How do you make a good virtual reality game? Oculus developers meet to find out

Developers looking to build games for Oculus' VR headset will swap their best tricks of the trade at the company's first conference.

Ian Sherr Contributor and Former Editor at Large / News
Ian Sherr (he/him/his) grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, so he's always had a connection to the tech world. As an editor at large at CNET, he wrote about Apple, Microsoft, VR, video games and internet troubles. Aside from writing, he tinkers with tech at home, is a longtime fencer -- the kind with swords -- and began woodworking during the pandemic.
Ian Sherr
6 min read

What games will you see when putting on an Oculus device? Developers are gathering this weekend to swap ideas. CNET

James Iliff's team had hit a wall.

He and his team at Survios, a startup Iliff co-founded devoted to virtual reality, were trying to find a way to create a VR game where the movements of a player's hands, feet and body in the real world were mirrored in a digital playground.

The technology already worked in a space about the size of an area rug, called the play space, allowing gamers to move around, grab various items off a digital table and duck behind boxes they saw on the screens attached to their faces.

But there was a hitch. In a typical video game, characters often traverse large distances in mere minutes. Walking at a normal pace to get through a game would take forever, and require too much room. "We don't have giant warehouses where you can do crazy things like play VR laser tag," he said.

Survios needed to figure out how to help players walk from place to place, but without moving too much in the real world.

Those struggles will be among the myriad of discussions virtual reality enthusiasts and developers will be having this weekend in Hollywood. There, virtual reality pioneer Oculus VR, which Facebook agreed to buy for $2 billion in March, will hold its first ever conference to bring together the burgeoning virtual reality community.

The developer conference is a critical step for Oculus. As it prepares to launch its Gear VR mobile-device software with Samsung, and puts the finishing touches on its "Rift" goggles for PCs, the company will need to ensure that developers are creating top-quality games, apps and movies for its still nascent devices.

Oculus has its work cut out for it.

Sony's Project Morpheus made a splash when it was announced in June. CNET

Large game-makers like Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, Ubisoft, Nintendo and Microsoft haven't shown any prototypes of VR games, nor indicated they're doing anything more than merely testing the technology. Sega, once a kingpin of the industry, in June showed a VR version of a title it's planning for later this year called Alien: Isolation, but that was a prototype, not a commitment for a full-fledged game.

Sony, meanwhile, has an army of game-making studios that are working on new titles for its competing virtual reality efforts, code-named Project Morpheus . Other devices are also arriving, in the form of head-mounted adapters for smartphones and tablets.

Rallying support

Among the items on the agenda at the Oculus conference are discussions about making hit games and films, as well as using various coding tools. Oculus is also expected to show new technology, such as its motion controls, in addition to discussing the industry's future.

For the past two years, Oculus has been creating prototypes of specialized goggles made with sensors and a screen placed in front of a user's eyes. When users put the device on, they're transported to a three-dimensional world that can be anything from the inside of a spaceship to a villa in Spain.

But as the device steams its way toward an eventual consumer release, expected next year, the next step is to bring together the disparate community of developers that have sprung up around the device.

One thing in common among industry giants like Apple, Google, Microsoft and Facebook is a large group of app developers who create an ever growing list of software designed for their respective devices and services. App stores have helped spur usage of mobile devices, greatly increasing the amount of software that users download and use.

Oculus has teamed with Samsung to make a VR headset for mobile devices. Sarah Tew / CNET
Until now, Oculus has largely focused on building its devices, though it has created a group based in Silicon Valley to help build and maintain relationships with outside developers.

One of those is Paul Bettner, a Zynga alumni who helped build the hit mobile game Words With Friends. His new company, Playful, signed an agreement with Oculus to exclusively publish his company's new game, Lucky's Tale. The title, which at first blush feels like a new take on the Super Mario Bros. franchise, tells the story of an anthropomorphized Fox who travels on an adventure to find his sister.

Bettner's company faced its own troubles developing Lucky's Tale. The game is played from a third-person point of view, so players look at the character they control through an invisible floating camera as they play the game, rather than looking through the character's eyes. That style of gameplay has been particularly popular with games such as Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda.

One feature of this type of game is that as the character runs around, the floating camera often moves quickly. That's great in a normal game, where players always want to be able to see where their character is headed and what's around them, but it's terrible in virtual reality, where sudden swings of what's on the screen are a recipe for nausea.

Avoiding making people sick is one of the key struggles in producing VR games. Developers large and small have said games need to be made in new ways to protect players from motion sickness. Few titles made for video game consoles, mobile devices or computers can be played with VR goggles. The way the game is played and, crucially, what is shown on the screen needs to be different.

Bettner's team was able to solve its nausea problem in an unusual way. Normally, the images created for the left and right eye in Oculus goggles are designed to simulate the same distance between people's eyes in real life. The Playful team told the game to create the images as if player's heads were eight times bigger.

"What it does is give you the effect of being Godzilla," he said. The game world shrank down to look like toys, and Lucky's movements, while once fast and hard to follow in earlier prototypes, were now easy to follow.

"He moves really quickly, but because of the scale, he's only moving a few inches," Bettner said.

Staying in focus

CloudHead Games had a different problem to tackle. It's building a game called The Gallery: Six Elements, where users looked through the character's eyes.

CloudHead's team spent a lot of time ensuring that movements in the game were similar to those in real life, to make the game feel natural. Walking in the game couldn't be much faster than walking in real life. And surprise movements, like the ground suddenly giving way, had to be handled with great care.

To make it easier to look around, the staff at CloudHead tried all sorts of rules. One of those was "tank mode," where users can turn their body but only move in one direction at a time. "We thought that would work because that's how you walk in real life," said Denny Unger, CloudHead's president.

The team created a virtual sewer, filled with hard turns, slopes and other obstacles to test out their prototypes.

What the team settled on was a technology it now calls "VR Comfort Mode." When a user hits a joystick on a controller indicating they want to move the character's body left or right, Unger's team made it so that the image turns to the left or right very quickly, then stops.

The jolt, as opposed to a fluid movement, is similar to how a ballerina moves her head while spinning to avoid getting sick. "They rotate quickly, then they snap their head quickly, and they fixate on one thing in the distance," he said. Now about 5 out of 2,000 people he had test his game experienced nausea, as opposed to half with the old system.

Unger is sharing what he's learned about creating VR Comfort Mode with other developers, in hopes they won't make the same mistakes.

As for Iliff and Survios, they found that using a joystick to effectively move the area where a user can play around the game was the best answer. Once users arrive where the action is in the game, they're able to move their whole body again.

"If you want to move from point A to point B, you and your play space move together," he said. "That was a huge thing for us -- realizing we can use this strong combination of your body and buttons."

Developers now have access to Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 (pictures)

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