Oculus VR co-founder explains the challenges of virtual reality gaming

By Andrew Yoon, Apr 08, 2013 12:00pm PDT

With its promise of virtual reality gaming, Oculus Rift continues to intrigue gamers and developers alike. Oculus VR co-founder Nate Mitchell spoke to a packed auditorium at Game Developer's Conference, proof that interest in VR gaming is incredibly high.

While Mitchell was undoubtedly pleased with the attendance, he wasn't there to speak exclusively on why Oculus Rift is awesome. Instead, he wanted to point out the challenges developers will face when porting content to virtual reality.

For example, one of the big challenges of VR is creating a UI. "If you're completely immersed in that world, there's not necessarily a good place for UI," he said. In 2D gaming, you could place extra information on the periphery, but that won't really work in VR. Even something as simple as a reticule needs to be re-thought in 3D. Mitchell's advise was to "try to make it more like real life," pointing to games like Dead Space and pack-in game Hawken. In Dead Space, all important game information is presented as a physical object; in Hawken, you can simply look around the cockpit.

A VR game also has to do away with some go-to gaming tropes. For example, you can't take away control from players ever--not even for cutscenes. "If you take away control, it's a very jarring experience," Mitchell warned. Another problem for developers? "Another challenge is loading screens. how do you keep the immersion there?"

Establishing "visual identity" is especially important in first-person virtual reality games. "No one wants to be a floating head," Mitchell pointed out, saying that it's important to create an actual body for players to step into. "Players like to see their hands, body," he said. During Rift setup, you can actually input your real-life dimensions, so that when you step into a game, you'll be at the right eye level.

Finally, perhaps the biggest hurdle developers will have to face in making a proper VR game: not making players feel sick. Technology plays a role in the process, of course. Latency has to be minimized, while tracking precision must be top-notch. However, designers must also think about the kind of content they're creating for VR. Mitchell pointed out to Team Fortress 2, which is also getting Oculus Rift support. Playing as the Heavy proves to be quite enjoyable in VR, but playing as the supernaturally fast Scout becomes a bit too frenetic for VR play. "Slow things down," Mitchell advised. Just like how pilots must train for months to jump into a fighter jet, VR gaming requires the same kind of build-up.

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