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What VR can learn from casual games

Steve Zhao of Glo Games explains the importance of making VR accessible to everybody, not just core gamers

The early days of any industry are a funny thing. Take casual games. When they were first taking hold, nobody guessed how big they would become, or the kinds of games that would have established the platform. And now, with VR, there's a similarly new canvas that nobody is quite sure how to paint.

The VR opportunity has allowed for a huge range of experiences, from fierce tank battles to players piloting X-Wings. But even in these early days, trends are emerging. There are certain experiences that are proving to be more universal than others. Experiences that are intuitive, creating immersion not through flashy graphics but through simple play mechanics that demand your full attention.

And it's the sort of thing that casual games have been doing well for more than a decade.

Bringing everyone to the table

While the term 'casual games' was uncommon until after the turn of this century, the idea of casual gaming is as old as video games themselves. Games that are accessible to everybody are at the very heart of our industry. Pong, Pac-Man, Donkey Kong -- early games were always intuitive; easy to play for anyone who approached them.

"No matter how big your overall experience is, players need to feel that they can accomplish something and walk away in very short spurts"

As time went on, video games became more complicated and a growing section of the general populus felt ostracized. The casual games industry of the early 2000s was a response to this, welcoming back a segment of the players whom video games had long since abandoned.

At the dawn of VR, we have the opportunity to include everybody -- not just the hardcore gamers looking for traditional AAA titles, but everybody. And if we want to see VR adoption rates increase, this is something that we have to collectively prioritize as an industry. Lucky for us, there's a bit of a blueprint we can follow -- and it comes from casual games.

Simple Controls, Deep Mechanics

Video games give us the opportunity to create the impossible -- but don't confuse the potential for worldbuilding with the importance of user experiences firmly grounded in reality. Keeping mechanics simple and as close to real life as possible will create a true sense of immersion. The design challenge is to ask oneself what kind of gameplay depth you can create from simple controls.

If you're looking for a great example of this, consider Owlchemy Labs' Job Simulator. The game recreates a number of traditional jobs (restaurant cook, office worker, auto mechanic, store clerk), but does so by limiting controls to actual physical movements. Players can use their hands to reach around the environment, touching and picking up objects as they attempt to satisfy customer demands. The deeper gameplay mechanics and enjoyment comes from the sandbox experience of object interaction, such as drinking a glass of water or cloning a stapler on a copy machine.

Our own recent release, Unearthed Inc: The Lost Temple, offers similarly intuitive design. Players take part in an Indiana Jones-style adventure, relying on natural human motions to solve puzzles and fight monsters. We simply have an "interact" button, but the gameplay depth comes from the varied interactions -- from rotating a totem to pulling down a lever to fashion your 19th century dynamite stick.

Quick Sessions

Building massive experiences in VR is grand -- and if you have the resources and team capable of building a 40+ hour VR adventure, I'd sure love to play it. But no matter how big your overall experience is, players need to feel that they can accomplish something and walk away in very short spurts. Casual games have been able to accomplish this by offering up successive intricate puzzles, or in the case of arcade-inspired casual games like Peggle or Jewel Quest, level-based structures.

Prior to starting the VR games company Glo, I had spent 10 years in the casual games industry as the founder of Blue Tea Games. Our company created Dark Parables, a fairy-tale series that combined hidden object hunts with adventure-style puzzle mechanics. The Dark Parables games saw millions of downloads, and a big part of what made them successful was how easily players could walk away mid-game while still feeling a sense of progress.

"If you design your virtual reality experiences right...you'll do more than have a great game: you'll help to keep the industry accessible to the widest possible range of players"

Whether finding an important object or solving a challenging puzzle, the most recent actions our players completed always made them feel a sense of accomplishment. Strategies like this are essential to developing compelling VR experiences for the masses. Unearthed Inc was developed with this in mind, with each section of the game offering enough self-contained satisfaction to provide an acceptable stopping point for players taking a break from the action.

Standing Still

While the whole industry seems intent on solving it, there are instances of virtual reality games triggering motion sickness in some players. If you're looking to include as many players as possible, this is something you're going to need to factor into your design. And one seemingly foolproof way to do that? Let players stand still and minimize the use of simulated motion.

It's the difference between games such as the aforementioned Job Simulator and games that simulate experiences such as driving or flying. If you don't try to trick a player's mind into experiencing a motion that the body isn't feeling, you run a drastically lower chance of nausea.

This doesn't mean you can't have movement. Some games (Batman VR, for example) let you point and click to advance to a new position in a way that's more like a scene change, eschewing actual movement. Ultimately, there's only so much one can do if there's a story to tell that requires some faux-movement. With Unearthed Inc: The Lost Temple, we've tried to straddle this line as best we can. Much of the game has players firmly rooted in place -- but what fun would it be to ride a minecart trying to outrun a giant boulder if you didn't see the world rushing past you on your escape?

Let's Make the Early Days Count

Being around for the start of a new movement in video games is always exciting. I was fortunate enough to be involved in the early days of modern casual games, and the thrill of potential is just as palpable at the precipice of VR gaming. We can literally create anything in this space if we put our minds to it.

Even so, it's important to not let our lofty ambitions come at the expense of user experience. If you design your virtual reality experiences right, so that anyone can step in and play as easily as they could Pac-Man back in the day, you'll do more than have a great game: you'll help to keep the industry accessible to the widest possible range of players.

Steve Zhao is the founder of casual games company Blue Tea Games and more recently formed Glo Inc, which has just released its first title Unearthed Inc: The Lost Temple on HTC Vive and Oculus Rift

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