VR Design for Game Designers – Pt.2: Cater for my Phone

Part 2: Cater for my Phone


In this post we continue to look at the lessons game designers need to take onboard, as we all move to making games for virtual reality. You can see my previous article; Be Careful With Me – which tackled looking after the five foot something, games playing, vulnerable, occasionally dizzy sack of water we now have almost complete control over. This post concentrates more on the hardware. Specifically, I want to talk about using phones, and to some degree tablets.

For the foreseeable future, phones are going to be the common way to access Virtual Reality. Premium experiences on consoles and PCs, particularly the latter, will remain exactly that because of one component which will remain so close to the forefront of technology, it’ll force prices to sit at the upper edge affordability — the screen.

I can no longer tell the difference between individual pixels on my phone. That’s not a ‘retina’ measure at arm’s length — that’s eyes up as close as I can focus! In fact, I couldn’t on my previous phone, which had half as many pixels. However, in a VR headset, which is essentially two microscopes, even subpixels become all too apparent.

Consider that a typical viewing angle for cinema is 35 degrees. If you slot a 1080p phone into a VR headset which gives it a stereo, 90 degree field of view, your virtual cinema screen will treat each eye to a moving image running at below VGA resolution! If you want to enjoy a 4K 3D film, in VR, your phone screen will need to be around 25,000 pixels wide!

Of course, you can get a 4K film with a 4K screen, or a stereo 4K film with two, but that sort of clarity with a VR FOV requires much, much more. Most people will only want the expense of one such screen in their life. People are happy to pay for a cutting edge phone — in fact, they’ve already got one — so that’s where the screen they need is.


I’m Not Ready Yet!

Presenting a VR experience on a device which is not primarily designed for VR, requires compromise. If you’re reading this on your phone, you’re probably doing so in a regular, 2D browser. That’s the default view for your device, and exactly how I expect you to come to my 3D VR game.

At some point, I will pass you over to stereo view which works in your device’s headset. I know I won’t do this immediately, because that means I won’t own the experience of that crossover. So where do we put it?

Well, it depends. There are some features which require a 2D view. If your experience features any of these, you will need to begin your game with a traditional menu. These feature fall into two categories.

  1. You wish to offer a 2D/mono view — VR mode can only be used by people with VR glasses. If you want to include everyone else, you need to offer a 2D mode of play. Typically this will involve the player holder their device at arm’s length and turning around to control the application. See “My phone is Actually a Tablet” below.
  2. You wish to show screens which are beyond your ability to easily place in 3D space, or would be difficult to control in 3D space — Commonly for us, this means the high score screen. It’s just about achievable to place high score functionality in VR (see “I have no Buttons”), but that’s exponentially more difficult if you’re using Game Centre on Android or iOS. You have screens provided for a standardised user flow — use them; use them in 2D.

If either of these describe your game, you’re now beginning with a 2D menu up front. You also need to consider that all the 2D functionality should be put there, so the user doesn’t have to move their device in and out their headset more than they have to — including not visiting the 2D menu between lives, levels, or rounds.

If these do not describe your app, you can begin with 2D loading, and a 2D readiness screen (which may be the same screen) which tells the user to place their phone in a cardboard device or similar. Show the readiness message in portrait, then replace with VR mode once the device is rotated to landscape.


My Phone is Actually a Tablet

Your VR games should be playable on tablets. Lots of people own tablets. Tablets can offer an analogous experience to VR on phones thusly — 2D at arm’s length. It’s like a personal planetarium! In fact, if you don’t own a VR headset, 2D on a tablet is the next best solution.

This is a very nice way to play games. In fact, it can work, less well, on phone screens too. Go over to the YouTube app on your phone or tablet, and search for “360 degree video” and try it out. I think they show too much of the frame at once, particularly for a phone, so you get a slight fish-eyeing — it’s still a nice effect though.

Most VR games play at around 100 degrees, but on tablets you want closer to 60. If you care to detect for phones and your experience can lose some scene without hurting the gameplay, 35. That’s still a lot higher than you can see, but a compromise between realism and playing a game without severe tunnel vision. With the actual universe in the user’s periphery, you can afford to narrow the field of a view a little more, without making them nauseous.


I have no Buttons

You user’s headset might not have any buttons (rare), or it might have a button which is so unresponsive it cannot be used during games (considerably less rare).

The first Google Cardboard used a magnet as a switch. It was horrible and not terribly reliable. New Cardboards, and most similar devices, tap the screen. That’s faster and more reliable, but you wouldn’t trust your life with it — not even a virtual life, in a virtual environment, in virtual reality.

If you’re designing for Google Cardboard (as a platform, regardless of actual headset), you should be trusting there is a button that is fine for menus, but no good for time sensitive functions. You never want a game’s difficulty to be a product of the input method — it would make the user feel as though they’re fighting with you. My common solution is to rely on the user to stare at a button for around a second (adjusted per experience) to fill up a timer circling the reticle, to initiate the related action. It takes longer than a button press, but it’s a reliable time by which we can balance the game.


No Taskbars, Thanks

iOS and Android have a status bar at the top of the screen. Android may also have an action bar at the bottom of the screen. These are not welcome in stereo 3D! It may seem obvious, but it needs saying. I wouldn’t show either of these (without swiping up for Android’s action bar) on any game, but it’s incredibly important for VR — and I’ve seen games made for high profile brands fall over here!

If one of these bars is shown while in VR, it resizes the screen. The user takes a small hit to the correct field of view they set up for their device, a larger hit to the position of the centre of the screen which should be exactly between their eyes, and a massive hit to what’s happening in their periphery. One of these bars displayed while in VR mode, puts a bright object to the outside edge of one of the user’s eyes, which burns a purple rhombus onto the back of their retina!

It’s incredibly uncomfortable.


Let Me Hear You

Most VR games run on phones, and most phones normally have media volume low or off while headphones are out. Assume people are playing games without headphones — that means they’ve got their device in a headset with volume down. It’s a pain to come out of the game, take your phone out, up the volume, find it changed the ringer volume (!), correct it to have media volume back up, re-insert your device, and put the headset back on.

Most VR headsets don’t have volume buttons, so you need to build to avoid this eventuality. If the volume is very low or off, prompt the user and ask them if the want it turning up. If they do, do it in the game — either set it comfortably, give them the option of ‘loud enough’ or ‘louder still’, or give them a slider to move.

If you have a 2D menu at the start of the game, this can be more simply solved with a message, or message and slider. If you’re making your game for a platform which doesn’t allow access to volume control. A message at the start is all you can manage.


You Don’t Know Where I Am!

Don’t make people turn all the way round regularly, unless they have positional control. Android and iOS devices normally only track rotations. Within a VR universe on a phone, you’re locked to a point at the centre of your head. You can turn and look anywhere, and you can also expect to have some input system for moving within the world, but lateral movement is not measured. This limits the sort of games you can put on a phone, which would be otherwise fine on a premium VR system which tracks movement within a space.

The slight disconnect between the way you move your head in real life, and the way your phone game reacts, creates motion sickness. The sickness is a product of movement, so only affects games where the user is asked to move a lot. The comfort and stability of a swivel chair can vastly reduce this, but they’re not as common in people’s homes as they are in the office where you’re testing your software! In a house, the only space someone can turn around in safely while wearing a headset, is often the kitchen — stood up.

If people are using a joypad, they can sit down, so you can expect them to turn more often. Did you require your users to connect a joypad? You will reduce how many people will play your app, but you may improve the experience for those who do.

A lot of the design decisions you have to make for a new platform that works across many slightly different pieces of hardware, is where to put the cut off for compatibility — if you want more people to play it, you need to build for a lesser system, so you will restrict your design.

Constraint can drive creativity. Try not to block people from trying Virtual Reality. It sells itself very well, but markets itself poorly.

About The Author

Sean Thompson Producer

8 years at Dubit and 14 years in Game Design, Programming and Production. Degree with Honours in Games, Virtual Reality, and Simulation.

LinkedIn | Twitter


VR Design for Game Designers – Pt.1: Be Careful With Me

Part 1: Be Careful With Me


Dear game designer,

You’ve been working with a flat rectangle for years now. It might be high contrast and have a decent dot pitch, but it’s got a pitiful field of view and it’s all the way over there! I’m not about to tell you to forget everything you know about games design, as you make the move to designing games in virtual reality – it’s all still pertinent. You do have some new things to learn though.

Just as you design different for phones than windowed games on PCs or full screen console games, so you need to for Virtual Reality games. This one’s a fairly large jump.

This, first in a series of posts, contains lessons learnt through our own error. We’ve been making games and telling stories on screens for years, but we’ve never had to change they way we think about conveying information so quickly as right now – as we transition to building games for VR.

Oculus have documentation on best practises, and it’s a good read (if long), but doesn’t convey the weight of certain requirements. We’re compiling this list as we find and solve problems, so you don’t have to. These all result from issues we’ve found while building games for VR, which would never have been a problem on a 2D screen.

Part 1 deals with comfort. Without good comfort, you limit the player to a maximum of around 20 minutes of play time. That’s not long enough to retain someone, so your game will have difficulty being anything beyond a novelty unless you can ensure players are happy being in your world.


Don’t Tire Me

001frankfort plane3-01

Position the world for comfort. The player’s natural position should be looking at the horizon – within about 8 degrees of horizontal. Making them look up can be particularly tiring for them.

wall game3


Under certain circumstances, VR games can work well looking down at a field of action -looking down can actually relieve the pressure of having a headset rest on the user’s nose – but you should give the player plenty of occasion to look back up to the horizontal.

If you are designing a game which requires a bird’s-eye view for the player, consider placing the action far forward, so the user only needs to look down slightly. Alternatively, rotate the world so that the area of play appears to be on the wall in front of the player, and so gravity falls away forwards. A 90 degree rotation makes the new horizon line clear.







Look After My Eyes

003 field

Begin games by allowing people to get their eyes in, with nothing close to the screen.

It can take a few seconds to get the 3D effect working on a VR headset – particularly on cheaper devices or when they’re running of a small phone screen. If you’re an end user, you can try looking at something in the distance to get the effect, then back at the foreground action. If you’re a game designer, try to build this into the design.

 The key  is to avoid foreground action. You can’t change the focal distance – that’s down to the hardware – but you will affect the eyes’ divergence. The closer you get to ocular infinity, the more relaxed the user will be.  A sky or landscape is best, but even the back wall of a large room is normally fine – aim for the centre 15 degree cone having nothing appearing to be nearer to the user than around 4 metres.


Don’t Give Me a Headache

busy street2

Do not make the scene too busy. We do not have the resolution, framerate or field of view to allow the sort of high contrast and high motion scenes in VR people can stand in real life.

We can track an object clearing a 90 degree VR FOV in around 0.2 seconds, as long as it follows a predictable path. We’re pretty fast, but that’s the limit and it’s not relaxing. It’s also not possible to track something that’s moving randomly that fast. Our reaction time is similar (a little less if there’s an audio cue, a little more if not), so consider building that time in on every sharp change of direction. That’s a good start point, and decent figures to base level design on, but it doesn’t quite get us to something relaxing.

We’ll also assume we have a slightly slow reaction time of a quarter of a second. Let’s consider that the cone of comfort is 15 degrees, that people are comfortable moving their eyes within a cone of 30 degrees for extended periods without tiring, and double again to a 60 degree cone for limited time. Given most VR headsets offer a FOV of a little more than 90 degrees, we can estimate the user’s reaction to objects taking different times to move entirely across the display.


Up to 1.5 seconds - The upper limit for not causing discomfort.  Around 0.75 seconds - Easy to track in isolation, but can become tiring.  Below 0.4 seconds - The limit of what most people can track. Expect your users to follow behind these objects.


Don’t Make Me Nauseous

Make sure you transition between game states in a way which doesn’t make the player dizzy. No hard teleports – ie, no single frame translations or rotations. That goes for everything in the scene, not just the player – in fact, it’s more important for other objects in the scene. Sudden movements are seen like flashing lights to the user. Flashing lights are tiring.

Sometimes you have to teleport the user. It’s unavoidable. It’s good to design the game so users can move from one place to another, but you will find times where that just gets in the way if the game mechanic, of the story, or just isn’t technically feasible. If you’re in that position, try to stick to these rules

  1. The player should expect the change. Selecting to begin a game, or go to another menu, or having just completed a level will achieve this.

  2. The transition should be slow. A fade to black then back up seems to be the most comfortable. But a crossfade or other tween could be made to work well if used with point 3.

  3. Put the player somewhere similar. At the very least, that means they’re the same way up! The further you push this idea though, the less you need to lean on point 2. If you’re careful with the scene, you could approach a match cut.

space odyssey

For objects in the scene, it’s really a question of acceleration. Make everything feel heavy. I’m going to assume you’re building your game in something that comes with 3D physics, so try not to circumvent it.

If the player is standing (ie, needs to turn around freely), not holding a joypad, looking up repeatedly or for large periods of time, and/or there’s a requirement for vertical movement in the game, they are at a higher risk of nausea.


Let Me Be Free!

Try not to restrict the player’s rotation. It feels very freeing at first, to allow the user to look anywhere in a scene by matching helmet direction to game view. In some games though, particularly space or flying games, this makes the player feel as though their progress in the game is limited by real world gravity. It’s a disappointing limitation, and and goes against a rule of games design in general – not to make a game difficult with its control, but with its content.

It’s difficult for a human to look straight up for a prolonged period or turn around quickly, because we’re not owls. Be prepared to re-orient to the world (or turn the spacecraft) while the  player is looking away from straight forwards. It’s important this be done relative to the player’s gaze from centre, rather than triggered at a threshold, if you don’t want to create something that’s difficult to control and dizzying.

Aim for a dead zone that creates a 15 degree cone straight forwards. Between there and the limits of a 60 degree cone, linearly increase the speed the player rotates. Beyond that cone, cap the rotation speed to prevent suddenly spinning the player at points where they might not have best control of their balance. The actual speed you rotate the player will vary greatly between games, and gamer ability, and you may need to tweak figures given above.

cones of influence-01-02

About The Author

Sean Thompson Producer

8 years at Dubit and 14 years in Game Design, Programming and Production. Degree with Honours in Games, Virtual Reality, and Simulation.

LinkedIn | Twitter


Pricing and Monetization Trends for Kids Games on the App Store

Smartphones and tablets have changed the games industry. The most popular games are free and in-app purchases are mainstream. But is this the case with children’s games? To find out we’ve combed Apple’s App Store to see the affect free-to-play has had on games for young children and to provide a guide to how to price your children’s mobile game or app.

You can view our report on the kids’ app market below. Below that is a copy of an interview we’ve done with Kidscreen on kids’ mobile games and in-app payments. We go into our report in more detail and suggest the most effective ways to monetize mobile games for young children.

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Mid-December saw Ofcom release their Global Media and Communications report. The report compares the UK’s media and communications activity with that of the rest of the world, it’s quite detailed and very long. If you want to read it for yourself you can do so here. To save time we’ve picked out a few of our favourite charts, specifically related to the mobile market. These charts don’t relate to mobile use by children, but it does provide valuable insight into the country they’re growing up and the behaviour of their parents, who often hold the digital purse strings.

If you liked this report you might also want to check out our breakdown of Ofcom’s review of public service broadcasting, with a focus on children’s media consumption.

Owner and personal use of devices (smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop, digital radio)

Despite all the attention paid to tablet devices, in the UK they rank below smartphones, laptops, and desktops for ownership. In the report Ofcom states: “In the US and the UK average time spent browsing on a laptop or desktop has fallen significantly since 2012: time spent browsing on these devices fell by nine hours per user in the US and seven hours per user in the UK. This may be due to users in these countries substituting mobile browsing for laptop/desktop browsing. 

“The laptop and desktop active audience is getting older in our comparator countries. People aged over 55 made up the largest proportion of laptop and desktop users in most of our comparator countries. In the UK, a quarter of users (25%) were over 55, up two percentage points since August 2013.”
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Breaking Down Ofcom’s Report on Kids’ Media Consumption

On Monday Ofcom released their third review of public service broadcasting, examining the public’s consumption of public service broadcasting channels (TV and radio) and their competitors. We’ve examined the report, picked our top findings and charts, and summarised them below, paying specific attention to young people’s media consumption, both digital and traditional. If you want to read the whole document you can get it here.

Next week we’re going to look another recent Ofcom report, this time comparing the UK’s media consumption to the rest of the world. You can keep up with our work by signing up for our newsletters, This Week in Mobile Games and This Week in Youth Insight.

Household Take-up of Digital Communications/AV Devices 2003-2014

This graph highlights the growth and decline of media devices, including Digital TV, MP3 players, and E-readers. Smartphones have now been taken up by more than 60% of households while MP3 players have declined to below 35%.

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What a year it’s been for mobile games. When it began we were using our phones to become best friends with Kim Kardashian and by the end we were strapping them to our face to experience the wonders of virtual reality. To mark the end of 2014 we’re bringing together the ten best stories from the past six months (we did the first six months earlier in the year).

These articles are the most popular stories featured in our This Week in Mobile Games newsletter, providing insight on how topics including Kim Kardashian became the biggest name in mobile gaming, trends in monetization, design tips from the ‘best worst game of the year’, and plenty of info on app store optimisation and user acquisition.

If you haven’t signed-up for TWICG yet, click here and get the week’s most insightful casual game articles sent to your inbox in one handy weekly email. 

Why Hay Day Fails at Player-to-player Economies

During his talk at this year’s F2P Summit Vili Lehdonvirta of the University of Oxford dared to criticize Supercell for their inability to include player-to-player economies in Hay Day. According to Lehdonvirta player-to-player economies can improve a game’s retention and make a developer’s life much easier. Find out what he said by visiting Pocket Gamer.
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Inspiring Creativity: The Development of Night Zookeeper

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Night Zookeeper is a story about a young zookeeper exploring a strange Night Zoo and encountering magical animals. Eventually, the zookeeper must battle the evil Lord of Nulth, who has declared war on imagination. Children unlock pages of this story with their own creative illustrations and parents can reward them via email as they go. Night Zookeeper was developed with consultancy from Dubit.

In developing the game we drew inspiration from our in-school user testing with approximately 10,000 children, refining a series of prompts to get them excited and flexing their creative muscles. On top of this an additional 25,000 children in the UK, Canada, USA, Japan and South Africa have given feedback on the game after playing it.

Alongside the website, Night Zookeeper sends parents weekly, curriculum linked educational activities that children can complete away from their computer screens. Kids also receive stickers, a poster and a t-shirt in the post for a monthly subscription of £5 (US$7.99).

I’d like to use this post to talk you through three key parts of the game’s development: how we decided on the correct business model, how and why to implement parental sharing and how to inspire creativity.
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Kids Tell us why They Love Kim Kardashian: Hollywood

Last time we looked some of the reasons why Kim Kardashian: Hollywood has become one of the biggest mobile games of the year, with annual earnings expected to reach $200m. Now we’re going to let the kids tell us what they think. We spoke with four Kim Kardashian: Hollywood fans to ask them what got them playing the game, what they thought about it and whether they’ve spent any real money on it.

The kids are Melaine and Amy, both 16 and from England, Remington (Remy), who’s 13 and from America, and Lena who is 15 and lives in Norway. All the girls had been playing the game for between three and four weeks.

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How the Kim Kardashian Game Will Make $200m!

How does a game starring Kim Kardashian, one that many journalists are laughing at, stand to generate $200m by the end of the year? We wanted to find out, so we spent a couple of hours playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, meaning you don’t have to. But we’ve not been doing it alone. We’ve also been speaking with four teenagers about their experiences with the game to find out what they love, what they hate and how they found out about it in the first place.

First let’s put these numbers into perspective. Of the $200m Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is expected to gross, the Kanye-marrying socialite is to take home $90m! When you consider that as of June this year her estimated net worth was estimated to be $45m it’s clear that Kim Kardashian: Hollywood is big business, even for someone who spent $150,000 on hair and makeup for her wedding.

Kim isn’t known for her coding skills but according to the Wall St Journal she has been, and still is, heavily involved in the game’s development. Between them Kim and Glu Mobile (the developer) have managed to create one of the biggest mobile gaming success stories of the year. We wanted to know how they turned all those players into payers!

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The Hubris of Youth: What Ofcom’s Report Really Says About Young People and Digital Media

The Ofcom Communications Market Report caused a stir earlier this month. The Guardian, a British broadsheet, stated that “six-year-olds understand digital technology better than adults.” This isn’t entirely true, it reminds of the quote (wrongly) attributed to Mark Twain:

“When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned in seven years.”

I imagine a similar picture plays out across the country today: children wonder why their parents don’t understand Minecraft, why they don’t watch ‘TV’ on YouTube, and why they still send SMS and email!

It’s easy to see how The Guardian reached their conclusion, Ofcom said: “six year olds claim to have the same understanding of communications technology as 45 year olds.” But even this is deceptive. The children weren’t asked if they were more or less tech-savvy than a 45 year old, what they, and all the respondents, did was complete a survey to obtain a ‘Digital Quotient’ score. This wasn’t so much a test, but a series of questions asking respondents how confident they felt about the use of technology. It’s almost like the question was setup to spot misplaced hubris!
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