Mobile Mavens

How do virtual reality's unique challenges affect how developers make and support games?

How do virtual reality's unique challenges affect how developers make and support games?

Virtual reality has brought with it an abundance of new opportunities for games companies.

And with that has come a number of new challenges that developers, publishers, service providers and tech companies have been tackling head on.

To find out exactly what the pioneers in the games space are doing to create a new wave of immersive games, we brought together a group of experts to discuss the opportunities and challenges in front of them.

Specifically, we asked:

  • How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?
  • How will these affect your approach to making and supporting games?
Mark Robinson CEO DeltaDNA

With over 15 years’ data mining experience, Mark co-founded deltaDNA, formerly GamesAnalytics, to unlock big data to drive player understanding, introducing the concept of Player Relationship Management to build better games.

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile and other platforms?

Everyone seems to agree that VR is going to initially monetise as a premium game experience. In premium mobile gaming, the importance of measuring player behaviour has often been a much lower priority for developers than it has in F2P games, which rely heavily on player retention to monetise.

In VR, the measurement of in-game behaviour will come to the fore for premium developers, as motion sickness is expected to be a big concern.

To a great extent, the success of VR as a first choice game technology will depend on premium VR developers measuring and responding to players’ in-game experiences and their effects on user retention and session lengths.

It’s going to be important to carefully balance the game and we may see quite divergent experiences created for players with different tolerance levels or playing styles.

How will these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

At deltaDNA, we expect to see many premium developers needing to get to grips with the F2P art of player retention in a short space of time. As a consequence, we expect our insight consultancy team to be busy helping VR developers to set-up their data schema so that it captures the granularity of data needed, as well as helping them to understand the implications of their player data.

They’ll also be setting-up and running A/B tests on the changes they want to make, to optimise the playing experience, for defined user segments.

From a purely analytical perspective, we would expect to see a higher density of events set in VR games, beyond the on-boarding stages and early game stages; an approach typical in F2P where the optimisation of first time user experience is essential.

The setting of a high density of events beyond on-boarding will enable detailed funnel measurement much deeper into the game. This will enable VR developers to engage in profiling player segments and balance the game experience for those who are susceptible to motion sickness, as well as identifying any part of the game that may consistently trigger it.

Sam Watts Game Producer Tammeka

VR dev from mobile dev is a bit like comparing apples to oranges, considering most is done with PC as end platform.

Comparing mobile VR dev to “standard” mobile dev makes sense, in that you have the same hardware limitations but higher demands upon it to render everything twice, once for each eye, although Unity is making things easier with single pass rendering, whilst maintaining a rock solid 60 frames per second (for mobile) without any frame drops technically recommended.

The aim for VR development is to create something fun to play whilst remaining comfortable for as many users as possible.
Sam Watts

This becomes more critical if developing for Google Cardboard as you have less control or knowledge over the end user’s device and capabilities so they could end up running the app on a device not recommended for mobile VR and give you a low rating as a result.

At least with Samsung Gear VR and soon Daydream VR, the list of supported devices is much narrower and controlled so that you have a known range as a developer to work within, and these are all recent phones so have more power available to ensure a comfortable experience.

The challenges of VR development are currently lessened due to the commercial releases of the major headsets and the maturity of the SDKs and development environments for VR. But that still doesn’t stop you having to deal with newer SDKs being released and updates to Unity and how VR is handled as performance improvements and new approaches are implemented.

Crucially the ultimate aim for VR development is to create something that is fun to play whilst remaining comfortable for as many users as possible.

Therefore every new feature and gameplay mechanic needs to be play tested and iterated upon to ensure user comfort is maintained; if you’ve been developing VR since the launch of Oculus DK1 on Kickstarter or beyond, you will need to find a regular batch of fresh VRgins to test on as your own sense of what is comfortable or not is skewed.

Ethan Einhorn Director of Marketing Sidekick VR

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?

The success of VR requires that players regularly make time in their schedules for a new activity. By contrast, mobile game sessions are designed to overlap with established activities, like watching television or waiting in a line.

This in not a significant issue when targeting enthusiast gamers, who already dedicate time to play on their PCs and consoles. But it's a challenge for publishers who are hoping to court the broad audience that mobile attracts.

Another issue is input fragmentation. There is no standard input method in VR yet, so games have to be built in a way that effectively supports touchpads, traditional gamepads, and motion controllers.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

Our focus is shifting towards players who self-identify as gamers - the type of audience that loves premium, skill-based, high intensity experiences. Players who are so excited about this new medium that they pay close attention to the week's new VR releases.

It's an audience that we believe will see explosive growth throughout the next three years. With games like Protocol Zero on Gear VR, we are aiming to deliver the reflex-driven action core consumers love, presented at a level of immersion that is impossible to achieve on a television set.

Mikael William Bergene Indie Developer individual

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?

Low performance and overheating in mobile VR doesn't just mean that a game becomes a less enjoyable experience, it instead becomes near unplayable and eventually nausea inducing. And with phones having such a wide spread of hardware it means that our limitations have to be taken 100% seriously.

A single bad VR experience hurts the growth of the technology itself and the entire industry.
Mikael William Bergene

A single bad VR experience hurts the growth of the technology itself and the entire industry as people will be much less likely to return to a medium which has given them a negative physical reaction.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

A comfortable VR experience is the foundation to any of my VR designs from the very start and I've had to halt development on a prototype when it turned out it simply wasn't reaching the level of comfort I was aiming for on the target hardware.

In many cases we can predict these things while it's still on the drawing board, but sometimes you have to make a simple playable prototype to make sure. Luckily these can be made rapidly without too much loss of time and resources.

Experimentation is how we find new approaches and I consider every project to be useful, even if it didn't work out in the end as something is always learned from it.

Rich Hancock Creative Director Ragtag Studios

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?

VR is a game changer and requires a completely different approach to mobile and traditional platform design. Mobile devices highlighted the use of gesture control and a move away from buttons. With VR we have to adapt everything we’ve learned about interface design into a fully immersed environment.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

Given the possibilities VR presents we need to be wary of creating over complicated systems. Using VR is mentally and physically demanding, putting strain on players. Every interaction needs to be carefully considered at the risk of tiring players early.

Andrew Wilton Technical Director Climax Studios New Zealand

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?

On platforms like Google Cardboard, the hardware is just a mobile phone clamped in a viewer, but the technical challenge is very different.

You cannot dip 60Hz. Dropping frames is just unacceptable, it shatters the whole illusion.
Andrew Wilton

On a mobile 3D action game, you’re typically aiming for the best possible look you can maintain at 30Hz, but if the visuals are really cool and you’re dipping to 20Hz, you’re probably still okay, people will accept the trade-off.

On VR though, you have to render two scenes, not one, and you have to hit 60Hz. You cannot dip below that: dropping frames is just unacceptable, it shatters the whole illusion. This means that a whole raft of standard graphic techniques from mobile don’t really carry over to VR.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

Ultimately VR forces you to treat frame rate less like an issue of visual quality and more like one of code solidity. If a scene falls below 60Hz, that’s pretty much as bad a crash bug: it has to be fixed immediately or you don’t know where you stand.

You end up pulling out some pretty unorthodox solutions. Post-processing effects like bloom take too long, and you can’t afford shadow maps either, but you still want good-looking shadows, so what can you do? You have to get inventive, maybe dig up some old school techniques and put a new spin on them. It’s fun!

Adam Robaszyński-Janiec Founder The House of Fables

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?

In our perspective as developer of premium (freemium - content unlocked once in a whole game) there isn't much of a difference and VR is way to go.

Domination of F2P games on mobile market is only getting bigger and are already gathering more then 97% of sales. The market is getting bigger, but customers are used to "free" content. So VR at its dawn needs to change behaviours (putting on an unsocial headset), and it seems to be a place to sell premium/paywalled content for the next couple years. That's exactly how we sell and know how to sell games.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

As we use the most common monetisation model in VR - premium, pay once and play forever. We are also used to make games that can be played within one or two evenings not much change in terms of making and supporting games. Obviously VR is a completely new medium so even though we have literally made over a dozen games, we find and have to solve lots of challenges, even with simple mechanics like hints in adventure games.

Katie Goode Creative Director Triangular Pixels

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?

When developing for VR and Mobile, we have found that we've had to put in just as much work for performance for both types devices. It doesn't matter on the type of VR device - it's been very similar to mobile in the way that we're always looking into ways to optimise.

Developing VR titles from a design perspective has been like the first time I got my hands on touch screen devices.
Katie Goode

Developing VR titles from a design perspective has been like the first time I got my hands on touch screen devices. There's been so many new opportunities and relearning.

However, VR is a whole other beast still, especially mobile VR. In the way you move from PC to mobile, it's like doing the same again in terms of difficulty in developing. From design and implementation, to performance.

Another area which is really different is now how players physical accessibility is completely opposite to that of a mobile phone. Touch screens and front facing cameras have been incredible tools for creating games that disabled users can play just as well as other players.

But with VR and tracked devices, disabled players are much more of a disadvantage in terms of gaming, with potentially the inability to crawl around, to move, to twist their heads fast, or maybe no ability to move their arms.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

We have to be really strict with ourselves, always pushing for better performance and play testing titles we develop. Language is starting to appear as it did for touch screen gaming, but we are a couple of years off yet - so now is the time for us to be defining that language ourselves.

Alex Schwartz CEO Owlchemy Labs

How do the challenges of VR differ from mobile?

As a fundamentally new medium, we have to constantly question and figure out what will and won't work in VR. Traditional games including mobile games have been around for quite some time and new designs can draw from many years of history and examples.

In VR, it's commonplace to build a mechanic, only to figure out that the gameplay we developed is cumbersome, unintuitive, or simply not fun! Additionally, there are incredibly high standards that must be met in order to make sure players have a comfortable experience.

Framerate used to be a fairly important aspect of the quality bar of a game but now it's been promoted to the #1 required element for comfort. Dropping even one frame can have disastrous consequences, so priorities must shift accordingly.

Additionally, things like camera movement, locomotion, interaction now must be considered with more care than before, due to the fact that players are no longer watching the experience, they are part of it, and developers have a new responsibility to protect the player experience and consider how our actions might affect the human being on the other end.

Lastly, we have removed so many abstractions that we previously relied on (pressing a button to crouch versus actually crouching!), we can leverage human interactions much more directly.

For example, we can rely on how people normally would navigate the space in real life, pick things up, throw things, and replicate how pouring, eating, etc. should work to create more natural interactions.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

We end up engaging in constant and rapid iteration in order to find what does and doesn't work in VR.

We have a team here that works well together and understands each other-- a necessity in order to keep nimble as we navigate this new medium.

Essentially our game design is like an extended game jam -- we're constantly stepping out and trying new things and cutting content aggressively that doesn't seem to work in VR.

I'm also a huge proponent of VR panels, workshops, talks, postmortems-- any form VR knowledge sharing. Communicating our lessons learned has enables everyone to make better content.

Oskar Burman CEO Fast Travel Games

I feel VR is going to need same “forget what you’ve learned” mentality as mobile to be mastered.
Oskar Burman

To me it’s very close to the way we had to rethink most of what we knew when we moved from PC/console to mobile. The genres working had to be rethought, the interaction methods was completely different, the hardware had other kinds of limitations. And the business models evolved into almost exclusively F2P titles.

I feel VR is going to need same “forget what you’ve learned” mentality to be mastered. Sure there’s pockets of information you can bring into VR both from the console/PC space and from mobile, but the composition of these components are quite unknown.

At Fast Travel Games this translates into lots and lots of prototyping, and fast iterations of new ideas. Usually you feel it in your gut if an idea or interaction method is fun and has potential. It’s just about trying enough times until you find something that you believe in.

Make sure you’re working in an environment that allows for fast iteration! The VR community still haven’t found the Angry Birds or Clash of Clans of VR, and I love it. It means the killer app is till out there to be found!

Tommy Palm Co-founder Resolution Games

With over two decades of experience as a game designer and entrepreneur, Tommy Palm has earned the title ‘Games Guru’ at leading casual social games company, King. He works at the forefront of the company’s prevalent cross-platform games initiatives taking games from social to mobile.

Tommy started programming games for the Commodore 64 back in 1986 as a hobby until 1999, when he founded Jadestone.

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?

Although VR requires and deserves a ground-up approach, we see some similarities and lessons learned from mobile worth considering as we work towards creating games for VR.

I have been making games professionally for the past 16 years and learned how I structure teams for increasing the chances of producing good results.

As you know, the games industry is a very hit driven market and personally I had most success by keeping the teams as small and fast moving as possible. It is important to combine the passion of building new games with a strict policy of killing projects that don’t work and moving on to those that will.

Additionally, there are many learnings from working on games like Candy Crush Saga that we feel have a good chance of evolving into best practices for VR too – like social integration, microtransactions, accessibility and more.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

This is one of the more exciting things about creating content in the forefront of VR. At this early stage we’re all exploring and defining best practices in the push for VR becoming mainstream.

We have already discovered some interesting lessons with games like Bait! and the many prototypes that we worked on prior. You will definitely recognise the level of polish and passion that will go into future projects.

It really just comes down to iterating fast, prototyping and exploring to discover what will and what will not work.

Oliver Kern Chief Commercial Officer Lockwood Publishing

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?

At Lockwood we run Avakin Life, the largest 3D virtual world on mobile. When people started developing for touch controlled mobile, they took the learning’s from PC or console or online and tried to apply them to mobile. Especially for UI and navigation that mostly didn’t work well.

Over time many great games have defined how good mobile UI should look and feel. With VR we are just at the beginning.
Oliver Kern

That said, you still get the one or other game that feels like a port from a PC version. However over time many great games have defined how good mobile UI should look and feel. With VR we are just at the beginning. So there are still exciting challenges around UI to solve.

Especially when you are creating immersive experiences you don’t want to have 2D clutter on the screen and you don’t want the user to constantly turn his head or tap on a button next to his or her head either. It’s great to experiment and learn what might work.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

As a mobile company, for us VR means mobile VR. We believe that that is where the scale will eventually be.

But it still has a long way to go. Our efforts are focused on participating in solving some of the VR challenges that are relevant for us: Moving around in a virtual world, navigating, interacting with other players. Our approach is to enhance the current game rather than building something separate.

Daniel Da Rocha Director Mudvark

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?

The player experience is at the heart of designing for VR. Early VR experiences were laden with low quality visuals and sickness inducing gameplay. This differs to mobile as there’s much more to think about in terms of how the player will view and interact with the game world.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

We now ensure that we build our games from the ground up to support VR and not shoehorn it into previous games. Players should be able to enjoy the game without feeling motion sick after a short period and the experience should be natural to them. Rigorous testing is key here.

Eddie Beardsmore Project Manager Coatsink

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?

You have to be aware of the technical limitations of your platform when developing for VR, especially if you’re working on a mobile VR title. Having to render everything twice can limit what you can achieve.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

Knowing your limits from the start can actually benefit a project, it helps to keep you grounded with what you can technically achieve and you can adapt your game design so that you develop the best possible experience.

Chris Hewish Head of Studio Survios

How do the challenges of VR development differ in comparison to mobile and other traditional platforms?

There are three major differences (and many smaller ones). The majors are:

  • Presence: Creating a deep sense of Presence and essentially tricking our brains into thinking the virtual is real.
  • Frame-rate and latency: For a great VR experience you’re game has to run at 90 framers per second, which is a huge hurdle and one of the reasons we’re seeing VR specific upgrades to processors and graphics cards enter the market. Every frame must be rendered twice, once for each eye. This essentially doubles the amount of work your processor needs to perform, which makes it very hard to attain a high level of visual fidelity while maintaining a strong frame-rate and sense of Presence. This also impacts things like how many enemies can appear on screen at the same time, and special visual effects.
  • Navigation: Player movement around the environment has been a unique problem to solve, as sudden movements of the players avatar or field of view can lead to a loss of Presence and a feeling of unease. This is further complicated when designing control schemes for high end VR controllers versus gamepad controllers.

How will these differences affect your approach to making and supporting games?

We’ve put a lot of hard work into experimenting with solution for all of these problems and are fortunate to have a great team of engineers who’ve been working with VR for a long time.

VR requires a much more technical approach to art, as the art team must be highly disciplined when creating and optimising assets.

Our design team is always thinking of the big three items mentioned above (Presence, frame-rate, navigation) when it comes to designing our levels and missions.

Iterate, iterate, iterate. Since VR is a new medium, there really aren’t any established “best practices” that we can copy when introducing new features. As such, we place great importance on iterating new ideas and giving things time to evolve before releasing.

Tomas Gillo Vice President of Development nDreams

How do the challenges of VR differ to mobile?

The differences are too numerous to cite in a single soundbite; embryonic and non-standardised controls in VR vs mature and evolved touchscreen inputs; stereoscopic 3D vs. 2D; processing horsepower; low adoption vs ubiquitous adoption – the list is long.

In VR there’s no guarantee that a user is looking exactly where you want them to be looking at any point in time.
Tomas Gillo

One fundamental challenge is that on a mobile device you have control over where the user is looking; as developers we can exactly choreograph the presentation of game assets to the screen.

Conversely, in VR there’s no guarantee that a user is looking exactly where you want them to be looking at any point in time – they are, after all, within a 360° scene and can therefore look anywhere. This presents unique challenges not just for GUI design, but also in-game progression signposting.

How do these affect your approach to making and supporting games?

We’re still discovering different approaches on how to solve these challenges. In the same way that touch-screen games quickly evolved from rudimentary implementations that drew upon well-known and understood interaction paradigms to much more novel interactions that truly leveraged the technology, the same is true of working in VR.

In terms of how that affects our approach to development, I’d say that it’s incredibly important for us to be open-minded to new potential solutions… and always be ready to be surprised!

I really don’t want to get precious about whether something is right or wrong too quickly; we need to keep exploring and innovating. VR technology is still very young and it’s evolving quickly – right now, we’re all still developing the vernacular.

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