-style reticule will not work. Your eyes will unfocus,” and players won’t be able to hit anything, he said. Instead, for Time Machine the better (but he admits not perfect for every game) solution was to emulate a holographic tube as a targeting mechanism.

Un-rule: Controls

Harris also noted that with traditional gamepads (Time Machine is gamepad-controlled), on occasion, players will want to look down at their controller. Of course, that doesn’t work in VR, because you have a VR mask strapped to your head.

“We need to step up how we even show our controls to people,” he said. Time Machine currently uses floating diagrams in VR, but Harris said that there’s probably a better solution to that.

Un-rule: HUDs

“There are no corners of the screen when you put on an Oculus Rift!” Harris reminded. “That’s not a location that exists.”

That causes an issue for the way traditional games use HUDs to convey information to players. Designers need to think of ways to address this area.

“You need to realize that anything in the ‘corner’ is actually [the player’s] peripheral vision.” He said, unfortunately, people don’t really pay attention to their peripheral vision in games. And in reality, there’s only a very small area of the screen that players can really see or pay attention to. “You need to keep everything right in [that small space].”

Un-rule: Learning rate

“Playing games in VR really changes something about how players learn how to play our games,” Harris said. “Players learn fast [in VR], way faster than what I’m used to seeing them learn. … They learn in a completely different way.”

This caused various problems in the design of Time Machine, and Harris warned that designers need to take this into consideration and find suitable solutions.

Unrule: Forced attention

You can’t force a player to look at something cool in VR, or else you make them nauseous. For example, there was one moment that Harris wanted players to see: a huge underwater dinosaur eat a sea turtle. But players missed that half the time.

“There’s nothing 100 percent in terms of directing the players’ attention… you can’t grab the player’s face. … You need to accept the fact that not every single player is going to see all the cool stuff you want them to, all the time.”

“You need to tie your gameplay mechanics to getting the player to look where you want to,” he said.

You’re gonna fail, but that’s okay!

“Every single one of those rules you have is up for debate and discussion when it comes to VR," Harris added. "Be ready to fail hard at the fundamentals of game design.”

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