When constructing a virtual reality game, all developers come across the issue of space.
No, not outer space (although science fiction games are a lot of fun). The problem that developers face involves physical space as opposed to virtual space, and making games that don’t require more movement than players can manage in their living rooms, bedrooms, or dens.
It’s no fun to play a game that involves a lot of hand swinging or walking around if the player is going to be accidentally punching lampshades or tripping over furniture. There’s nothing like a visit to the hospital to break immersion, but restricting the player’s movement can take a lot away from the experience as well, when the player isn’t able to fully express their natural motions.
So where’s the happy medium? What can virtual reality games do to maximize VR movement capabilities within a limited space?
This Isn’t Exactly A New Problem
VR technology is by no means alone in facing the challenge of movement. Motion games for the Kinect and the Wii have also run afoul of the challenge of limited space, and there’s been plenty of collateral damage over the course of gamers jumping, swinging or punching their way through these games. In fact, the phenomenon of gamers injuring themselves while playing these games is so common that popular culture has created a word to describe the experience: ‘wiinjury’.
Early on after the release of the Wii, my little brother became one of the casualties, when a particularly enthusiastic downward serve in a game of Wii tennis connected with an overhanging light bulb. The bulb shattered, raining shards of glass on the twelve-year-old and permanently leaving a mark on the top of the controller: a reminder to my household that there are limits to how energetic a gamer should be.
These are problems that VR developers will have to address – whether games expect players to walk around or simply move their arms to interact with objects within the digital world, gamers have to move physically to provide digital input. And therein lies the problem.
Not Everyone Has a Basketball Court
Capturing player movement and transferring it into the game convincingly is a central focus of the technology behind virtual reality, and the limitations that have to be placed on games as a result inform how they develop.
While it would be entirely possible for VR games to track player movements with a 1:1 ratio as they walk around, this simply isn’t practical in the majority of cases. Without a large open space available, players run the risk of walking into walls or furniture while playing. Plus, not all players want to have to constantly run around to play games in virtual reality – for many, sitting comfortably is an important part of the video game experience.
This being the case, plenty of developers deliberately limit the space that their games take place in, or design the game so that most of the action happens while players are standing on the spot or sitting down.
Valve’s Portal-themed VR demo, for example, takes place in a confined space so that the player doesn’t need to walk around too much. This is a good use of an existing, familiar property – much of the action in the Portal series of games takes place in small boxes, so it doesn’t feel out of place.
Similarly, Job Simulator traps players in a tiny cubicle, performing tasks in a small office-based environment – the limitations on movement created by VR have informed not just the gameplay, but the entire theme of the game.
These are fantastic ways of utilizing limited space in games, but the fact remains that there is a problem with this mechanic: players can’t travel between environments, and exploration usually suffers when the game forces players to remain in one location throughout the game.
Sometimes, to make motion control work, games need to allow for a variety of inputs.
Buttons are the Future
Back in 2010, when Sony and Microsoft were arguing over the future of motion controls, both companies took a different approach. Microsoft’s Kinect involved moving around without any controller as a camera in the machine would track player movements. Sony opted to instead create the Move, a controller with a ball on the top and several buttons that looked a lot like a Wii controller.
The rivalry between Sony and Microsoft while these devices were in development led Sony to brag that their own Move technology had buttons, allowing for more detailed interaction – they argued that without additional input methods, all the Kinect was good for was ‘catching a big red ball’.
Sony had a point. The fact of the matter is that, while VR gaming has advanced in many ways and motion controls is adding an extra layer of depth to player interactions, button inputs and controllers are as important to the gaming experience as they’ve ever been.
Players are familiar with controllers. They know how to move a directional stick to move their avatar, and in many cases, pressing a button is more intuitive than physically leaving a seat when moving around in-game is required.
Plenty of VR games controllers, such as Sixense STEM and the Razer Hydra, allow both for motion control movement and button input, meaning that games can use directional sticks to control player movement, while using motion controls to manipulate the protagonist’s hands and help players to feel the world around them in a meaningful way.
It’s this approach to space that Loading Human makes use of, allowing players to remain seated while not limiting character movement and allowing for exploration. Having Prometheus move around to interact with the game world and the objects within it is right at the heart of the game, and as such, the inputs are designed to let players use their hands to interact with objects (leafing through books, opening locks, playing records) by capturing hand movements, and the player moves around using the controller’s joysticks.
No, the approach of using joysticks and buttons isn’t as immersive as some proponents of VR would prefer—but until we’ve all got to-scale arctic science base locations (and spaceships) that we can navigate around in seamlessly, it’s the best way to take advantage of a player’s physical space while still letting their character explore the world around them. VR technology offers amazing gaming advancements, but will still need to hold on to some standard conventions to offer the best gamer experience.
Loading Human is currently in development for VR—preorder your copy today!