Mobile headsets have no positional tracking, meaning the headset can track the player turning around a fixed point but can’t track them leaning over or walking around. There are many ways to design for this style of mount but I want to point out one way that I see emerging: Turntables. Instead of surrounding you with a game environment Turntables focus the play space in front of you on a surface you can turn so you can see it from all angles. First I’ll go over three examples and then I’ll use this budding genre to show how re-implementing old assumptions about how games are played from flat screens to worn headsets can lead to long term physical consequences for the players.
Danger Goat is the epic climb of a mountain goat who is also a spy. Each level gets you closer to the peak but the goats dastardly enemies have planted deadly traps to impede its summit.
While the game play and the narrative reasoning are a little at odds, and the difficulty ramp leaves something to be desired, the game does well challenging your focus with visual noise. Here the turntable is used to let you look at all sides of obstacles, and it also lets you tilt it side to side to tip over large upright rocks in different directions to help solve the puzzle. Just turn the table to a face parallel to the direction you want to tip the rock, grab the table using the thumbpad and turn your hand right or left to temporarily tilt the table in that direction. Gravity does the rest.
In Claro you use the Sun to grow a tree. The tree sprouts from the turntable scattered with mirrors, lenses, and other trinkets which constitute each level’s puzzle.
The gameplay didn’t hook me but it is very visually soothing with its dancing petals, sun beams, bonsai like trees, and drifting clouds. Claro’s unique contribution to this discussion is the ability to reposition the light source (the Sun) around the center platform. You have the standard rotating tray but can also manipulate the surrounding context.
In Mekorama you help a little yellow robot, named B (What happened to poor little A?!), through a series of very vertical puzzles. B enters through one door and you help it get to the other door.
It is the only one of these three games that lets the player change the height of the turntable up and down. It was clearly implemented to allow the design to include levels which were taller than a fixed height lazy susan would allow. B gets to climb up, around, and through vertical mazes and the player can follow along to infinite heights.
So each of these three games contributes its own little something: tilting the turntable to affect objects on the surface, rotating the context in which the center platform sits, changing the height of the turntable. And while tilting the turntable is more of a choice based on the kind of puzzle game the designer is going for, context rotation and height changing are must haves for this genre. Here’s why:
Malleable context, even one that doesn’t directly affect game play, gives the player a place to fiddle when a different mode of thinking is required to solve the puzzle. Mekorama VR places its turntable in a completely uniform environment. This is great for focusing the eyes on the task at hand, but because it doesn’t give the player anywhere to drift when they find themselves stuck for the solution it keeps them in one kind of brain space during play.
While playing I often found than taking the headset off and simply looking around the room at nothing in particular, then returning to the headset, would suddenly reveal something I hadn’t noticed before. This happens when I am playing other mobile games too. I pause and let my phone down in my lap and glance around aimlessly before going back to my game. But that VR game I am playing is strapped to my head. It’s tedious to get it seated just right every time I need a brain wander break to solve a level. Just give me an environment I can pointlessly fiddle with instead!
Height changing should also be included in every single turntable game. Actually, I am going to make it the law. Height changing MUST be included in every turntable game. Without it, players get stuck in the horrible hunch! To play Danger Goat, for example, I have to look down constantly. My neck is bent forward, my shoulders collapsed, and my spine is unhappy.
“But wait!” the theoretical VR game designers wails from the ether, “I design games. Spines are not my problem.”
Oh but they are, padawan, they really are. See when you designed for non-body-mounted hardware like phones and desktops and consoles, bodies weren’t your responsibility. Understanding how playing a game affected the body it was being played by was the job of a hardware controller designer. Well not anymore! Now VR game designers are aiming for hardware that people strap to their bodies. And if you make crap design choices that leave your players hunched over or cricked in the neck or all twisted to one side, you are actively undermining their health because our connective tissue—all that scaffolding for our muscles and organs and nerves—responds to low duration low intensity postures.
I’m starting to see a glimpse of body aware computation systems that through physical posture promote feelings of safety and well-being
— M Eifler (@blinkpopshift) March 6, 2017
Join the side of good and learn to make the simple adjustments that can help promote wellbeing in your players. Watch players wearing your games (not in office chairs! On couches and on the floor and at dining room tables) and pay attention to what is happening to their spine. Are they moving only in one direction repeatedly, or is motion bilateral? Are they hunched, or upright with broad shoulders?
The choices we make now about what is good VR design in games and other software will leak into the future. We have the power to swap that sea of hunched-over trolls with cramped connective tissue for a gang of open-hearted, strong-backed stimulation nerds. We just have to decide it matters.