Kris Graft (@krisgraft) is editor-in-chief, Gamasutra
Sitting in the audience last week at the Shrine Auditorium in L.A., I saw the sizzle reel for upcoming PlayStation VR games, cocked my eyebrow, and wondered how many (not if) people would be getting motion sick on the showfloor that week.
Do a quick Twitter search for “E3 VR sick,” or something similar, and get ready to be sad if you’re a VR developer or someone who wants the technology to succeed in the game market (below are tweets from journalists from influential tech and game websites).
Upside of the PlayStation VR’s awkward bits this E3: “Oh, Resident Evil made you sick too?” was a great icebreaker.— Adi Robertson (@thedextriarchy) June 21, 2016
I'm terribly excited for Resident Evil 7 in VR, but the E3 demo almost made me sick. Not a great sign. https://t.co/ivtXnGeMny— Patrick Klepek (@patrickklepek) June 20, 2016
People seem to be really into the RE7 demo. I played it in VR at E3 and was not impressed. It also made me motion sick, which never happens.— Chloi (@_chloi) June 18, 2016
— Nic Healey (@dr_nic) June 15, 2016
It’s interesting seeing players, including some VR-seasoned journalists, try to figure out why they felt so awful after some VR experiences. I've seen speculation that an offending game must be dropping frames, causing a degree of barfiness, which could be partially to blame (60 frames per second is the absolute minimum for VR comfort). But I'm willing to bet that VR sickness at E3 was most often due to some developers essentially (or actually) retrofitting a first-person perspective game for a VR headset, with little care to VR-friendly locomotion.
It doesn’t matter if your game is moving at 60 million frames per second with 12K resolution—if a VR headset makes your eyes see something that doesn’t agree with your inner ear, your game will make a good chunk of people sick, and chances are, you will turn potential customers off of VR. Nauseating experiences are bad for players, therefore bad the VR market as a whole, therefore bad for game developers. That's just the plain truth.
The average person or the VR first-timer does not know why they felt sick from VR. Not even all game and tech journalists could pinpoint exactly why. What’s going to happen is that when people have one bad first VR experience, they may well assume that they just can’t do VR at all, which in most cases simply isn’t true.
During the PSVR segment of Sony’s conference, there certainly were a lot of “ooos” and “ahhhs” as we saw an FPS (Farpoint) in which you move smoothly across a desert landscape, or experience Resident Evil as if you were there. There was even an X-Wing VR mission that put you in the cockpit. Amazing, right? But just looking at these trailers, I knew that there’s no way that I would try them as-is at E3 because you’re moving by pushing the analog button up and around, and drifting through a virtual environment while looking around with your head (i.e. your noggin becomes the right analog stick). This breaks two very basic guidelines for anti-sickness VR locomotion: avoid virtual camera movement, and don’t accelerate the player while moving the camera. These broken rules are most obviously identifiable when you watch first-person VR gameplay that looks exactly as it might if it were being played on a standard screen.
This kind of gets into the VR marketing challenge as well. Making trailers and video for VR is tricky and there have been some brilliant solutions that required a lot of cleverness in order to make VR look appealing to someone who’s watching gameplay on Twitch or YouTube. At E3, trailers for VR games that show the player roaming the planetscape and being shot into hyperspace at lightspeed sure did look nice; nicer than someone pointing to where they want to be teleported, reappearing, and looking around. But you know what? Sexy or not, teleportation is the most comfortable solution VR has right now for locomotion in virtual environments bigger than a bedroom.
Now, I understand that a lot of people aren’t as prone to motion sickness as others. I don't have a problem with room-scale VR, but I have the tendency to get motion sick in vehicles. Car. Plane. Boat. If it moves and I’m a passenger, I might turn green. But my susceptibility to motion sickness also makes me a good test subject for VR developers who want to appeal even to the lowest rungs of the barfability ladder. I also understand that a lot of developers are ok with creating intense (as in, generally uncomfortable) experiences. There is an audience for those games, one that has stronger inner ears than I do. (I was pretty bummed when I found out that I can’t really play a racing game in VR—racing games and flight games break basic VR motion sickness guidelines.)
But it honestly was just surprising to me how blatantly so many games disregarded basic comfort-level practices at E3. That's in stark contrast to a Valve-HTC Vive event I attended this year. Valve in particular has been careful and outspoken about motion sickness in VR, even launching Vive with specialized controllers and a room-scale tracking system to encourage custom VR experiences from the get-go. Only one game out of many at that Vive event made anyone ill, and, no surprise, it was Elite Dangerous: Horizons, in which you're sitting down and zipping around in a spaceship or roaming hilly, low-gravity landscapes in a buggy. But overall, the fact that the Vive launched with VR controllers is a great, fundamental way to encourage anti-sickness VR design.
Then you have Oculus, which even though has also been outspoken about comfort levels in its games, launched its headset with a gamepad, which enables if not encourages devs to break basic VR sickness rules regarding locomotion. And with Sony showing off a number of nauseating games, not the least of which is Resident Evil VII, during its big E3 showcase, you have to wonder how seriously these companies are taking motion sickness as VR makes its nascent push into a wider market.
My theory(ies), for the reason why we’re seeing games that go against basic anti-sickness principles are a) there’s a rush to get on blue ocean platforms, so shoehorning an existing game into VR with no locomotion consideration is faster and more convenient b) for Oculus and PlayStation VR, a standard gamepad is their default controller for many players, so that shapes the kinds of gameplay (and locomotion) that devs adopt c) game devs know that only a limited amount of people will be able to handle their game comfort-wise, and they’re ok with that.
My suggestions for VR platform holders is they must carefully curate selections at events where they're showing VR games, advocate for anti-sickness design practices (creative, comfortable locomotion is a big one for first-person games), and going forward enable and encourage developers to make games for VR. I realize people have their own legitimate reasons to ignore such suggestions, and I’m certainly not the first one to say these things, but after seeing how E3 put a number of barf-inducers on the biggest stage in video games, I thought it’d bear repeating.