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Space Pirate Trainer dev: VR game design demands great audio work

In an interview with Develop, I-Illusions founder Dirk van Welder explains how the process of designing Space Pirate Trainer for the HTC Vive has given him a new appreciation for good audio design.
"Audiovisual cues are very important in VR – you need to attract the player's attention at the right moment."

- I-Illusions founder Dirk van Welden.

As developers continue to map the emerging field of virtual reality game design, they learn and share lessons about what works -- and what doesn't -- in VR.

Belgian studio I-Illusions has done just that in the course of developing Space Pirate Trainer for the HTC Vive, and in an interview with Develop studio founder Dirk van Welder explains how that process has given him a new appreciation for the value of good audio design.

While game composer Winifred Phillips has blogged on Gamasutra in the past about the potential pitfalls of spatial audio in VR (in brief: the better it gets, the more likely it is to sound "weird" as it approaches an "aural uncanny valley"), van Welden tells Develop that using spatial audio to cue SPT players to where objects are around them is critical to the game's design.

"We use audio and visual cues when the droids are preparing attacks (they light up) and another cue when they fire," said van Welden. "Spatial audio is also very important. While it's possible to know the horizontal position of the droid pretty well, it's still difficult to know where they are vertically."

Spatial audio has long been a key tool in many game makers' toolkits (EA DICE's various Battlefield games are good examples of spatial audio put to good use in first-person games) but in VR it becomes even more impactful since parts of the players' actual body (typically the head and hands) are tracked as in-game objects. 

Thus, reacting to in-game audio cues (like, say, the sound of a bullet whizzing by) is potentially much more immersive because the player has to actually move themselves, rather than just pressing buttons or keys.

"This even allows players to dodge fire when they did not see the incoming fire, since you can hear the time slowing down gradually," said van Welden, referring to SPT's "bullet-time" mechanic. "It's like having some sort of spider sense, which feels really good."

To learn more about I-Illusions' experiences creating Space Pirate Trainer, check out the full interview over on Develop.

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