There Is No Offstage: The Practicalities of 360-Degree VR Game Worlds

VR environment in Loading Human

Games have often been thought of by developers and gamers alike as performance pieces. The entirety of Super Mario 3, for example, is designed to look as if the action is taking place on a stage, with characters acting out parts in the story, and with the lowering and raising of curtains symbolizing scene changes.

In virtual reality, though, there’s no “stage” as such: the player isn’t watching from a single perspective which is defined by the screen they’re viewing. Instead of a proscenium, VR is more of a fishbowl: a round theater with all of the action surrounding the player, rather than just in front of them.

This creates some new and interesting challenges for VR game developers—nothing can be hidden “offstage” until it’s needed, and there can’t be any cracks in the game environment for players to peek through.

At the same time, though, the 360-degree view creates some exciting opportunities for developers to add a greater level of depth to their gameplay experiences.

All the World’s Onstage

Because of the need to load large amounts of data, video games often have to be inventive with the way they store resources.

Often, game assets—textures, character models, and other objects—are kept just out of sight of the player until the moment they’re needed. This can create some fun glitches in cases when the player accidentally (or deliberately) accesses content that otherwise should be hidden—for example, if the player moves in the right way in the recently released Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, they can clip through a solid wall and into an empty ‘out of bounds’ area of the map that’s filled with invisible walls and objects.

Getting out of bounds is easy in some games, but can be disastrous for immersion in VR. (9:07 in the video)

Peeking behind the curtain is a fun experience in games that are viewed on a screen, but breaking immersion within a VR game by bumping into unexpected objects or seeing through walls can be hugely detrimental to the player’s experience. At best, dramatic moments within the game are robbed of their tension by silly errors. At worst, players can end up feeling nauseated as their entire VR world stops behaving by the standard laws of the universe.

For this reason, it’s important that VR games receive an extra layer of polish—no cracks can appear for the player that might separate them from the typical game state, and nothing can be hidden just out of sight, as there’s nowhere the player can’t look.

The 360-Degree Game World

Depending on how it’s used, the unique perspective of VR games can either confuse and disorient the player, or create more poignant storytelling.

Developers need to think of the entire space around the player as being part of the action, and nothing can simply appear from nowhere when the player’s back is turned—first-person shooters might be able to get away with this, but in a game where presence is everything, having a character pop up suddenly behind the player will damage the game’s sense of realism and space.

There have been plenty of games in the past that have accidentally broken immersion through trying to use the space behind a player as a loading zone. Take, for example, Sherlock Holmes Nemesis, which features a version of Dr. Watson which follows the player without ever walking—the character instead teleports to stand behind the player at all times.

Games need to respect the space behind the player, and not fill it with unexpected objects when they’re not looking. (source)

While this seems distracting enough in a traditional video game, in VR this kind of AI would be completely disorienting as the player tries to keep track of a character that moves around without impacting the world.

On the other side of the spectrum are games like Portal 2, which goes so far as to use the player’s movements to further the story and create fun moments. At one point, a character asks the player to turn around so that they can ‘hack’ (read: smash) a door. It’s a fun little moment that uses space as part of the delivery of a joke.

Using the space around the player for jokes and storytelling works in first person games, and is even more powerful in VR. (source)

Moments like these are all the more poignant within VR as the player physically turns their head, and as events around the player—both in front of and behind them—help to move the story forward.

Focusing Attention Towards Any Direction

There are a lot of ways that, as with the Portal 2 clip above, VR game developers can use the space around the player to further the plot and add greater immersion to the story. These make all the more difference in VR as they help to sell the illusion of the game.

Often, to avoid the player not knowing which way to turn in a 3D environment, it’s useful for the majority of the action to happen within the player’s comfortable range of vision—this avoids forcing the player to constantly swivel their head, risking nausea.

What’s more, the use of visuals and sounds throughout the environment—blinking lights, moving elements, or noises—will naturally draw the player’s attention to looking in the right direction, reducing the risk that the player might be looking at the wrong thing and miss something important.

Loading Human, for example, features an intercom on a door in an early part of the game, through which a person is talking to the player. The environment is fairly large and full of interesting things to explore, so the player might have their attention diverted for a while—but the noise from the intercom won’t stop, and eventually the player will decide to examine it, furthering the plot while keeping the player’s attention on the right part of the environment.

loading human vr game realistic interaction
The player’s environment is a large part of storytelling throughout Loading Human.

Moments like these make the best possible use of the VR environment and help to present all information within the game world in a way that helps the player to take in all that’s going on around them, even in a space where they could look in any direction and become distracted.

Using 360-Degree Environments Effectively Enhances Story

The vast worlds that surround the player in virtual reality can’t feature obvious shortcuts if the game is to truly sell the player on the game’s immersion.

Instead, it’s important for the player to be led by the environment to looking at the right things, and at the right times, to enjoy the story of the game. When this is done, the player can get the most out of the game world, while developers can use the space to show the player as much fun and interesting content as possible.

Loading Human is a VR adventure game with a rich story and plenty of unique areas to explore. To try it out for yourself, preorder the first chapter today.

 

Andrew Nguyen

Producer, gamer, coffee roaster, leather worker, and part-time streamer.

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