Why VR games need to become 10x different than other video games

Or, will the Quest 2 take VR mainstream?

Now that the Quest 2 was announced, discussion around VR’s path to the mainstream has picked up again. Not surprisingly (but somewhat boringly, in my opinion) Facebook is selling the device as a gaming first device, with a little bit of exercise tacked on.

Privacy concerns aside, this brings up two questions: 1) Why would game developers target the device and 2) why would gamers shift their attention, time, and money to it?

The problem

Let’s face it, highly profitable game companies out there develop mobile games that rake in millions of daily revenue.

Why would these folks bat an eye towards VR games? 

Correct - for no reason whatsoever.

Let’s discuss what would it take for that to happen.

Three things that need to happen

  1. It would take for smartphones to be supplanted with another computing platform for everyday use.

  2. It would take for new genres to emerge that game developers first scoff at but eventually try to jump on board as they start seeing these new genres starting to generate profit. Something similar has happened to an extent over the last 10 years with video and console game studios’ attitudes towards mobile.

  3. It would take for these genres to provide something that is 10 times different - or even 10x better, either in terms of convenience, context, or experience. Mobile games tapped into a source of convenience in context, not so much the mobile - at least before Pokemon Go.

Point 1 is a very complex and broad issue and therefore not the focus for this post. Point 2 follows from 3, so let’s focus on that.

Million a day vs Million in total over months

VR game studios who have games that have grossed over $1M total in revenue, over several months - or even over a year - are considered great successes. As we have seen, the most successful mobile games do this pretty much every day of the year

The comparison might be unfair - revenue models are different, etc - but we need to be honest. To become mainstream, VR gaming needs to compete with the time players put into games with their phones, consoles and PCs. 

VR developers have managed to start in eating into that time on the hardcore console and PC ends, but it’s been baby steps. To break into even close to the more casual gaming mainstream, the Madden, FIFA, and Fortnite audiences, a VR game needs to provide unique value; something that says it is 10x different or better. Only then, folks start fearing they are missing out - and only then will headsets start moving. 

Beat Saber: great but not multitudes different or better

Beat Saber, you say? Maybe 3x better. Why not more? Due to its genre. Beat Saber is an awesome execution of a rhythm game. In how it makes us use our bodies beyond thumbs on a gamepad, the genre has found its pinnacle in Beat Saber.

Yet, Beat Saber is an incremental improvement of an existing genre. It’s not inventing a new genre of enjoyable interaction with software. Rather, it’s taking an existing, proven genre, and bringing it to its ultimate platform. 

Beat Saber started with the video game arcade script that we have in our heads, inherited from Dance Dance Revolution, etc.  The script says that we need to face a rectangular screen to get the visual cues and see how we are doing. To begin with, the difference was that the cues came at you and did not stop at the screen’s boundaries. 

However, recently Beat Saber developers took a step away from this headspace and decided to introduce 360-degree tracks speaks to this trajectory: embracing VR fully means you eventually embrace the full 360 degrees.  

Half-Life: Alyx: Excellent but a prisoner of its genre and tropes

In terms of execution, Half-Life: Alyx is beyond criticism. Yet for me, it’s just another shooter.

I find it telling that the brief puzzles Valve’s game has are the most VR-native in their design - otherwise, it keeps quite safely to conventional, story-driven First-Shooter Tropes:

Despite its success, my educated guess is that it is penetrating the existing headset user base in a major way rather than selling devices. Before it starts moving headsets to new users in a significant way, we shouldn’t draw too many conclusions of its impact on VR adoption.

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First steps towards 10x different

I know it’s impossible to quantify the magnitude of disruption. For the sake of argument, I will insist on drawing the line to 10x. 

The path to “10x different in VR” starts from

  • largely letting go of the existing genres 

  • identifying what is unique to VR,

  • and reaching for something multi-sensory that does not quite exist. 

1. Let’s unlearn ”rectangle” game genres

We’ll get to what is unique to VR in a minute. Before that, let’s start unlearning game genre conventions.

I wrote a PhD (that no-one has read) on analysing games. I still think that it had a particularly smart insight into the difference between how we talk about game genres in comparison to film genres. It was that the titles we give game genres consist of combinations of verbs and sometimes environments (’role-playing’, ’platforming’, etc) rather than something describing the mood or emotional disposition of the story or how it is delivered (’comedy’, ’musical’, ’thriller’). To be fair, sometimes these two approaches mix (’First-person shooter’).

The thing is, we still describe VR games with video game genres. That’s not different enough. Imagine playing this scene in VR:

I want to encourage playful interactions and agency in VR. Therefore, let’s not necessarily abandon all themes and settings popular in games - that would be digging a grave for any commercial intentions. But let’s try harder - keep reading for 5 more ways!

2. Let’s design subtler conflicts

Games may need conflict to create tension between players and/or non-player characters. Let’s not forget tension, but let’s forget violent conflict. That is the easiest and least subtle way to introduce conflict, and game designers have been feeding on it for decades.

Let’s strive for something more subtle with VR to make it 10x different. Funomena’s Luna serves as an inspiration:

3. Let’s design more ambiguous goals that arise from intrinsically rewarding actions

Let’s not forget goals - they are inherent to games, but let’s not use goal structures that are only there to create compulsive loops. Let’s consider player-generated or community-driven goals. We don’t want to confuse players with unclear goals, but let’s consider leaving goals open-ended so that pursuing them and reaching them produce ambiguous results that are not quantifiable with one absolute interpretation. This is a step into what is different.  

Let’s not forget rewards, but let’s forget extrinsically motivated and easily quantifiable rewards, such as points, level-ups, loot-boxes, etc. Instead, we’ll design intrinsically rewarding actions for our players - actions that are pleasurable and/or productive in themselves.

10x different in VR = (no violent conflicts + user-generated goals + only intrinsically rewarding actions) + …

4. Let’s design for what is unique to VR 

Sense of presence is unique to VR.

The fancy way of saying the same is ‘sensorimotor contingencies’: when in VR we turn our head, we do not see the rubbish bag in the next room waiting to be taken out. We stay in the virtual world. 

Let’s embrace not only head and hand movement but other embodied forms of interaction (more movement) and expression (voice, gestures). To an extent, social VR is showing the way already. Watch Crystal Beasley’s talk on embodiment and VR for inspiration:

5. Let’s design for the seven senses

Yet, we should also think beyond presence. Presence hinges with how we interact with things in VR: with our bodies. Embodied interaction is the thing. 

But if we leave it at that, we still completely overlook many senses (smell, taste), only moderately address one (touch) - all this out of seven. 

We should think about how a VR experience can be amplified with other multisensory technologies. These can be ‘low’ tech, such as scents or flavours that players are encouraged to embellish their play session with. Let’s advise our players to attach weights to controllers. 

10x better in VR =  (no violent conflicts + user-generated goals + only intrinsically rewarding actions) + (presence + 7 senses)

6. Let’s invent new, VR-native genres

Therefore, humour me in engaging with an intellectual exercise. Let’s invent a genre that begins with VR’s unique capabilities and ends with them!

For now, let’s call it: “Presence games”.  

What does that mean - you tell me in the comments!