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Tips and advice for VR, from Steam VR game devs

We spoke with several game developers at Valve's Steam VR event this week, about lessons and advice for VR game development.

Kris Graft, Contributor

January 28, 2016

5 Min Read

If there was one overarching theme in terms of game design at Valve's Steam VR-HTC Vive event in Seattle this week, it was that VR game developers need to loosen their grip on what they've learned about traditional game design, and adjust to a whole new world.

But there are other lessons to learn from this new generation of VR games. Here are tips and advice on VR game development, from several of the game developers at the event.

Alex Schwartz, CEO, Owlchemy Labs (Job Simulator 2050)

“You can never know how good something’s going to be in VR until you try it out with a headset, with your hands, and it either clicks or it doesn’t. That means the fastest you can iterate is the best route for development. We’re not going to sit down and write a [game design document], because it’s going to be wrong. We just try it out in VR.”

Richard Stitselaar, creative director, Vertigo Games (Arizona Sunshine)

“If you design a game for VR, it should be VR-only. If you take a [non-VR] zombie shooter and think ‘Oh, lemme port that to VR,’ it doesn’t work. The rules have totally changed in game design, at least if you’re building from the ground up for VR…You need to set the rules for yourself.”

Dylan Fitterer (Audioshield)

“You really, really have to watch framerate. You don’t wanna make yourself sick. Also, go for quantity. Try a lot of different things, new concepts. Don’t let yourself fall into one rut too soon.”

Joachim Holmér, co-founder, Neat Corp (Budget Cuts)

“Ditch everything you know about game design, and just try to think of everything as new. Do a lot of experimentation, a lot of playtesting, and a lot of prototyping. There are so many turns you take during the design process…There are so many things you have to rethink. Just playtest everything.”

Joel Green, producer, Cloudhead Games (The Gallery: Six Elements)

“I came from BioWare before this, making Dragon Age and Mass Effect and those kinds of games. The biggest thing with VR development is, not throw away, but be very flexible with a lot of the rules that you’re used to with game development. You have to be super experimental and be willing to accept that a lot of the old ways of doing things just do not work at all anymore. You have to go back to the drawing board. Everybody I see who came to VR development from the triple-A community, or just from non-VR development, they kind of go through this process of letting go of all the things they hold onto really tightly, because you spent your career learning all these things and you have a bit of pride in the fact that you know what you’re doing. And then you get into VR, it’s like, actually you don’t [know what you’re doing].”

Lindsay Jorgensen, artist, Radial Games/Northway Games (Fantastic Contraption)

“For us, [our big lesson] is a comfort level thing. You have to be very, very careful about making your environment a nice place if you expect somebody to stay there for any length of time. That’s because as opposed to something on the screen, stuff in VR has a times-one-million multiplier on mood and effect on the person. There’s going to be a lot of jump scare games, and those are going to be really scary, because [the scares are] right there. In Contraption, we wanted it to be a place where you stay for maybe two hours to think about a problem. We wanted you to be comfortable—it’s nice [in the game], it’s sunny, it’s a friendly place to be. Keep it nice…and don’t make people sick!”

Justin Liebregts, CTO, Futuretown (Cloudlands: VR Minigolf)

“Try to make as many different prototypes as you can. At the beginning, we did ping pong, we did squash, throwing, shooting, bowling…we all did that in a about two days, just to see what [VR] was capable of, these tactile kind of tactile interactions…There’s a lot of discovery. You’re probably going to end up throwing away most of the work that you’re going to work on, but that’s ok. That’s part of learning and part of being in the VR space right now.”

Alex Knoll, lead game designer, Stress Level Zero (Hover Junkers)

“I think a lot of people, once they get the tech and start making games for it, they immediately come to the conclusion that everything you do in real life feels natural in-game. But what we found is that everything you do in-game that you wish you could do superpowers-wise in real-life translates to VR as infinitely more powerful…You want to have a little bit more of a supernatural ability [in VR] than you do in real life, which is an interesting psychological study, I’m sure, just waiting to happen.”

Patrick Hackett, co-founder, Skillman & Hackett (Tilt Brush)

“The resounding message that I always have is, with VR—and this kind of applies to any medium, but especially, especially in VR: spend time in it, and listen to what it does good. Then develop an experience around that. VR is really prone to this problem of people seeing a new market and then making experiences that they’re used to…but room-scale VR especially requires you to take a step back and look at this thing as a blank page.”

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