Part 3: Tell Me a Story
This — my final post in this series — is dedicated to all the games designers out there, who are not satisfied with only keeping our precious users comfortable in VR for 20 mins or so, but wish to capture their attention for many hours at a time. I wish to share with you the different techniques you need to employ to deliver narrative in Virtual Reality, that you might not need with traditional screens.
Before we continue — if you want more information on looking after the well-being and hardware requirements needed for 20mins+ of comfortability, please see my first two posts in this series https://medium.com/kids-digital/vr-design-for-game-designers-816efe83b93e and https://medium.com/kids-digital/part-2-cater-for-my-phone-5ec9b2665f24
These are some of the lessons we’ve learnt so far, and probably the first lessons we all need to learn as we move to telling stories in VR. Like with all mediums though, we will continue to learn to use them better for decades to come.
This isn't the beginning of the end; it’s the end of the beginning…
I Have No Screen
You’d be forgiven for not thinking this is the case. It seems perfectly reasonable to assume that piece of hardware you’re about to strap to your face contains at least one screen! When it comes to narrative though, it does not. In fact, that’s the whole point.
Virtual Reality’s lack of a window in front of the player, is the first boundary you’ll come across. With no screen, there is no longer the traditional understanding of a title screen, an options screen, a high score screen… many of the common interfaces we're used to using are no longer available to us. You can place screens in 3D space, but you can’t present them or use them the same way, and you’re artificially hindering yourself if you’re only using the rectangular space in front of the players face.
You need to stop thinking about screens, and start thinking about spaces. For example, the first 3D space you enter could be your title space. Your flow through a game can be largely the same, so you’ll have familiar functionality here, but you’ll get the message across with a different layout.
To get you started, and to show you how freeing this can be, consider this simple update to menu screen paradigm. In front of you, filling about a 35 degree FOV is a simplified title screen. It hovers in 3D space, and appears to be 4 metres or so from where you stand. It contains only the core information — title, and a play button triggered by staring — and is as real in the environment as a piece of solidly constructed furniture. To the front-left is a second screen, with a feed telling you about game status, such as which players are online, and how your connection is coping. To the front-right is a third screen, which has advanced options, such as audio controls.
In this example, you've gotten rid of the need for an options screen, and added more information for the user than a title screen might normally have, with a far less cluttered area. It’s easy to do in VR, because you have so much room. Every 35 degree field of view, can contain a screen (albeit with limited clarity for things like text), so you have the freedom to space things out.
Within the typical bounds of the user’s view, you can fit 3x3 screens, although you’d normally choose far fewer.
I Have No Display
I'm really hammering the above point! It’s the main difference between VR and traditional games, and completely changes how you talk to the player. Whereas I previously talked about there being no rectangle sitting between the player and the world, I now want to talk about there being a lack of border or frame around the player’s view.
I've been snapping information to the sides of the screen for years — now I need to find somewhere else for it to all go!
You can have a HUD, and other similar UI, but it all has to be built within 3D space — either completely 3D or projected onto a screen or sphere in front of the player. In which case, you need to consider how far in front — in 2D, two objects filling the same field of view (ie, Earth’s large, distant Sun, or our relatively small, near Moon) appear to be the same size. In VR though, the stereo 3D is still affected. Near items can make the user feel claustrophobic, so consider if that’s something you wish to inflict on your user.
The display can still be high contrast, low colour, flat looking objects — as you’d normally expect from UI design — but you can’t use billboards, unless they’re tiny, particle like objects. One thing you can get away with, is breaking rules regarding intersections of UI level graphics, and the rest of the game world — to some degree. For example, an item can be highlighted by a stroke-like surround which shows in front of objects which are actually closer than the UI element, or two objects in the scene may be linked by a visible line which might otherwise be hidden by objects it cuts through. Nobody wants to see UI elements hidden, so render these in front of everything else, but make sure they exist within a copy of the same coordinates space and FOV as the rest of the environment (which is a requirement for correctly using VR hardware anyway).
I Can’t See Behind Me
Not all of a virtual world is a stage, but everything in front of the player is. They’re seated right on the curtain line. Imagine it going straight out, port and starboard, from wherever the user’s head is.
It’s important devs give game designers the tools to refer to this line, and all the other sized cones within the user’s FOV, when defining levels. We no longer need to be able to define things coming onto screen, but into view. Our stage line, the cone which represents the bounds of our complete field of view with the given hardware, and the 15 degree cone at the centre of vision, are most important for this.
When 3D use in console games became popular, from the late 90s, driving games suddenly became good. Perspective allowed cars to approach, the most important (ie, closest) items to take up more of the screen, and a horizon far enough away for the player to be able to react. VR’s equivalent will be games that advantage of content in the user’s periphery — everything is first person, so expect lots of shooters, but also expect new and better ways to tell stories, and lead the player.
Don’t Make Me Read
Text looks pretty awful in VR. There’s a very practical reason for people still reading books — high contrast, sharp copy that can be lit well. Phone screens are pretty good now — they’re very high resolution and incredibly high contrast — though them being self-lit can be tiring. VR isn't high resolution though. You only get half the screen for each eye, and you’re only really looking at about a tenth of that space at once. A virtual reality headset massively magnifies what you’re looking at, to the point of making sub-pixels clear, and most displays’ poor pixel-fill-ratio all too apparent. It’s not a nice environment in which to read.
If you need to show text, you need to consider the user as if they have incredibly poor eyesight. Everything you display must be large, heavy, and in the middle 30 degrees of their field of view. I’d also recommend sans serif fonts — despite some argument over which is more clear, in VR it’s definitely sans. As the user moves around and shifts the pixel grid over the text, you get less distortion from less complicated edges.
Text, as with all UI, does not have to be diegetic (of the world). It does have to be spatial though. You can get away with a reticle following the user’s vision around, but it’s not appropriate for text. It makes it look too light, like it’s tattooed on your retina. Nobody wants to play their game through an open broadsheet! You should generally make items feel heavy — if you need your text to follow the user’s gaze, place it in the world and smoothly follow behind their movement. Think of the text being projected onto the inside of a space helmet — the user’s quick head movements allow them to look away, but long movements allow their weightless body to catch up such that the text returns to the centre of their vision.
Place the text at least a few metres from the user. Further is fine, but it should generally be in the room. Rendering distant UI over nearer items is fine occasionally, and better than not seeing it at all, but if the player commonly finds themselves in a 12 foot box in your game, consider UI text that’s shown less that 6 foot in front of the user.
Avoid scrolling. Do it with a decent handheld input device if you must, but not if it involves moving the neck, or automatic, nausea inducing scrolling. Pagination is better; less text is better still.
The rules are fairly simple, but might be difficult to take — text has to be large, within a small area that’s convenient to read from, not moving, not scrolling, and must not track closely to the user’s head movements. Large amounts of copy just aren't suitable for VR.
We can finally say goodbye to unnecessary subtitles over game dialogue!
All games on computers, tellies, and phones have had to explain things — how to control a game, what the point is, where to go. They had to do all this within the effective tunnel vision these devices create for the user. However, they do have the advantage of having a considerably better dot pitch than VR — pixels get an order of magnitude larger when you place your phone against your eyeballs. The increased barrier doesn't decrease the need for explanation though — people who don’t understand your game or virtual world quickly, will leave.
Given the problems with text, we must now find a new way to explain things. While some techniques to draw the user’s attention — such as arrows, high contrast markers, and familiar symbols — cross over nicely into VR, we can’t look towards traditional games for anything more complicated. We need to looks at something much more human — sales.
Your game tutorials are a sales process. You use them to convert people to players. Sales on the screen has one flaw, though — it’s crap. Computers, phones, the cinema, billboards… any rectangle, even a moving rectangle with sound, pales in comparison to human sales technique. They’re great at marketing — we all need a scalable way to tell people we're here — but no 20 inch display would have persuaded Neo to take the red pill!
We have just crossed a threshold. We can now place a human in the same room as our user. Our AI is still limited, but that’s just difficulty — no longer a barrier. Your person doesn't have to be fully formed, or follow the same game rules as you and the other game characters, but they should be able to make use of all the tools a human uses to express themself each day. They should be able to speak, their face should be dexterous, they should be able to move freely, and gesture towards things, and they must be able to appear to be able to react — though this could easily be scripted, “ooh, witness my utter surprise at that thing that was bound to be exactly where I'm pointing and looking at this particular part of this game!”
The person may not be a person at all. They may not even be a single being at all. The point is, that your game characters are much more able to convey. High resolution rectangles are great for diagrams, but it’s not how you tell stories in VR. Expect your users to engage with other, eye level, anthropomorphic beings.
Be rough with me
We've learnt to draw, now let’s paint. After two posts telling you to look after your users, and most of a post telling you how to play with them, I want to leave you with to notion that you can rein it in a bit.
You should avoid doing anything to the user that should make them feel sick, uncomfortable to the point of not being able to continue, or nauseous for an extended period. You can make people startled, or confused, or frightened though, within the normal bounds of telling a story.
Playing with vertigo works particularly well in VR. Even on a traditional screen, I feel vertigo when playing a 3D first or third person game, when I look over the edge of a tall building. I get vertigo on the stairs up to my office though, so might be a delicate flower! In VR, however, everyone is susceptible.
I've played a lot of FPS games in VR. They’re good therapy. After bouncing around and shooting people for the last 20 years, it’s nice to get a real sense of what’s actually happening. In Virtual Reality, you get a sense of the distances covered, and a feeling for how it can become a useful tool.
Picture the scene — you've trained your user to protect themselves, carefully walking them along thin ledges and over narrow beams. You've got them stood up (in real life), and better still you know they haven’t got the comfort of a two handed controller to grip (pairs of motion controllers — one for each hand — don’t offer the same sense of security as a traditional joypad). Now the story takes a turn. This is where you can make your user lean and jump!
Falling from a great height is a right of passage in VR. It’s not the only one — turn round and glimpse a monster, get stuck somewhere small, be forgotten somewhere huge, feel vulnerable far from home, know exhaustion from taking care of something, have thousands of eyes stare in your direction… all these things that you’d be uncomfortable doing in real life, and just as uncomfortable with in VR.
If traditional computer games are interactive films (actually, that’s a terrible injustice to games!), VR is interactive theatre. Theatre can sell you an experience because it’s so up-close, but VR also makes it personal, and has complete control of your senses.
VR Design for Game Designers is a three part series