The Z-axis dilema in VR. 6 game modes for Virtual Reality without joystick

VirtualReality is a big challenge in terms of UX design, and some of the most basic preconceptions used in video games for decades now need to be reconsidered. This is even more critical using basic hardware sets as Google Cardboard, where hardware variations are multiple and having a joystick or any other hand controller should not be mandatory. Hopefully products like Google Daydream will help to standarize mobile VR hardware, but that’s far to be a fact nowadays.

In this post we discuss 6 different ways to move the player in a VR scene without a joystick. Probably you’ve already seen some of them and some others are homegrown designs that we’ve put in practice in different projects with success. But all this starts with a dilema…

The Z axis dilema

A good thing on VR is how naturally a player learns to look around. It’s quite evident, let’s say: you can look at any point in 360 degrees as you would in real life. Look up and down, left or right and the viewport follows the movement in the X and Y axis. But how comes when the player wants to move in the Z axis? That is, how can the player actually move in the scene? Without a joystick, the answer is far to be evident. Lots of actual apps and games are based in some basic mechanics (from roller coasters to spaceships examples), but there should be more options than that!

We’ve done some practical research and have discovered 6 ways so far to play into a VR experience with different degrees of interaction and freedom just using the viewport eyehole.

Mode 1: Head direction

In this mode, the player is always in movement and the only possible decision is actually where to move. The player stays with the feet on the floor. While this mode gives some kind of freedom (you can move anywhere), it has two main drawbacks. First one is the lack of speed control. With a constant speed, the player can not stop and look around, forcing to make decisions on every moment and more than often ending at some place you didn’t wanted to go. The second drawback is that you can collide with a wall and stay there stuck until you look to some empty space where you can walk through. This may make the player to feel disoriented and lost.

Mode 2: Free fly

Similar to the Head direction, this mode allows you to move wherever you want, including the sky (or underwater, if we talk about a diving experience) just looking up and down. Like in the previous mode, the lack of speed control can be a hassle and makes harder to design engaging experiences based only in this principle. Despite the amount of experiences based on this mode is growing (flying is an experience that should never be underestimated), this lack of speed control makes really hard to provide the feeling of freedom that one expects when thinks about flying.

Mode 3: Follow path

In this mode, the game provides a predefined path whereby the player is transported. A common example of this mode is the roller coaster, where the player seats in a virtual wagon and the only possible interaction is to look around. All movement parameters (speed, acceleration and direction) are predefined or calculated by the game. While this mode can be fine with some experiences, again the lack of control and interaction is its main drawback. In this case, as both the speed and the position are predefined, there’s a total lack of time control, that is, the experience has a fixed length.

Control and interaction are key features in an interactive experience. In all previous modes, the game could introduce interaction elements that might vary the game length. I.e. a spaceship could pick power ups items to increase speed o extra fuel that would allow the player to go further. In a era where many mobile games are played with just one touch, there’s no reason to think that these simpler modes are wrong or bad. Just be sure that the experience is correctly designed to make the player feel comfortable and that she has actually some control as player, not only as spectator. But if you want to go further, here are some other modes we’ve designed at Imagin&Tonic that might take your scenes to a new level of interaction.

In this post we focus on movement, so interaction without joystick is out of the scope of this post. But there will be one related soon.

Model 4: Hall mode

The idea is quite simple: there’s a predefined path whereby the player is moved automatically by the game, while the player controls the speed looking at the sides of the path. This mode makes sense on scenes where the points of interest are obviously at the sides and allows the player to stop and watch. In other words, she has control over time and length of the experience.

To understand this mode, think on a museum room or an art gallery. The art pieces are at both sides of the corridor. While the player looks to the front, she moves in a constant speed, but as soon as she looks to one side, the speed slows down to a stop when looking perpendicular to the path. The player can walk front and back, stop to look any item and interact with them using the viewport eyehole. When the scene is properly designed, this mode works in a very natural way and the player doesn’t feel the need for additional actions.

Mode 5: Look and walk

In this mode the player can set a location point by watching a place near in the floor. When the point is set, the player moves there and stops until the next location point is set.

This mode gives total freedom of movement, while provides time control. So, even when the walk speed can not be controlled by the player, the length of the experience is determined by player decisions. While in the previous Hall mode, player movement was constricted to a path, this mode provides both movement freedom and time control, with no need of a joystick.

Mode 6: Control points

In this case, the experience is designed to be played from different locations, and these locations can be reached by activating a control point with the viewport eyehole.

Picture this: you are in a crossroad with 4 possible directions. At the end of each street there’s one control point that, activated with the viewport eyehole, makes the player move there. So basically there’s a scene map with several control points spread around and paths that connects them. The rule of thumb here is that always at least one control point must be visible from the player position, so she can move always at least to one position. Once the player arrives to a new position, she can probably interact with new elements around.

While this mode does not provide as much freedom as the previous mode, it allows the player to make decisions, control the game speed, and still feel free to go to other places.

Shake them all!

A complete VR experience could include some or even all of them, and all them are interesting on different situations. In our demo Oneirikos we mix them all, using paths for cinematic scenes (the player is moved, but she is part of the scene as she can look around), she can freely walk by her house and interact with some elements, while in some parts of the city decisions about where to go are made using control points. At some point of the experience, the player gets into a security room that plays in Hall mode, and escapes a persecution driving a car with the head. And all these modes flow in a very natural way.

Designing for cardboard devices, we think on interaction design as a multilayer system that works from the most basic hardware (just glasses with cheapest materials) to more complex sets (i.e. glasses + controllers). The point here is to provide the best possible experience with the available hardware, no matter how good or bad it is, and the combination of these modes allowed us to design deeper experiences that keeps that player engaged and expecting what comes later.

Imagin&Tonic provides services for hire focused on VR development and casual games. Visit us at Gamescom 2016, Hall 3.2, stand B020 from 17th to 19th of August 2016.