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Virtual reality has real problems. Here’s how game developers seek to delete them.

(Mallory Brangan/The Washington Post)

From a distance, virtual reality games might seem primitive and unsophisticated compared to more traditional titles. Players’ hands float in midair as they vault across virtual space, crudely teleporting from point to point.

Perhaps a change in perspective is called for. What players may not know is that teleportation is not a lazy solution to moving about in virtual reality, but a direct response to motion sickness. Floating hands are a design choice, not a shortcut. The games aren’t bad. It’s just that virtual reality often has to reinvent the wheel.

Virtual reality, or VR, is still a testing ground of game design, and one area in which there are few standards when it comes to control schemes and design choices. The homogeneity of traditional open-world titles, role-playing games, and first-person shooters does not exist, and where pressing a trigger to shoot or a face button to crouch is ubiquitous on console, VR games are still testing the best ways to make games fun and players comfortable. While using an odd button to crouch or attack may be cumbersome on consoles, the wrong decision in VR can make players physically ill, resulting in nausea, eyestrain, and other side-effects. In virtual reality, your whole body is engaged in a way unlike anything in traditional games. From the requirement of the headset needing to fit different head sizes and shapes and remain comfortable for long stretches, to the lenses themselves, VR opens up the number of variables considerably.

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For many, the most common problem is “VR Sickness,” a term adopted by developers and players to describe the various afflictions caused by playing VR games. Nausea, dizziness, disorientation and a number of other motion-sickness related symptoms are common with many VR users and this is exacerbated by the nature of virtual reality: The player’s eyes tell their brain they are walking, while their body tells them that they are still.

“You can experience this in everyday life, such as when you read a book in the back of a car — your vision is fixed on a stationary object, but your peripheral vision and inner ear are detecting movement,” said Matt Dickman, technical program manager for health & safety at Oculus, the company that led the VR charge and was subsequently bought by Facebook in 2014.

It’s a problem that he — and many others in the billion dollar industry — have been tasked with solving.

A cure for the sickness

VR sickness is the reason some users fall over or get sick with more traditional, smooth movement systems (i.e. you push a control stick and move forward, like in a standard first-person game). Pixel velocity is an example of one of the many issues that cause VR sickness. The speed of pixels moving across your field of vision is different to the speed of the player. While similar to the feeling of seeing movement while standing still, pixel velocity accounts for when the world rushes around the player, or provides a sense of falling or movement even when the player is represented as still in the game.

Teleportation is a common solution, which breaks the illusion but keeps players moving through the world without tricking their mind into thinking they are walking. It is why so many VR games are “experiences,” rail-shooters and puzzle games. Keeping players in one spot is an easy solution to avoiding the pitfalls of motion sickness.

Simple tricks learned over development, such as bringing up static artwork or controlling where the user focused their attention, helped mitigate nausea. In “VR Sports Challenge,” the developer, Sanzaru, saw a decrease in motion sickness when players focused on something specific.

“In our football game, when you are receiving a football catch, we are actually sliding you along a rail, but because the user is so focused on what they were doing, nobody noticed they were moving,” said Evan Arnold, head of technology at Sanzaru, which also developed “Asgard’s Wrath,” one of 2019’s flagship Oculus titles. “They just felt immersed in that motion.”

Other options, such as adding a darkening effect around the edge of the screen), help curb the effect of pixel velocity by keeping players focused on their center of vision and blurring the pixels rushing by them. Tricks like this helped save Sanzaru’s players from a sprint to a nearby trash can.

“As soon as the expectation of movement breaks from what you’re doing, people would get woozy,” Arnold said. Clever and simple solutions saved many players in the game, like using rudimentary assets to stop players from getting sick and acting as a boundary. “In [VR Sports Challenge], we had a simple enough solution, as you approach that wall, there was a piece of static art that caught you.”

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Games like “Asgard’s Wrath” used only smooth movement, a style atypical of current VR titles. The title, a full-fledged RPG, supports total freedom of movement and motion-based sword swinging. A rarity in the VR space, it is a much more “typical” gaming experience, even using a fully rendered player character model, eschewing the floating hands so often seen in VR titles. An important goal of VR development is to find new ways to make movement more comfortable and to provide games for players who have already gained their “VR legs” through hours of play.

VR sickness is caused by initial discomfort and lack of experience with the hardware, much like trying anything new, some users build a stomach for it over time. While teleportation is a solution, it is a crude one, and brings players out of the experience, reminding them that they are not physically present within the game world. The dream of VR, after all, is getting the traditional gaming experiences players know and love to work in headsets, to up the immersion. But the design choices made in “Asgard’s Wrath” come at a cost: Namely, the possibility of losing a large player base to motion sickness, or even just fear of motion sickness. There’s a delicate balance between ambition and the stubborn facts of nascent technology.

“As developers, there is only so much you can do with teleportation mechanics, creating this sense of immersion that VR really brings to the table, if you can’t move around,” Arnold said.

Breaking rules that don’t exist

At Insomniac, the developers behind “Ratchet and Clank” and “Marvel’s Spider-Man,” among many other titles, VR was a tantalizing proposition — and they were among the earliest AAA developers to jump in. The studio was so enthusiastic, in fact, it formed a new studio around the initial Oculus Kickstarter launch.

Developers working with the fledgling tech are constantly pushing boundaries, and have realized full body, motion-based experiences with the advent of touch-based controllers. Input methods like the Oculus Touch controllers and the Valve “Knuckles” (a loving, colloquial name for the otherwise plainly-named Index Controllers) allow players' hands, fingers, and arms to be tracked in real time.

For Insomniac, these advancements were revelatory. “There is almost no chance of going back to a world without hand tracking,” said Daly.

But at a glance, “Stormland,” Insomniac’s 2019 VR offering, would appear to be a nightmare for the technology. Many of VR’s rules of comfort are broken, with players flying around an open world, freely moving and jumping.

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Mike Daly, the lead designer, knew that they were playing on the frontier of what was possible — and acceptable to players.

“Stormland looked a lot more like ‘let’s try a bunch of stuff that seems wrong and seems like it’s gonna be really uncomfortable,’ and the broad explorative approach ended up with a lot more innovations than if we just built on what we had learned about comfort in ‘Edge of Nowhere’ and ‘The Unspoken,’” Daly said, referring to the studio’s earlier forays into VR.

One radical departure, surfaced through a willingness to throw convention out the window (along with a pinch of stubbornness), was the introduction of a jump button. “For a long time, there was resistance to a jump, and I was convinced it would work, and basically I just put it in the game, and people got used to it,” said Joel Bartley, lead gameplay programmer on “Stormland,” and “Edge of Nowhere.”

Comfort levels varied in the office, so the test bed of players helped Insomniac iterate on the most intense parts of “Stormland.” Prototyping on the game’s movement systems started before development on the game began in earnest. Iteration would continue up until the final stages of “Stormland’s” development.

There is more user investment than ever into VR, and developers are taking tentative chances with the tech. Valve released its first “Half-Life” game in over a decade as a VR exclusive, and saw headset sales double in anticipation. Facebook saw an increase in revenue as well; the company says it made $297 million dollars in non-ad revenue in the first quarter of 2020 that was driven largely by Oculus sales — 80 percent higher than in the same period the year before.

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But even with demand growing, VR remains niche. Games like “Half-Life: Alyx” saw over 40,000 concurrent Steam users at launch, which is only a fraction of popular games like “PUBG,” which at one point had over three million concurrent users. VR is still clearly growing, but it has some huge barriers. Headsets are pricey, and command a small consumer base. Convincing developers to invest money, time and resources into making a AAA experience in VR is a hard sell.

Despite the obvious obstacles and shortcomings, developers maintain enthusiasm for working with VR. Throwing out the orthodoxies of traditional game development and starting from scratch, all while making a piece of software that should be comfortable and familiar to the millions who already enjoy games, is an appealing challenge.

But even as creativity leads developers to different solutions, they all trend in the same direction: growing the suite of tools that will help players slip comfortably into the world of VR.

“The standardization of those settings has been a big help for the whole industry in general, because the player can get used to them from game to game and get their ‘sea legs,’” said Daly.

Derek Swinhart is a freelance writer working in the PC hardware industry. You can follow him on Twitter @Derek_Swinhart.

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