The first thing any developer has to consider when designing a video game are its 3C’s: Character, Controls, and Camera. These three pillars of game design shape every interaction the player has with the game; they’re to video games what editing is to movies.
By now, decades of testing, playing, and iterating have helped traditional games establish a set of best practices for their 3C’s, but here’s the thing: at Breaking Walls, we’re not working on a traditional game, and virtual reality is a whole new beast. With its opportunities for deep immersion and its risks of motion sickness, optimizing the 3C’s for a VR game has turned out to be quite the challenge! While there’s a ton of potential in virtual reality, harnessing it involves lots of testing and even more iterating.
Over the last few weeks, we’ve had the chance to try out early builds of our game and gather feedback from new players. This has been instrumental in helping us fine-tune our approach and craft a better experience, so we figured we’d share what we’ve learned so far.
1. Nailing the Perspective
As we revealed last month, the first episode of AWAY sees the player star as a tiny little sugar glider. One of the best things about this character is its ability to not only run & jump, but also climb & glide through its environment. In order to get the most out of this experience though, it’s crucial that we absolutely nail the camera and perspective for the sugar glider.
Due to the inherent verticality in the sugar glider’s gameplay, the camera choice isn’t as straightforward as one might think. Climbing trees and gliding off cliffs may sound fun from a first-person perspective, but more often than not in virtual reality, this is a surefire trigger for motion sickness and nausea. On the other hand, a third-person camera takes the thrill out of the virtual reality experience, which goes against what we were hoping to achieve.
Because neither option really suited our needs, we did a lot of experimenting and settled on somewhat of a hybrid of the two camera styles. As a result, when you don the VR goggles in AWAY, the camera doesn’t quite put you inside the body of the sugar glider, but it’s so close that it basically feels that way. In other words, it’s not a first-person camera, but the perspective is so tight that it doesn’t really qualify as third-person either. Thanks to this nifty set-up, we essentially trick the brain into feeling the thrill of the first-person camera with the comfort of the third-person camera, something we’ve done successfully in past with our free playable teaser.
2. Crafting Engaging Characters
From the onset, the premise of AWAY was always to let players see the world from the perspective of several different animals. To do that, we realized early on that we needed to create a world filled with interesting, memorable, and engaging characters that would be genuinely fun to play as. But of course, that’s much easier said than done.
The history of video games is lined with iconic characters, from Mario to Megaman to Master Chief. What makes them so great is not only their personalities and story arcs, but also how fun they are to play as (Mark Brown covers this topic wonderfully in this video). Now, creating fun characters isn’t exactly a science, but there are a few general guidelines that we as developers can follow to try and capture this elusive “fun factor”.
The first thing players notice when they try out a game are its controls. In fact, a game’s controls can make or break it entirely. Just think of how easy and relaxing it is to start playing Journey, and how much that has to do with its incredibly simple two-button setup. This is a great example of how a game’s controls not only impact its ease of use, but shape the player’s entire experience.
With AWAY, we’ve tried to achieve a similar level of simplicity while maintaining the wide breadth of movements inherent to the game’s characters. For instance, the intuitive motion controls we used in our playable teaser meant that even first-time VR gamers were able to pick up, play, and most of all enjoy the game on their first try.
As for the sugar glider, we’ve spent the last few weeks streamlining its gamepad controls in order to find the simplest, most intuitive configurations. Establishing this will make our job much easier when it comes time to port these controls to a full-on kinetic VR locomotion system.
The second key to creating fun characters is making them as responsive as possible. Remember jumping around as Mario? That double-jump of his is not only intuitive, it’s also incredibly responsive, easy to execute, and satisfying to watch, and that’s a big reason why it’s so fun to attempt.
As Mario has shown, designing responsive characters starts with responsive controls and crisp animations, and AWAY is no different. Whether it’s running, jumping, climbing, or gliding, our sugar glider’s wide array of movements are key to the player’s in-game experience.
Obviously, this sugar glider is no Mario… yet! There’s still a ton of testing and tweaking to be done before our animations and controls reach the level of responsiveness we’re aiming for, but that’s all part of the process. After all, making a game is no fun without a little challenge, right?
3. Designing a Cinematic VR Experience
We mentioned earlier that developing a game in virtual reality brings with it a whole set of new challenges compared to traditional game development. Well, we weren’t lying, but that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. It just means that we’ve had to rethink some of our approaches, and get used to finding new solutions to old problems.
For starters, when we set out to craft a cinematic experience in AWAY, we realized that we would have to redefine the term cinematic. You see, unlike traditional games, where the fixed camera allows games to showcase well-composed beauty shots and third-person cutscenes, the camera in virtual reality games is controlled by the player… more specifically, by the player’s head. This makes it much harder to build cinematic shots, since we don’t know if the players will be looking in the right direction or at the right time for our shot to have its intended effect. Not only that, but taking control of the camera for a cutscene is a surefire way to induce nausea, so old-school cutscenes are out of the question as well.
These limitations have forced us to build the cinematic feel right into our game design. Where traditional games can stop play to turn a player’s attention towards a specific scenery or objective, we instead design our levels to reveal these shots naturally as the player moves through our world. This top-down approach makes for a more seamless and immersive gameplay experience, giving control back to the player.
When it comes down to it, all games, VR or otherwise, require a good balance between the 3C’s in order to provide an enjoyable experience to their players. And while virtual reality may pose a few new challenges, it always comes down to the same three pillars:
- Crafting fun, memorable characters
- Implementing the right camera
- Designing responsive and intuitive controls
As of now, we’re still very early in the development process, so while we have an idea of what we want our 3C’s to look like, we haven’t settled on anything yet. In fact, right up until the game’s release, it will be crucial for us to get constant feedback on our 3C’s, as that’s the only way to ensure they’re fully optimized for gameplay.
While we still have lots of work left, we didn’t want you guys to feel left out. We've always valued our community's feedback, so this time around, we actually went out and built a locomotion prototype where you can play around with our sugar glider yourself! You can download it here for PC & HTC Vive, so go check it out and tell us what you think. We’d love to hear your feedback!
We're hoping you guys can help us make AWAY the best game it can be, and to do that we'd love it if you could fill out this 1 minute feedback form for the prototype. If enough people fill it out, we'll definitely consider sending you guys more content to test out as we go, so please don't be shy: Go try it out and let us know what you think of our 3C's!
The AWAY dev team