Virtual reality doesn't have to be antisocial - it can even be collaborative

"VR is normally quite isolating but when you’re surrounded by allies it feels comforting and collaborative," says Katie Goode, creative director at Triangular Pixels.

Nintendo of America’s President Reggie Fils-Aime was wrong to claim that virtual reality is an antisocial medium.

This was the message from Katie Goode, creative director at Triangular Pixels, a British studio currently working on the Gear VR project, Smash Hit Plunder, at the Game Developer’s Conference in San Francisco. Fils-Aime once stated that VR is ‘not fun, and it's not social; it's just tech.’ This is a mistake, said Goode at her talk, delivered to a packed room this afternoon; Fils-Aime just hasn’t seen what’s possible yet.

Goode began by clarifying that, when we think about multiplayer VR games, we are generally not thinking of designing for multiple head-mounted displays (HMDs).

“When it comes to virtual reality, [this kind of] multiplayer is likely to get expensive,” she warned. “It’s highly unlikely that a single household will have multiple head-mounted displays, let alone ones of the same brand. So you’re going to have to allow non-HMD users to use whatever they can to get inside the game via a TV screen, phone or tablet.”

Goode, who has carried out numerous experiments in the area of so-called ‘social VR,' urged attendees to recognize the unique power of multiplayer VR games. “VR is normally quite isolating but when you’re surrounded by allies it feels comforting and collaborative.” You need very little representation to make a VR player feel as though they are being accompanied and supported by players joining in via other devices, giving the example of how, in one demo, her team discovered that an eye on a stick was enough to create a bond between players."

“Asymmetrical multiplayer is the best compromise for accessibility in social VR at the moment,” Goode explained. She gave the example of her studio’s game Double Destruction, in which an HMD-wearing player is guided through a dungeon by a supporting player, who wields a spectral lamp. “Only the player on the second screen is able to see the map and where fuel for the lamp is hidden. This simple design makes it so players begin to need one another.”

Goode warned against merely cutting a game's design into two halves in order to give each player one part. “Simply splitting a game design  between two players, one in a VR headset and one on a 2D screen, often won’t do,” she said. “For one, the cognitive load doesn’t split equally in the same way. The HMD-wearing player may suffer  increased distraction, and might lag behind the 2D player. 

"Both sides must be just as fun to play, and just as ‘in control’ of the action, else it can be frustratingly disempowering for one participant. Both sides of the game need to work as independent games, in a sense.”

A good litmus test for whether or not both the HMD-wearing player and the supporting player will have an enjoyable time is to check whether the game could be played by a single player viewing both screens simulatenously. If so, she said, it's probably not going to be meaningful.

"Design early in the process what sort of information will pass between the players, and how often," she said. "If the exchange occurs too often it can be wearying. If it’s less frequent players will feel more independent, but at the risk of not feeling as though they are truly working together."

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