It's still early in the virtual reality (VR) gold rush, but game makers around the world are gaining traction. From independents and top studios alike, VR titles are entering the marketplace with more quality, better stories, and far fewer of the side effects that plagued early titles. According to TechRadar, HTC's Viveport* subscription service now offers over 150 VR titles. In October 2017, the Oculus* Head of Content, Jason Rubin, told RoadtoVR.com that nine titles have made more than USD 1 million in the Oculus store.
Clearly, the momentum is building. New hardware running at 90 frames per second (FPS) gets much of the credit, as HTC Vive*, Oculus Rift*, and Razer* Open Source Virtual Reality (OSVR) all pump up the power. Still, to make a great VR title, developers must adhere to some basic guidelines to make their games immersive and fun.
Figure 1. Ready at Dawn Studios* explores the interaction possible between an AI-powered robot and Captain Olivia Rhodes as they mine the rings of Saturn.
One stunning example is Lone Echo* from Ready at Dawn* Studios in Irvine, California. It's a space-based narrative adventure game featuring exploration and puzzle solving. Players assume the role of Jack, a service android helping to mine the rings of Saturn in the year 2126. Working with Captain Olivia Rhodes, the player's goal is to use technical ingenuity and futuristic tools to overcome a variety of challenges and obstacles while investigating a mysterious spatial anomaly.
Lone Echo won the Game Critics Award for Best VR Game at the Electronic Entertainment Expo 2017 (E3 2017). Reviewers gave it high marks for storytelling and its superior VR components such as locomotion, UI, and interaction. Clearly, the game is a good example of what developers should do with their projects. While the major VR headset makers offer their own best practices for VR game development, Intel has created a document based on the latest lab sessions, testing, and UX theory to encapsulate what it takes to make a great VR game. This case study describes how Lone Echo succeeded by following Intel's guidelines before the document was published.
Ready at Dawn Gets to Work
The Ready at Dawn team first envisioned a VR title in 2014. Founded in 2003 and composed of former members of Naughty Dog* and Blizzard Entertainment*, they had already produced Daxter* and the God of War* series, and were wrapping up The Order: 1886*. They weren't initially sold on VR, but they saw possibilities after meeting with Sony* and Oculus. "We didn't want to simply start making a VR game," according to Ru Weerasuriya, a Ready at Dawn co-founder. In a 2017 interview for RoadtoVR.com, he recalled, "We wanted to determine what about VR we needed to do differently. And that's how it started: We created a movement model to figure out how to break certain boundaries in VR."
Figure 2. The Lone Echo* game creators purposefully chose to make the player's view from the service android perspective rather than from the human captain.
The team used its own Ready at Dawn (RAD) engine, which could hit the 90-FPS threshold and adapted well to VR. Adamant about putting the player into the role of the service android, rather than the human, they experimented continually with a movement system that offered better locomotion in zero gravity than any other game.
The result makes the feeling of complete weightlessness in zero gravity a vital part of the game. Players no longer depend on a complex arrangement of keys, buttons, clicks, and toggles to move through their environment. Instead, they can grasp, push off, glide, and climb, navigating around obstacles and solving puzzles.
Figure 3. Experiencing zero gravity is one of the novelties of Lone Echo*.
Follow the Guidelines
Before driving the effort to create the Intel Guidelines for Immersive Virtual Reality Experiences, Susan Michalak studied anthropology at the University of Washington and then earned an advanced degree in human interface design. She consulted or worked at Apple*, Tektronix*, and Hewlett-Packard*, then settled at Intel in 2011 as a UX strategist focused on customer innovation in the Software and Services Group (SSG).
When asked to create VR heuristics, Michalak engaged Thug, LLC, a Portland, Oregon agency specializing in user research and experience design. "We wanted to understand what makes VR really immersive or enjoyable," Michalak said. "So, we tested a variety of games with a number of people, and we asked a lot of questions." The test subjects played the games and then completed exhaustive surveys that revealed their reactions.
After some analysis, the SSG team and Thug's researchers found several key aspects that correlated strongly with a sense of immersion and a sense of enjoyment. They also conducted a thorough literature review of existing data in the space, pulling in research from Microsoft*, Oculus, and HTC, among others. Based on this research, the team developed a set of guidelines to help developers create truly immersive experiences. A detailed review reveals that Lone Echo excels in three key areas of the guidelines:
- Provides a safe physical foundation
- Enhances basic realism
- Goes beyond novelty
When players slide on the headset for the first time, they find an eerily familiar VR setting that's often an amazingly accurate representation of the real world. Lone Echo can transport players to a distant planet, challenge them to a task that would often be too daunting in reality, and teach them something unimaginable. Rarely do players find such a riveting experience that encompasses all three, but Lone Echo defies the typical shooter game storyline, adding depth and immersive potential.
Figure 4. The captain's quarters feature workout gear to prevent muscle atrophy.
Physical Foundation Means Safety First
While one of the most important things to provide players in VR is physical safety, this game also enforces a concept of social safety.
Physical safety. Although the game requires whirling upper body motions and long-distance travel, players don't need a large playing area to enjoy the experience. The game comes to them, so there are no special requirements for staying safe. Players can ensure stability by wearing comfortable, flat shoes or no shoes at all.
Social safety. Captain Olivia Rhodes is a welcome change from the pattern of overly sexualized game characters. She's an intelligent, courageous space explorer, single-handedly running a space station on the rings of Saturn. Captain Rhodes is therefore a good role model, rather than merely eye candy.
A key factor to implementing social safety is discouraging negative behavior toward Captain Rhodes. When listening and responding to her questions through an arm-equipped chat tablet, her arm is often the nearest thing to grab onto for stability or to keep from floating away. In a respectful manner, Captain Rhodes will brush a player's hand away if they grip her for too long, as if to indicate that she finds your grasping gesture rude. This encourages respect for all players, whether they are human or a CPU.
VR sicknessprevention. Cybersickness is commonly recognized as the feeling of motion sickness or general queasiness caused by a VR experience's ineffective immersive traits. In earlier days of VR, this was a major deterrent. In fact, cybersickness affected 80 percent of VR users when the technology was first released.
Since then, technology has improved and Intel has established several criteria for game developers to follow to significantly reduce and avoid sickness for VR participants. Good system specs are a key. Carreira, founder and owner of InstaGeeked.com, says that, "To prevent motion sickness, players need to be able to look around [at] 90 FPS with no breaks, no crashes, and no latency, and that's it."
Joey Davidson at TechnoBuffalo.com reported from the Montreal International Game Summit 2015. He spotted a slide in a presentation from Vernon Harmon, the PlayStation* senior technical account manager at Sony Computer Entertainment America (SCEA), stating that, "Going fast is not optional" when it comes to VR. Harmon explained that "any dropped frames can cause discomfort, not just disruption of presence." This is more than just breaking immersion with choppy frame rates. This is about making players sick and uncomfortable, something that could easily hamstring VR.
Lone Echo does a noteworthy job of preventing cybersickness for its players. Here is how they did it, according to the Intel Guidelines for Immersive Virtual Reality Experiences:
Accurate viewpoint. The viewpoint of the character must be accurate and never veer off in a direction that is unnatural or unprovoked. The controllers in Jack's hands enable players to pivot without exposing them to a spinning motion. Instead, the world fades and brightens when players are in the new position, neatly avoiding motion sickness.
Figure 5. The Kronos II* bridge controls mining operations from remote dig sites to industrial processing plants.
Acceleration. In Lone Echo, acceleration is performed using one of two methods or both at the same time. On each of the player's wrists is a small jetpack that is initiated through a button on each hand's controller. These jetpacks are reminiscent of an underwater propulsion tool that deep-sea divers use to navigate deeper into the ocean. They are slow, but act as a very useful rudder in changing direction while gliding through zero gravity.
The second way to accelerate and move around the space station is to simply grab and push off of various floating objects, walls, Captain Rhodes, or anything else within reach. The game has no dead objects, so players can grab on to any beam or door handle that is most convenient. This makes the game a more immersive experience because players don't have to wonder if they can use an object.
When moving around the first few times, keeping control of direction is difficult. A challenging skill to master, once done it is the most fun way to move around. If players must stop, the game offers two options. The first is to push both jetpack toggle switches down, bringing players to a soft, yet effective halt. The second option is to grab on to nearby sturdy objects. This can result in the players' legs realistically swinging limply around them.
The wrist jetpacks help players gain control and tactically move around obstacles. When pushing off too fast for the first time, it is common for players to physically stumble as the character slams into a space station wall. When moving about in this manner, players must keep their feet in a wide stance, because their minds are convinced that they are truly floating in zero gravity.
Figure 6. Acceleration takes time to conquer, but after a while, players truly feel as though they are moving through space.
Believable Immersion is Crucial
For a game to provide the most believable immersion into the virtual world, it must remain coherent and consistent. Lone Echo succeeds at this in several ways.
Believable zero gravity. Nothing feels abnormal or unbelievable, which the Intel VR guidelines emphasize as one of the most important factors in making the VR experience more immersive.
Clear glass lines the walls, giving players a glimpse into the ominous, star-speckled environment. The glass material is easily identifiable by its glare, subconsciously letting players know they are safely inside an airtight space station. The detail of the ship's interior structure has a bare-bones feel. When speaking with Captain Rhodes, she maintains excellent eye contact, speaks in a smooth British accent, and has an eerily real face. Players may stop to get a closer look at the magnificent details of her rosy, flushed cheeks, blonde hair casually pushed back, and the slight fatigue that can be read in her eyes.
Graphical integrity. When accelerating or moving around the station, several speeds can be used, according to the method chosen to move from point A to point B. Whether players use wrist jetpacks or climb slowly around, the frame rate is consistent and believable.
To help prevent cybersickness and avoid distraction by unimportant details, the Intel VR guidelines advise that the sky be full of detail while the floor is muted and calm. Lone Echo follows this guideline particularly well, with its strategic placement of lighting and darker, less detailed background and flooring. The impeccable and ominous detail in the skyline sticks with players as a harbinger of challenges to come.
Figure 7. Even the welding torch in Lone Echo has a unique sound, adding to the immersive experience.
Realistic sound. The Intel Guidelines for Immersive Virtual Reality Experiences state that realistic sound is crucial in making a game more immersive. In Lone Echo, the wrist jetpacks make a distinct noise, similar to a welding torch, which indicates that the jets kicked in. The game also adheres to the guidelines by making it obvious where sounds are coming from.
Taking into consideration the noise difference between voice and the impact of an object, vibrations are paired with the sound of grabbing a box or running into a wall. When a new hatch is opened, the rattling of the station can be felt through small vibrations in the controllers and an accompanying sound. This combination of engaged senses makes for a more convincing and real-life VR experience. All the while, a haunted house-like soundtrack plays quietly in the background, setting a chilling and futuristic scene.
Be Creative — Go Beyond Novelty
VR players are looking for new experiences that take advantage of VR, not just ported games from a 2D world into 3D. Lone Echo succeeds with several interesting additions.
Challenging plot line. As the Intel VR guidelines suggest, novelty is crucial for appeal and interest in a game, but it can only take the game so far before the player loses their initial zeal. Lone Echo uses impressive graphics and a unique map to build a plot line that keeps players hooked. The tasks are thought-provoking, forcing players to explore the corners of the current room, and they require a good handle on the skills learned in various tutorials along the way.
For example, an early challenge initially seems like a simple task: gather loose cargo and return it to its designated storage hold. But upon finding and grabbing the first cargo box, players realize they then have only one hand to help navigate back to the hold, forcing them to innovate with newly acquired skills. Small challenges like this help players sharpen their gliding and grasping skills, ultimately making them feel more comfortable in the zero-gravity terrain. While chipping away at a list of tasks, an underlying fear exists of something from the galaxy threatening the safety of the space station, keeping players dedicated and needing to learn about the mission's looming fate.
Figure 8. Lone Echo offers soothing colors and beautiful graphics, enabling extensive engagement.
Tablets and tutorials. Players can view assigned tasks on a holographic tablet that is easily accessible from their wrist. The motion to open the list is similar to the swipe-to-open motion on a smartphone touch pad. A familiar vibration occurs when pressing the buttons, which makes it easy to use with the robotic dendrites.
For each new skill or tool introduced, the player completes a simulation test, which is essentially a tutorial. The game proceeds smoothly, with slight escalations in required skills so the player gains confidence and expertise as they conquer each challenge.
Extensive engagement. When reaching out to objects in the space station, players can engage with nearly everything. From cargo boxes, corners of structural beam supports, fellow robots, and latches on doors, almost everything has a surface that players can grab and push off from. This is crucial in grounding within the space station while floating around. With practice, players learn to grab the best spot on a box, for example, and push it at the proper angle. The push-offs become less calculated and more second nature.
When played on a system with the right specs—a fast graphics processing unit, but more importantly, a powerful CPU such as an offering from the new Intel® Core™ X-series Processor family—players can take full advantage of the video, audio, and artificial intelligence for a fresh, new experience. By sticking to emerging best practices, Lone Echo has set a high bar for VR games to follow.
As Michalak, says, "Ready at Dawn just happens to be really good at what they do, and their work helped us understand what makes a truly great VR game. But for developers who don't have that background or that strength, the Intel Guidelines for Immersive Virtual Reality Experiences can be very useful."
When a game concept is rare, impossible, dangerous, or expensive, it typically makes for a riveting experience, and Lone Echo offers a taste of all of the above. Best of all, players can explore living in zero gravity without having to endure freeze-dried food and that long flight to Saturn.