GDC Europe 2014 – Sony’s Jed Ashforth on Rebooting Game Design for Virtual Reality

Posted August 12, 2014 by Edmund in News

On Tuesday morning, Senior game developer at SCEE’s WWS immersive technology group, Jed Ashforth gave a talk about designing for VR entitled “Rebooting Game Design for Virtual Reality.”

Jed Ashforth Sony

Jed Ashforth Sony

In it, Jed discussed a number of problems and possible solutions to designing for VR and highlighted 6 key concepts for VR designers to consider:

1 – We are no longer designing interactive movies

Instead, he suggested that we are imagineering theme park rides. When you go to a theme park for the first time, you dont tend to rush for the scariest rollercoaster, you work your way up to the big rides. Likewise, VR designers should allow users to acclimatise. Theme parks also carefully manage the visitors expectations, for example, the queuing area draws you into the experience – with props and signage that feed into the experience you’re about to have. Theme parks twist the queue through the ride, so you have a reasonable expectation of what’s to come. The overall experince is one that will provide thrills, certainly, but also gives a feeling that you’re in safe hands. VR designers, too, should try to make the player feel like they ate in safe hands.

Sony's Project Morpheus HMD

Sony’s Project Morpheus HMD

2- Give the player what they expect

Because the experience in VR is so close to real life, the players’ initial expectations are that everything should behave like real life. It is this effect that causes shocks, like a Zombie jumping out at you, to be incredibly powerful to the point of potentially being unwelcoming and unpleasant. Jed pointed out that users expectations can be adjusted in this regard by the use of things like UI elements – if that zombie has a health bar, for example, then your mind is more likely to react in terms of seeing the threat as part of a game – this may impact presence, but to the benefit of meeting a players expectations and altering the way they react.

3 – The deeper the immersion, the more fragile it is

Here Jed touched on the idea that deep immersion is the real goal, and that encompasses moments of presence (presence being something that is extremely hard, or at least difficult to acheive consistently). Even immersion, though, becomes increasingly fragile the closer to real life you get because  you create greater expectations of fidelity to the real world – then tiny details being ‘off’ can shatter that illusion – the so-called “uncanny VR-alley” . One proposed solution is to dial back a little on the realism to lower expectations and actually create a more robust and sustainable illusion and sense of immersion.

Later in the talk, Jed gave the example of an experiment that Sony did on a driving game that illuminates this point.  They gave one group the game using a steering wheel and another control group just using the Dual Shock 4 controller.

Sony Move Controllers

Sony Move Controllers

The steering wheel group were quickly jarred out of the experience by little details like the drivers fingers moving during gear-shifts, or something as simple as a mismatch between their avatar’s skin colour and their own. The Dual Shock group, by contrast had no such complaints and still maintained it was th most immersive driving experience that they had ever played.

4 – Mismatches are inevitable

This point feeds into why presence is so hard to consistently acheive. Mismatches between the real and virtual world can arise from a great number of places and you have to be at peace with the fact that they will occur, although that doesn’t stop you from acheiving great experiences in VR. Causes of mismatches include:

– body posture

– motion cues

– contact points with the seat and controller

Sony VR Demo The Deep

Sony VR Demo The Deep

– heat, touch, taste etc and, it should be noted that stimuli from the real world can impinge on the virtual – for example the smell of coffee being drunk nearby.

– a lack of resistive feedback

– Weight

– Locomotion

5 – Never take control of the player head

We all know that this is abig cause of simulation sickness. The player will *never* get used to it – we’ve been in control of our own head-look since we were born so it is highly unlikely we would ever be comfortable with it being wrested from us, without any corresponding physical feedback.

Jed noted that not being able to take control of the players view has big impacts on how we communicate with the player, and he suggested three ways of how to handle the traditional cutscene.

1st person in-world – (essentially the half-life model, although this can be hard to focus the players attention at key points)

3rd person in world – essentially a disembodied version of the above, as if you’re standing on stage in a stage play

cutting to a virtual cinema screen – comfortable, and doesn’t require adaption of existing assets if you’re porting a game, but does pose narrative issues around bringing a player out of the experience.

Jed emphasised that sudden cuts to a new viewpoint should be resisted and that if you need to do this, ensure you foreshadow such a cut to build players expectations of this happening.

Sony VR Demo

Sony VR Demo

6 – Comfort must be a priority

You can’t know if your user is new to VR or a veteran, which makes creating for comfort a challenge.

You also can’t know what the play space is like. Jed suggested that you have two options here – you can either tell users to clear a space like motion controllers on consoles do (although this can be off putting to lazier/messier users) or you could potentially have the user tell the game what the usable space is and have the game use the boundaries of that player-defined space. I imagine this would pose a number of other design challenges, but it’s certainly something I’d like to see explored.

Jed’s other points around comfort were to do with psychological comfort. In VR, conjuring emotion doesn’t seem that difficult, so rather than ‘turning it up to 11’ as we have traditionally done in games, we need to responsibly manage the emotional state of the user. Users may have any number of fears and phobias , including but not limited to, Vertigo, claustrophobia, Fear of the dark, Creature phobia, Extreme intense horror and Fear of void / empty spaces / isolation. Jed proposed that we need to develop techniques to allow players to progress past these points which may evoke powerful emotional reactions, and had a number of suggestions to allow players to either skip these sections outright or to dynamically change the intensity.

For example, if a user with vertigo is faced with a rickety bridge over a chasm, a “NOPE” shake of the head could trigger the option to have the bridge widen, add railings or reduce the drop. Designers could add an alternate route, or allow the user to skip to the next checkpoint, or have the challenged overcome by a cutscene (the “Nintendo approach”). Another suggestion was that you could allow the user to switch to a less immediate third person perspective, or even play out the problem section on a monitor (something a lot of us already do for particularly scary sections of horror games). There is a general principle that adding a bit more astraction will mean that you’ll be less likely to jar someone out of the experience and have someone stop playing.

Back view of Project Morpheus HMD

Back view of Project Morpheus HMD

Finally Jed talked a little more about some of the things that can be done with Project Morpheus to create unique VR experiences – the highlight of which was a mention of using controllers that you put down, whilst still being tracked – so that the game can make the object appear in the virtual world when you need to pick it up. He talked about a scenario where you may put down a sword in one room and then go on to pick up a torch in the next. Extra controllers could also be used to manage UI elements – for example a 3D map that you can position on your desk as you like. A very cool suggestion that I, for one, can’t wait to see tried out.

There are definitely some exciting and innovative ideas coming out of Sony’s Project Morpheus team, that promo a bright future for VR on consoles.

See our thoughts on Project Morpheus Here



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About the Author


Edmund Ward is a philosophy graduate who has focused on aesthetics and cultural critique in the information age. He grew up with 'the dream of the holodeck' and is prone to get very excited by new innovations in natural user-interfaces. Edmund is currently looking for volunteers to look after the glucose drip that will sustain his "fleshform" (as he insists on calling it) when he migrates permanently to VR.

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