VR is all about immersion. It’s about allowing players to lose themselves in more than just a game, but a new world. You have to build VR experiences the right way to make this happen. This goal is always top-of-mind for Schell Games. In this interview, we spoke to Schell Games’ Vice President of Product, Charlie Amis, to learn their story.
“For VR, you want to make the player feel like they’re actually in the world you’ve created. This isn’t as true or a high priority in PC and console games. If people start to lose that sense of presence and immersion, then a lot of the reason they put the headset on is hurt. They want to go to another world or be someone new. So you need to help them feel like they’re really there and really that new person.”
With that in mind, here’s what Charlie had to say.
Let people play out the fantasy
Simulation is key for a successful VR game. Much more so than other consoles. People want things to feel real.
“It’s clear that simulation, as both a genre and concept, is far more popular in VR than in Console and PC games. It’s also defined a bit differently. VR players generally want to experience things as close to reality as possible.”
Take your players’ imagination and turn it into a reality
When chatting with Charlie, he said one of the biggest reasons why they went with the concept for I Expect You To Die was because they asked the question:
“Would it be cool to be a spy in VR? Among Us VR is similar here, too. Being able to actually play as an Impostor or Crewmate in first person was just so appealing to players.”
If we were to play Among Us as a real-life physical game, how would we do it? We would run around the ship and complete the tasks with our hands. That’s what the VR version should be.”
So if you’re ever stuck for ideas, think about what roles or fantasies your players will want to experience, and take it from there.
Make the gameplay satisfying
Helping a player experience their fantasy is only half of the work. You have to make the game satisfying to keep them hooked.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if you could be [fill in the blank]? So many games have that question baked into their core. Then it’s about how satisfying those interactions you can do in that new role. Does it feel good when playing? Are the interactions intuitive? Is it fun to do these interactions a ton of times?”
There’s the distinction. Start with the fantasy. And then make it satisfying and fun. That was Schell Games’ mindset when they started work on Among Us VR.
“For Among Us VR, a camera above the map facing down (like in the PC version), playing in third person, wouldn’t have worked. Players want to walk through the hallway and be physically in the game. Otherwise, what’s the point of a VR version?”
Your players won’t notice missing objects
But they will notice objects they can see but can’t interact with. If they can’t pick up or mess around with items, it can break the experience. This was especially the case with I Expect You To Die.
“There was a champagne bottle in the first level that didn’t do anything originally. But players were picking it up. And you should be able to pop the cork. You should be able to drink it. You should be able to break the bottle. And then the broken bottle shards should be able to cut things. Otherwise, you’re breaking immersion, hurting how intuitive your interactions are, and missing out on a lot of fun.”
“There are many objects in PC and console games that are just… there. Which is fine. It’s background stuff that fills the room, and you do not expect it to be interactive. But you’ll see in many VR games that there’s less junk. But the stuff that is there, the player can and should be able to interact with,” Charlie added.
With the champagne bottle, they had a choice to make: either make it interactive or remove it altogether. Schell Games chose the first option (and they made it part of the level). But for you, if it’s too much work to develop further, then remove it. Otherwise, you’ll break the immersive experience.
You need fresh techniques to direct your players
In most flat games, you can layer different techniques to help guide your players through the level. VR, however, is more complicated. Your player could be shorter and not see or reach something. They may not know to look up. You have to give them an extra hand in places to help them progress.
“There are problems in VR where the player may not look where you want them to. And you don’t want to be too obvious; otherwise, it’s too easy and less immersive. But you can layer in techniques. So for I Expect You To Die, rather than saying ‘look up’, we had a bit of dust fall from the ceiling. We found our players naturally looked up to that.
“In one level, we had a water tower that the player needed to interact with. Because it was far away from the player, they didn’t notice. We added a light, but it didn’t help. So we added a slow blinking light, which did catch our player’s attention. But we had to do it in a natural way,” Charlie added.
You may have to get creative. Playtesting is crucial at this point. Getting live feedback from your players when they get stuck can help you come up with creative ideas to get around the problem.
Don’t bite off more than you can chew
Once you have the base gameplay sorted, your next job is to decide what other features to add. If you’re adapting an existing game, what changes do you make to the original version?
When recreating Among Us for VR platforms, Schell Games only made two major changes to the original game.
“We started with simple changes. Aside from making it first person, which was incredibly important, the next big one was adding spatial voice chat. It made the game feel more real. You don’t want to hear every player at the same time, but being able to hear a conversation from around the corner is exciting. You wonder, can I trust them or not? That’s interesting and new gameplay for Among Us”
There were plenty more features and mechanics the team considered adding. One, in particular, was having multiple floors on a level for players to explore.
“There’s so much more we could have done and could still do. We thought about adding multiple vertical levels to the map for players to climb to. But we decided to focus on small things first and see how the community responds before taking on more changes to the original.“
It’s better to start small and then layer in more post-launch. Not only does it help your team manage the workload, but it means you can roll out more content to keep your players engaged later. You can see what Schell Games has on their roadmap for Among Us VR to get an idea of what pace they work at.
VR takes double the time and double the tech
VR is much more demanding. It’s an entire 3D world your players can explore and get lost in. And many of the regular tricks that devs use to save on rendering costs are lost when building VR games.
“It does take much longer to build a great VR game. One example on the visual side is that players can pick up many more objects and look at them from every angle and up very close. Having your objects be static or only rendering the visible sides to save processing power doesn’t work as much in VR because of this.”
And you can’t lose out on quality. VR games, although they’re now much better quality, can still make your players ill.
“If you’re not careful with how you develop your VR game, you can make your players physically sick. If the frame rate drops too much, or there’s a problem with the floor collision, and you fall off the map, it can be extra bad for the player. A collision glitch like that in a PC game that may be funny or silly is a lot more intense in VR.”
You’re rendering everything twice
You have two screens you’re working with. Double the screens, double the render. And at a high framerate (anything under 72fps in VR can make players uncomfortable). This is another reason you’ll find fewer objects and extraneous visual detail in VR titles.
“You have a screen for each eye, and you’re basically doubling the amount of performance costs for VR games. But it won’t be long until better tech is released and the ceiling on what’s possible rises.”
Players can move their camera into odd spots, bring objects close to their face, and the GPU needs to render two versions. So it’s demanding on the graphics card. It’s like running two copies of Fortnite on your computer – one for each eye. And unless you have your VR headset hooked up to a beefy computer, you’re working with a mobile CPU to manage all that.
Use analytics to make informed decisions
“We use analytics in a few different ways after we launch. For our I Expect You To Die games, analytics helps us prioritize and iterate which features to use for our sequels. If we know from playtesting that players generally really enjoy specific features, but we see from analytics that players aren’t engaging with them, perhaps it’s a good idea to make them more accessible in our next game.
“Analytics played a big role for Among Us VR liveops. As a multiplayer PvP (player versus player) game, it’s critical to get the balance right between crewmates and imposters. Finding out who is winning more often, when, and why, helped us to make changes to the balance and create a better experience for everyone.”
When we asked Schell Games what they’re using, they recommended User Testing for their playtesting, and GameAnalytics for collecting quantitative data.
You can’t treat AR/MR the same way as VR
Schell Games recently started building games using AR and MR technology. A lot of developers go in thinking they’re the same. But after speaking with the team, they told us that isn’t always the case.
“Mixed reality and VR have very different design aspects. You can’t control the level design much in MR and AR. Your game experience has to adapt to every player’s own space. They put the headset on to go beyond reality, but they’re still in the same room. So you have to make it extra special.”
AR games need a lighter touch than VR games. They’re much more stripped back.
“It’s tempting to add a lot to your experience. But it’s often better to add small elements that change the real world in a dramatic way. You need to work with the environment that is there and “augment” it. The more virtual objects you add, the less mixed reality it is.”
Keep it simple with small changes that make a big impact. If you add too much to AR/MR, ask yourself: Should I be making a VR game instead?
Use analytics to perfect your VR world
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