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Advice on making believable VR games, from a Sony Morpheus dev

At GDC Europe today, SCEE's John Foster shared advice for fellow devs on making believable, enjoyable VR games based on his experiences crafting Project Morpheus demos like The London Heist.

Sony Computer Entertainment Europe is, by virtue of association, one of the leading authorities in VR game design right now. 

SCEE was one of the first studios to get involved with the Project Morpheus headset, over two years ago, and is best known now for producing high-profile Morpheus demos like The London Heist and The Deep. At GDC Europe today, SCEE's John Foster shared some advice for fellow game makers on making believable, enjoyable VR experiences.

The key to compelling VR game design, says Foster, is fostering immersion. You have to fool a player’s subconscious into thinking “yes, this is real,” and you have to keep that illusion going for as long as possible. A good way to start, while VR game development is still young, is to focus on making one specific action or experience feel really good in VR.

"Do one thing well is a good place to start," says Foster. That's what SCEE tried to do with The Deep, building a demo to sell VR as a concept around the act of sitting in a cage underwater and looking at fish. It's more fun than it sounds, says Foster, thanks to the innate appeal of VR.

“Things you think are vaguely fun can be spectacularly fun in VR,” says Foster. “Im not saying our mission as VR game developers is to go forth and create vaguely fun VR activities,” but it’s important to remember that VR game design doesn't need to be super-complex and bombastic to capture players' attention; it just needs to feel real.

If players are fully immersed, they will follow the physical rules of your world

A nice benefit of VR game design, says Foster, is that players who are immersed an experience tend to instinctively abide by limitations as though it was real life. 

Foster says SCEE witnessed this phenomenon multiple times while designing Morpheus demos, noting that players tend to do things like lay a virtual pistol on a virtual table when they’re done using it instead of simply dropping it on the floor.

As a game designer, this behavior can free you from having to worry about perfectly recreating the real world; once an experience is immersive enough, suggests Foster, players’ own subconscious imagination will fill out the rest and make them feel like they’re having a real experience.

Immersion comes from continuity, not complexity

“Less is more,” warns Foster. “It’s a cliche, but it’s still very true, particularly with VR.” says Foster. An early mistake SCEE made in designing the Heist demo for Morpheus was assuming that immersion requires complex simulation. As a result, the team wasted a lot of time trying to figure out how to render a believable in-game avatar with fully realized arms, legs, feet, etc. 

But when the team tried to streamline its design and began rendering the player as a pair of disembodied leather gloves floating in space, it worked out much better. People seem to project themselves into abstractions, says Foster, and that tendency helped players feel more immersed in the Heist — so much so that they would often get into trouble in real life by physically trying to duck behind a virtual desk to avoid virtual gunfire.

A similar situation occurred during development of The Deep. An early version of the demo included a full-body avatar (players could look down and see virtual feet, for example) because SCEE designers assumed it would make the game more immersive. But rendering that avatar realistically became extremely difficult when the team added in more graphically complex sequences, and so they experimented with removing it entirely just before taking the demo to a trade show.

The result? “Nobody noticed,” says Foster. “Abstract representation maintains immersion extremely well,” but it’s counter-intuitive and so many VR developers only figure it out through trial and error.

Use helper systems to bridge the gap between expectation and interaction

Another problem you face in designing immersive VR experiences is input limitations; you have to reconcile what players can actually do with their controllers with what they feel like they should be able to do in the virtual reality. SCEE’s VR design is constrained by the limited input options of the Move controller, and Foster says the team adapted to this by designing “helper” systems 

For example, in the Heist demo, the player isn’t an expert gunfighter — but they’re meant to be. So SCEE designers needed to figure out how to make reloading a handgun, something straightforward but totally foreign to most people, feel smooth and doable.

When players of The London Heist bring a magazine up to the bottom of the pistol grip, the game runs a check to see if the gun is empty, then automatically guide the magazine into the pistol and regulate the speed at which it gets loaded into the gun.

In real life this would be complete nonsense, but in a VR game it works; players subconsciously accept the help because, says Foster, they want to believe that they're rough-and-tumble gunfighters. That's the greatest takeaway from SCEE's work: that creating immersion isn't really a question of replicating real life perfectly, but of abstracting it out in a believable way so that your players instinctively fill in the gaps.

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