7 tips for VR game designers, from Google's Noah Falstein

Today Falstein came to VRDC to share what he’s learned about the many ways VR confounds traditional design expectations. His top lesson? We don't know enough -- so go out there and learn, then share!

Noah Falstein currently serves as chief game designer at Google, where's he had a hand in the company's ongoing efforts to sort out games in various formats -- including mobile VR headsets like Google's Cardboard and Daydream View. 

That's why he showed up at the Virtual Reality Developers Conference today: to give a talk on VR design lessons learned. But as most developers know (and as Falstein himself pointed out early on), his history in the game industry stretches back quite a ways, encompassing a significant stint at LucasArts.

“The most important thing I’ve found from my history is that, in the early days...there was a lot of experimentation going on,” said Falstein, reflecting on lessons he’d learned working alongside prominent filmmakers like George Lucas at LucasArts in the ‘80s. “Learning to open your mind about a medium, seeing what does and doesn’t push it forward, is really important if you’re going to advance it.”

To provide context, Falstein pointed out that while the term “virtual reality” was coined in 1987 by Jaron Lanier, what it describes -- the concept of being immersed in a different reality -- has been part of human culture for far longer.

“Certainly there was some point, not so very far distant in our past, where people were sitting around campfires...and swapping stories,” said Falstein. “That kind of information-sharing was really what kept people alive….in many ways, speech was our very first virtual reality.”

His argument then is that what ties humans together -- communication -- is sharing realities. That’s where art and technology springs from, in Falstein’s eyes: humans relentlessly seek out “new techniques and conventions” for sharing realities with each other, from painting to writing to theater to games.

But design lessons learned from earlier technologies don’t necessarily work in VR, something Falstein is familiar with given his role as chief game designer at Google, a company that’s been experimenting with VR and AR for years.

So today Falstein came to VRDC to share what he’s learned about some of the many ways VR confounds traditional design expectations. They're simple learnings, but interesting in light of how much they emphasize neuroscientific findings and the necessity of adapting your ideal design to the realities of whatever VR/AR headsets and interfaces you're targeting.


If you don’t get the visuals in your VR game right, says Falstein -- if it doesn’t look like the real world -- you can easily make players sick. You want to get things like the convergence/divergence in your game right so that your player perspective in VR matches up with what their eyes would see in real life.

You also want to try and get textures to look right -- to blur correctly at distance, for example.

“There are all these different things to get right,” said Falstein. “Specular reflection off of moving surfaces….lots and lots of things that you can get wrong. And I’m not saying that you need to get everything right….we’re constantly racing to try and find a way between the best image possible while also getting it out there as quickly and efficiently as possible.”

And remember: There can be almost 80 milliseconds of delay between when a VR user moves their head and when their eyes see the corresponding movement in a VR headset, something Falstein says designers should be aware of because it can be a bit long.


“One of the interesting things I’ve found about presence, that’s been true in the games industry and the movie industry, is that when something’s new there’s this tendency to try and explain it. And we don’t need to explain it,” says Falstein. “Just do it, and people will accept it.”


“Having something staring at you really gets you, on a really basic level,” says Falstein, noting how neuroscientists have found that being stared at can really unsettle people -- even if (or especially if) the thing doing the staring isn't human.


And as you might expect, the player’s gaze is extra-important to design around when you’re working in VR, because it plays such a key role in immersing them in your game.

Falstein notes that neuroscientistific studies have shown what many people intuitively know: sounds are more unsettling and scary when they come from behind you, for example. Characters are easier to empathize with when your eyes are behind theirs. Use this to your advantage, and think of ways to give players space to immerse themselves in your game: One example, says Falstein, is that if you want to give players a side-on 2D perspective on a building, you could place them in the shoes of a watcher moving outside and looking in through the lit-up windows.


“We found that with Cardboard….you really have to design to the control interface you have,” says Falstein. “And there were so many simple things that were forced to be simple.”

“Having a set of interfaces matched to the controls that you have is really essential,” says Falstein. “Think about this as you aim at a specific, or even a very general set of VR and AR headsets and controllers out there.”


One of the things that makes people uncomfortable about VR, says Falstein, is the fact that players can look anywhere.

“Don’t be afraid of that,” he added. Forcing a player’s perspective is bad news; it can make people sick and is a warning flag of bad design.

“Using light and sound, for example, to direct people to where you’d like them to look is one of the critical things,” says Falstein. The key is to entice the player’s eyes, rather than force them somewhere.


“One of the things that was great about the early '80s, that we’re seeing happen again now in a really big way, is that people are trying new things,” says Falstien. “We need to go out there, and I hope that all of you share whatever you find….tell us about what works, and most importantly, tell us about what doesn’t.”

His final thought? Read up on neuroscience. Get out there and learn more about how our eyes and ears work, how people experience and process the world.

“It’s bound to give you ideas that will help you with VR,” says Falstein. “Then come back, and share them.”

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