Thinking Beyond the Headset: Overcoming Unique Challenges with Virtual Reality Games

challenges of virtual reality games

Horror games seem a natural match for virtual reality, but jump scares are an easy way to lose players like me. I can appreciate a good creepy atmosphere, some spooky music, a general sense of unease, but a jump scare just makes me angry, especially with technology as immersive as VR.

If being so close to the action (thanks to the headset and surround sound) and having each threat feel a little more visceral is what some players want, it’s also a dealbreaker for others. With VR being such a new field, devs are still figuring out what they can and cannot (and should and should not) do with the tech to appeal to audiences. While we’re still early in virtual reality’s home use, it’s already becoming clear that there are some issues that should be sweepingly addressed in all VR games.

Challenge #1: Problems with Physical Presence

Part of the appeal of virtual reality is also one of its biggest challenges: we want to feel physically present, but that often means giving us a body and personality that may not match our own. It’s a Catch-22—too many concrete details can be immersion-breaking, while not enough lack realism.

In virtual reality game Loading Human, you are Prometheus
In Loading Human, you inhabit Prometheus’ life and experience his choices, giving you an appreciation for the way the game tells a futuristic story with modern emotions and concerns.

The solution varies from game to game. In something like Loading Human, you’re inhabiting the body of a particular person with their own story, personality, and motivations, which could spell trouble if not handled properly. But because Loading Human is a story constructed around universal themes, you have ways to identify with Prometheus, even if he’s very different from you.

Though your gender, personal appearance, or other features may not match Prometheus entirely, you know from the beginning that you’re inhabiting his story, connected by relatable themes and problems rather than character customization. You can identify because his story is one that may mirror some of your own concerns and struggles, not because his appearance entirely matches yours.

This differs greatly from something like Minecraft, where who you are is as much up to you as what you do. Though you can zoom out into third-person view, the game is primarily played first-person, giving you an up-close look at whatever you’re doing.

In Minecraft, there’s no story to guide you, no objectives to complete. The game is entirely what you make of it, whether it’s becoming a productive farmer or venturing into the End to slay the Ender Dragon. Because the game isn’t realistic and is entirely open-ended, you’re not bothered by the lack of details. You see only nondescript, blocky arms—they could belong to anybody, giving you more presence in the game’s world without seeming out of place. It’s the complete opposite approach to Loading Human’s, but effective in a different way, letting you create the story and character you inhabit rather than providing you with one that’s already made.

Challenge #2: Not Addressing Nausea Isolates Players Prone to Motion Sickness

Unfortunately, overcoming nausea is one of the biggest challenges with virtual reality for developers. To ignore that possibility is to ignore a big part of the market—if people can’t play a game without throwing up, they’re not likely to play it at all. As Matthew Gilman said in his review of EVE: Valkyrie, “Every lump of praise and nugget of criticism I’ve fired at Eve: Valkyrie might all be completely irrelevant for a certain group of players, however […] there’s no escaping the game’s ability to cause tummy upsets for some.” No matter how good the game is, motion sickness can make it impossible to play for a large chunk of gamers.

Thankfully, motion sickness is an increasingly avoidable problem for developers. There are workarounds to ease the potential, including upgrading performance and creating unique systems of movement and navigation that eliminate some of the common causes of VR sickness. Compromises have to be made—your game may not be as graphically gorgeous if you have to work with a high frame rate and low latency, or you may need to sacrifice a head-bobbingly realistic movement system, but the payoff is players being able to engage with your work longer (a worthwhile sacrifice, one can imagine).

Challenge #3: Forgetting Beauty in 3D Leads to Dull Worlds

Not every game world needs to be beautiful, sure. But with VR being more immersive than any other platform, it seems a shame to rely on drab colors or boring environments when you could do so much more. Finding the sweet spot between realism and beauty is another potential challenge for virtual reality, especially when you consider the technological problems mentioned above.

Non-photorealistic graphics aren't necessary in Minecraft
Minecraft’s simple graphics don’t keep it from being beautiful. Image Source: rexx gon via Flickr.

It’s important to remember that games don’t have to be photorealistic to be beautiful. Minecraft has its own unique kind of beauty when you get past its blockiness, and that’s even easier to appreciate in VR. A game can be immersive without being beautiful to look at—think of Fallout 3’s green and gray palette—but having an environment rich in colors, details, and unique features certainly makes players more likely to explore.

Challenge #4: Ignoring 3D Audio Potential Does Technology a Disservice

Audio is incredibly important in virtual reality. Not only do you have access to high-definition sound built into the system, but there’s so much that you can do with it, as well. It’s not just about having crystal clear sounds, but what you can do with those sounds, that makes VR so interesting.

3D audio isn’t exactly new—this video making incredible use of binaural sound to simulate getting a haircut has been making internet rounds since 2007—but it has incredible applications in virtual reality. When you’re moving through a three-dimensional space, sound is an important indicator of what’s around you. Horror games can make great use of this by luring you with sounds of danger, moving around you in three dimensions to make you turn around to find nothing there. For games where you have to fight enemies, paying close attention to sound is a step up from previous indicators, and one that virtual reality games would do well to capitalize on.

Mindfully Making VR Games Avoids Potentially Disastrous Mistakes

Devs are already finding that the games getting the most attention in VR are those that tackle these challenges deliberately. Minecraft is already one of the most popular games for VR, and that’s because it seems ready-made for the technology; the graphics are simple but appealing, exploration is key, and you don’t need to identify with the player character to be immersed. Games like Loading Human, developed specifically for VR, are designed with these technologies in mind, leading to a more impressive experience overall.

There are still challenges with virtual reality to be discovered (and overcome), but when developers keep in mind the unique powers of the medium, we end up with incredibly innovative and powerful games.

Want to see virtual reality explored to its full storytelling potential? Preorder Loading Human, an engrossing sci-fi narrative adventure, today.


Andrew Nguyen

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

More Posts - Website

Follow Me: