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Designing zero-gravity virtual reality in Adrift

Three One Zero discuss the challenges of designing a VR experience set in a gravity-free game environment.

Chris Kerr

December 18, 2015

5 Min Read

Three One Zero's sci-fi effort Adrift is one of the more interesting virtual reality titles currently in development. Designed to be a careful blend of exploration gameplay and spectacular cinematic moments ripped straight out of Hollywood blockbusters like Gravity, Adrift wants to do the impossible and send players into space using little more than a head-mounted display. 

It might be more cost effective than NASA's methods of launching humans into the void, but, according to Omar Aziz, technical director at Three One Zero, recreating space in VR isn't necessarily easier. 

The final frontier

"The easiest thing to do is start with 'real,'" begins Aziz, explaining how the team went about creating Zero-G space. "Modern game engines have physics systems, so if you think of gravity, it's a giant bitch, right? It's the thing that keeps us on the ground when all we want to do is blast off into space."

"You turn that off, and you put it in game engines that have physically realistic simulations and see what happens. Then you start to reign in the different aspects of that. After that, it really starts to evolve into a hybrid. I have control over this thing, but it's also bouncing around and reacting on its own."

When your game environment is the gravity-free void of space, and you're trying to convince players who have 360 degree freedom of movement that they're engulfed in chaos, world design is just as important as the physics themselves.

"Making the movement scheme wasn't hard; we were able to do that pretty quickly," continues Aziz."The challenge was in designing the levels themselves

"In outer space, once you've started moving you don't slow to a stop. How do we give the player control while also making them feel like they're in zero-G?  It's really just about uncertainty."

"It really becomes about finding the best geometry. That room with the cherry blossoms is a giant sphere room with this tree in the middle, in a column. It feels really good to move around that in a circle, and then you look around and see this tight corridor, and it feels really cool to go from that huge room to the small room, and feel like I have control over that."

"In outer space, once you've started moving you don't slow to a stop. How do we give the player control while also making them feel like they're in zero-G? It's really just about uncertainty."

Another problem unique to virtual reality, and, in particular, a first-person game that decides against planting player's feet firmly on the ground, is scale.

Houston, we have a problem

The problem with scale in VR, says Aziz, stems from the fact that players are actually inhabiting a world, and can analyze every aspect of their environment from almost any angle.                       

"Scale is still the big challenge, because we don't have a floor, and because the player doesn't have their feet on the ground, we can cheat a lot with scale," offers Aziz.

"A lot of our pieces are actually quite huge if you'd stand a human next to them, but when you're floating through space and tumbling, it turns out these things are all in your own relative scale. 

"Looking through the headset, how big is a door frame? When I stand in my door frame I don't think about it, but in game if a player does that and the frame seems really huge, it can become a problem."

Of all the hurdles VR development presents, the problem of motion sickness is still the most talked about. 

To combat that now infamous issue, Aziz says the team actively broached the subject with those at demo sessions to better understand the problem and ensure it wouldn't sink the game when it finally hits shelves.

"We demoed the game a lot, and we knew that there'd be a risk of that. So, instead of ignoring it, we broached the subject and tried to figure out how to counteract that," explains Aziz. 

"When you hit things [in the game] you still get that nauseous reaction, but we scale it off very quickly to avoid making someone sick. We don;t have any moments where you could just spin indefinitely either, because that's just not fun whether you're in a headset or not. 

"VR is more than a peripheral, it's less than a console, but it's got more potential than any piece of hardware that's come out in our time."

"I think it's been very amazing, and there'll be a lot made of what makes people comfortable or uncomfortable in VR, but I think a lot less people will experience discomfort than you think."

One giant leap

That challenge, according to Aziz, is finding the determination to take chances, and push the hardware to its limits. "The one thing I've learned from this process is to take risks, right. It's a new piece of hardware. It's more than a peripheral, it's less than a console, but it's got more potential than any piece of hardware that's come out in our time," concludes Aziz. 

"We could made that argument for a lot of different things, but for me, as a game developer, I think it has the potential to do great things, but if people aren't willing to take risks with it we'll never truly see what VR can be."

About the Author(s)

Chris Kerr

News Editor, GameDeveloper.com

Game Developer news editor Chris Kerr is an award-winning journalist and reporter with over a decade of experience in the game industry. His byline has appeared in notable print and digital publications including Edge, Stuff, Wireframe, International Business Times, and PocketGamer.biz. Throughout his career, Chris has covered major industry events including GDC, PAX Australia, Gamescom, Paris Games Week, and Develop Brighton. He has featured on the judging panel at The Develop Star Awards on multiple occasions and appeared on BBC Radio 5 Live to discuss breaking news.

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