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Cameras, HUDs and WTF: Improving the usability of your next VR game

XEODesign founder Nicole Lazzaro took the stage at VRDC in San Francisco today to share some key lessons he and her team have learned about creating usable, approachable VR games.

Alex Wawro, Contributor

November 2, 2016

7 Min Read

XEODesign founder Nicole Lazzaro has a long history in the game industry, one that’s taken her through a variety of projects and led her to codify design theories like the “4 Keys to Fun.”

Now she’s the lead engineer on a VR game, Follow the White Rabbit (pictured), and at VRDC in San Francisco today she took the stage to share some of the lessons she and her team have learned about creating usable, approachable VR experiences. It was more of a quick overview than a deep dive into any one tactic, but VR devs may find even this excerpts useful as they continue to explore how to make VR games that are both immersive and fun to play.

“As amazing as the technology is, it can’t guarantee the fun,” says Lazzaro. XEODesign has spent a significant amount of time studying how and why people play VR games -- and one of the chief takeaways is that most people don’t want to play in VR for more than about 15 minutes. The first thing you have ot understand about VR, according to Lazzaro, is that it’s "hot" -- It engages people very strongly on a very deep, emotive level.

“It’s really in the basal brain, it’s in that center brain,” says Lazzaro. “The emotions in VR are deeper, stronger, more personal than anything we’ve worked with.”

She cautions that it's easy to forget that in VR, even something as simple as depth can significantly impact a player's experience in your game. If you don't take advantage of depth -- if, for example, you make a VR game where everything takes place at the same distance from the player -- then you're failing to use a big tool in your game design toolbox.

“I argue further that if you can’t play your game with just the depth map on...then you don’t have a real VR experience,” adds Lazzaro, who went on to run down five top-level things to pay attention to if you want to make sure your egame is approachable and fun.

Be careful how you move the camera

Lazzaro strongly cautions that VR devs not attempt to put a follow-camera in their first VR game.

It’s very easy to make players really nauseous with a behind-the-back follow cam, so trying to do third-person games with such a setup is tricky. Instead, what she recommends you try is something like an external frame camera -- a camera that rests outside the play area and allows the player to move their head to look around the scene.

In the movie Jaws, she suggests, you can look at the ferry scene -- where the camera appears to be attached to the rail of the ferry, watching actors talk while the background shifts around behind them -- for some good inspiration on how to design a good external frame camera system for your game.

But what about if you want to do a first-person view in VR? “Slow motion, or bullet time, is also another great way to move the camera” if you want to minimize player discomfort, says Lazzaro. She also suggests you look at the way Ubisoft’s Eagle Flight cuts out the player’s peripheral vision as they fly faster and faster for a good example of how you can allow players to move quickly through an environment without making them sick.

HUDs are typically bad news

Lazzaro echoes the common concern that user interface design for VR games is "really, really hard" and suggests VR devs having trouble with UI design in VR look to examples like Northway and Radial Games' Fantastic Contraption or Owlchemy Labs' Job Simulator.

Those games succeed where most VR games fail because, in both cases, “the world is your UI,” says Lazzaro. “The interface is just your two hands, and then the world is your UI.”

If you can't get away with that and absolutely have to design a UI for your game, Lazzaro recommends you try something like Defense Grid 2, where the UI “pops” out of objects in the game. That makes it easier on the eyes, and more immersive. It also helps if you color-code UI, she adds, so it stands out cleanly from the rest of the world.

You should also “design for gaze” -- that is, always be thinking about how your player will be moving their head, and design around that. This is a small thing, but it's easy to forget that camera movement in VR often isn't tied to a finger moving an analog stick -- it's someone actually cranking their neck all around.

Looking up and down a lot is hard on the neck, so Lazzaro suggests devs try to avoid vertical motion in your game’s “core loop.” Looking side to side isn’t great either, but she says it's easier on the player than the up/down movement.

And if you can pull it off, allowing for variable depths in your UI and a 3D cursor (if you have a cursor at all) helps sell the depth effect in your game, potentially making players feel more immersed in the experience.

If you're going to copy an established game idea, make sure to tweak it to be fun in VR

As the VR game industry matures, a lot of developers are experimenting with bringing established game designs (tower defense, for example, or first-person combat) into VR. 

“We really shouldn't clone gameplay,” says Lazzaro. “But if we have to, there are things to think about.”

So if that's something you're doing, Lazzaro suggests you first answer a simple question: Where’s the fun? She says a lot of VR game makers don’t always remember to ask themselves WTF -- and if you’re struggling to answer the question, she of course suggests you read up on her “4 Keys 2 Fun” model.

“You can be inspired by your clone target, but don’t actually clone,” she adds.

VR creates strong emotions, so use that - respectfully

“VR can create some really strong emotions, and that’s great,” says Lazzaro “But we want to do that carefully.”

She suggests a lot of VR’s design challenges are easier to approach if designers are canny about their player’s emotions. 

“Emotion polarity is a prety powerful concept, in that emotions really have a polarity -- they either come into the body or push out,” says Lazzaro. Anger and disgust, in her eyes, ripple outward -- they can drive a player in your game to push the headset up off their head and away from their body.

The most dangerous emotion, in her eyes, is disgust -- triggered by bad motion, “uncanny valley” effects, and also just run-of-the-mill disgusting things like gore and violence.

But emotions like curiosity and wonder pull in -- they can drive your player to immerse themselves in your game more deeply, and spend more time exploring its world. This is sort of vague, high-level design thinking, but Lazzaro thinks that keeping it in mind can help VR game designers (and presumably, game makers in general) create better games.

Be careful about how you use audio

XEODesign has been working with partners to experiment with how audio affects people in VR, and Lazzaro says the findings suggest sound can be a powerful tool in a VR game designer's kit -- if they use it appropriately.

“We want to pull people into the scene, we don’t want to pull them away,” says Lazzaro. “So instead we want to push out -- we want to design all the audio to sound like it’s coming from outside the body, from somewhere in the room.”

What she seems to mean is that when designing sound for your next VR game, you should remember that players are meant to feel embodied within the world to a far greater degree than traditional video games. So, for example, players moving through a virtual space should feel like sounds are coming from within the space itself. You want to use positional audio, and you want to use it in such a way that a player will never feel like the sound is coming from somewhere it shouldn't -- like within their body, for example, if they happen to move into the sound's origin point.

Also, "make sure you sue it to communicate depth," says Lazzaro. “We want to spatialize it, in a way -- we put in reverb to make it sound better, but the reverb actually contains information," she says. 

Like every other aspect of your game's design, "you want to be sure you’re using that information to pull people into your world."

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