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Virtual reality an alien world for game designers

Job Simulator creator on the unique challenges of VR

Job Simulator header
Job Simulator

Owlchemy Labs is best known for its wonderful virtual reality hit Job Simulator, so for VR fans, company CEO Alex Schwarz was a welcome addition to DICE’s roster of speakers this week.

Schwarz spoke about the lessons he’s learned designing VR games, which he said offer unique challenges that game makers are slowly beginning to understand.

His central proposition was that “hands are the magic” of VR games, and that all design stems from understanding how to make use of hands in virtual spaces.

”Man is it disappointing when you go to grab a cup [in a VR game], and it doesn’t move,” Schwarz said. “Your inner child is screaming, ‘why can’t I do this thing?’ I call it interaction disappointment.”

He noted that having made a cup interactive, the designer must then consider that the player will try to fill it at a water faucet, or will try to smash it on the floor, all of which takes more design work.

”If something doesn’t fit your world view, the whole system comes crashing down,” he said.

Schwarz added that in Job Simulator, some of the in-game robots wear glasses. Players were disappointed that they could not take the glasses off the robots, so Schwarz and his team updated the game to allow players to both grab the glasses, and put them on themselves.

One of the major conceptual obstacles faced by game designers, is they have spent decades working with abstracts. In-game actions generally require that the player learn the appropriate button presses. But VR is not abstract. It is direct and “everyone knows how to reach out and grab something,” he said.

Job Simulator also played with user interface, eschewing “floating menus” for more physical interactions. In order to quit a game, players bite on a burrito, rather than clicking on a menu. He said that almost every player he’s seen opens their mouth while “eating” the burrito, even though this action is not (yet) tracked by VR. Likewise, players will try to close doors behind them, using their heel.

The most important lesson for designers, he said, was to try and forget everything they’ve learned making games for traditional platforms. “Try to ignore game design practices acquired over many years, that are not applicable any more,” he concluded. “It’s really hard to do and it’s really time consuming, but it’s important.”

Polygon will be covering interviews and speeches from DICE in the days ahead.

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