By Shaun Quaintance – VR, in my opinion, is the best thing to happen to the games industry in quite some time. It takes games to a whole new level of immersion allowing me to forget even more about just how much of a failure I am in reality and, one of the focuses of this discussion, it opens up the possibility for so many new mechanics and design choices in genres that were once king of the industry until the FPS took over. I genuinely believe that VR is a catalyst that will shape the entire future of the games industry… however, before you take my enthusiasm as gospel please bare in mind that I also thought the Kinect would be fun.*
*Also see “Knack will be one of the best selling launch games for the next gen”, “university can’t be that hard” and “this game shouldn’t take too long to make” as other examples of why you shouldn’t always take my word for stuff.
PlayStation 4 launch title Knack is indeed getting a sequel!
This discussion will mainly focus on why, at least in the first generation of VR, we could see a decline in the FPS rule and an uprising in genres of old (platformer, point and click adventure and horror are the three I’m going to be focusing on) due to the limitations and new game design opportunities of VR. “BUT SHAUN!” I hear you say, instantly enraged before finishing the actual article, “those genres ARE still around because there are plenty of talented indie studios developing them, it’s just the greedy AAA studios that don’t care about them anymore, you must just hate indie studios!”. Well, first of all, please don’t interrupt me mid article as it’s rather rude and second if you had let me finish you would’ve read the following. I understand that plenty of talented indie studios are still developing games of those genres, why I myself am working on a platformer however I refuse to include myself in the ‘talented indie studios’ category as it would more than likely bring the average figure of talent down significantly across the board. Instead this discussion is focusing primarily on AAA studios as they, for the most part, develop the bigger games, get the bigger coverage, rake in the bigger cash and therefore by default define the biggest genre in the industry. So everyone on board now with what we’re talking about? No one else going to interrupt me? No one going to stop reading half way through just to point out flaws in my logic or somehow accuse me of sexism despite this little joke being the only reference to gender in the article? Good! Then let us move swiftly on as this paragraph is already twice as long as it should be. We will begin with one of the current limitations of VR gaming and something that I feel is deeply tied to said limitation, pacing.
Pacing is a vital ingredient to get just right in the stew of video game development, make your game drag and players will get bored, make it too fast and players will become exhausted and lack the enthusiasm to continue. A games pace should take the appearance of peaks and mountains allowing the player moments of rest to catch their breath before it gets taken away again during the game’s high moments. Not every game’s lowest and highest paces should be the same, however, instead, the peaks and mountains should form around the average pace of the game itself. For example, the highest paced section of a point and click adventure game is likely to be slower than the slowest paced section of an FPS. The average pace of the FPS genre is generally higher than those of platformers, point and click adventures and horror games, sure there are some exceptions but we’re looking at the core, the meat of the genre (also sorry about the sudden food references, it’s late afternoon at the time of writing this and I can smell my dinner almost ready…I’m hungry is what I’m trying to say).
Who doesn’t love a good boss fight?
The nature of VR means that movement of the head is more than likely required or encouraged during gameplay. It also means that an increase in pace will result in an increase of head movement or at least an increase in the speed of head movements. There’s this little thing that keeps popping up during discussions of VR that goes by the name of motion sickness. Now maybe it’s that I have somehow had the VR devices set up perfectly every time I’ve played, maybe it’s because my eyes and brain have been frazzled by the 24 years of constant point blank staring at screens or maybe it’s something else but for whatever reason I have yet to suffer from any type of motion sickness whilst playing VR (yay). However, many people do and that’s something that game designers should be actively fighting to prevent.
In the times I’ve studied people tripping over, banging their heads and generally making an arse of themselves playing VR I’ve noticed a little pattern forming, motion sickness is mostly experienced during games that have one of the following: a first-person view or a fast average pace. Everyone I’ve been with who has suffered motion sickness whilst playing has had it whilst playing games such as Rigs and Eve whereas games like Wayward Sky and Thumper didn’t affect them as much if at all. There have been ways to try and lessen or prevent motion sickness such as the blinders used while turning in Eagle Flight but players who don’t suffer from motion sickness can find them intrusive and immersion breaking, this means developers will have to spend time and money on giving the player the option to toggle it on or off.
Feeling dizzy yet?
But wait there’s more! Lets say that for some players blinders don’t work because believe it or not humans are in actual fact different from each other and not just one hive minded mess, however, there is another technique that does work for them, this means the developers must surely spend more of their time and money on also incorporating that technique because they already have the other one in and not putting this one in means they’re neglecting me and they owe me everything! (I feel like this is what someone oblivious to the process of game development will post on social media at some point in the near future).
If I was a developer, and by that I mean if I was actually able to finish the development of a game for once, I would look at all of that and think “fuck it, I’ll just develop a game that doesn’t require any of those techniques as it doesn’t make people motion sick in the first place, that will save me a lot of time, money and patience as I won’t have to rummage through the completely unwarranted hate to get to the genuinely helpful feedback”. Now, it might just be that I’m a lazy bum to have that train of thought but if that is what other developers begin to also think then it means FPS games are crossed off the list of possible genres to develop right away, instead we need a genre that is either generally in the third person, like platformers, or is generally slower paced, like horrors, or is generally both, like point and click adventure games.
Another quick thing I want to mention that I felt fit best in the pacing category was the ‘stop and take everything in’ effect (not the official name, I just made it up on the spot, genius I know). You know when you’re playing a game and it suddenly makes you stop in your tracks? It could be because a narrow pathway suddenly opens up into a stunning view of a mountain range or a 200-foot tall enemy looms in the distance, whatever it is you stop and take in the view before moving swiftly on with whatever it was you were doing. Every VR game in existence seems to have this effect on me at the moment and it can happen at literally any point in the game, why the other day I spent about 5 minutes just looking at and around a spanner I found in Wayward Sky…A SPANNER! What makes this more surprising is that anyone who knows me knows that I normally scream in fear at the sight of anything that can even remotely relate to manual labour. Although it doesn’t seem to be just me, take a look at videos of people trying VR or observe people you’re playing with and see which games they enjoy more and are immersed in the most. It seems to me that games with a slower overall pace, more rest points and fewer controls immersed people more, playing Rigs I wasn’t able to take in the world except for the brief moment before the start of a match whereas with games like Wayward Sky and Ocean Descent on PlayStation VR Worlds I’m able to stop and take in the virtual reality world that I’m experiencing. This could very well be something that only occurs for the first few months or so of playing VR games as we acclimatise ourselves to this new way of play but it’s still something that game designers may take into account for the time being when defining their game and is once again something that hinders the FPS genre more than it helps and vice versa for platformers, point and click adventure games and horror games.
Moving away from the limitations of VR gaming, I now want to talk about a way that VR can provide new and unique designs, mechanics and experiences. It’s something I like to call second screen gaming, or second screen experience, or something else I don’t know call it whatever the hell you want. While second screen gaming was around before VR I believe that VR shines a whole new light on it. Before I go on I should probably explain what second screen gaming is to anyone who is currently scratching their heads despite the fairly self-explanatory name I have provided for the experience (I feel like I have heard the phrase second screen gaming before but since I can’t remember the source I’m claiming it as my own…that’s how the internet works right?).
Second screen gaming is when more than one screen is used to…well…game. My favourite examples of second screen gaming are the Mario Chase, Luigi’s Ghost Mansion and Animal Crossing games on Nintendo Land for the Wii U (that’s right, I enjoyed the Wii U) as well as Fibbage and Quiplash on The Jackbox Party Pack for multiple consoles and PC. In the Nintendo Land games one player uses the screen on the gamepad whilst the others use the TV screen, the gamepad player will then have to face off against the TV players, in the case of Mario Chase the gamepad player has to hide in a maze/arena as the TV players try and hunt them down and catch them. With The Jackbox Party Pack players use their mobiles and tablets as controllers to type and select answers to the questions that appear on the TV (by the way if you haven’t played The Jackbox Party Pack before then please do, it’s a hilarious selection of games that are best played when drunk as you then have an excuse for any extremely offensive answers that just so happen to come from your device).
There is already a few examples of second screen gaming for VR as well. Playroom VR on the PS4 has several mini-games that utilise second screen gaming, these involve the VR player chasing down TV players as a giant monster, TV players spotting ghosts as the VR player goes to bust them and TV players yelling out descriptions of a bad guy in a western bar as the VR player has to try and find them in a crowd and shoot them down. There is also a game for PSVR called Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes, this game sees the VR player sat in front of a bomb with several puzzles that require solving in order to defuse it. The VR player has to describe said puzzles whilst the TV players scroll through the bomb defusal manual and try to guide the VR player through the process of defusing the bomb. While these are all good, fun ways of utilising second screen gaming they are quite short experiences clocking in at a few minutes maximum for each one, I’m going to be looking for possible ways to implement second screen gaming into slightly longer games.
The yellow wire. Cut the yellow wire!
Let’s start with a few of the main game design decisions when creating a second screen gaming experience. The first one is what form will the experience take? Will it be a co-operative game that pits both players against the big mean game designer and his unending hordes of hazards and enemies or will you go down the competitive route so you can sit back with some popcorn and watch as friendships end, marriages collapse and families divide all whilst laugh maniacally in your head as you know that your evil genius caused this, you sick twisted game designer you, I bet you enjoy Monopoly as well don’t you? You make me sick. There is another type of second-screen experience that from this moment on I shall name the meddler experience, this has the least structure in the sense of rules and mechanics but can also provide it’s own unique magic, I shall explain further in due time but for now let’s look deeper at co-operative and competitive forms.
If I have to play a multiplayer game I always 100% of the time prefer co-operative over competitive. I feel like the sense of adventure and achievement when it’s a group of friends overcoming the challenges set before them by the game designer is magnitudes greater than killing another player because you’re on the other team so that’s why. I’m also able to become more immersed in co-operative multiplayer as it always tends to have better set ups and lore as well as a wider variety of level design, hazards and enemies. Anyway enough of me rambling on about why competitive can choke on a fat one, co-operative comes with its own challenges to design for, especially with second screen gaming where the player’s experiences will naturally be different due to the use of different devices.
One of the most important aspects to get right is to make sure that both players feel like they’re making a difference, that their participation in the game is vital to the success of the group. A perfect example of this done oh so wrong is New Super Mario Bros U (that’s right I hate a Wii U game, it’s almost as if there were good AND bad parts of the Wii U, shocking revelation right?). In the 8,376th Mario game, the gamepad player can place several platforms at a time down in the level by simply touching the gamepad’s screen, this can help the other players navigate the level or provide cover against incoming hazards and enemies. It already sounds like the most tedious task of all time but it gets worse when you consider that the levels you play through whilst in this mode are the exact same as the single player levels, this means that the level design can cater to just one player completing it without the help of the gamepad player…so what’s the point of the gamepad player? You feel so unneeded and pointless as the gamepad player that during my turns I often threw the rule book out of the window and decided to turn on my comrades by placing platforms in the way of them mid jump and watched as they plummeted to their kid friendly demise…I can be a dick if I get bored on a game by the way.
So how can co-operative second screen experiences be used for VR games? For the three genres that we’re looking at I have come up with the following for each one. Everyone remembers Crash Twinsanity right? Of course you do it’s one of the gems of the games industry! (if you don’t know me by the way I consider any and every Crash Bandicoot game a gem of the games industry so just go along with it). There are several sections during the game where Dr. Cortex is running head first into a series of hazards and it is up to the player to clear these hazards and create a nice safe pathway. I always enjoyed these sections and often wished for some sort of co-op form of them, well now with VR it’s possible (it was always possible but now it will be fun for other people as well as just me!). The VR player would play the role of Dr. Cortex as they stand to gain the most immersion from being the one going head on into the hazards and for not being in an amazing virtual reality the TV player gets the perk of having the VR player’s life hang in their balance. Other little tweaks such as giving the VR player control of their character would obviously be implemented otherwise it would still just be a single player game but I feel this premise could provide the base for a very fun and innovative platformer.
With point and click adventure games you can simply transfer some power to the second player. Point and click is very puzzle orientated most of the time so instead of designing the game around the player being a lone detective (I’m not saying make him an actual detective otherwise every point and click game would be the same then, this is just figuratively) design the game around the group being a pair of detectives, a Sherlock and Watson if you wish. One player is able to solve a certain set of puzzles and the other player is able to solve another set of puzzles, the game intertwines both puzzle sets and requires them to be solved simultaneously in order for the group to proceed, this means that both players have to communicate and work together in order to solve the larger picture/puzzle. Both players have a responsibility, both players are vital to the success of the other and both players feel smart at the end of it (unless they are absolutely brain dead and can’t solve the puzzles in which case they both just come out of it looking a bit special).
Elementary my dear Watson
Horror games are a little harder to design for co-operatively just because there is almost an instinctive duty to scare the shit out of whichever poor soul has the VR headset on rather than working alongside them when playing, however, I have attempted to think of a scenario nonetheless. There’s another Wii U launch game that I thoroughly enjoyed called Zombii U, for those of you who haven’t seen or played it Zombii U is a zombie game (duh) set in merry ol’ England. The player wakes to find themselves in a sort of safe house with the voice of another survivor speaking to them, this voice talks to the player throughout the game and whenever the player dies their character dies with them as the player wakes up once again in the safe house but as a whole new character. Now let’s tweak this design a little bit, we’ll have the VR player take the role of the safe house survivor and the TV player take the role of the mysterious voice. The TV player has to guide the VR player from one safe house to another. There are many different rules we can add to increase the suspense for the TV player (the VR player has enough suspense as they are in a virtual zombie reality the poor sod), for example we could add some sort of timer, perhaps the TV player is in the end level safe house and requires the supplies that the VR player is holding in order to survive, this gives the VR player a bit of leverage as well just in case the TV player gets that itching feeling of betrayal. We could also get rid of the multiple lives mechanic and implement a rogue like system to further encourage team work, this way if the VR player dies both players fail instantly whereas before the VR player would’ve failed due to dying, however, the TV player isn’t really punished at all.
I realise as I type all this that it seems like I’m simply stealing current games and incorporating VR into them with a few tweaks here and there. This is purely just a limitation of the ever increasing word count that I’m trying to avoid, using already designed games as examples I can attempt to paint a picture in your head of the game design I’m thinking of without resorting to a 200 page GDD (if you do however wish to read a 200 page GDD then you’re more than welcome to ask for a copy…didn’t think so).
Finally, we come to the FPS. I know that it’s hard to trust people in this day and age but trust me when I say that the above examples of second screen gaming experiences where thought up in the space of about 5 minutes whilst I was enjoying a nice cup of tea (I imagine it shows as well). However, when it came to FPS I found myself struggling to think of ways in which it could work. FPS players tend to be very competitive which already puts it at a disadvantage when it comes to the co-operative side of second screen gaming. The above example as well that worked with other genres feel like they won’t work quite as well with FPS, the platformer example doesn’t really work, how can the TV player really help when the VR player is equipped with weapons? With the point and click design you can’t really incorporate many puzzles into an FPS that are complex enough to require two people without taking the feeling of an FPS away. The horror design could possibly work, there are many scenarios which you could come up with, perhaps add a stealth element to the game and have more of a Splinter Cell FPS game where the TV player guides the VR player through an earpiece in game. The TV player could only have clues and parts of the level design and enemy info meaning the two have to work together in order to complete the mission (FUCK! This game actually sounds like it could work…shit this doesn’t help the point I’m trying to make at all). However, I feel like the horror genre could come up with many more varieties of this design than an FPS, that doesn’t mean FPS games of this design shouldn’t be made but means that it’s more likely the horror genre that will be chosen over it which, if you read the article intro again, is exactly what we’re discussing.
Onwards to competitive which comes with a new set of balancing decisions compared to co-operative. Whereas co-operative needs to make sure both players feel like they matter, with competitive both players need to feel like they have a fair and fighting chance at winning since, once again, both players experiences will be different to the others due to the devices being used. For example with an FPS simply giving both players the same mechanics, controls and rules would create a multitude of balancing issues, the VR player would be far more accurate due to head movement vs gamepad/mouse, depending on what devices are used one player will also have a greater field of view giving them another advantage. There are ways to fix this, ways such as nerfing the aiming speed of one of the players, however, these quick fixes will often result in one player feeling like they’re being treated unfairly purely because of the device they’re using. Instead, I feel like giving each player a different role with its own mechanics, rules and controls is a much better way to proceed as not only does it create unique experiences for each player but it is also easier to balance the individual roles and provides more replayability as players can try out each role. This is the route I took when coming up with the following quick examples of competitive second screen gaming in VR.
We’ll start with the platformer first. Since I liked the basic premise behind the co-operative version so much I’m going to build on that and twist it to form a competitive mode (I also want to keep mentioning it as I really want someone to make an actual game out of it…please? I would do it but it’d never see the light of day, played FOG yet?….exactly). Anyway, in the co-operative mode the players had to work together to avoid hazards and enemies, this time it is up to the non-VR player to produce, place and trigger those hazards and enemies. Think of the non-VR player as one of those douchebag dungeon masters you can get sometimes, the ones that have some sort of inferiority complex and thus decide that it’s their story so they can do whatever the hell they want and what they want is to be an absolute bellend to all the other innocent players, that’s the role of the non-VR player…to be a bellend. Both players begin with basic abilities and branching upgrade paths that are unlocked as the game progresses. The VR player will have to use their abilities and quick reactions to duck, dip, dive and dodge past the onslaught of hazards and enemies as they make their way to an end goal (this end goal could be anything, if you want an arcadey feel then they have to clear a certain number of waves, if you want a more fantasy/dungeon-crawler feel then give them an area that they have to reach and possibly a boss to defeat).
The horror genre fits a game I’ve been designing (aka jotting constant notes down on google drive as my coding skills are nowhere near good enough for the scope of it) for a little while now. This idea was mainly inspired by the 4v1 game Evolve which sees 4 players trying to trap and kill the other player who takes the role of a monster. My thought process was what if the rules were flipped? What if it’s the 1 setting traps and trying to kill the 4? and most importantly what if the game was actually fun and not riddled with micro transactions? Of course with second screen gaming and the stage that VR is at currently we’d more than likely settle for 1v1 for now.
So, picture this. The VR player awakens in an abandoned mansion…except there is also a maniacal killer locked in the mansion with them (ooo you can just feel the tension oozing from this). The non-VR player takes the role of said killer and must…well…kill the VR player in order to win the game, this can be achieved through a combination of weapons, traps and the VR players own recklessness. Since the odds are clearly stacked in the favour of the killer in regards to strength it’s only fair to even it up by giving the VR player a different type of advantage like, for example, multiple ways to win. The VR player can win the game by doing one of three things, escape the mansion, survive until sunrise (oh yeah it’s at night time for extra creepiness by the way), or find a way to kill the killer. To mix things up as well as increase replayability we could add different level designs with their own unique rules, items and mechanics, places such as an abandoned hospital, an abandoned school, an abandoned church and even an UNABANDONED woods (didn’t see that little swerve coming did you?). There’s also the possibility for different classes each player can choose from in order to add an extra bit of spice.
Now I’m not going to lie, I struggled just as much with the point and click genre as I did with FPS for competitive second screen gaming. In fact, I probably struggled more but admitting that too much means I would have to go back through the whole article and make little edits buuuut have you seen how long this bastard is now!? I ain’t got time for that so instead I shall just ignore it and continue pretending that the FPS is the only genre that could struggle in the initial generation of VR (and who said journalism was hard eh?).
Unlike the other genres I mentioned I just couldn’t for the life of me come up with any ideas that I was confident with for FPS (see, just going on like nothings happened). Like I said earlier designing a straight FPS for both devices would create many balancing issues so the question is what sort of roles could each player take? The main FPS role would surely go to the VR player as they would again stand to gain the most immersion from that role, that just leaves the non-VR player. They could take the form of a drone that the VR player has to find and shoot down however not only does that sound tedious for both parties it still presents the same balancing issues as before in that the VR player will be able to aim very accurately meaning the drone doesn’t have much of a chance once spotted. You could have the non-VR player as a sort of dungeon master but once again, like earlier in the co-operative section, there is a different genre that could cater to that design better.
I mentioned earlier about the meddler type of second screen gaming. I’ll briefly explain what it is and give a quick example before wrapping this bad boy up. The meddler is a style where there isn’t any specific set of rules or mechanics but instead the non-VR player is able to meddle with the VR player’s game through various means. For example, in the horror genre, the non-VR player may be able to interact with certain objects and trigger different set pieces like flickering the lights or rustling some curtains, the same premise goes for all the other genres including FPS.
As you can see it doesn’t sound like there is anyway near as much depth to this style of second screen gaming as there is to co-operative and competitive and to a certain extent you would be right, the isn’t as much depth in regards to what the game designer has laid out for the player however it can increase the chance of emergent gameplay. Emergent gameplay is when players come up with their own sets of strategies, rules and mechanics using the tools provided to them by the game designer, even exploits that aren’t a result of outside interference can be considered as a form of emergent gameplay.
Although the emergent gameplay is possible in any type of game it is usually more present in games that give you a set of items, tools and mechanics before letting you off the reigns to figure out stuff for yourself. With the previous horror example, you could come up with multiple different scenarios and games, for example, if items that the non-VR player can interact with also affect NPCs then you could use them to aid the VR player in their desperate time of need. On the other hand going back to our deep desires to watch people shit themselves playing horror games you could make your own game where the non-VR player has to use the items to scare the VR player, the player who manages to last the longest before having to take the VR headset off wins. As I said the meddler style isn’t as detailed due to there being less ‘design’, in fact, the majority of the designs would be similar across each genre including FPS. However, I thought I might as well mention it as we were already on the topic of second screen gaming in VR and this bloody thing is already longer than the vast majority of my uni essays were so why the hell not?
So here we are, the end of the road/article. We’ve taken a quick (ha! Quick my ass) look at why some of the limitations of VR, as well as the new game designs and mechanics it allows through second screen gaming, may result in a decline in FPS games and a rise in other genres during the start of this new era of gaming. Of course this won’t affect standard gaming and hell it may not even affect VR gaming in which case this was a major waste of both mine and your time, however it is always nice to discuss actual game design during this current period in the games industry where people seem more interested in talking bloody politics rather than just playing games…you know…that one thing we all love and is the whole reason we’re in this industry.
Of course, this article also doesn’t mean that I think the FPS genre will never be at the top for VR gaming, I’m sure that as game designers explore more and more they will find new ways to make it work. Why one of the designs I thought of for an FPS game when writing the second screen gaming sections was a mix between the co-operative and competitive styles. It involved the VR and non-VR player working together but against other paired players online, this would allow co-operative play whilst also maintaining the competitiveness of the FPS genre, however I didn’t include this in the main section as I was looking at designs that would work today and at this moment in time I don’t think an online VR game like that will see the light of day.
For now, I believe that platformers, point and click adventures and horror games are the ones that stand to gain the most from VR and will be the genres we see the majority of the time (although in my own selfish way I wish horror wasn’t one of those genres. I know people do but I just don’t for the life of me find the fun in being scared, I don’t care what Black Mirror says about feeling more alive than before playing due to the adrenaline rush, that’s bullshit! All I feel is a great sense of anxiety as I sit alone in the studio with nothing but the empty void of the night staring at me through the windows before sprinting up to the house and finding a childhood toy to hold close as I reassure myself that there aren’t any baddies hiding in my cupboard. Also, the price of clean underwear to keep up a hobby of horror gaming is just too much for me). Now if you’ll excuse me I’m off to play some Job Simulator as it’s the closest I’ll ever come to the real thing.
Keep on gaming.
P.S. I’ve only just realised while reading through this endless scroll that I didn’t really explain in the end why this has any relevance to AAA studios over indie studios (other than the initial being bigger thus deciding the bigger genres thing). Basically, it comes down to time, money and AAA studios not being able to or not willing to take as many risks. VR games are a huge unknown, developers are exploring many different ways to make them work and this obviously takes the ol’ Benjamins and time (I couldn’t think of one for time…sorry). This is one of the main reasons why the majority of VR games can be seen as rather pricey for their length (another reason, if you’re a GAME shopper is because said retailer is greedier than me during Christmas dinner). That’s why if the limitations of motion sickness require more work for an FPS than for a point and click you’re more likely to see point and clicks. The designs I went through earlier are currently easier, and therefore less costly and time-consuming, to implement on platformers, point and click adventure games and horror games thus the possibility of an initial increase of those genres over the FPS. Of course, once everyone settles into VR, the technology becomes cheaper and superior design patterns begin to form we could see any genre take the reigns, maybe even a new one…
Anyway, now I’ve got that off my chest I shall actually let you be this time…oh and being a discussion and all means that, despite what some people may think at times, it’s not just one person’s opinion that matters. If you feel you have a burning desire to slate or praise what I’ve said, come up with a few VR design ideas of your own or just tell me how Black Mirror is the best TV show ever made because I had one little bad remark about a single episode then feel free to use the comment box place oh so conveniently below, I promise I will 100% definitely read them…promise.
Keep on gaming…again.