Jed Ashforth loves his job. As senior game designer at Sony Computer Entertainment's Worldwide Studios Tech Group, he has spent every working day of the last two years playing virtual reality demos and trying to understand what works, and what doesn't. "It's just the best job," he told the crowd at GDC Europe. "Just awesome."
When it comes to the player's experience of VR, the ideal state is "presence" - a "level up" from the state of immersion that game designers have traditionally struggled to achieve. A person can be immersed when reading George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, Ashforth said, but presence would mean the belief that they were really standing on King's Landing.
"This believable sense of presence in the world changes pretty much everything, and so we have to change how we approach game design accordingly."
The purpose of Ashforth's session was to help GDC's attendees to "reboot their thinking" to suit this new landscape of development. To that end, he suggested a handful of key lessons for effective VR design.
"This believable sense of presence in the world changes pretty much everything, and so we have to change how we approach game design accordingly"
1. "We're no longer designing interactive movies"
Rather, "we're imagineering playable theme park rides."
Ashforth posited that VR is the first real innovation in the way visual media is displayed. It removes the "window of presentation" on which so much game design is predicated, and renders a host of visual and storytelling techniques cribbed from cinema almost obsolete. "These immediately feel out of place in VR," Asforth said. "They feel incorrect, just as they might if you started experiencing them in real life."
Instead, Ashforth told the audience to think about VR in terms of a theme park ride. When someone visits a park, they generally start with smaller, less intense rides, working their way up to more overwhelming experiences. This is supported by the way theme park rides will wind the queue through the structure itself, opening up the chance to provide context, lore and glimpses of what's to come.
"When you get on that ride you know everything that's going to happen," Ashforth said. "You still get the thrills, but you don't get any nasty surprises. It's a real art-form, and theme parks are very good at it. We need our users to feel like they're in safe hands."
"Players will respond to content just as they would if it were happening in real life. If they see a zombie, cue lots of screaming on YouTube videos"
2. "Give the player what they expect"
This is perhaps the most counterintuitive of Ashforth's guidelines, as surprise is a rare and cherished commodity in most forms of entertainment. However, VR lies somewhere between a traditional game and real life in the way that the user's brain will interpret the experience. As such, the manner in which new elements and ideas are introduced, and what they are, must be carefully evaluated.
"Players will respond to content just as they would if it were happening in real life. If they see a zombie, cue lots of screaming on YouTube videos," Ashforth said.
Conventional thinking in this way is an enemy of presence. There will be VR experiences that feel more like games than a coherent reality, Ashforth said, but while these may be more easily palatable to most users, they won't ever touch that elusive feeling of genuine presence.
There is a caveat, however, and a helpful one at that: "Even though it's about giving players what they expect, it's not about photorealism. I could put you in a toontown world, and as long as the rules are what you're expecting, you'll be fine with it."
"My gut feeling is that designers are going to spend a lot of time looking for that sweet spot of immersion"
3. "The deeper the level of immersion the more fragile it becomes"
Presence may be the goal, but Ashforth was very clear that achieving the sensation will likely be intermittent and often beyond the designer's direct control. The pieces can be put into place, but whether they lock in and create that heightened state may vary based on the individual, the context, and other factors. What can be achieved through design is a state that Ashforth referred to as, "deep immersion," but the more deeply immersed the player become the more likely they are to be disturbed by external factors.
"These aberrant elements, we call them mismatches, can bring you out of deep immersion," he said. "It only take the slightest little thing to remind a person that they're sitting at home with a head-mounted display on their head."
The creation of deep immersion is a feedback loop. Every successive thing you do right will reinforce that new reality and propel the user further and further into the experience. This is what theme parks attempt to do, though they aren't able to achieve it with the same impact as VR.
"My gut feeling is that designers are going to spend a lot of time looking for that sweet spot of immersion, where the player isn't immersed so deeply that it's a constant battle not to shatter that illusion, but they can forget the real world and push it to the back of their mind," Ashforth said.
"It's not enough to just make your VR immersive. You've also got to think about how robust it's going to be from moment to moment."
4. "Mismatches are inevitable"
"We've had situations where someone's been playing a game, I put a cup of coffee down on the desk, and they thought their spaceship was on fire from the smell"
It would be logical to assume that the VR designer's job is to eradicate "mismatches" - as they might bugs in a game's code. But there's a hard lesson that anyone working in VR must grasp: mismatches are going to happen, whether you like it or not. Differences between the player's posture and that of the avatar, changes in temperature, an uncomfortable chair, smell, wind, taste; some things simply can't be simulated or controlled.
"Technology marches on, but right now these can't be solved," Ashforth said. "We've had situations where someone's been playing a game, I put a cup of coffee down on the desk, and they thought their spaceship was on fire from the smell."
For Ashforth, the "big one" is VR locomotion, because the necessity of an alternate input device to navigate the virtual space is a constant reminder of the disconnect between the player and the experience the designer is attempting to create. The ideal is one-to-one representation of the player's movements, but that's not a mass market possibility right now, or in the near future.
"Mismatches are everywhere. They are inevitable," Ashforth said. "Just accept it, and bear in mind that even experiences with loads of mismatch potential can still be brilliant in VR."
5. "Player comfort must be a priority"
"Outside of motion games, designers have never had to worry about [player comfort] before," Ashforth said. "But it's a primary consideration at every stage with VR."
The issue for designers is that a player's comfort levels can vary wildly in a number of ways, from their past experience of VR to the physical environment in which they are situated. On the face of it, this is just an extension of the previous guideline about the inevitability of mismatches, but, as Ashforth pointed out, it goes much deeper than that.
"We're used to designing this way: turning everything up to 11 because we're constrained by this window of presentation"
Ashforth showed an illustration of a typical scene from Shadow of the Colossus, the hero and his horse dwarfed at the foot of a towering foe. Needless to say, such a scene would play well in VR, but Ashforth advised the audience to fight against their instincts to increase the scale.
"We're used to designing this way: turning everything up to 11 because we're constrained by this window of presentation. We want you to feel engaged, but that emotional resonance, you kind of get it for free in VR. If anything, I've found that there's a little too much. The focus has to shift to how you manage that emotion and how you use it. Conjuring it up doesn't seem to be that difficult."
A given player may have a fear of heights, the dark, confined spaces, certain animals, excessive violence, or some unknown thing that only a VR experience could possibly highlight. A designer may want to include these elements in their game, but it's important to keep in mind a "Plan B" or even a "Plan C" when it comes to anything that may trigger anxiety within the player. That could mean features that allow for the removal of troublesome elements, or the ability to skip sections altogether. Again, this advice may seem counter intuitive to game designers who have been conditioned to approach their work in a specific way, but Ashforth advised the audience not to underestimate its importance.
"I think if Disney could do this, they would do this," he said "I think if they had a way to dynamically change the ride while you were on it so it was just right for each user, they would. It's a smart thing to do, and that's how we should be doing it.
"We've been trying for the last 20 years to attain this kind of emotional investment in games, and now it's just much easier. It means we have to be more mature, more responsible about how we handle this sort of thing in VR. We have to be seen as responsible by our players, that we're not going to melt their brains and make them run screaming from the room.
"Every user is different, and everyone will respond differently... For consumer VR to really catch on we need to make it as inclusive and wide-reaching as possible. That needs to happen on a user experience level."