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The art of balancing traditional gameplay with powerful immersion in VR

Playful's Lucky's Tale just shipped (packed-in) with every Oculus Rift. Learn about our design issues and the tenuous balance between the environment and gameplay.

Lucky’s Tale, a made-for-Virtual-Reality platforming game, at Playful Corp., just shipped packed-in with every Oculus Rift, and we’re honored and excited to be a part of this momentous launch. This is both our first virtual reality game and our first platforming game.  When we weren’t collectively screaming in terror at the enormity of our task, we were trying to solve a host of design issues that came with this uncharted territory. One of the more interesting ones was navigating the tenuous balance between the demands of the environment and the demands of gameplay.

Connecting players intimately to a colorful, vibrant world

The incredible potential of VR means players can fully immerse themselves in an environment, a world, on a level previously impossible with traditional 2D of any kind. It's difficult to describe with words, the joy of transporting into a world where you can freely look around, lean in for a closer and detailed look, or explore little details from any angle you choose. Instead, imagine stepping past the glass on your TV screen and entering the game you're playing, or the show you’re watching. Picture yourself as a kid playing with toys which suddenly come to life in front of you.

Our goal was to maximize this awe-inspiring feeling to the extent that players felt an intimate sense of presence when they entered Lucky's world. Making it work within a game context required building our levels around specific moments where sightlines, gameplay encounters, scale, high-parallax motion, and lighting all converge to create unforgettable sights and a strong sense of place.

One way we did this was by creating small, enveloping ‘rooms’ within our levels to bring lots of environmental detail into arm’s reach, where parallax motion is strong and it feels very ‘VR’. Like peanut butter and chocolate (or my preference, nougat and tripe), these smaller areas are nicely juxtaposed next to larger, more grandiose set pieces, which serve as visual cues to take in the view. For instance, in one level you start out in a small, low-elevation grassland and have to climb up to a narrow tunnel inside a windmill. On the other side, the sightline explodes in a panoramic view of a beautiful, multicolored forest.

You forget to stop and smell the roses!

We spent a lot of time crafting what we felt were a compelling, intimate VR locations or some grandiose set-piece. But during playtests people would just blast by them on their way to the next enemy or collectible and we would die a little inside, thankful that the Rift hid our bitter, bitter tears from the play testers. We often found ourselves saying, “Remember, you can look all around!” and then we would grimace as our players gave a small nod and continued pursuing the next objective.

Wild thoughts would coalesce: “Maybe we can ship one of us to each player at the moment they first play the game and prompt them to look around when they’re about to miss something awesome! And then we’d have to leave awkwardly through a window or something.” This was not a good sign.

Our players’ reluctance to look around was a symptom of a very interesting problem that was more pronounced in virtual reality than any medium we had previously encountered: being able to look anywhere in the world meant that sometimes Lucky could completely leave your field of view. This pushed directly against a core concept of the game, which rewarded you for being aware of Lucky’s immediate surroundings and keeping him safe. We eventually realized just by watching their head movement that most people looked around at the beginning of a level, where it was safe, but as they progressed further and encountered more danger, their heads moved less and less.

The code of the ninja is to never leave yourself open to attack (which is why our office features Nightingale Floors), and our players were taking the code to heart and never taking their eyes off Lucky! Therein lies an interesting tension in VR game design: achieving a state of ‘flow’ through challenge and mastery of game mechanics -- typically a very good thing -- and its opposition to an aesthetic appreciation of the sights a full-range head-controlled camera affords.

Safety is love, safety is life

We struggled with how to get these elements into a more balanced state: sometimes we want our players to have fun with the game, and sometimes we want them to stop and smell the roses. We wanted to accomplish this with a light touch -- to make it more driven by player curiosity than anything else.

One method we stumbled upon was transitioning between several slightly different scales of the world. By manipulating the player’s inter-pupillary-distance via software as they play the game, we subtly obfuscate the correct path in tandem with clearing out threats to provide a safe space that encourages curiosity and exploration.

The best example of this scale-shifting is our ‘foxhole’ feature, where Lucky plunges headfirst into a subterranean world through mounds in the topsoil. Once below, the scale shifts and suddenly everything feels like a miniature, intricate model. These were created in part to give players a break from the normal level progression, but they also help us push against gameplay ‘flow’, allowing the player to loosen up and re-orient to their new environment and perspective. This usually comes with a much larger degree of looking around. We also pull the player out of the world -- foxhole ‘dioramas’ float in darkness -- to further give them a feeling of difference. The player has to reorient when Lucky emerges from the foxhole and transitions back to the normal scale, making the same level feel fresh and new. Commence more looking around (and more happy dancing in the background by Playful devs -- never pass on an opportunity to be outrageously silly when someone’s ears and eyes are covered by a big black mask).

We decided to add even more ‘look-around’ moments like this. We needed some of them to be subtler than the foxhole transition and not rely on scale shifts. To that end, we leveraged the constriction and expansion of our levels -- like the juxtaposing of ‘rooms’ against expansive panoramas -- and took the concept further by creating safe spaces right after major transitions in the path. These safe zones contain no enemies, few obvious collectibles or goals, and no immediately obvious exit. This forces players to stop and become detectives. As they investigate the landscape for the path forward, something cool looking, like an owl or a butterfly fluttering toward them will often distract them. Much ‘ooh’, much ‘ahh’, and we smile a bit knowing that the force is in balance once again, at least until the next disruption.

We’re still experimenting with this balance as we begin to plan for the next chapter in Lucky’s story. You can be sure that when you meet Lucky again, we’ll have even more answers for how to make virtual reality amazing without sacrificing the challenging gameplay.

Want to learn more? Come play with us here:

Please feel free to comment as well.  I'll be sure to get back to you.

By Dan Hurd, director and design lead for Lucky’s Tale

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