Throwing out the rule book: The aches and pains of developing for VR

Alex Calvin
Throwing out the rule book: The aches and pains of developing for VR

After years of anticipation, VR is finally launching in the coming months.

And while there are some exciting games on the horizon for the tech, making these experiences has been anything but easy. Developing titles for VR has come with a long list of challenges that studios in the sector have had to overcome. And doing so has meant throwing away a long list of design conventions that we as an industry have taken for granted.

For 30 years we have been abstracting mechanics to buttons,” Alex Schwartz of Job Simulator studio Owlchemy Labs explains.

There would be a button to jump, another to crouch, one to do this and one to do that. Now we have removed all of the abstraction, and with motion controls and with VR where you can stand up and move around like in Job Simulator. There's nothing other than one to one interactions. It's a completely different paradigm. We have people who have been playing for 30 years and haven't quite had the introduction to VR yet and watch a video of a VR game and ask: ‘how do you crouch? What button do you hit?' and it's like: ‘no, you just actually do it in real life'. It's a completely different mind space that we're all figuring out for the first time right now.”

Elijah Freeman – who is working in Crytek's Robinson: The Journey - adds: Just like with any new medium, VR presents new challenges. It's exciting for the team, because they have to think about how to deliver experiences in a 3D space. You have to think about what's beside you, what's around you, what's behind you. The industry has to pay attention now, it has to identify that VR has become something legitimate in the overall experience.”

PlayStation VR game Battlezone (pictured, above)developer Rebellionhas also found making games for virtual reality a challenge.

What's been interesting about working on a ‘proper game in VR' is that we didn't actually know how much we would need to do differently until we started,” CEO Jason Kingsley says. In some way though, that's made it especially exciting.No-one knows what size the market will be, or when really, and pretty much everyone was starting from the same island of virtual reality ignorance as each other. The best successes will be to those who are happiest leaving their entrenched game design positions and are willing to experiment and explore.”

As a result of these new constraints, it's important for those working on VR to design their games around that platform.

We'll probably support VR,” The Witness developer Jonathan Blow says. But the best VR games are probably going to come from designing a game specifically for that platform only. If it's a really good game for that platform it won't even work without the VR gear.”

But as well as having to figure out what mechanics work within VR there are other tech challenges. For example, unlike console and PC games where frame rate is a concern, but not a deal breaker, VR headsets need to run at a strict 90 frames per second (twice –once on each screen) in order to not induce motion sickness.

The games industry has been chasing 60 frames,” Adam Orth of Adr1ft developer Three One Zero says. That's the Holy Grail. If it runs at that, it's great. When we were told VR needed to run at 90 we were like ‘f*ck, that's impossible'.

We struggled for a while, but we got there and are actually running quite a bit above that in some places. For VR, it was a challenge but we're there. It was a necessary thing for developers to have that thing forced upon them because it's just going to make everything better in the future.”

Owlchemy's Schwartz adds: It's an incredible challenge. The stakes have never been higher when it comes to hitting frame rate and avoiding bugs in VR. We've never before had it so that if a game crashes or freezes or hiccups or even misses one frame ever, people will get physically ill. We place performance and smooth frame rate above every other metric within our game. It's the absolute top priority all the time.”



This focus on frame rate and technical performance is imperative to VR's success. If a game makes someone sick at this early stage in VR's life, then it could do irreparable damage to the sector – just look at the last time VR came to the market in Nintendo's Virtual Boy.

But another part of ensuring VR's early success is a focus on premium products. And that's why Job Simulator developer (pictured, above) Owlchemy's Devin Reimer says that Oculus Rift's high specs and equally high price tag are important to the sector's initial launch.

What has ended up happening is quality trumping the desire to race for the cheapest product right out of the gate,” he explains.

We need to sell everyone on VR, and the only way to do that is to sell them good VR.”

He concludes: Price can come down over time, but you have to have a line in the sand to ensure a good experience. That's great.”

BUGBEARS

As well as shaking up the development scene, VR has changed how quality assurance works.

The testing plans have become much bigger,” CCP's lead designer on EVE ValykrieAndrew Willans says.

Everything that you create and that goes in the game can be analysed from every single angle. You can't really hide much in VR because the player can get there and see an object from any given angle, they can interact with it.

Aside from just looking for bugs, there's also the gameplay balance side of things which QA is heavily involved in. We get heat maps of a combat zone, and see where people are fighting, camping, and where people are hiding or particular trouble spots. All of that is amplified in virtual reality. There's so much more to test and take in. It's a bit of a weird one.

The workload of quality assurance in general has probably tripled because of the very nature of VR and the fact you can't hide behind anything – it's all there to be seen, warts and all.”

Elijah Freeman, executive producer on Crytek's Robinson: The Journey adds: QA is generally only looking for bugs with regards to functionality, graphical effects and so on. Now it's about experience – things like motion sickness. If you're not dealing with virtual reality in a responsible way, you can get motion sickness quite easily, and that has various degrees of severity.”

CHEAP AND CHEERFUL

While Oculus Rift has a rather high price point of 500, with speculation suggesting that PlayStation VR and HTC Vive will be in the same ball park, there are a number of cheaper options on the market. The likes of Samsung's Gear VR (pictured) and Merge VR use mobile phones in lieu of fancy screens. These experiences – while of a lower quality than their more expensive relatives – could drive adoption in the VR space due to their lower barrier to entry.

VR's big hurdle is getting as many people as p

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