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How Cooperative Innovations is remaking social interaction in VR multiplayer games

Or, why The Simpsons is no longer the best guide for overcoming social problems in VR

Rarely a day goes past where I don't think about how well The Simpsons prepped us for living in the future. While all attention last year was focused on how the show predicted a Trump Presidency, I recently stumbled upon an episode that articulated a challenge facing VR game developers weirdly effectively.

In the episode Lisa's Wedding in Season 6, her future husband in the far away year of 2010 (stay with me here) goes to Moe's Tavern with Homer and Bart. While he's grabbing a beer, Bart ends up playing a bit of virtual reality pool to pass the time.

But another customer, who is playing VR darts, accidentally hits Bart with one of the virtual projectiles. This leads to an alternate reality punch up, which is split up by the barman hitting a button and forcing both players to listen to an ear-destroying shriek until they stop fighting.

Of course, this is all played for laughs. But the challenge of creating a safe space for players to socialise in VR is a genuine one for developers working in the space.

On the one hand, social interactions in VR and VR games need to be facilitated to encourage meaningful interest in the space. Facebook's demo of a social VR feature at Oculus Connect 2016 aimed to show both the potential of VR in general, but also to double down on its social value to help the company justify its investment.

"The positives that it brings in terms of working together, the collaboration, and the puzzle-solving, it just enhances the experience greatly"

But on the other hand, failure to consider social interaction in VR properly can also lead to problems in the space. A piece in The Guardian in October 2016 highlighted the worrying creepiness of harassment on VR and the need to combat it.

These are just some of the problems facing Simon Barratt and Cooperative Innovations. They are currently working on three VR game projects, with the VR MMO Raiders of Erda the company's most prominent forthcoming offering.

So I sat down with him to find out what precise challenges are facing VR developers when they're constructing games built on socialising, as well as finding out his thoughts on where the VR space evolves from today.

Do the locomotion

Barratt's interest in VR started early. He met Palmer Luckey just before the Kickstarter for the Oculus Rift broke cover in 2012 and begun work on a VR in 2015 that remains NDA'd to the present day.

But it wasn't until he spoke with Bryan Marshall, who was previously Barratt's tech director at a company called Four Door Lemon, that he ended up spinning out Cooperative Innovations and began to work on VR projects of their own.

And the clue to what type of game the company is developing for the platform is in the name. Cooperative Innovations is focused on creating VR games with a strong social element, with the main (and handily public) effort going into crafting fantasy inspired - and eminently multiplayer - world of Raiders of Erda.

When I asked Barratt about the company is focusing on creating multiplayer and social VR experiences, his reasoning was twofold.

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First, Barratt himself does seem to genuinely love multiplayer games. Inspired initially by a late 1990s love affair with Doom and EverQuest, Barratt believes that socialising in gaming adds to the experience of playing.

"I think that kind of social element just gives a lot more to gaming. With EverQuest, you know, we were doing 50 or 60-person raids and you were getting to know people just through chatting to them and playing with them in that kind of environment. It just added something extra to the game."

Equally, Barratt believes that multiplayer games add an element of chaos that leads to experiences that can be more fun than relying on a single player experience crafted in advance.

"When you introduce other people into it [a game], yes, there's a bit more randomness, there's some negative aspects to it which obviously we need to be careful of in terms of harassment and other things. But the positives that it brings in terms of working together, the collaboration, and the puzzle-solving, it just enhances the experience greatly.

Second though, it's clear that Barratt has focused on VR because he believes the platform offers specific advantages to creators of social multiplayer games.

VR inputs are, in his opinion, ideally suited for social interactions. Whereas the traditional tendency is to see virtual reality as exclusionary, cutting the player off from the world around, Barratt argues that demos already show that a combination of VR inputs and voice chat makes for a compelling social experience.

"Even if you [the developer] just track the controller movements, the rotation and position of just the headset - just nodding and expressing things, looking down or looking up - when you're talking to someone and a voice is matched up to that head movement, you instinctively know you're talking to another human being," he explains.

"There's been discussions of the certain rules that you're supposed to follow with VR, which I don't think is necessarily always the case"

"So when you add to that the hand gestures as well, and then things like the controllers having the ability to detect your hand position slightly in terms of thumbs up or high-fiving, you can assume by the way people have used their hands the kind of gesture they're doing," he continues. "I think, that we're instinctively used to [these gestures] in real life, and therefore your brain just helps map those across, and it does make it into a really social realistic experience."

However, there is one barrier to socialising in VR - movement. While a console game like Destiny can't allow players to naturally gesture to one another, simply being able run up to someone and emote at them (or jump on their head in an undoubtedly hilarious manner) can deepen social interaction. So with movement in VR still a hot topic, how has Barratt sought to resolve that within his games?

The answer is experimentation. The team has played around with 20 different locomotion schemes in one of their VR projects, ranging from basic teleportation to using swings of the arm to move around, to try to find the answer. And for Barratt, the only consistent finding from that experimentation is that developers have to find the mechanic that works for their particular game.

"I think there's been discussions of the certain rules that you're supposed to follow with VR, which I don't think is necessarily always the case. It tends to be what works best for your experience, for your art style, for your players and what their expectations are of what's about to happen next," he suggests. Crucially, that means going against the grain if it is actually best for your game.

"I think there are best practices that are starting to be established in games. But then you look at games like Onward, which is a VR FPS very popular on Vive, and that is based on analogue stick movement. People will tell you isn't supposed to work very well, and players will not enjoy that, but it just works in that game really well".

Avoiding harassment

But if developers do resolve movement issues within their social VR game, they have to think through the potential consequences of that - namely, how do they avoid players using movement to harass other players in game.

There have obviously been problems with harassment and toxicity in gaming communities for a number of years now. Everything ranging from a relatively harmless sarcastic "what a save" in Rocket League through to full on abuse have been seen and do affect players.

But while games can help players to feel abstracted away from the directness of abuse, VR games might not. Instead, a player immersed in a virtual reality where abuse is taking place are much likely to feel closer to it - both through that feeling of being immersed in that alternate reality and the fact that movements or gestures contribute a physical edge to that abuse.

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It's clear that this does concern Barratt. But he's quick to point out that developers who are at the forefront of VR are already developing methods to combat this sort of harassment.

"I think there's been issues around QuiVr and Rec Room in terms of moderating personal space and harassment. And all of them [the games involved] tend to have this idea of creating a personal bubble around people and then controlling what happens when others come into that personal bubble space,: whether they vanish, whether their voices can only be heard; whether they're muted effectively. And then reporting mechanisms for moderating those people, just like you would in a normal non-VR multiplayer game," he says.

Barratt's team is also working on their own solution to the problem now that, while he couldn't talk specifics, aims to solve the problem too.

"I think of it in terms of building a trust relationship between people you play with - which people you're happy to have certain interactions with, as you get to know them and build trust with them," he explains.

In short, VR developers have to consider how they build the concept of personal space into the mechanics of their game to allow people to interact with others on line without feeling harassed.

Waiting for the network

But while VR developers are coming up with practical solutions to the problems of creating a social game, they are facing the challenge that anyone who works in social has to deal with: building an audience.

"We've always aimed at the end of 2017 with these games. We didn't feel that releasing anything earlier would be sensible"

While 2016 was initially posited as the year that consumer VR takes off, the reality is that its reach remains limited. Although it is hard to pin down a precise number of sales, forecasts for PC and console VR headset sales for the year were slashed down from nearer 10m to a little over 2m according to MIT.

This suggests that there isn't much of an audience for a social VR game to tap into yet. But Barratt made a few points in relation to the market that are worth considering when either evaluating its prospects or creating for it.

First, Barratt did point out that there were few games that truly sold the VR experience yet. Releases like the latest Resident Evil have demonstrated that the platform can be home to fully-fledged games, rather than tech demos - thus creating a greater impetus to buy.

Second, developers are still able to consider whether they can expand their networks in their games by developing across VR platforms. This is certainly the route that Barratt is looking to take.

"The goal is for Raiders of Erda to be available across PC and PlayStation, so it can cross-play between all of them," he says - which makes a lot of sense. But Barratt did add the caveat that they might not be allowed to do it by platform holders (or might not be able to afford it initially), dampening its effectiveness.

Third though, and finally, Barratt is keen to emphasise that the big issue could simply be time. As he told me in reference to potential release dates for Raiders of Erda and the rest of the company's VR portfolio, even they didn't see 2016 being the break out year.

"We've always aimed at the end of 2017 with these games," he outlines. "We didn't feel that releasing anything earlier would be sensible." And judging by the current state of the VR market, it was probably sensible.

Ultimately, VR remains a difficult space to take advantage of. The fuzziness of it, the fact that it has few hard and fast rules to follow and the fact that it is still growing as a space makes it hard to see precisely what will come next for it.

But projects like Raiders of Erda will play a role in shaping what comes next. As technology like VR continues to blur the lines between what is real and what isn't, game developers will need to find meaningful solutions to the social problems it presents.

And while watching episodes of The Simpsons always comes highly recommended, its probably better that practically minded people actually go out and make things to try to solve the problem for good.

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