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CES 2013: The Awesome Ways in Which Oculus Rift Will Affect Game Design

By Matthew Braga

Our current approach to game design ill-fitting for the virtual reality experience – and it's a problem with which Oculus' vice president of product Nate Mitchell spoke to us at length.

When you put on the Oculus Rift for the first time, it's as if you can suddenly see – as if whatever you were doing before was just a buildup to the real thing. You start paying attention to the textures on a warrior's armor, or the various fruits lying in a nearby stand. Nothing is mere scenery anymore but an integral part of a larger scene – precisely because there is no scene. You can look anywhere you want at whatever you want as if you were walking through a medieval themed market in so-called real life. There's no guide, no camera, and no invsible hand – your eyes are the eyes of the character you control. You're not merely looking through a portal or staring at a screen.

Oculus Rift, you see, is a virtual reality visor, and represeents an attempt to bring a higher degree of immersion to numerous genres of video game that are oftentimes anything but. The visor uses multiple gyroscopes and motion sensors to track the movement of a player's head in real-time, and feeds that data into the gameworld with stunning results. When you look right, your avatar does too. A tilt to the left is mirrored in-game. You can even look behind you, as far as your head can turn.

And the more time you spend immersed in this world, the more you realize how completely different a mouse pointer functions from a pair of eyes. In fact, in a traditional gaming setup, the two are in constant opposition. The location of the pointer isn't necessarily where you're eyes are staring too, and in a virutal reality environment, that friction is removed. For all intents and purposes, while wearing the Oculus Rift, your eyes and the mouse pointer are one and the same.

This makes our current approach to game design ill-fitting for the virtual reality experience – and it's a problem with which Oculus VR's vice president of product Nate Mitchell spoke to us at length.

Let's first look at an example in first-person shooters.

When a player dies in the game Doom, the camera rises, detaches from their body and spins around the corpse. While this all might sound very morbid, it's even more disorienting for a person viewing this out-of-body experience while wearing an Oculus Rift. Suddenly their perspective has been stolen and assigned instead to a third-party observer over which they have no control – in this case, a death camera. Player control of their avatar, the Oculus team has found, is especially important, and virtual reality games will need to be developed to help a player retain as much of it as possible.

The Oculus team believes that virtual reality will force developers to think more closely about how their cutscenes are designed.

Cut scenes too are notoriously bad at taking this control away too. It's common practice to design pre-rendered cutscenes that are highly cinematic in nature, or even in-game cutscenes where actions are heavily scripted. In each of these cases, you're just an observer and not a participant as the promise of virtual reality allows. However, the Oculus team believes that virtual reality will, hopefully, force developers to think more closely about how their cutscenes are made – in particular, how to allow the player some degree of control. If two characters are talking to each other in a room, why keep the player's head locked in place, as opposed to allowing them the freedom to look around? It's a simple problem with a simple solution, but not something many developers are thinking about right now.

Another motion concept crucial to virtual reality but often absent in modern game design is the presence of roll or tilt. Think, for a moment, of the last first-person video game you played. Was your character able to tilt his or her head to the left or right? And if so, what combination of buttons or contextual situations were required to trigger the desired movement? The point here is that a basic, natural function that we perform almost every waking second of our lives is nigh impossible to replicate virtually in a remotely similar or simplistic way. In fact, you can use the Oculus Rift for minutes before realizing that the tilt of your head is a motion the game world actually allows.

And while the focus of Oculus Rift has thus far centered on the head, that's not to say the rest of our bodies won't play an important role in these future virtual reality worlds. Mitchell's hope is that, in time, new hardware will enable Oculus to get "more of you inside" the game. Consider a simple example, where a player holds a physical representation of an in-game weapon or gun. The momvements of this player's head, body, and hands could be treated entirely independent of one another – such that he or she could be looking down a hall in first-person shooter, while still shooting at enemies coming up from behind. That's going to require new precise low-latency controllers--something much better than Xbox's Kinect.

We were even given a very far off hypothetical scenario where two players might be holding physical wands – wands that would enable each player to wave and high-five one other in the virtual world. This wouldn't happen because they pressed a key instructing their avatar do so, but because they wanted to complete the action themselves and followed through accordingly, a true degree of free will simply not possible in current game worlds.

HUDs and UI elements are of particular interest, and in 3D, where multiple layers exist, these have the potential to work especially well.

In the near term, however, there is still much to be done. The team at Oculus has been hard at work on guidelines, standards and best practices for developing games and experiences suited to the virtual reality world. HUDs and UI elements are of particular interest, and in 3D, where multiple layers exist, these have the potential to work especially well. And while everyone tends to fixate on first-person shooters as gaming's current shiny object in the room, Mitchell actually sees more potential in alternate genres where environment and scenery play a more active role. For example, a player piloting an airplane in a flight simulator or a giant warrior mech might be able to look around the cockpit at various dials and controls and interact with these objects in a more natural way.

Developer kits are on track to start arriving in March, so it's important that we begin discussing these things now – and it's clear that the team working on Oculus Rift has already begun. There's a whole new virtual world out there, and it's going to take time to see at it all, so to speak.