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Insights EDU

Innovating and Evolving the Next Generation of VR Gaming

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Russell Harding | Creative Director | Maze Theory

15 Mar 2019 | 7 min read

As an industry veteran, virtual reality is one of the most exciting developments I have seen in gaming. Now, more than ever, rapidly developing technological capabilities are offering opportunities for gamers to experience a virtual adventure in the most awesome and life-like ways. It’s a whole new level of gaming and entertainment.

VR is everywhere, with signature releases from leading console brands to virtual reality experiences at theme parks and tourist attractions. Consumer spend on VR is set to hit $11.2bn by 2020 with headsets accounting for $7.9bn and VR entertainment $3.3bn. (IHS Markit, Sept 2016). By 2021, global revenues are expected to reach a staggering $74.8bn (Greenlight Insights, April 2017) The landscape for VR is constantly shifting, but investment is still being ploughed into the immersive industries, and analysts continue to predict the “hockey-stick moment” of mass adoption to occur within the next few years.

It’s a serious business and here’s why.

The VR Landscape in 2019

Headset technology has come on leaps and bounds, where it had previously been viewed as a barrier to growth.

High end headsets have reached 60 pixels per degree and we are seeing the arrival of retina style displays such as Varjo VR-1. This means players can experience new levels of clarity where previously there was a ‘screen door’ effect. They are then engaged in a scenario so lifelike, it’s practically real. These headsets are currently at the top of the market which make them prohibitively costly for most consumers right now but will likely become accessible soon.

varjo v1

Even though the Varjo VR-1 is squarely aimed at the B2B market, the existence of such a high-end headset is good news for the industry in general, principally because of the technology powering the Varjo. According to reports, the Varjo VR-1 combines a “1920×1080 low-persistence micro-OLED and a 1440×1600 low-persistence AMOLED.”

The technological development of a human eye resolution headset relates to both a democratisation of the tools of production and a degradation of a barrier to entry in high production costs. That is to say, the more that the high-end technology is used across different headsets (the 1920×1080 micro-OLED and the 1440×1600 AMOLED), over time, the cheaper those parts will eventually become. To put this simply, greater demand equals greater supply and over time, the costs of production fall and the consumer benefits from affordable high-end HMD’s.

Considering VR 2.0 and the Importance of the Games Industry

Mass market headsets, such as Oculus Quest, are a significant step toward VR 2.0. They offer untethered six degrees of freedom, which means they are completely cable free, enabling players to move, turn, duck and walk without interference (or fear of interference). This is a whole new level of immersion.

PSVR continues to lead mass market adoption of the VR gaming format and hardware.  Reported last month in The Verge, Sony sold 1.3m PSVR units in 2018 alone and the company has big plans for its VR console.

With progress this rapid, we can certainly foresee a time when people will wear VR headsets like a pair of sunglasses.

So, what’s driving hardware adoption? Quality content is paramount. It’s no surprise that the gaming industry is leading the VR content drive.  The opportunity for game developers is huge. They have knowledge in real time rendering, interactive story-telling and gameplay mechanics.

At Maze Theory we consider ourselves story tellers 2.0. Environmental storytelling forms the backbone of the experiences we create. This allows players to explore rooms and settings in a narrative world. Subsequently they may discover the background of a dramatic event or learn about characters that inhabit that world. By inspecting objects players can piece things together, absorbing some of the character’s history, motivations and desires. Players become empowered through their own discovery.

The-Vanishing-Act-2

In-game still from Maze Theory’s first project: The Vanishing Act

We are also creators and pioneers who constantly look for emerging technologies with the potential to vastly improve players’ immersion within the game and uniquely evolve the VR experience. Technology allows us to push the boundaries of immersive storytelling.

How Maze Theory is Innovating with Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in VR

We are very excited about the opportunities artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning offer. Especially when looking at how we explore characters and their behaviour. Non-player agents (NPAs) are characters in the game not controlled by players. AI can enable them to develop greater intelligence in the way they interact with the main players and their environments. Players then discover the game narrative in a way that is more natural for them. Imagine gaining the faith of a character to pass on a secret or hanging out with them to form an emotional bond. Players become more invested, the stakes are higher, and the excitement is elevated. What if a character could predict a player’s behaviour through the actions and choices they make? How would their attitude towards the player change? Each interaction becomes unique.

maze theory 1

In-game still from Maze Theory’s first project: The Vanishing Act

Eye tracking software gives lots of potential opportunities to introduce new and subtle mechanics. A player may look around a room and focus on a painting. A character may then share a story or an important piece of information relating to it. It’s a way more natural and intuitive way for a player to experience the game.

For Maze Theory, role playing is an exciting and empowering force in VR games. Players get to be the protagonist. Their role is not predefined, and the story is able to evolve more naturally. This, again, creates a more authentic player experience. They get the chance to build their own story, layer by layer. They are embedded in the narrative in ways not possible with traditional 3D games.

We are exploring all areas of storytelling which means looking outside of our industry for influences and ideas. Physical immersive theatre companies such as Punch Drunk are a great source of inspiration and we draw some clear parallels with the type of experiences we like to create in VR.

The Challenges We Have Faced

Creatively, we need to figure out how to direct performances within an immersive environment. Equally we need to consider the format of the stories and how they are presented. Then how we evolve the characters in the new medium as well as how to respond to the different assumptions made by audiences.

But we are particularly excited to be bringing together creators from TV, theatre and gaming worlds to work together and explore these areas.

Tips for Great VR Experiences

1.Prototype, prototype, prototype

I can’t emphasise enough the value of throwing together ideas to test in VR. It’s really important to experiment. Often the simplest mechanics provide the deepest immersion for players. Without quick and dirty prototypes, I would never have discovered how fun and engaging it is to throw a styrofoam cup out of a van window or light and smoke a virtual cigar. The simplest ideas are developed from prototypes and can give the game real distinction.

2. Block out your environments quickly

Establishing the basic scale, shape and form for your environments in a rough and ready format will allow you to begin to experience what these spaces feel like in VR.

3. Be adaptable with your game design

Be aware that often re-creating an idea in VR can alter it significantly, so don’t spend too long developing design specs until you know what they feel like in VR.

4. Storyboard everything

It’s a quick way to share ideas across multiple disciplines, it easy to make changes and explore options.

5. Develop narrative with skilled writers

Introduce them to the world of VR and allow performers input when it comes to stories and characters. Make sure you have table reading sessions and rehearsals as would be the case with a theatre or TV production.

6. Take on the role of the player and run through the narrative!

7. Get pre-visualisation of the action or character dialogue in the game as quickly as possible.

Using place-holder dialogue gives a sense of what it feels like in VR. It’s usual to need less dialogue than you originally think.

8. Be clear on the key beats of the narrative

Think about ways they are delivered in the environment, through dialogue or mechanics.  

9. Look outside and find people with influence and experience outside your usual echo chamber

VR has the potential to bring in skills from across all industries. Use them!

10. Relentlessly question yourself!

This is perhaps the most important of my tips, ask yourself: does it need to be in VR? Why are you creating it in VR? and what does VR bring to your experience?

 

About the author:

Russell has created some of the most ground-breaking experiences in AR/VR. While at Sony London studios he creatively led the BAFTA nominated EyePet™ & award winning Wonderbook™ franchises. The foremost giving Russ the unique opportunity to work in close creative collaboration with J.K. Rowling. Most notably Creative Director on PlayStation®VR Worlds (the London Heist), supporting the launch of PSVR. More recently, Russell joined Maze Theory as Executive Producer/Creative Director. Maze Theory is a new independent VR studio looking to create evolutionary storytelling experiences and presently in production of their first title.

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