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The Virtual Tabletop

"Virtual tabletop" games are a surprisingly natural fit for VR.
Virtual reality is on the horizon. With the Oculus Rift, Gear VR, Morpheus, and Vive, VR is finally getting close to a full consumer release. Meanwhile, VR game devs (like me) are frantically trying to figure out what this newfangled tech is good for.
One of our most interesting decisions is choosing the basic format and camera perspective for our games. We already know that standard FPS-style first-person controls are a nightmare; the artificial locomotion makes almost everyone sick. So what else can we try?
Some developers are moving towards a 3rd-person format, with gentle camera movement and a separate player avatar (like Insomniac’s Edge of Nowhere). Other devs are putting the player in a cockpit (EVE: Valkyrie), moving the camera on rails (The Walking Dead VR), or keeping the player stationary (Sightline: The Chair). Developers have also been experimenting with linear point-to-point movement (Land’s End), teleportation (AltspaceVR), or more wild and ambitious motion (Windlands). Chris Suellentrop wrote a good report on some of these approaches on Kotaku.
The virtual tabletop is another option, and I think it has a lot of points in its favor. The basic idea is to miniaturize the game and condense it into a small area close to the player. Games like Scorched Battalion and Skyworld are good examples. (This format doesn’t literally have to include a table; you can imagine, say, a miniaturized 3D space battle game that follows the same principles.) This might seem odd at first, especially if you’re used to thinking about non-VR games. Why constrain the play space to such a small area? But there’s a good answer.
A lot of the advantages of this format are specific to VR. With any new platform, you want your game to emphasize the platform’s strengths and hide its weaknesses. Locomotion is a big weakness in VR: artificial movement is never going to feel natural, even if you add a cockpit or use other tricks. With a virtual tabletop game, the player doesn’t need to be artificially moved around. And what about the platform’s strengths? VR’s 3D presentation feel much cooler when you’re looking at small nearby objects, since 3D cues like convergence and motion parallax are much more powerful at short distances, so tabletop games have a natural advantage.
I’ve been testing out this format with my most recent VR demo, Tactera, a simple RTS game that takes place on a sci-fi holotable. So far, it seems promising. It feels particularly cool to lean into the middle of the action, with tanks rolling beneath you, bombers flying overhead, and artillery shells whizzing by.

As I’ve worked on Tactera, I’ve stumbled on some other advantages. Since most of the content takes place in front of a player, it doesn’t require the player to constantly spin around to find the action. But if you’re lucky enough to have a large tracking volume, the format is able to accommodate you. Imagine a tabletop game with the HTC Vive, where the player has a room-sized area to explore. You could allow the player to walk all around the table, or you could expand the size of the gameplay area to take up the whole room. (I’m reeeally looking forward to trying this out with Tactera. Dear Valve, please send a dev kit!) If you want to put your game on an AR platform as well, it's hard to imagine an easier type of game to port. You could be playing on your actual tabletop!
It’s also easy to imagine incorporating multiplayer into this format. The other player can sit across the table, puppeteered in real time by their actual head movements. 
There are downsides, of course. It can be difficult to settle on the exact dimensions and position of the table or gameplay area, for instance. If it’s too small or large, high or low, near or far, it can be uncomfortable for the player or make interaction more difficult. Positional tracking helps a lot, but if that’s not available (as with the Gear VR or Google Cardboard), you may have a problem.
Controls are also a question mark. Depending on the particular VR hardware, players might have a couple of buttons, a gamepad, or full motion controls. Developers will likely need to adjust the dimensions and presentation of the gameplay depending on the controls available, and some will ultimately be more comfortable than others. For Tactera, I’ve been using simple gaze-based selection controls. That’s good enough for now, but I don’t know how much the game will need to change to take full advantage of motion controls.
Of course, I’m not arguing that all VR games should adopt a virtual tabletop format. It certainly won’t work for every type of game. In the end, it’s a design choice like any other, and I’m looking forward to playing VR games with all kinds of perspectives and camera schemes. 
But I do think that the virtual tabletop is a surprisingly natural fit for VR. With Tactera, it worked well enough for me to start production on a full version of the game. So if you’re brainstorming VR game ideas, keep the tabletop in mind!

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