In an attempt to make a best-selling game, many studios put their focus on a pitch – some key aspect of the project that users will be awed and amazed by. Too often, they focus on things like story, graphics, gorgeous animations, and the like. To be fair, all of these things are important and can “make or break” a game, but many studios overlook immersive tech and the spectacular features it can add to a title. We are here to give you the full picture of immersive game design and how it factors into full-cycle game development.
What is Immersive Game Design?
From a technical standpoint, immersive games are those built using immersive technologies like AR and VR. They take the first-person principle of games to another level and use the physical surroundings of a user as the backdrop for the game, or completely replace the physical world with a digital one, covering most of a user’s senses.
Of course, you could also make the argument that immersion is a characteristic present in games on other platforms (PC, console, etc.) and simply means how well a game captivates and interests players. This is true, but this article will mostly examine games that are immersive from a tech standpoint.
Making immersive games for augmented and virtual reality comes with a broad set of challenges, and we hope this guide will make the process smoother for any company that chooses this path.
What Makes a Video Game Immersive?
When designing a game, there are multiple considerations you should make to ensure that it fits on the intended platform and keeps users entertained, engages, and playing it for a long time:
AR and VR offer unique graphic capabilities that other platforms cannot match. For example, graphic immersion with AR is created by utilizing a device camera and scanning the user’s surroundings. Even after digital models and objects are added to these visuals, the player still feels like they are standing somewhere familiar in the game. With VR, immersive graphics are delivered with a headset that replaces the user’s field of view, allowing them to only see a virtual world around themselves.
Sounds and music can be used to great effect to make the player experience more realistic and captivating. For example, music is great for creating an atmosphere, evoking emotion, and setting the player in a particular mindset as they advance. Similarly, sounds can create emotional reactions (e.g. fear, shock, relief) as well as tell the player more about the world. For example, the sound of a twig snapping can be made loud or quiet to give the player a sense that they are being stalked by something nearby/far away.
Great storytelling can compensate for many lacking aspects of a game or substantially strengthen them if they are already good. In this day and age, it is getting increasingly harder to come up with unique and unprecedented story ideas, but the rewards are worth it. Players are drawn to rich and expansive worlds, compelling and fallible characters, and stories that involve plenty of twists and turns. Delivering on these aspects while maintaining a cohesive narrative greatly improves the odds of a project succeeding and creating a buzz.
Though most games do not feature motion-captured actors or recorded camera clips, you can still make characters much more real with good voice acting. Reading text dialogs simply doesn’t have the same effect as hearing someone speak, words filled with emotion and intent. This effect will also carry over into the world, adding to its realism and immersion.
Top Practices for Immersive Game Level Design
Beyond making the levels of your project functional, you should try to play to the strengths of the technology while keeping an eye on overall interest and engagement from the user. Some helpful tips in this regard include:
Take preparation seriously
If you come up with an interesting new mechanic halfway through development, it may already be too late to implement it based on the current physics and mechanics of your game. That is why we recommend creating a game design document prior to development that lists all the goals you plan to implement and the strategy for doing so.
Set clear objectives and rewards for players
In the minds of players, structure is important. For example, in a fight-driven game, they expect to encounter foes that get progressively harder, and boss fights that culminate in the final boss. Even if your game has another genre, you should always make the player feel like what they are doing is leading up to something and they are not wandering around aimlessly. In addition to that, they can be kept motivated through rewards (e.g. more powerful weapons) that will have a positive impact on their further gameplay.
Leave room for breaks
There is nothing wrong with providing plenty of action and keeping the player on a straight and narrow narrative path, but going through the same mechanics for a long time can be mind-numbing. That is why many games benefit from interludes and pauses – times when the action dies down and the player has time to explore the world, look for new items, perhaps interact with minor characters. This adds some variety to gameplay and lets people relax before they move on to more complex tasks demanding their full attention.
Create a realistic user POV
Point of view is extremely important for captivating players and making them feel like they are inside the game. Obviously, third-person view is not optimal, since it only looks like you are controlling a character, but first-person lets you see through the main character’s eyes. If you do choose first-person, you can improve engagement by adding plenty of detail and realism. It is small things (like how shadows fall and water moves) that convince our minds that what we are seeing is real.
Add plenty of maps and scenery
Certainly, adding dozens of maps may not feasible for a project built under tight timelines, but we recommend adding as much scenery and unique play areas as possible. Even when the user is applying the same mechanics that they have for the past several hours, the new scenery will keep the experience fresh and interesting. Of course, you also don’t want to go overboard with the maps and bore the player with repetition.
Don’t forget fun tidbits
We are referring to easter eggs, puzzles, and fun bonuses that surprise a player and put a smile on their face. Just when they think they know what to expect in the next room, they find something unexpected that they can enjoy and maybe tell their friends about. Building these little bonuses should not take much time, but this extra mile will surely be appreciated by players.
Are Immersion Strategies Different in VR and AR?
While augmented and virtual reality both fall in the category of xR (extended reality) technology, the differences in the mechanics they offer to users are vast. Accordingly, the design process for each technology should prioritize different things. Let’s take a look at the key differences:
AR games can be enjoyed anywhere and benefit from high user mobility. Additionally, the software can be built to take advantage of location services and visual markers, so players can move around (outside or inside) and scan real-world objects to get the full game experience.
VR games are not meant to be played everywhere, and require that the user stand (or sit) in a spot with a relatively small radius. Most VR headsets also require an electric socket to work, so the software should be designed with the assumption that the user will play in just one spot and not move around much.
Movement and interactions
Movement in AR apps can be divided into two categories: 1) gestures on the screen of the mobile device (taps, swipes, etc.) and 2) gestures that the device camera captures. As a rule, tracking movement with a camera and incorporating it into gameplay is a much better immersive tactic.
VR software registers movement through changes in headset orientation and special controllers (in some cases, gloves). This equipment provides a much more realistic and advanced tracking system than AR, and allows you to implement more complex and realistic mechanics (e.g. holding a rifle and pulling the trigger, using a three-finger gesture, etc.).
While designing for AR, you have to keep in mind that most users will access the software through their smartphone, and likely during short breaks when they have free time. Thus, it is recommended to make most game interactions short (within the span of a few minutes).
There is a certain amount of preparation needed to enjoy a VR experience, so most layers that fire up a game like this will be able to dedicate substantial time to the experience. Thus, you can easily design levels and objectives that take hours to complete.
Augmented reality allows for the provision of several variants of multiplayer. For example, the application can be designed for 2 or more players to play on a single device. As another option, users can each play with one device but the game experience will be influenced by other people (e.g. gym battles in Pokemon Go).
Adding multiplayer in VR can be tricky, since most existing games are meant for solo play. Still, it is possible to make a game that will feature two players (each with their own headset). One alternative is for players to connect online with other people using headsets, such as in the highly popular VRChat app (where people with digital avatars meet in virtual rooms just to chat).
It is incredibly important to implement safety guidelines in AR apps, such as warnings and restrictions. When people get too captivated by a game, they can stop paying attention to their surroundings and fall prey to hazards. If it is not feasible to make your app recognize these hazards, it is recommended to at least add warnings for the user’s safety.
Unless your application involves a lot of walking (which is not a good idea with blocked vision), players will likely be confined to a small play area. You can let them know that they should choose this area wisely, and remove any impediments or objects that could cause them harm during movement. Additionally, in-game movement should be smooth so as not to induce motion sickness.
Best Immersive Game Examples
Augmented reality apps have been in public use for about a decade (VR for longer), and though the technology is fledging, we have already seen some great games arise both in the AR and VR categories:
Beat Saber This best-selling VR game combines two things that most people love – lightsabers and music. In Beat Saber, the player is placed in a dimly lit world where blocks and obstacles fly towards them to the beats of songs. The gameplay is very dynamic and immersive, as they slice and evade the blocks to survive.
Half Life: Alyx Before Alyx came out, people had been waiting years for a Half-Life sequel, and this one did not disappoint. Players put on their VR headsets and returned to the dangerous and rich world of Half-Life, fighting numerous enemies and progressing the story of Alyx, the main protagonist.
No Man’s Sky This game was initially released for PC and console play, but grew so popular that it was ported to VR. To say that the game is immersive would be an understatement. You play as a spacefaring scientist, traveling to hundreds (even thousands) of unique planets, colonizing and documenting everything that makes them unique.
ARchy the Rabbit ARchy was designed by Game-Ace and features a playful 3D rabbit character that players control. As the name suggests, this is an AR app, so it can be accessed on mobile devices. After the app is launched, players can see Archy visualized in their current surroundings, and enjoy watching him carry out the entertaining commands that they choose.
Ingress Ingress is the elder statesman of AR games, being released in 2013 when the technology was brand new. It draws users into a world of factions and battles for resources. Players must move around the physical world (based on real maps), capture portals, and increase their XP. At the same time, other players are also fighting for territory on the map.
How to Start Designing an Immersive Game
If you have not developed a game before or built one for AR/VR, we should warn you that there will be a lot to learn before you even start writing code or creating 3D models. You will need to get acquainted with the basic principles of immersive development, as well as the peculiarities of working with AR/VR-specific software, like ARKit, ARCore, Vuforia, and possibly Unity/Unreal Engine.
As an alternative to painstaking independent learning and development, you can consider delegating design to a partner. For example, Game-Ace has years of experience in creating games for various platforms, including VR and AR. We are the studio behind the game ARchy the Rabbit mentioned previously and dozens of other titles with major player bases.
You can count on us to make a game that will draw users in not just based on technology, but also smart level design and spectacular graphics. Additionally, we can handle game porting and art design as services separate or included with development.
Ready to discuss your game project? Contact us and we can help!