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Creating Virtual Reality Games: The Fundamentals

May 23, 2013 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

When I was on a field trip to London back in high school, I played my first virtual reality (VR) game: Zone Hunter. I was immediately hooked and I knew I wanted to work in VR! I started my VR career more than 12 years ago working on industrial VR training applications and VR software tools.

I am now the founder and president of a company called "i'm in VR". We offer tools to simplify the creation of VR applications such as MiddleVR, a VR middleware that enables 3D applications (like Unity) to run on any VR system (HMD, caves etc.). I've been blogging about VR long before it was cool, and you can also find me on twitter (@Cb_VRGeek)

Now, you may think creating VR applications is easy: simply add camera rotations using the Oculus Rift tracker and you're done. This can work for some applications, but it will fail for the vast majority of them.

VR is all about presence in a virtual world. If you can't keep your player immersed into it, you're not doing it right. You can trick your brain into thinking it is in another reality, but this is more difficult than it sounds. This feeling of presence is very fragile.

Articles dealing with VR often adopt a too technical approach. I think VR is first about what's happening in the user's mind. In this article I am going to focus on some fundamental points about this presence in another world and why it is important to design your application for this goal.

VR in 2013

Virtual reality allows you to immerse people in a 3D environment, with head-mounted displays (HMDs or VR goggles), or other immersive systems. That's why we often call it immersive VR (iVR) -- to differentiate it from virtual worlds like Second Life or World of Warcraft. VR was hyped in the early '90s, but failed to deliver the experience the public expected.

However, it continued to evolve on the serious games side, to a point where it is now an essential tool for several markets

  • Training in VR can be much more efficient than in real life: you can control the training environment very precisely, view replays, and actually safely practice real gestures in many different, potentially dangerous, scenarios. This is used for training surgeons, soldiers, policemen, firefighters, dentists and even workers applying coatings on houses! This allows companies to save expensive materials while delivering better feedback about gestures.
  • All major car manufacturers have their VR systems where they can test designs and ergonomics of products that don't yet exist, and iterate very quickly compared to a physical mock-up. This is now also applied for planes, boats, tractors, production lines, factories, and even kitchens! See the VR applications and systems from Peugeot or Ford.
  • Communicating around a digital mock-up is very natural: you can get immersed in your future building, or live urban planning years before modifications. See this Enodo demo reel.
  • It is also a great tool for market research for the retail industry: you get a real feeling of your shop before it is built or rearranged. You can track all the customer's movements and record where they look. This is useful to test the layout of furniture or make sure that the design of your product is visible among other products.
  • Treating phobias in VR is an efficient method: if you're subject to a fear of heights, we can create a virtual cliff and you will actually experience your phobia. Then a real therapist can help you dealing with it more efficiently than going to a real cliff. The same applies for fear of taking the plane, fear of spiders, dogs, and speaking in public for example. See the Cyberpsychology lab from Stéphane Bouchard.

And, of course, VR can be used for games! But since the mid-'90s, very few games have been created with this technology; most were developed at research labs or by enthusiasts. Doing so required the skills and hardware to assemble a VR system and program the game themselves. To my knowledge, no commercial VR game has been created in the past 10 years.

Here's an on-going list of pre-Oculus VR games. But now, thanks to the arrival of the Oculus Rift, everyday is Christmas! We're just starting to see new VR games and experiences (like the virtual guillotine).

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Tarique Naseem
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Nice to see some of my old games on there :)

I used to work for Virtuality back in the day. We specialised in VR games for the arcade, so it wasn't just research labs and enthusiasts. We also did plenty of work for those industries you mentioned in the article too, which actually proved to be a lot more lucrative. Unfortunately, back then (mid-90's) industries were quite scared of sticking their necks out with this new tech, although there were a quite a few which did and worked really well for them, mainly advertising.

It's great to see that the tech is making a resurgence, and very affordable too, so I'm hoping to see some interesting apps/games pop up.

I've had a play with the Oculus Rift too, and wasn't expecting much, but, boy was I surprised! And this is coming from a VR 'veteran' :)

Sebastien Kuntz
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Glad to meet someone who actually brought me to VR !
Thanks for the job you did so long ago :)

Stephen Northcott
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Hey Tarique,

When are we going to get together and remake Exorex or Dactyl for Oculus then? :p
I am sure I have the code lying around somewhere! ;)

I just want to re-iterate what Tarique said about "not expecting much" but being actually blown away by my first go in an Oculus. It was also a pleasure to meet the Oculus guys at Fanfest in Iceland this year.

I am excited to see where all this goes...


David Navarro
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Oh, man... such great memories of Dactyl Nightmare. :)

Tarique Naseem
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Hey, now worries. I'm just glad that the work we did back then is being talked about. And there's me thinking we'd all been forgotten :)

One thing worth mentioning, in relation to your article, is sound. This sometimes took a backseat during development, which is a shame as I would always argue that getting the sound right was as important as visuals, to create a more immersive experience for the player.

As well as ambient sounds, intelligently placing sounds in 3D space adds so much to the overall experience. For instance, sounds of a bubbling stream would come from the direction of the stream itself. Elements like this would be used to direct the player to either head in that direction, or make them notice things outside their current field of view.

Ideas like this came about as we noticed that a number of gamers would never look around, due to their unfamiliarity with VR (or might have been due to having a heavy dustbin strapped to their heads!). Adding audio cues outside of their field of view helped a great deal.

Coupled with this, adding gameplay elements slightly outside the players fov is also good technique. After all, it's a VR experience, and we want them to actually look around, rather than have everything happen right in front of them!

You're also right about converting existing titles to VR. It's hard, and they just don't work very well. I was tasked to do this on a previous contract, converting 'Soldier of Fortune', and a couple of other titles to VR, and there was far too much to be done to even get it remotely working well.

Differences in FOV and ability to look around would cause major issues with the culling, etc. Of course, being (fast paced) first person shooters, they don't really lend themselves to playing with a tethered headset unless you want to strangle yourself with the cabling! Coming up with new, more innovative game mechanics is the way to go, and a lot of thought needs to go into the design of the environments, so people don't get themselves tangled up, which takes out of being 'present'.

Anyway, fabulous article, and a great primer into VR development.

Sebastien Kuntz
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Thanks a lot Tarique.

Your point about sound is totally right, we have experienced it many times.
Adding basic sounds is "easy" and adds so much to immersion !

And yes you have to know and incorporate the constraints of your hardware (Cables, resolution etc..) in your game design, just like you do with a keyboard or mouse !

TC Weidner
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great article, I am really excited about the Oculus. Having tried it I think it really is a dawn of a new age of gaming. A new door has been opened, as you mention not all games will need to use this tech, but for those that can capitalize on it, it truly is a game changer. I really think seated games will be the first to take off, Thinking games like Star citizen, Road redemption etc as being seated in real life and in game takes a lot of the nausea factor away. Among the sleep will be interesting as you play as a 2 year old toddler.

To be honest having tried vr on and off for years it never really grabbed me the way I wanted it to, its always been kind of gimmicky, but the Oculus has really done something right. Really looking forward to seeing their consumer model, hopefully with the resolution upgrade etcc.

Anyway, just wanted to say, Im kind of envious of you guys, you put in your dues but I think your field of gaming is about to pay off and take the industry by storm.

best of luck to you.

Ahmad Jadallah
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Nice article!

I am interested in how a technology like Oculus Rift can be used in a third person action game. I mean all the demos I have seen of it have been in first person. Does it make sense to use it for third person?

Sebastien Kuntz
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Hi Ahmad,
thank you !

That's a great question!

Some people say it will work:

Neuroscientist also show that your brain can accept a third person representation of your body:

So in theory it should be possible, but I think it will probably be harder to achieve presence
because your brain has to accept the whole avatar as your own representation.

Your brain is used to first person view, that's its natural way of living.
In first person view, you "only" need to create some parts of your body correctly.
But especially you don't need to recreate a whole realistic face.

It's already very hard to create a realistic face (of somebody else) in realtime 3D that you can accept,
it's even harder to accept it as your own! You would have to replic all mimics nearly perfectly.

I have no doubt we will get there soon.

The other possibility is that you act as a kind of god, and the avatar is not exactly you, it's your agent, which would make things easier..

Dustin Chertoff
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To be fair, presence doesn't require a first-person view. Presence is very simply a measure of whether you believe you are at the virtual location your senses reveal. The question of first- versus third-person view is one of agency. There is plenty of research on agency and presence (search for agency and presence in google scholar, and read the first two articles that show up). Generally speaking, the more you believe you are the person in the virtual world, the more likely you are to be present. But it is not a requirement.

This obviously has lots of design implications, as if you are designing an immersive 3rd person game, you need to make sure that the "person" you become is one that could see the entirety of the world.

Brian Tsukerman
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Excellent advice that I'll keep in mind. I'm still waiting for mine, but I was blown away when I tried it and can't wait to see how it works with TF2 and Skyrim.

My top concern though is the controls, as the Oculus will have trouble launching without a comfortable control scheme. Keyboards and controllers are the most direct, but also not especially conducive to the players presence. However, tracking motion gives me an idea...

Mike Swayze
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I remember playing 'Descent' at lunchtime (it would be ideal VR) and almost falling out of my chair.

programming 3D- I'd hate to get stuck in the middle of gymbal lock within a VR environment...

Darshan Gayake
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Great Informative Article!!!

I would love to see 3rd Person games too in VR as you can always adopt psyc of god mode or consider your self as acomplice or guide of main protegonist who executes your wish...its matter of approch you adopt then in this case there is no need to avataar to resemble your looks, is it?

I have played Dead Space 1,2,3 Mass effect 1,2,3 Dregon Age 1,2 and Darksiders2 all seem way perfect with few glitches in S3D with Tridef Ignition on my LGD2342P and with dark room and my Seinheiser Head phones seating just a feet away of 23" 3D monitor playing all these games in 3D make me feel inside game, of course not truly part of game but yes being inside game i already had this feeling.

I know with HMD like RIFT it will be 10 Fold magnified but then i feel sad when people represent sarcastic or skeptical views on 3rd Person Games in VR.

They will be surely magnificent if you had followed basic guidelines already mentioned by you.

I also strongly believe that adopting Flexible OLED (Bendable) display is more ideal in future RIFT as it can asure 180 Digree Horizontal FOV which i think is Must for fully immersive experience. With HD Screen and nice head tracking it can give "MATRIX" Experince many including me crave for. we already have 10.1" Tablets with 2048x1536 which can translet in 1024X1536 per eye and things are improving

I would also like your view on Variable 3D depth model where depth being high in centre of screen and decresing gradually towards both end of screens being minimum there. i think this is realworld scenario how we look the world being depth highest at 90" and lowest to NIL at 0 Digree and 180 Digress, i don know what would be hardles adopting it! but it could help a lot in keeping interface/HUD at both corners besides tactical HUD like DEAD SPACE is great but thats beyound logical for mytho or historical games besides can not be applied in FPS Games.

Dustin Chertoff
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Great article. I'm glad to see someone put all the years of VR research into an approachable guide for those interested in creating VR games.

For those of you interested in ways to measure presence in your games/virtual worlds (and experience in general), you can check out this paper I wrote a few years back (
environment_evaluation_questionnaire). I'm happy to answer any questions you might have about how to use the VET if you decide to look into it further.

Alex Nichiporchik
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I can't wait to play another 700 hours in TF2 while wearing the Oculus and running on an actual VR pad. Healthy gaming here we come!

kevin williams
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Interesting article.

@Sébastien Kuntz - did we meet when I was briefly consulting for Ian the Virtuality Dev Director?