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HTC Vive controllers

A Case for Simplicity in VR

04 Jan 17
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or why we don’t want to RTFM

One of the often overlooked challenges in creating immersive experiences in Virtual Reality is effective use of the controllers and how to convey sometimes complicated instructional information in a way that the user can actually process.  Keyboards and console controllers have been ingrained in us for decades, but we’re all learning together how to best interact with a completely new type of controller within an immersive virtual space.

A few weeks ago I spent a good portion of my afternoon in a local VR arcade where I just sat and observed players putting on a headset and finding their way around VR space for the first time.  These observations were critical in identifying sore points with both the controller and information delivery.  Below I’ll be diving into why developers should focus on simplicity and think carefully about their functionality choices, menu interactions, and overall methods of sharing information with the player.

Keep It Simple

Does the action of the button make sense?  If you’re making a shooter, the obvious choice is to use the trigger as the shooting mechanism.  There’s no logical leap to understand that trigger in real life = trigger in game.  But what about switching weapons?  You can use motion to reach behind you, you can use the trackpad positions to select weapons, or even use the trackpad to open up a submenu and cycle through choices.  The choice here depends on the context of your game, but the more complicated this becomes the more teaching you have for the player, and the more likely the player won’t know intuitively what to do when they have to make quick decisions.

I’ve been in games with trackpad menu weapon selection that has repeatedly gotten me killed because in moments of panic I couldn’t get to what exactly I needed.  I’ve been in games with fancy motion reloading (which I love from a conceptual standpoint), but again couldn’t master the motion well enough to use it successfully when the stakes were high.  I kept thinking “reloading a weapon like this certainly makes it more real, but did it make it more fun?”

At the arcade I watched two 10 year old boys put that headset on and attempt to play what they thought was the coolest looking VR app from the arcade selection.  After 15 minutes of watching them struggle to understand the controls, they bailed and jumped into Job Simulator where they spent the rest of their hour playthrough.  The game looked great, but the complicated control scheme prevented them from enjoying it.  I asked the arcade owner how often this happened and he replied “every day, all day”.  

Grip Gripes

This is one of those buttons that just feels off from a controller design point of view, and I’d think twice about the functionality you decide to tie to it.  The grip is the most awkward button to press for many players, it’s subtle enough that people forget about it, and it constantly gets clicked without intent.  Players have a tendency to squeeze that controller tightly, and the grip functionality can alter the gameplay negatively if the wrong functionality is associated with it.

On pre-release builds of BladeShield we had the blade color selectable by simply clicking the grip at any point during the game.  We observed many players going through a rainbow of colors unintentionally as they played because they simply didn’t realize they were squeezing the grip, but they sure were confused as to what was happening.  We ended up keeping the grip functionality, but only allowed it from the main menu before the game began and things got too frantic.

A simple and effective use of the grip can be found in Brookhaven, or even our own shooter Armed Against the Undead, where the only functionality tied to the grip is the reloading of the gun.  The worst thing that can happen in a situation where the player unintentionally squeezes too hard is that they find themselves with more ammo.  There is no accidental weapon switching, locomotion, menu popups, or any other sort of event that could inhibit the player.

Too Many Menus

We all want to present the players with as many options as possible, but put some thought into what’s actually required to get the player going.  Think about how many clicks it takes to get to the fun, or if the player absolutely needs to be able to control every possible setting.  When the player puts on that headset, they’re ready to play.  The arcade owner dreaded the games that were locked behind several screens of clicking.  Each one forced an employee to engage with and walk the player through getting to the fun.  Even in a non arcade setting, having the player jump through too many hoops on their first journey into your world can set them up with a negative first impression.

Instruction Text Overload

Players don’t read instruction text walls.  Ever.  They set up, they jump in, they play.  On the rare occasion a player accidentally reads instruction text, it doesn’t process.  We’ve learned this the hard way across several projects.  So what can you do to convey all that information to the player?  We’re back to point one – Keep It Simple.  If the player can’t figure out how to use the controllers intuitively by simply playing then alarm bells should be going off that you may have overcomplicated the control scheme.

If you’ve got a game that simply must use complicated controls, motion, or other advanced things, then you still have options.

  1. Use visuals.  Show the player graphically the motions necessary.  
  2. Tutorials and Playgrounds.  Get them in a place where they can goof around and try it out.  The main menu can be a great spot for this.
  3. Slow progression.  Pace the gameplay so that they only need to learn 1-2 things at a time, and slowly introduce information.

Final Thoughts

Developers put a lot of effort into creating new worlds and experiences for their players.  Don’t let the interaction with that world be an afterthought.  Remember to keep the controls simple, streamline the menu system, and convey all necessary information to the player in a way they can actually process it.  What may be intuitive to the developer after running through the motions a thousand times may actually be quite difficult for someone without that history and context, especially when creating for a new medium with non-standardized controls.

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