The Three Components of VR Game Design

Originally I planned to spend this week talking about my experiences with various Rift demos and what I feel each of them did right or wrong. However, there are plenty of sites out there already doing that. So instead, this week I want to talk about the components of game design I feel will be important to developers creating experiences exclusively for headsets like the Oculus Rift.


No One Really Knows What the Quintessential VR Experience is Yet

I believe the most popular virtual reality (VR) experiences – the first “killer apps” – are going to be immersive and accessible to someone who has never played a video game while also remaining fun and memorable for the most hardcore gamer on the planet. They can’t be difficult to interact with and they can’t require the skills of an experienced gamer. They have to be accessible to everyone.

What is that experience? No one knows. The fun of the next few years will be figuring that out.


Defining “Presence”

Presence is when wearing the Rift tricks your brain into thinking you’re actually inside a virtual world, even for a moment. It can be something as simple as flinching away from an approaching object, feeling your stomach drop as you speed down a hill, or forgetting that the table in front of you isn’t really there. It’s fragile, difficult to create, and memorable when achieved.

Presence is what people are talking about when they say the Oculus Rift is the future of virtual reality.


The Three Components of VR Game Design

First, I want to create a baseline for the components I’m about to discuss. When I talk about the Bubble, the Proxy, and the Controller, I’m accepting the following as true:

  • Our player has an Oculus Rift or equivalent headset, a computer, and a mouse and keyboard.
  • Our player does not have a 3rd party input device such as a controller, VR glove, etc.
  • Our player is sitting in a chair in front of a computer.

There are many exciting gloves, sensors, treadmills, and other awesome peripherals in development, but my components assume the baseline player for our “killer app” will just have a headset and a computer.


Component 1: The Bubble

The Bubble is the unbreachable space around the person wearing the Rift or a similar device. It can be an automobile, a spaceship, a submarine, a rollercoaster car, or even a game design that prohibits touching anything but your chair while sitting in a large room – whatever works for the experience. Designers need the Bubble because the Rift has no way to simulate physical sensations or solid objects, and any consumer technology to do so is at least a decade away.

Why is the Bubble important? Because when the game designer “pops” the Bubble for any reason, the player loses presence. Something in the experience breaks the illusion of being in the virtual world and the player’s mind reminds them “Yup, still sitting in a chair, still wearing a headset.”

A number of things can break the Bubble, including but not limited to:

  • Our head going through a seemingly solid object due to miscalculated collision.
  • An object coming close enough that we can touch it, but when we reach out, we can’t.
  • The experience displayed not matching our reality. An example – our experience involves swimming in ice cold water, but we know we’re actually sitting in a chair in a warm room.

Many of the Rift demos out now use Bubbles. The most popular experiences involve sitting in a spaceship, sitting in a car, sitting in a chair, and so on, and all of them have you sitting inside a “solid” object you can’t easily touch. Why? Because our body knows we’re sitting in a chair no matter what else we might see or hear. It is very difficult to make us think we’re somewhere else, and when what we’re seeing doesn’t match what we’re feeling, presence is hard to maintain.

If your VR experience is designed around your player being seated in something that collides with other things but never collides with them, they’ll have fewer reasons to question the experience.

If you want to create and maintain presence, don’t break the Bubble! *


Component 2: The Proxy

The Proxy is, as you might expect, you. Your body. In my case, there is nothing that breaks presence more quickly than looking down at myself and seeing… nothing. The Proxy increases immersion and is profoundly difficult to do with today’s technology. The player in your experience could be black, brown, white, male, female, tall, short, thin, round… the Proxy is as varied as humanity, and we all instinctively know what our bodies look like. Even something as simple as feeling unusually tall or short within a VR environment can break presence.

Those VR demos that provide a Proxy typically get around this by putting the Proxy in a thick, body-covering suit. A racing suit or a spacesuit are two great examples. The bulkier the suit gets, the easier it is for us to accept that our body is inside it. While the Proxy is not 100% essential to creating presence (if your player cooperates, they can simply agree not to ever look at themselves) any time a player notices their body’s absence they take a big hit to presence. **


Component 3: The Controller

Unlike the Bubble and the Proxy, the Controller is the most nebulous, especially since no one save the folks at Oculus know what sort of input devices will be available when the CV1 (Rift Consumer Version) ships. There are even (sensible) rumors that Oculus is developing their own input device and will ship it with the CV1. Regardless of what the Controller is – keyboard/mouse, XBox One or PS4 controller, racing wheel, flight joystick – it must be easy for anyone to use.

Today’s modern AAA video games become more difficult as the input options you offer the player increase. The more directions of movement available, the more control methods you provide, and the less binary those control methods become, the more difficult it becomes for a player to navigate your world. This is because using a controller/mouse to move and pressing buttons to do things isn’t intuitive. It is learned.

As a developer chasing that “killer app” we want a VR experience that is accessible to everyone, even non-gamers. Certainly, pushing a joystick or moving a mouse left or right is fairly easy to learn. Pushing a button or pulling a trigger to “fire” is too. But neither feels natural or immersive. Each time we do this is a reminder that we aren’t in the world we’re seeing around us. It fights against presence. ***

The most exciting thing about designing control schemes for the Rift is that we now have the most intuitive input method of all available – our own body’s movement. All humans know how to look around their environment. All humans know how to duck down, stand up, lean left, and lean right. Some of the actions that are most clunky on a game console for newbies are second nature to those wearing a VR headset for the first time. For this reason, I believe game developers should base their designs around the inputs of our bodies. Everyone knows how to do them and they build presence like nothing else.

This doesn’t mean the mouse/keyboard, joystick, and racing wheel should go away. It does mean that VR game developers must think carefully about what sorts of navigation methods and interactions they can create by using the sensors in the Rift itself. They must allow the player’s own natural movements to drive the experience. It’s no coincidence that when what we see happen in the Rift matches something we just did (like leaning down or standing up) presence follows. All our body’s senses – not just sight – line up with what we experienced in our virtual world. When a VR experience can do that on a consistent basis, it becomes one of the most powerful ways to create presence.

I believe the first VR “killer app” will use the player’s own movements in a significant way.


Moving Forward

Now that I’ve laid out the three components of VR design I believe are necessary to create presence, I’ll use next week’s blog to talk about how three different VR experiences have used (or not used) these components and what each of them got right. As a final caveat to this post, I want to clarify that I’m not claiming these three components are the end all/be all of VR game design. They’re just the “best guess” of an experienced game designer working with an established baseline.

If you have any comments, I’d love to read them!


* One possible exception: Anything that breaks the Bubble “kills” the player and restarts the game. Having a loud sound when the player “dies” and immediately dropping to black is fairly immersive!

** I’m excluding technologies like Sixense or PrioVR, which make it drastically easier to create and manipulate a Proxy, since we don’t know where those will be when the CV1 ships.

*** I’m excluding things like asking the player to use a racing wheel for a racing game, or a flight stick for a flight game, and then representing those within the virtual world. Those peripherals greatly increase presence in the proper environment (especially with a Proxy!) but the average user may not have them.


8 thoughts on “The Three Components of VR Game Design

  1. Pingback: Thoughts on Rift Experiences – Part 1 of 3 | Gamewords

  2. Pingback: Thoughts on Rift Experiences – Part 2 of 3 | Gamewords

  3. Pingback: Thoughts on Rift Experiences – Part 3 of 3 | Gamewords

  4. Hi Tebakutis and thank you for that very interesting article, I definitely agree that maintaining a “presence bubble” for immersive games is one of the key concepts for VR design. There are other applications for VR than immersion though, these will be harder to define and get to work but in 2 or 3 years they will be a huge trend too I think.
    If you have a DK1 close by and haven’t tried it, I suggest you get our game EpicDragonVR . I’m curious about your opinion on how we tackled the control and immersion issues.


    1. I’ll definitely check it out! I’ve had to scale back my Rift time since I’m now usually listening for a baby (total immersion is a downer in that case :p) but I’ll give it a download soon. Looking forward to it!


  5. Pingback: The Standard VR Cockpit, and Why I Want It | Gamewords

  6. Pingback: Why VR is Actually Here (This Time) | Gamewords

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