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Rhythm Games in VR: Analysis

Up until VR started to become popular, rhythm games had a wide array of different layouts, UI’s, gameplay mechanics, themes, and the list can go one. So, how would this genre translate over to VR?

As VR technology has become more abundant throughout the main consumer household with the introduction of Oculus, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, in the past couple of years there have been a plethora of game companies itching to develop for these fast-growing industries. One area in particular has had a very interesting life cycle in this medium is rhythm games. Rhythm games are a genre that I’m sure everyone has played at some point whether it’s been Guitar Hero or playing DDR at an arcade. These games are special for the fact that they can appeal to a wide array of audiences and players from the most casual party players to season veterans who have put time into their craft. Up until VR started to become popular, rhythm games had a wide array of different layouts, UI’s, gameplay mechanics, themes, and the list can go one. So, how would this genre translate over to VR?

First let’s look at what is needed to have a good rhythm game in general. Most rhythm games provide the player with strong intuitive design choices that, in a sense, restrict player freedom. Thus, players are forced to obey the game logic. If you don’t hit the note perfectly (either you miss or are too fast or slow) most rhythm games will let you know immediately. There are rarely times that players can bend the rules of the game (I say rarely because there are some cases). Another big thing that most rhythm gamers have experienced in their time with the genre is the deep sense of immersion while playing. This immersion is due to a plethora of things including design, music, art etc. But, as most people will find, this immersion is due to the immense focus a player experiences while trying to follow the games instructions. This focus is called flow, and flow is what most game developers want to induce in their players. Think back to the last time you played Guitar Hero, or DDR. Do you really remember what was going on in the background? For most people, no. Flow according to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, is when a player reaches a state in which they are so involved with the activity that nothing else seems to matter.  This is the core idea of what rhythm games try to do. They try to engage the player enough to enter flow, and they try and immerse the player into the world of the game through different means. These means can be identified as different gameplay mechanics (stepping on arrows, clicking on circles) different controllers (Guitar Hero guitar, or a button layout at an arcade). All these things tie into what makes a good rhythm game.

Now that we have gone over what makes a good rhythm game, lets take a look at some VR rhythm games in the market right now, and see what they’re doing right, and what is lacking. There are actually a great number of different rhythm games out on the VR market but it’s amazing that they haven’t gotten immensely popular. Taking a look at an article written by Aki Järvinen, he goes into detail about how VR rhythm games have cleverly used VR design solutions to “break flat screen design” and change it into a more physical environment for the player. He poses the question: “What can VR do in a unique fashion?” He then takes a look at different “player agencies” and shows (using the Kent Bye’s Elemental Theory of Presence) that VR rhythm games have taken a more embodied approach when it comes to gameplay. Players can see the entire environment and objects come to the player. This also falls underneath Active Presence, and Embodied Presence as players need to use multi-limb coordination and cognitive capabilities to play (Aki Järvinen). Lets first talk about overall presence. This is a theoretical concept describing an effect that people experience when they are trying to interact with a computer-mediated/computer-generated environment. (Sheridan, 1994) Sheridan describes this feeling as “being there” and is something that is very important for a player to experience since the Weibel, Wissmath model has shown that Presence is strongly correlated to flow. VR is an interesting medium since it is so immersive, and provides such a great sense of presence, that it can easily be broken. Sasa Marinkovic has said the number one rule of VR is “Don’t break presence”. Now, looking at VR rhythm games on the market right now, I’m sure the one that everyone thinks of first is Beat Saber. Beat Saber is a fantastic game with great presentation and design. The formula the development team used at the time was groundbreaking and really put it on the map as the premiere VR Rhythm game on the market. But there is also a slew of problems that this genre is facing using this medium right now. First and foremost, there too much oversaturation of the same design principles. Most if not all of the VR rhythm games on the market right now use the exact same template. A player stands while object fly at them to a rhythm, and the player must punch, slice or hit these objects. Right now, it’s extremely difficult to find an original rhythm game on the VR platform that doesn’t have this design. The design works; yes, but there isn’t enough variation like other traditional non VR rhythm games can provide with so many different controls, playstyles etc. The 2nd and in my personal opinion most difficult obstacle this genre is facing at the moment is that there is a lack of tactical immersion. The reason why season rhythm gamers spend thousands of hours playing these games is because of the haptic response they get while playing. They know when they step on this arrow, push this note, hit this button, every time it will register the exact same. This is so important to rhythm gamers as lack of consistency can bring on extreme frustration and thus lack of motivation from the players. VR right now doesn’t have the precision that most popular rhythm games process and thus, players cannot fully engross themselves with the games mechanics since there is such a lack of tactile feedback in VR motion controls.

While oversaturation is still a huge problem with this genre, the true test will be how developers can provide the preciseness and the tactility that most rhythm gamers crave when perfecting and mastering their game. It will be interesting to see what kinds of design choices developers go with from here on out and I hope that the “Beat Saber” design will become less popular. As a fellow rhythm gamer, I’m excited, and hopeful for the future.

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