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The VR Industry Can Learn from Filmmaking to Portray Immersion

With the Quest 3 and Apple’s Vision Pro, virtual reality is poised to grow… but only if we can sell what it means to feel immersed inside a world or story.

Wesley Herbst, Blogger

November 27, 2023

7 Min Read
Image via Pexels user Fauxels.

Remember the first time watching the trailer of Christopher Nolan’sInception”? Or the first time you were exposed to the dazzling, bombastic world of George Miller’s “Mad Max Fury Road” and telling yourself something on the lines of ‘I’ve got no idea what the hell this is about, but I want to be there to find out the day it releases.’ That’s no accident. In fact, a good trailer such as those uses the power of filmmaking through music, editing, and captivating visuals formulated into an illusion of a three act structure, giving audiences a taste, and eagerly wanting more.

With releases of movie-level story-heavy video games, the margin for storytelling between the mediums of live action and video games has never been smaller. For video games, the medium adds a level of audience interaction through its dynamic gameplay hooks that adds another layer of exhilaration to stand out from films and television series. The virtual reality sector continues to have an ever growing list of an amazing library of video games and talented pioneers. However, most great virtual reality games are still trying to find a way to sell their vision to audiences on why they should experience and immerse themselves — and what that will feel like. Much has been said about VR lacking the brand defining hits that placed publishers and their platforms in their heyday on the map, but the problem isn’t so much that virtual reality headsets haven’t found the right games to place them on the map—or even that there aren’t gamers interested in virtual reality headsets. Instead, the problem mainly comes down to consumers not understanding the appeal because they either haven’t tried virtual reality or not in a long time.

A big missed opportunity is that some VR trailers have not been able to extend a reach outside their VR audience in demonstrating why/how VR is immersive, exclusive, and yet a comfortably familiar experience. The mechanics of the video game trailer, particularly in virtual reality, should enhance the stories and gameplay mechanics of these games to inform character decisions, similar to how filmmaking techniques inform decisions made about how actions are servicing the story, or show don’t tell. VR trailers can be doing more to sell these mechanics of their game through their trailers to enhance audience engagement. If developers take a hard look at what makes the idea of VR worth investing in to the uninitiated, they can then deepen the use of the tools of the hardware and examine their own rewarding VR experience in order to better engage audiences wanting more.

According to a Newzoo forecast, there are 3.07 billion gamers as of 2023 and Statista estimates nearly 30 million of those gamers are global VR users by the end of 2023. And while Apple’s Vision Pro and the Meta Quest 3 will certainly increase the number of virtual reality users, VR still sits as a nascent technology and entertainment experience. With virtual reality titles now emerging with a consistent balance of gameplay and art styles, the attention next could be collectively turned to how to sell immersion as an entertainment mode to an audience on the fence of making the investment, starting with marketing.

While shooting primarily from a first person perspective inside a virtual reality headset for trailers has slowly been on a downward trend, many still continue to showcase their game this way. This approach becomes a problem due to how video games in general can become visually overwhelming on what’s on screen, with a lack of any focus on what to look after. Imagine watching a heavy, CGI fight scene with no indication on who’s fighting who with massive explosions and debris flying all over the place. Now imagine if you experience all of those elements, but in a first person view. Makes you sick to the stomach, right? Now only that, an audience member would especially have a much harder time reacting emotionally in seeing and fully registering what they just took in on a rectangular, probably small screen. While a first person perspective is what players experience inside of a VR headset, developers and marketers might be well served to take a different, storytelling approach and start borrowing from the visual tools that make movies and television emotionally worthwhile. Video game trailer artist Kert Gartner stated that “[the human] brain reacts emotionally to seeing footage of actors performing in front of us in a way that's presented cinematically. Audiences don't react emotionally on nearly the same level when they're seeing through another person's eyes.” Through the illusion by having the camera staying as close as possible to the avatar, developers can still maintain the importance of seeing actions from the perspective of being in those shoes, allowing audiences to feel the kinetic energy or atmospheric mood of the virtual reality game.

Coming from a filmmaking production workflow, I have had the opportunity to translate those skills to the world of VR. When I first joined Mighty Coconut, I instantly felt an easy transition in my approach to storytelling with creating content for the highest-rated VR multiplayer game, Walkabout Mini Golf. Working with a team of former film animators, I was allowed an opportunity to use my filmmaking skills to cross pollinate with my approach to this trailer, allowing me to take on the challenge perhaps a little differently. To do so, I’ve noticed most VR streamers on Youtube and Twitch tend to rely on the player’s perspective from the headset. To distance our video content from this perspective, I was able to attach my VR Headset to a film tripod, and through the ability to fly around in game, my avatar essentially became the camera. By watching where my avatar was moving around on my computer monitor, I was able to capture other players doing actions as I (in a virtual director’s chair) direct the moment to moment action of each scene in a more stabilized, less disorienting format. The team at Mighty Coconut has begun pushing to explore more ways of combining animation, game development, and filmmaking ingenuity to push what can be possible for virtual reality development—and storytelling in our trailers. One of these new tools includes the ability to adjust depth of field and “swap lenses” inside the engine. Just like in the animation field for film and television, our team is not bound by weather, light changes, or location issues. The ability to quickly adjust and shoot as many different takes as required, more experimentation in shots in VR begin to open up in order to help advance our tools that, like movies, allow our content to convey a clearer emotional attachment.

Recently, we’ve been seeing more and more narrative storytelling production enter the realm of gaming through the means of Virtual Production. Through bigger narrative productions movies like The Batman, House of the Dragon, and the powerful combination of Stagecraft and “the Volume” of The Mandalorian—we are seeing not only a greater convergence of gaming and Hollywood studio trailer methodology, but we may well be seeing a time where VR worlds and avatars become ready-made sets and costumes for indie filmmaking and other types of content. We are even seeing the groundwork being made by designing virtual sets created on an indie scale or a much larger scale that helps plan shot compositions and set design. These types of stories set in virtual places will be experienced both in immersive and more traditional formats, and that means that our production mentality must continue to evolve in holistic ways.

This type of problem-solving starting out at Mighty Coconut made me think about the visual pioneers at Industrial Lights and Magic, where experts in different fields were starting from nothing and ended up creating one of the most visually dazzling films of the time that changed the film business forever. Their contributions reminded me of an important lesson that should be applied to anywhere in life: always think outside the box (or the headset that is). How does your team create or consume immersive VR trailers? Because when considering developing a virtual reality game, make sure the team continues to consider a well-integrated tool/workflow and the audience of VR newbies for capturing footage within their engine.

Wesley Herbst is a social media content editor at Mighty Coconut. In addition, he is a Filmmaker and Virtual Production Generalist for Proteus Productions LLC, who always takes great strides to create unique storytelling experiences.

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