An early prototype of the Oculus Rift head mounted display

Designing Games for Emerging Virtual Reality Consoles

The next-generation of video games will be produced for virtual reality game consoles, one of which is Project Holodeck at USC. This new technology will fundamental alter how the user experiences a virtual world. Game designers and developers who wish to create games and other interactive experiences will need to tailor their techniques to this new medium.

In medias res:

Virtual Reality will involve a head mounted display with a stereoscopic display. This lends itself very well to emulating the human experience of vision.

An early prototype of the Oculus Rift head mounted display

It doesn’t, however, emulate the cinematic experience we have become used to in video games (Or film, for that matter). This means things like cutscenes and third person perspective cameras are less effective. The real power of VR with an HMD is first person games where you embody the character. Because of this, a recommended approach is “Half-Life style” where there are no cutscenes and the player embodies the main character at all times.

In Half-Life 2, the player retains control of the character at all times, including during non-interactive scripted sequences.

This means the player must always embody a perspective, there is no second or third perspective. To borrow a literature term, Tthe player is always “in the middle of things”.


Unlike gaming on a large television, you can’t look over someone’s shoulder when their wearing a Head Mounted Display.


Video game spectating.

Instead, when designing games for Virtual Reality, we need to take a page from headphone wearing competitive gamers: built-in spectatorship of networked gaming. We already replaced our televisions with a headmounted display, but we’re still most likely playing these games in our living-room. So, let’s appropriate the television for spectatorship. Spectators should be able to see players in the Virtual Reality playspace from an objective perpective.


Morpheus fighting Neo in The Matrix
Spectating the fight
The spectator view

The great thing about spectation, besides the fact that it plays well in public spaces and at festivals, is that it is a great way to sneak in some cinematic elements. This objective camera view can use the language of film to tell the story of the player’s experience. The reason why we have to sneak this cinematic element into the system through spectation is because, in a VR space, the player embodies a character and plays through the entire experience in the first-person. This brings us to…

Avatar Embodiment:

This term refers to players actually embodying a character in the game using their own body. This has a number of difficult design and development challenges. For example, people who play your game will vary greatly in size and shape. Do we use this size and shape for their player character or do we make their size and shape conform to the character?


The Kinect is a great device for full avatar embodiment.

Besides body movement, designers have to ask themselves a few questions: What kind of devices correspond to universal character actions without being too complex? Does your game need a full finger tracking glove like the PowerGlove? How much body input is necessary?

Moving Through The Space:

Most games involve telling a story by moving through a space. Game avatars run, walk, drive, swim and fly through their game worlds. A fully immersive virtual reality system would allow players to move through space in a natural way. If a player is playing in a finite space (a living-room, for example) then they cannot just walk in one direction to reach a far away goal. Instead, designers must think of creative ways of allowing the player to move through the space. For example, The Wizdish allows players to move their legs back and forth in a semi-realistic fashion to simulate walking or running:

Play Impedence:

Because of a lack of haptic feedback, players can’t be impeded by anything in the game. If an enemy punches the player in the face, not only will they not feel that punch but their body will not react appropriately in the game space. Put simply, the game lacks the ability to move the player around like in most games. Depending on the type of game you would like to make, this must be creatively designed around.


Virtual Reality is a new medium that we’re only beginning to understand. With VR we can create experiences with a new kind of immersion where you feel the vulnerability of actually embodying the role of a character. Understanding the aforementioned challenges is the first step toward unlocking this potential.

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