Designing a Good On-boarding VR Experience

Nikki Stearman

I recently took part in a design research trip to Japan to get a greater understanding of how Virtual Reality (VR) experiences are created and played there. I played VR games at the offices of Hashilus – a production company specialising in VR development; Mazaria – one of Tokyo’s newest VR game arcades, and the Sky Circus in Sunshine City described as an ‘experience Observatory.’

As a digital game designer specialising in children’s interactive experiences, I have never developed a VR game or played with many VR games before the trip. The very nature of VR requires the player to put on a headset which removes them from the physical world. It can make a player feel vulnerable and self conscious – especially in a very public setting like a game arcade. And as VR technology is still very new for many, it can also be a frightening step into the unknown.

I found that the onboarding; the preparation of the player before the VR headset is put on, and the subsequent support of their experience during the start of the game – was crucial to my enjoyment of the games and experiences I played.

Regardless of whether the VR experience was a single game, cooperative play, or a rollercoaster experience I found the most successful on-boarding all shared common approaches, which I have outlined below.

Make the player comfortable with the unknown

It is important to make it clear what is expected before the player puts on the VR headset.

Show what the safety rules are

Help the player know what to expect and feel in control by clearly explaining how to keep safe during the game experience. This can be done in a variety of ways – a clear pictorial poster, a form to check, a video, or a short explanation by the person manning the game.

Show footage of the game play or a short trailer

Help the player know what to expect before they play the game – obviously don’t include any spoilers but a short insight into the world they will be entering can be very reassuring!

Make sure they will be comfortable playing the game

Offer players wearing short dresses or skirts, a longer modesty skirt when playing games like Mario Kart where they are astride a vehicle.  A VR player can’t see others when they are in an experience, but they can be seen. It is important to make the player feel less vulnerable so they can more easily suspend their disbelief and enjoy the game rather than worry about how they appear in the real world.

Equipment must be set up to be comfortable to use. Allow time for the player to adjust their headset and calibrate their position before the game begins.

If the game is played on shared equipment in an arcade, offer players an eye mask to put on under the headset – a particular necessity for more energetic games!

Make the setting part of the action

The physical space of the game can really heighten and support a player’s gaming experience before VR is even introduced.

Use the physical space to set the scene

Real world scenes can help transport the player to the game scenario before they enter the virtual world. For example, playing Dragon Quest – a co-op VR game in which you played a mage, priest, or knights had a medieval castle room where you heard the backstory of the game before the VR was even introduced.

Use physical props to heighten the VR world

Physical props during gameplay can help heighten the virtual experience. Hashilus used a fan to blow air on the face of the player to make them feel like they are really travelling, and a real carpet to stand on for a magical carpet ride.

In more immersive VR experiences – Hashilus also created a movable swing and cannon to create physical feedback for the player.

Give visual clues to show what the game will offer

In an arcade setting, the ‘shop front’ of the game can give you lots of clues to the type of game experience. Using video screens to share what the player can see for those outside of the experience can also help prepare the player for the game.

Support the player during the game play

Make sure the player receives continuous support throughout the game when the VR headset is on.

Explain any in-game safety cues

This is for the real world as well as in the game! A good standard is to let the player know when they are outside the gaming area. It is better to pause the game when this happens so the player can easily return to the spot needed before resuming the game.

Offer the player a cue or a way of signalling how to leave the game, or what to do if they feel uncomfortable at any time. This is especially important if the game is in an arcade setting, and like a physical rollercoaster, it cannot be stopped until the end of the experience.

Allow the player to see themselves in the game, before they begin

A player may be able to see others in a VR game but not always themselves, but it can be confusing when the player cannot see what their character looks like because you don’t really have a sense of self, or  know who you are. Hashilus solve this by using a mirror at the start of the game, so players can see themselves. It is very reassuring, allows the player to be part of the story and gives the player control.

Have a guide all the way though

A running narrator or ‘voice of God’ may be necessary, or a guide you can follow to help when you need it. The player may feel more more vulnerable within a VR head set and the extra reassurance and commentary can really help the player feel less alone and more supported to enjoy their game experience.

By Nikki Stearman, Senior Games Designer

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