The world is the genre: How devs can make more meaningful VR/MR games

At VRDC Fall 2017, XEODesign chief and game designer Nicole Lazzaro outlines possible futures for VR/AR/MR games -- and walks devs through what they can expect to do to get there.

Where do we go from here?

It was a common topic of conversation at VRDC Fall 2017 in San Francisco this week, as developers and other industry types try to suss out what the future holds for virtual- and augmented-reality experiences.

XEODesign chief and game designer Nicole Lazzaro tackled the topic in a talk at the show about what the future looks like for mixed-reality, outlining a number of possible futures and walking devs through what they can expect to do to get there.

“I believe that where we are now is not where we’re going to be...we’re going to have whole new genres come out of this thing we call virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality,” she said. “As designers, it’s our job to think about where we’re going.”

Lazzaro is currently working on the VR game Follow the White Rabbit (pictured), so it's fitting that she compared virtual reality experiences to “taking a trip down the rabbit hole to explore Wonderland." With that in mind, she encouraged fellow developers to view mixed-reality experience design as the future of this technology: the point after we grow comfortable with virtual reality and augmented reality and blend the two, in terms of both technology and design.

Her talk was full of interesting suggestions, including five techniques game designers can use when creating mixed-reality spaces intended to have strong, meaningful narratives.

“I want narrative spaces to do one thing: give me the feels,” she said. “I want to feel amazed and connected to my friends, for more than 15 minutes.”

For Lazzaro, a "narrative space' is basically any space that evokes a series of emotions. Referencing her famous “4 Keys 2 Fun” philosophy of game design, she encouraged developers to try and make mixed-reality games that encourage serious fun, hard fun, fun with people -- anything beyond easy fun, which refers to the sort of approachable 15-minute games that VR/MR designers are already doing well.

“In the MR space, most games only deliver one: easy fun,” she said. “It’s a great experience, but then you don’t have a reason to go back there again.”

The world is your genre

If you want to get to a point where the players of your VR/MR game are coming back for more, over and over again, you need to design a world with both breadth and depth.

“The world itself is the genre,” said Lazzaro. “And interaction with the world is the game.”

She predicts a future where mixed-reality game design heavily involves players interacting and playing within an environment that tells its own story. As an example, she references how the fictional Star Trek Holodeck tech fills an empty room with highly-detailed scenes, places the characters spend as much time exploring and interacting with as they do traversing.

That may not be technically feasible now, says Lazzaro, but it's something game designers should be moving towards now if they want to be making more meaningful VR/MR games.  

Gameplay is all about depth -- literally

“If you can’t play your game with a depth map alone, just with the depth, then you really don’t have a virtual- or mixed-reality game,” said Lazzaro. “If all of your action is in 2D, that’s great, but it doesn't need to be in VR an it's not going to be new or interesting.”

This may seem obvious, but Lazzaro cautioned that most game designers are instinctively used to designing within the bounds of flat screens. From her perspective we still haven’t fully explored what we can do when everyone has easy, convenient access to depth as a game design tool, and designers should be exploring that axis now.

To use depth in a meaningful way, she said, you want to think about making things that nest or interlock; things that open and close, or nestle within each other.

This encourages to players to reach in and play with things in your world -- and of course, that means you have to make sure those objects are well-made and stand up to close scrutiny, since players will want to pull them close and look at them. 

Progress through the world can be your game's story

“If the world is changing as you move through the game, then that world is going to feel mch more alive,” said Lazzaro. “You want to be sure that the player feels like they made a difference, like they changed the world.”

As an example, Lazzaro calls back to the film “The Matrix” and the points in that film where the world changes because the viewer’s perspective shifts.

If you can give your players a similar sense of changing the world (or at least, their understanding of the world) based on their actions, you’re on the path to creating a mixed-reality game that’s fun for more than 15 minutes at a stretch.

Make NPCs that can be explored

“We really want NPCs to be explorable, just like a space is more explorable,” said Lazzaro. “It’s not necessarily realism, either; NPCs will be very different in mixed-reality.”

The suggestion here is that characters in your game gain a new dimension of meaning when a player can walk up and talk to them in VR/MR. That doesn' tmean you need to make your NPCs realistic human doppelgangers; it’s okay to create characters that are artful, animated, or otherwise simplistic as long as they can be explored by the player.

By that Lazzaro means that your NPCs should be compelling, they should ask questions, and they should offer choices to the player. Most importantly, says Lazzaro, you should think about designing NPCs the same way you should think about designing narrative spaces in VR/MR -- you want them to have a sense of depth that the player can explore.

Don't skimp on player customization -- it can be a key narrative tool, even in VR/MR

“When we look down, we see ourselves in the world,” said Lazzaro. “The question to ask for your design team is, then, what can you do increase the storytelling potential of the player character?”

She cautioned devs to always “leave room for the player” in your game design. Rather than shoehorning the player into your vision of what the game should be, try to leave room in your narrative and your game world for the player to express themselves. 

You might fill your narrative spaces with objects players can pick up and put on themselves, for example, or you could implement interactive ways for them to leave a mark on the world.

Also, don’t forget that you can give players room to shift their own narratives -- at least temporarily -- by trying on different bodies in VR/MR.

“You can be male, you can be female, you can be big, you can be small,” said Lazzaro, noting that VR games like Mindshow let players do this and then set up ways (with mirrors, for example) for the player to see and identify with their new form.

In closing, Lazzaro encouraged developers exploring virtual-, augmented- and mixed-reality game design to think more deeply about what kinds of fun they foster in their work. Years from now, she reasons, the VR/MR games that stand out will be the ones that give players room to have meaningful experiences, letting them explore, dig into, and change the world around them.

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