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The dos and don'ts of designing VR games
The dos and don'ts of designing VR games
July 8, 2014 | By Mike Rose

July 8, 2014 | By Mike Rose
More: Console/PC, Programming, Audio, Design

nDreams has been experimenting with virtual reality games for a year now, and has decided to focus heavily on VR games for the foreseeable future -- indeed, the studio currently has seven VR games in development.

At Develop Conference today, nDreams' Patrick O'Luanaigh discussed the many dos and don'ts of VR game design that his company has discovered through its experiments with the Oculus Rift and Sony's Morpheus.

"What makes VR so special? It is presence," he says. "The feeling of actually being there. When you put a VR headset on a player, they feel like they're actually there. You're teleporting them into your game world."

This is the base concept that nDreams has focused its VR experiments on, including with its titles skyDIEving and The Assembly. "VR isn't about gaming - it's about experiencing," he adds. "You need to do things the player is comfortable with."

With this in mind, here are nDreams' big dos and don't for developers creating VR games.


Keep every movement smooth - this is essential to keeping players immersed.
Use 3D items to display information - rather than using standard GUIs, think about ways information can be displayed such that players stay in the experience. Maybe a watch on your wrist, or in the same style that games like Dead Space use.
Use 3D text if you need it - if you need text in your game, make it 3D, and position it in appropriate areas. For example, if you want to call out an object and explain its function through text, hover the text over the object, such that the player will approach the object and read the text as they approach.
Avoid 'what I know, but it doesn't feel right' - players know what feels right, and O'Luanaigh notes that, "as soon as you mess with that, players know that it doesn't feel right. It's the VR uncanny valley."
"Walking and running need to feel real" - The average walking speed is 1.4 m/s," says the dev, and sprinting is around 5.5 m/s. Meanwhile, the sprinting speed in Call of Duty is around 6.95 m/s. Thus, using VR with Call of Duty doesn't feel slick because the running doesn't feel right. Turning is the same too - comfortable turning rate is around half a turn a second, yet turning in Call of Duty is 1.5 turns a second, so in VR it feels weird. Making your walking, running and turning speeds feel as close to real-life as possible to keep players immersed.
Games have to be 1080p+ and 60fps+ - 60fps is particularly important, says the dev.
"Audio is twice as important in VR" - so make sure you look into third-party audio solutions.


Don't assume it has to be first-person - nDreams has experimented with third-person games, and found they can work perfectly well if positioned appropriately. The studio put together a prototype called Spacewrecks which had you playing as a drone hovering above the action, with a character down below that you're controlling via the drone. This, says O'Luanaigh, felt really good to play.
Don't assume you need a player body - many VR devs say that you need to have a body that the player can look down at in a first-person game, but O'Luanaigh notes that this is a whole lot of work. You need to match the player's skin tone, for example, and match their height to keep the immersion intact. It can be a ton of animation work, and is very difficult to implement, so it may not be worth the time and effort.
Cutscenes with switching cameras - cutscenes that pull the camera away from the player can really bring you out of the action. Consider using Half-Life style cutscenes, which keep the camera firmly in the hands of the player.
2D Gui - Traditional GUIs don't work well at all in VR, says O'Luanaigh, and as mentioned above, it's best to think about how information can be displayed in better ways than a traditional interface.
Don't use traditional keyboard controls - Players will not be able to find WASD controls in the heat of action. If you really need to implement keyboard controls, use the arrow keys and the space bar, as these are easier to find when you have a headset on.
The game taking control of the camera - "It really makes people feel sick when this happens," says the designer.
No camera bob - again, it's a case of making sure the player doesn't feel sickness. "When it's automatically bobbing, you can feel unwell pretty quickly."
Throw players straight into the action - "They don't want to be part of the action straight away," reasons O'Luanaigh. "Let them explore first."
Any sudden/snap movements - "Things don't happened suddenly in real life, so you really notice it in VR," he says.
Hitting/collecting objects with your face - "When your face is flying into things, you become scared of it and try to protect your face." Thus, smashing into items is not a great idea for a VR game.

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Sebastian Rasch
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Why are there two Doníts in the Doís? ;)

As well, the "Don't use traditional keyboard controlsĒ advice is not entirely true, I believe. People unfamiliar with a keyboard might have problems finding WASD blindly but everybody else will find them quite easily. The 'F' key is normally marked with a little bump and from there itís fairly easy.

Kris Graft
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Those two "don'ts" have migrated to the appropriate "don't" section.

Matthew Doyle
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I don't particularly agree with everything in his list, but most things. The two that I don't necessarily agree with are:

1. Walking & Running - Games often speed these up for many reasons - better gameplay included. And what if you're playing a superhero? Shouldn't your run faster? To me, this one is subjective to the game you're playing.
2. MUST be 1080p at 60Hz - VR has been around for a long time already. I used to own a VFX1 myself back in the 90s. Trust me - it wasn't 1080p or 60Hz (well the headset supports 60hz, but most games were 30fps), but I still felt completely engaged using it. Sure, it's nice to have 1080p and 60Hz. And it certainly makes a difference, but saying it is a MUST for VR is like saying if a car doesn't go 180 MPH and have leather bucket seats that it isn't a car, or that people won't enjoy driving it.

Mike Griffin
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I agree re: walking & running speed. This is highly subjective to realism vs. intended surrealism, such as playing a ninja, or as you mention, a superhero. Maybe the best advice there might be to "ease" the player into their enhanced speed and locomotion in VR, should the character possess better-than-human capabilities.

I think this subjectivity applies to first-person body rendering as well. There will be cases where you certainly want the player to feel like a different person in VR, so concerns like matching skin tone or height aren't necessarily immersion makers. Again, it's up to you to "ease" the player into their character role in a VR game; to make the initial "disconnect" of being in control of a foreign entity transition smoothly into an embracing of the role.

(I always give props to FPS games that bother to include a rendered first-person body. I can't imagine playing a Crysis game, for example, without having the nicely detailed first-person body for my Nanosuit).

As for the 60fps-or-better thing, I believe there's hard data and research driving that one. Medically/physiologically speaking, a large percentage of the population experiences issues with VR rendered out at a sub-60hz speed, for visual and input-related reasons. Technically speaking, the 60hz is also a key number to hit for relative tracking performance in concert with to-pixel ghosting reduction (which also helps to prevent player stress).

Matthew Doyle
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Oh I completely agree that 60hz is better. Don't misunderstand me. I just don't think it is a must have and that without it you might as well not even do a VR game. Plenty of VR-capable games already on the market that aren't 60hz. Full stop. :)

Jet Tanyag
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I don't pretty much agree in with the part about not letting players be thrown into action straight away. How it was used in the article is a bit vague. Was he talking about throwing the player into action, like, literally putting them in the middle of intense action, or was he talking about the narrative technique called "in medias res"? Because I really think this technique can be very immersive, especially in a VR environment, if executed properly.