Five Design Tips for Developers Looking To Write VR Fitness Games

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Now that the gaming industry is seriously taking off, you might be curious about dipping your own figurative toes into the over-chlorinated waters of game design. Naturally, you’re on the hunt for strategies that successful game developers might use—besides making enough coffee to last up to 16 hours per day.

Truth is, the games market is saturated to heaven and back; new titles come out on Steam every day that eclipse other titles that also eclipse other titles before other titles are released in front of more titles that practically nobody—except the developers’ moms—will hear about.

Gaming is a tough industry.

On the flipside, VR is such a new thing that it currently suffers from the opposite of content oversaturation; there are very few new titles coming out on a consistent basis in comparison. And many of them are little more than samples, or vignettes, of bigger ideas.

But if, alternatively, you’ve been paying attention to the fitness world, then you may know that VR is trending as one of the new big things of 2018.

The existing VR gaming market is the type of market where simple titles that introduce interesting physical gameplay—think BOXVR, SUPERHOT and Beat Saber here—give the most return on time investment in the form of physical health.

And the physicality of standing or room-scale gameplay in VR results in long-lasting benefits that players reap from spending their playtime there.

So are you a game design student, a curious developer, or even just a wide-eyed newbie who wants to make their first splash in the gaming industry?

Here are five big things that you need to understand when designing a VR game, and by extension, a VR game that induces physical activity.

1. Perfect Your “Skinner Box”

You may not think of your favorite video game as being an operant psychological testing chamber but, in fact, it is. Hear me out.

The Skinner Box, named after the behavioral psychologist B.F. Skinner—who invented it after observing Edward Thorndike’s “puzzle boxes“—was a type of chamber rigged to record animal behaviors when (the subject animal was) presented with a stimulus, followed by a reward.

Skinner and his colleagues would test different responses of different animals based on the amount of time between the activation of the stimulus (usually with some sort of lever) and the introduction of a reward.

  • Example: There’s a testing chamber A, and a testing chamber B.
  • Testing chamber A might give water and a pellet following one lever pull, whereas testing chamber B might give three pellets following three lever pulls.

This was to figure out if, say, pigeons, preferred testing chamber A over testing chamber B.

In video games, the Skinner Box goes by a different name. Developers call it a compulsion loop.

Instead of “animal”, you’d say “player”. Instead of “pigeons”, you could say “gamers between ages 14-18” or “people who love RPGs”. And instead of “water” and “pellets” you could say “loot” and “experience points”.

These are all contextual, based on the type of game you’d like to develop.

What you’re trying to figure out here, is how to hook your target player to keep coming back to your game.

In order to close the circuit on your compulsion loop, you must also concretely define your core gameplay loops.

Basically:

  • What is the player rewarded for?
  • What are they punished for?
  • How and when are they rewarded?
  • How and when are they punished?
  • What is the existential purpose of gameplay?
  • Is gameplay inherently rewarding?
  • Is gameplay fun?
  • What is the ratio of fun to time spent playing?
  • Do you kill your player’s time, or do you enrich it?
  • How?
  • What about your game captures their attention? (I.E. “the hook“)

In order to define your loops—and tighten them for the stickiest player experience—you should be able to accurately answer each of my questions above.

Note: You can’t ever please everybody, so make sure you understand exactly what you’re creating and who you’re creating it for.
  • Example: The Thrill of the Fight understands that it’s discretely a hyper-realistic boxing sim. BOXVR understands that it’s a fitness boxing rhythm game. Their respective game loops are built around doing those very specific things as well as their developers know how to implement them.

But Don’t You Fear; Fitness Is Here

Within VR, you have it a little easier than a traditional game developer would to build pliable game loops.

This is because gameplay in VR is best controlled with your entire body while standing up, as opposed to sitting with your fingers on a keyboard or a controller. Therefore, physical activity is always a big factor in making your VR games fun.

Unlike in flat screen gaming, grind is a meaningful task that compounds upon VR’s physical gameplay mechanics. You might get out of shape from playing too many grindy games while sitting in front of a screen. Meanwhile, spending hours grinding in VR is proven to make you lose body fat.

When I play a physically-engaged game in VR, I play for the endorphins and the adrenaline rush of tense, high-activity moments. Even while playing a game with little variety in content but with a single fantastic game loop.

For example, Beat Saber.

That’s also why people are willing to spend hours of their day playing VR sports such as Echo Arena, which only have one game mode and one map.

Marksmanship and athleticism come into play in VR in huge ways; there aren’t animators representing gameplay actions for your avatar. You are your avatar. Or, at least, you are the mo-cap person for your avatar.

2. Reward Repetitive Motion

How do you develop your VR game around giving your players the best workout and therefore better enriching their time?

By making the gameplay about doing an activity that can be telegraphed by the player (to avoid injury), but that they need to do over and over again to progress in the game.

For example, swinging a sword until an enemy is dead. Or doing squats to dodge obstacles.

If you want to make a player feel epic, give them a reasonable amount of resistance to each of their actions. And then immediately reward them for completing those difficult actions. Give them feedback; let them know that they’re progressing.

Holopoint is a great example of an archery game that rewards repetitive motion. In it, you have to pull each arrow from a quiver on your back, nock it, aim it, and fire it at enemies coming at you from a 360-degree radius.

The twist is that enemies will try to attack you, and targets will fire projectiles back at you when they burst—forcing you to duck, squat and dodge while you aim and shoot.

When you hit a target, you are rewarded by a satisfying explosion of glass particles and your scoreboard fills with points, but with that reward comes challenge; physically dodging the projectiles that those targets spit back at you is half the game.

Each time you play, you must overcome resistance in your triceps and glutes.

Holopoint also saves once you’ve completed five consecutive levels, after which point you can start all of your new games from every fifth level onward. This makes it so that you’re compelled to play another round until you break your high score and unlock the next milestone.

P.S. I’d love to see developers add this sort of reward-challenge-reward-challenge loop into a few deep, multi-faceted VR roleplaying games.

3. Optimize for Maximum FPS

If your game is unoptimized, you’re going to face a swath of angry players who can’t run your game on their expensive machines without experiencing motion sickness.

There’s an industry-wide best practice for optimizing your game at 90 FPS (frames per second) consistently running in each of the two lenses. Meanwhile, Sony won’t allow any game that ever dips below 60 FPS on its PSVR platform.

Basically: You don’t ever want to drop below 60 FPS, and you don’t ever want your game’s FPS to be jumpy or inconsistent.

This is why VR developers sometimes use simpler graphics or graphical styles that don’t demand much technical capability from their players’ gaming systems.

Notice how Rec Room‘s developers (Against Gravity) built the game entirely around a high-contrast, low-poly “toy deco” style that’s reminiscent to Legos?

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Credit: Against Gravity

Optimizing your game for high framerates demands a certain amount of creativity, since you might not be able to use as many assets in a scene as you’d like, and you may need to take detail away for performance’s sake.

However, this is a good exercise in brainstorming: How will you make a great game within VR’s technical limitations?

4. Include Multiplayer

So far, I haven’t played an incredible workout-focused VR game that features a prominent online element. Rec Room is conceptually sort of close with its large variety of active game modes, but it ends up falling short when it comes time to get down and burn calories.

All of the games that I play to get my discrete HIIT workout—The Thrill of the Fight, BOXVR, Beat Saber, and Holopoint—do not (currently) have functional online multiplayer components.

To be fair, BOXVR has a co-op system that lets you compete on a scoreboard, and Beat Saber has local party mode—but that’s it.

I’ve always loved the idea of a public gym in VR, where people can log in and work out with one another doing activities similar to what’s offered in Hot Squat, Holopoint or BOXVR.

Echo Arena’s layout also comes pretty close to a public gym, where players can jump into a lobby and play pickup matches with one another in the practice arena, or simply hang out and meet one another, without ever joining a real match.

echo arena lobby 03
Credit: Ready At Dawn

Some developers are making persistent online games and social apps in VR, meanwhile other developers are making single-player workouts in VR. I’ve yet to see any developers put both ideas together into the same title.

But there’s absolutely something to the multiplayer online component of video games that’s addictive and interesting. And there’s also a reason that people like to go and work out together in groups.

So, why not put two and two together?

5. Take Players Somewhere They’ve Never Been

One of the main things that make a VR “experience” fall flat is when it simulates something that you could easily experience in real life. This is because of something called the uncanny valley, where a replication is too real to be distinguished apart from what it’s based on, yet too unreal to be authentic.

Simply put: The stickiest experience in VR is one that could only exist in VR. For example, I can’t become a space pirate in real life, but I absolutely can become a space pirate in VR—with Space Pirate Trainer.

This means that, in 2018, developers are encouraged to think outside the box to hook their players.

Space is cool, but what about taking your player inside of another character’s brain?

One of my favorite games in VR is, admittedly, exactly 20 minutes long. It’s a free narrative game from Squanch Games, titled “Accounting VR“.

Why did I like it so much? The contextual storytelling by its creator is insane (and definitely NSFW!):

Remember when I suggested creating a public gym in tip #4?

Well, what if a few smart developers were to create a “public gym” that’s set in a dome underneath the ocean? Of an alien planet?

See—VR isn’t about simulating an alternative reality; it’s about totally immersing you and your players in a digital world. Juice your imagination for original ideas.

Conclusion

In terms of what will and won’t work in VR: The platform is too new to say “Yes, this concept works perfectly,” or “No, this will never work”.

Some concepts that don’t work today, such as massive online battles with destructible terrain and 64+ players (which flat screen gamers are accustomed to with the likes of Battlefield), can always be revisited with later iterations of VR tech.

But as a game developer, the most important thing is that you recognize VR for its potential in immersing and engaging your players. Never before have people played video games with their entire bodies on such a scale.

In a future with a proliferation of VR headsets, games won’t be thought of as time wasters that keep players couch-locked in front of a screen. They’ll be thought of as simulations that transport players into other worlds and engage each of their senses.

Assuming that that’s what eventually does end up happening in our timeline, it’s safe to say that you stand on the precipice of a new era in gaming. May the fitness be with you.

Disclaimer: I do not work in the field of game development. This list of design tips is based on what I’ve noticed in my own time (playing video games and) playing VR games both for fun and for exercise.

What’s the most important design choice in your ideal VR fitness game?


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