Q&A: Bethesda opens up about Fallout 4 VR and the plunge into VR game dev

Fallout 4 VR is out today, and here lead producer Andrew Scharf chats with Gamasutra about the ups and downs of making Bethesda's big, sprawling games accessible to players in VR. 

The folks at Bethesda released Fallout 4 VR today, completing the triptych of virtual reality experiences (alongside Skyrim VR and Doom VFR) that they've spent the past month putting together.

As devs around the industry continue to experiment with and evaluate the possibilities of VR games, it's interesting to study how a company steeped in first-person experiences (going all the way back to Future Shock) is trying to adapt them for VR headsets. 

To help shed some light on the topic, Gamasutra had a quick back-and-forth over email (reproduced below) with Bethesda Game Studios' Andrew Scharf.

He's credited as lead producer on both Skyrim VR and the newly-released Fallout 4 VR, and in our brief conversation he opened up a bit about the ups and downs of making those big, sprawling games accessible to players in VR. 

What were the most challenging aspects of getting this game comfortably playable in VR? 

Scharf: Our biggest challenge and our highest priority was player comfort. Like Skyrim VR, Fallout 4 VR is the first true, full-length open world game offering hundreds of locations, characters, and quests.  We needed to figure out the best ways to display important gameplay systems like inventory, dialogue, crafting, and combat while still keeping the player fully immersed and comfortable.

On the design side, there were several aspects from Fallout 4 that made perfect sense, like allowing the player to feel like they are actually wearing the wrist-mounted Pip-Boy by attaching it to one of the Vive controllers. We also reimagined combat systems like V.A.T.S. where in the original game, a player could queue up shots and then a playback camera would trigger.

In VR, we keep camera movement fully in the player’s control so instead of independent playback cameras, players can move around and look around in real time while they aim and fire their weapons.

Also, on the technical side, we had to improve resource utilization to minimize instances of dropped frames as we knew performance issues in VR can lead to discomfort and break player immersion.

What, specifically, did you do to minimize dropped frames? Did you have to make trade-offs to minimize player discomfort, and if so, how did you decide what to change? 

There were some jobs that had a maximum length to avoid taking long frames, and we worked to reduce that length due to the fact that our target performance goal was 90hz.  Overall, we mainly just tried to ensure each frame spent as little time as possible across the board.

So how does thinking in VR change your approach to game design, if at all? 

We found that players would tend to look at their hands often while aiming a gun, or as a palette when using workshop mode so it was important to use opportunities like that to find places that made sense for certain UI elements to live.

We wanted to make sure we didn’t have too much information anchored on the screen at all times because the player can feel claustrophobic surrounded by the UI.  To solve this, we attached a "Tactical HUD" to the player's weapon hand which displays context specific information that the player would care about while in combat, like health, radiation exposure (RADS), action points, and throwable items like grenades.

We had some fun playing around with player height for certain aspects - for the Power Armor, we scale the player so that they feel larger and more powerful.  Also for players who want to feel more immersed can toggle an option with sneaking where you can physically crouch in order to sneak, versus pressing a button.

Why did you choose to implement the specific movement schemes you did (including direct movement and teleportation), and how did you tune them for player comfort?

We wanted to provide options for people who tend to get nauseated with artificial locomotion as well as people who want higher levels of immersion.  Additionally, our teleportation is more of a quick warp to a defined location rather than a blink to help maintain a sense of presence when traversing the huge world.  

As devs, what's the appeal (technical, creative, financial, etc) of porting these established games to VR?

As a studio, we’ve always dreamed of bringing our worlds to VR. The worlds that we create in our games - whether that’s the vast icy vistas of Skyrim or the expansive destroyed beauty of the wasteland in Fallout 4 -  where you can “be anyone and do anything” are already highly immersive and bringing them to VR takes that immersion to the ultimate level. 

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