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PSVR devs discuss the challenges of designing for the platform

PSVR devs discuss the challenges of designing for the platform
October 13, 2016 | By Joel Couture

October 13, 2016 | By Joel Couture
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More: VR, Console/PC, Design



Virtual reality has finally arrived on Sony’s console, with the HMD formerly known as Project Morpheus hitting store shelves today. PSVR is releasing with no shortage of virtual reality experiences to try out, including games like Thumper, Battlezone, Wayward Sky, Allumette, Superhypercube, Harmonix's Music VR, and many more.

Gamasutra reached out to the developers creating games for it (or porting games to it) to find out what it was like to develop for the PSVR. There were many interesting insights about the console VR experience, but the consensus reaction was that it was similar to other VR platforms in terms of development. So we opened it up and asked some more general questions about the challenges of VR design the dealt with on their PSVR launch titles.

(Don't miss Gamasutra's dev-centric PlayStation VR review)

Every aspect of creating games and digital spaces would need to be re-examined in the creation of PSVR games, from the way impacts are conveyed to the menus to the movements, and each developer had a little something to say about how daunting, and yet exciting, developing around these new concerns could be.

What is it like developing for PSVR?

We had devs working in Rifts, Vives, and PSVR for this Music VR. PSVR isn’t going to offer quite as much tracking fidelity, but it’s frankly way better than I expected from a console, and it’s the lightest, most comfortable form factor by far. -- Jon Carter, Harmonix, Music VR

I was initially surprised by how well PSVR worked on a PlayStation 4. We were able to get Wayward Sky running at 90fps, which feels much better for physics-based interaction with the world. -- Chandana Ekanayake, Uber Entertainment, Wayward Sky

We are really happy with how fast we were up and running and how nice the project looks on the PSVR. We have put a lot of effort on the tech side so that we can build for multiple platforms, and were able to have Allumette running on PSVR from the beginning of the project. It was working so well we began using our internal native VR creation tools on the PSVR. -- Jimmy Maidens, Penrose Studios, Allumette

What surprised you about developing for PS VR? Were there any lessons you had to learn very quickly, or any habits of traditional game design that you had to unlearn very quickly?

The biggest struggle for VR versus standard game development is constantly optimizing your game so that it runs well during production. Low framerate can cause headaches, discomfort, and ruin your day. -- Ekanayake, Uber Entertainment, Wayward Sky

"Because Thumper gameplay is so much about parsing depth, the depth information in VR makes the game easier to play. That was unexpected."

Because Thumper gameplay is so much about parsing depth, the depth information in VR makes the game easier to play. That was unexpected. We were worried that adding information might be a distraction, like added noise, and that it would be hard to focus on what's important. Turns out depth it is very useful information in Thumper, having a clear sense of where things are in space makes it easier to focus on what's important, I actually play a little better in VR.-- Brian Gibson, Drool, Thumper

There was one late night that I thought everyone else had gone home. I noticed some odd lights in the window overlooking San Francisco. For a moment, I thought I was seeing a UFO.

It took me a minute to realize I was seeing the two colored lights of the move controllers and the PSVR being reflected in the window and that our production designer had been in the loft for hours quietly working in VR.It was pretty amazing that our production designer, who often works in traditional mediums like pencil and paper, was spending hours a day designing in VR on the PSVR. -- Maidens, Penrose Studios, Allumette

If you've had experience developing for different platforms--Gear, Vive, Rift, Daydream--can you briefly describe the difference between them?

Wayward Sky started as a prototype on the Gear VR, and the initial design was around the idea of looking around and using the Gear VR touchpad to click into the VR world. Once we switched to PSVR, the gameplay changed to take advantage of positional tracking and motion controls to allow the player to interact and manipulate puzzles and the world directly. I find motion controls are more accessible for players, as it maps directly with how they would interact with things in the real world. If you see an object and you want to pick it up, its a matter of moving your hand over it and picking it up. -- Ekanayake, Uber Entertainment, Wayward Sky

The lack of full positional tracking on mobile headsets is definitely the biggest difference. If you want to make a truly comfortable experience for the current suite of mobile HMDs, you really need to encourage users to want to be more or less stationary. That said, it’s hard to overstate how nice it is to not feel a tether pulling on your head all the time. In the non-mobile category, the Rift’s integrated headphones are a fantastic convenience when you’re taking a headset on and off dozens of times a day, but we developed MusicVR in Unity, which made it nice and easy to deploy to various headsets. 

For us, keeping a lot of design instincts in check was a recurring effort, both on account of the extreme novelty of VR, and the fact that we were a bunch of game devs working on a visualizer, as opposed to a traditional game. The first MusicVR experience we made was The Beach, which was initially for Gear VR. Given the focus on letting people enjoy music, the earliest rule we put in place for that particular world was “no controller,” which quickly led us to the “gaze activated” interactions you see there. It’s tricky to determine player intent when you don’t have a button press, so we soon realized the importance of finding the right balance between “they’ve looked here long enough to trigger an interesting transformation” and “they’re just glancing over here, and it would be confusing/disorienting for us to transform the entire space.” 

We were thankfully able to draw on our experience developing motion-based titles like Dance Central and Fantasia: Music Evolved for tuning interactions like that one, and there are actually more than a few similarities between designing for VR and designing for Kinect. Namely: you are probably trying to do more than you should. For Kinect, the constant reminder was “you are already asking players to move their bodies, which is a lot, so keep it simple.” For VR, it’s “players are already borderline overwhelmed by just being in this space, so keep it simple.” -- Carter, Harmonix, Music VR

Any more general lessons of VR design you picked up while working on your launch game or port?

One thing we learned along the way was how careful you had to be with movement in relation to the camera. (This isn’t specific to PSVR, by the way.) Not just directly moving the camera in relation to the player, but also watching out for weird perceptual illusions we were causing if the player was looking a certain way, or even visual effects and filters that messed with player’s spatial cues. You’d add something innocent, and all of a sudden everyone would be super nauseous, and you’d have to take it out straight away. You don’t realize how much modern game design relies on cinematic conventions until half those conventions are rendered unusable. -- Cindy Poremba, Kokoromi, Superhypercube

When we started looking at the game in VR, we noticed a lot of little things that were off both in VR and in our game's 2D mode too. We fixed lots of small things, like depth violations, effects that looked too "cheap" in VR, etc. VR forced us to raise the visual quality bar and we improved the look of the game in both modes.-- Marc Flurry, Drool, Thumper 

"You don’t realize how much modern game design relies on cinematic conventions until half those conventions are rendered unusable."

I think many developers are accustomed to simulating film effects in games. By adding things like noise, lens flares, camera shake. Those make games feel real because it makes them look filmed rather than just like a raw digital rendering. It took a while to understand that VR works best as a simulation of reality, not film, and most of those traditional film effects only pull you out of the sense of immersion. Of course, we still use a more subtle shake, but it's not meant to be camera shake, it's more a simulation of your actual head shaking after a physical impact.-- Gibson, Drool, Thumper

One of the first things we learned is that everything needs a spatial presence. In traditional games development, menus typically aren’t as elaborate as the rest of the game. In VR games development, even something as basic as a main menu needs to provide spatial context to players, to make them feel present in the game. For RIGS: Mechanized Combat League we ended up creating the RIGS Headquarters, a fully realized team HQ with a bustling work floor.

Players are put at the very heart of the activity, making choices for the next step in their Mechanized Combat League careers from there. Even after a match, players will finds themselves on a plane along with their team mates, checking out the post-match results on a computer while en route to the next event. We believe this sort of presence is important in VR, but still we were surprised at just how much we could do outside of the main game to enhance player immersion. - Piers Jackson, Guerilla Cambridge, RIGS: Mechanized Combat League

We’ve spent our professional lives finding ways to make playing on a flat screen some distance away from you be as immersive and in-your-face as possible. To try to trick your brain into believing it is feeling every impact and every event as physical when all your senses are of course telling you that is not the case. We shake and swing the camera, use cinematic editing techniques to show you what we want you to look at and dial up the intensity on everything to try and grab the attention of our media-fatigued minds.
 
Most of this is not viable in VR. If you try to take control of the camera away from the user, they will feel REALLY uncomfortable. Even a little screen shaking feels like someone has grabbed your head and started shaking it. Not pleasant at all! The way we ultimately dealt with this was by trying everything out in VR. A cool idea is worth nothing until you implement and try it out in VR to see how it feels. This has led us to dial down a lot of the visual tricks we’ve grown accustomed to using for wowing the player.

"Even a little screen shaking feels like someone has grabbed your head and started shaking it. Not pleasant at all."

We’ve had to make sure that everything is built to the correct scale and distance from the camera because the depth perception of the player cannot be fooled as easily as it might be on a TV Screen. Those buildings in the distance? They have to be genuinely massive. Battlezone’s tank cockpit, for example, went through much iteration until we found the right balance between it being too claustrophobic and too spacious.

We’ve had to ditch many of the established HUD paradigms for drawing the player’s eye to important messages or data. There are no convenient corners of the screen into which we can place the health bar or score! We’ve had to approach it as making an actual cockpit, with depth, that can be viewed in three dimensions. We tried to make everything fit in to the virtual physical space - on panels, screens or floating as holograms. It’s been tricky, but we’ve actually given the player intuitive and immediate access to lots of information just by glancing around them in the cockpit, rather than having to dig through tons of menus while pausing the game! -- Tim Jones, Rebellion Developments, Battlezone

Is there anything you're particularly proud of about the VR experience you've created? Anything unique and innovative, or any thorny challenge you managed to overcome?

I'm proud of how we maintained the simplicity of our game while adding the one thing VR is good for, immersion. Some people have asked why we're putting Thumper in VR if there's no point in looking around? In Thumper the experience isn't about looking around, its about being overwhelmed by the scale, velocity, and danger of what's around you, while being intensely focused on what's directly ahead in order to survive. We used VR to enhance those feelings and nothing more. Of course you're welcome to look around- at your peril. -- Gibson, Drool, Thumper

I think one review said we were correcting back to “virtual” in VR. We love that. It was never our intention to re-create an existing reality. Superhypercube has a lot of audio, visual and spatial call-backs to films and immersive experiences that inspire us, but it’s really its own reality. It’s way more perceptual than representational. -- Poremba, Kokoromi, Superhypercube

One of the truly special moments during development was seeing first-time players experience the ejection sequence. The moment a RIG is taken down, its pilot is ejected upward and caught in the air, ready to select the next insertion point into the arena. Players who experienced the ejection sequence in VR for the first time would invariably get a thrill from it, causing them to gasp or giggle. Being able to give such powerful moments of excitement to our players has been an absolute highlight for us. - Jackson, Guerilla Cambridge, RIGS: Mechanized Combat League

I’m glad that we managed to ship an experience that doesn’t try to put itself above the platform, or above the music being played. This was a tricky product to playtest, since the worlds are designed as companions to music-listening, and generally when we playtest, even with internal Harmonix employees, there’s a natural impatience to complete tasks and feel like you’re skillfully accomplishing things. But there’s no right or wrong way to listen to music. We don’t want players to ever feel “done” with MusicVR, or like they beat it. They should be curious to experience different songs inside of it, and feel invited to zone out. So trying not to accidentally cultivate task-oriented “game brain” (for lack of a better term), was definitely an ongoing challenge for us, especially in the interactive worlds.

I’m also proud of the fact that we’re shipping a VR experience that I was able to put my 70-year-old mother inside of, without making her uncomfortable. -- Carter, Harmonix, Music VR

"Movement is a challenging thing to get right because while VR feeds so many of your senses."

We’re proud of the fact that we’ve been able to deliver an actual full game - not just a VR “experience” or demo that you play once and then you are done with. As gamers and game developers we wanted to make something that we could see ourselves happily playing for hours and we believe we’ve done that!
 
On a more specific note, we’re also pretty chuffed that we’ve been able to make Battlezone feature fluid with high-speed player movement that the majority of players find comfortable and even exhilarating. Movement is a challenging thing to get right because while VR feeds so many of your senses, one thing it cannot fool (at the moment) is your body’s innate ability to detect acceleration. If your eyes are telling you that you are moving and your body is telling you that you are sitting in a chair, the disconnect is quite apparent. We’ve used a combination of many tricks to overcome this and it’s been worth the effort! -- Jones, Rebellion Developments, Battlezone

Wayward Sky uses a unique approach to locomotion and exploration. We switch between two different perspectives and scale changes during gameplay. For exploration, we use fixed 3rd person cameras set above a giant mechanical city in the sky that makes the world feel like a miniature set. We tend to call this tabletop scale. In these views, players use a Move controller to point and click around the environment to move the main character Bess to areas. As she approaches puzzles and areas of interaction, the view switches to a first person perspective from Bess's eye level. When this happens, the pointer becomes Bess's hands and the player is manipulating levers and other interactive objects from a new perspective. This camera switching method allows us to explore and traverse a large area without causing discomfort or motion sickness for the player. -- Ekanayake, Uber Entertainment, Wayward Sky

Being in VR we lose a lot of the storytelling tricks that have been developed over the last 120 years in making stories for the flat screen. One of our main goals with the piece was to create an emotional connection with people from all walks of life between the characters and the story. Everything that went into making it is there to support the core goal of telling the story and connecting with viewers. 

Every day we are faced with opportunities to develop new techniques for telling stories in this new medium. For example, when we started the project our plan based on our previous VR experience, The Rose & I, we didn't use cuts. We started Allumette with the idea that there would be no cuts because we had not seen anything in VR or in our tests where cuts worked well. But as we refined the story and were building it in VR, it became clear that we needed to find a way to create cuts but also to make sure they weren't jarring and didn't distract from the story or make the viewers feel uncomfortable. In the end, we found ways to incorporate elements from the story to create natural transitions so we could cut from scene to scene. -- Maidens, Penrose Studios, Allumette

Now that you've got a VR project under your belt, how have your thoughts on the future potential of the medium changed? What are you excited to see, what are you excited to make? Any bold predictions about where VR will be in 5 years?

Okay I'll go out on a limb here. I have a very strong opinion that people are fundamentally lazy, and they play video games to relax and have fun with minimal effort. I think the best VR experiences will ask for minimal calorie burn from the user. I don't have high expectations for games that involve looking around, or waving arms, or doing any kind of "work". 

The games that will work in VR will be the ones that highlight the strengths of current VR tech while also hiding it's weaknesses. I think we are a far way off from fully tricking our minds into believing we are somewhere else with VR. A true sense of immersion requires more than just visual information.

There's also the sense of balance and the feeling of acceleration throughout our bodies, among other things. Until we find a way to trick those senses as well, which will be more than 5 years out, I think the best VR games be like distilled and enhanced versions of the games we already love, that focus on the immersion aspect of VR, while hiding the tricky motion, and tracking issues. I don't think game controllers are ever going away to be honest, some things don't need fixing. -- Gibson, Drool, Thumper

The most interesting things might be things the creators of VR technology never intended. And many of the big "game changers" VR is supposed to deliver might fail miserably! I'm sure it will be interesting, but I'm not one to try and predict it. During the seven years we spent making Thumper, many tech fads came and went. I've learned it's best to focus on our artistic goals, take them as far as we possibly can, and only use new tech when it's useful to us.-- Flurry, Drool, Thumper

I think between the 4 of us, we run the full gamut between complete skepticism and total faith in a VR revolution. Things are changing so rapidly— there’s really no saying where we’re going to be in 5 years. -- Poremba, Kokoromi, Superhypercube

We’re particularly excited about player movement in VR, and we think there are many steps to take to enhance this further. In fact, in 5 years, we see no reason why VR won’t be the default medium for playing games. A flat screen is so passive and leaves the player removed from the experience, but VR draws you right in, puts you at the center, and everything you do is so entirely natural that the restricted information and experience offered by standard 2D screens will not be enough for people who want to truly experience a game. - Jackson, Guerilla Cambridge, RIGS: Mechanized Combat League

"A flat screen is so passive and leaves the player removed from the experience, but VR draws you right in."

I’m excited to see what interactions become standard practice. Various forms of that “gaze activated” mechanic I mentioned earlier feel like prime candidates for that, but who knows? There isn’t a ton of gameplay out there yet that wouldn’t be basically as good on a standard, 2D screen, so it will be great to see what kinds of games emerge that really lean into the medium’s unique affordances and strengths.

I’m personally excited to explore the kind of “instinct-driven input” you get from true 1:1 hand-tracking in a virtual space, and to combine that with the lizard brain appeal of rhythm gameplay. Moving your body to the music is transcendent, and VR controls could be better at getting players to do that than any other input paradigm. So that feels like fertile ground.

Of course, whatever the first killer VR app is will be a social experience. VR has the potential to be our next telephone, but I think we’re at least a few years away from the tech getting to the point where it’s appealing enough for mass audiences. Hopefully, in 5 years, we’re all getting excited about someone announcing the first VR/AR combo headset in a form factor slick and small enough to appeal to non-tech enthusiasts. I think that type of hardware will be when VR really takes off. But maybe 10 years is a more realistic prediction for that. -- Carter, Harmonix, Music VR

We’ve always been excited about the potential of VR, but having made Battlezone, that sense of the possibilities has only increased. I think VR is here to stay in one form or another – it’s just too extraordinary to be written off as just another tech gimmick or fad. There is so much inspired experimentation going on all over the industry at the moment. It’s impossible to predict what forms of gaming or entertainment genres may emerge... But I can’t wait to try them! -- Jones, Rebellion Developments, Battlezone

I think it's a wonderful medium that's just getting started and has a bright future. I'm especially interested in shared, co-op, and multiplayer VR experiences. I'd love to see desktop quality un-tethered VR in the near future as well as lighter headsets. - Ekanayake, Uber Entertainment, Wayward Sky

As we wrap up this chapter of Allumette it has reaffirmed that we are still in the very early days of VR and have so much more to learn and explore. We are very excited to continue to find new ways of storytelling in AR and VR. It still feels like we have only just scratch the surface of AR and VR storytelling and our tools are still primitive and evolving. My bold prediction is that while the tech in 5 years will be much better than today the amazing energy and excitement of learning to work in this new art form will be just as exciting as it is right now if not more so. We still have so much to learn. -- Maidens, Penrose Studios, Allumette



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