#4 [usability review]: Beat Saber VR

As part of my challenge of gathering 30 game usability reviews, I’ve been collecting some mobile games (and other games if I have the opportunity to play them) and writing about them as a cool exercise (why not?).

Video: Beat Saber gameplay

Yes, I got THE game! Now that I am getting used to VR and all the awesomeness related to it I had to buy Beat Saber just because it sounds very very cool. For a usability point of view, I thought it would be nice to test the game, looking at principles of heuristics and accessibility. More info about the game can be seen in this link. Note: I only played the solo version of this game; however it should be enough to get an idea of the overall gameplay.

What is the game about: this is a “Guitar Hero meets Just Dance” style dynamic game in VR in which you have two light sabers in each hand. You have to cut flying boxes with the swing of the sabers and doing this in the rhythm of the music. The songs follow a “EBM” style and have a electro-industrial feeling as well (that brings me memories, anyway!).

Good things

a) Gameplay. The game has a very good pace and as a beginner the player might not feel tired with so much new information. The tutorial is optional.

b) Visual consistency. Colours are the same in most of the interface design. This is also used in the walls and they reflect the lights from the sabers/controllers. There is always the use of 2 colours in the interface. This is good because it allows the players to keep the attention into a specific point.

c) Field of View. Since we are talking about VR, FoV is very important and the game has a good use of space and perspective. Since the game is a fast-paced game, there is little head movement, which helps players to concentrate on the other movements required to win the game. Thus, there is little potential for cyber sickness.

d) The tutorial. This tutorial is very simple. Although it can feel a bit unrealistic since the game has so many things going on at the same time, it still brings an element of surprise when the wall comes towards your face. See this video below:

Things that could be improved

a) Balance. The game could have more balance. As a beginner, I was slaughtered by the first song and couldn’t do much because I was missing the boxes a lot of times.

b) Controllers. It might be the way my VR headset is positioned, but the precision of this game should be improved considerably. Perhaps in the tutorial it could have a way to calibrate the game according to the settings of the headset. Also it was not clear if the player needed to click on the button to make the saber work (of course you don’t have to do that but since the player needs to click on buttons in the interface before the main gameplay scene, then it can be confusing). Precision is also not very great.

c) Colours. When you are not doing so well, all the scenario becomes red. It is not very clear if it is red because of the colour of one of the blocks or because the player is losing points.

d) Fail sound. Once immersed in the song it might be that players are not expecting that the sound ends like the end of a record. The sound can be too loud and it can break the whole experience at once. I suggests devs look at this as a potential improvement for this game.

e) Overall sense of control. Although players can choose the settings before the gameplay, it is not evident how to pause the game. Also, it is difficult to check and look at the scores all the time. This might be secondary, but for some players who are trying to beat their own scores, then this might be an issue. A suggestion could be “curving” the environment a bit more and having another distinctive way to give feedback to the player if the player has been keeping a “non-stop round”.

Best practices in VR and recommendations

According to this post, best practices in VR start with the physical environment and it is crucial that the play area is well determined beforehand. This definitely impacts the overall experience. Therefore, although it might sound boring for the player it is crucial to have some “house keeping” practices in order to ensure the best experience for the player. I am sure devs tested the game for cybersickness and I can say that personally I did not feel anything. The game gave me a sense that I was doing some real exercise. However, for players with more sensitivity, this should be mentioned. There is one screen at the beginning of the game that shows the possible complications of this game if the player is sensitive towards movements.

The tutorial could have different levels. For players who are not yet familiar with the technology, it is still necessary to have very simple and small paced tutorials. Another aspect to mention is that perhaps the game could give a feedback if the player is out of the play zone. Of course players can see the grid around the play area, but the position where they should be is not very evident. For example, in the game there is a mark on the ground with footsteps. Players might not remember to check the mark and that can influence their performance. The tutorial could also include a way for players to go back to the “mark zero” and experience this idea of coming back to the same space. For example, the game could have another way of showing that the player is out of the “perfect” spot by highlighting this on the top of their heads of just showing an invisible line on the middle of the horizon line.

The UI on the left in the menu sometimes could be overlooked. The tutorial could also show that could can change the settings of your game by selecting specific aspects. This was not evident in the beginning. And it might be that players who are not used to a 360 experience might miss these features.

Another aspect to mention is sound. As Casey Fictum mentions in this book VR UX, sound is most of the VR experience and should be considered as a key element. The fail sound could be improved since it breaks the continuum of the experience drastically. This can be because players might not be expecting it to end like a broken record since no one actually experience this sound anymore. Other sounds should be considered in order to improve the experience.

If we consider making this game more accessible, then there are a lot of elements that might need to be revised. However this would be related to a different research question! :)

15 Lessons from #gamesUR conference

It’s been more than 1 year since last Games User Research conference that I’ve attended in London. I was looking forward to this year’s edition! Last Friday, 30th September 2016, was a very special day. During the GUR conference we had the opportunity to meet professionals and academics from the games user research industry and academia. The conference was in the same place in London, near Holborn station. I had to wake up at 4h in the morning to be there on time! :)

The conference was organised in several sessions that addressed different aspects of Games User Research. I think that the best thing this year is that they brought more aspects from the industry, as for example, communications within teams and how to build your career as a GUR professional. On the other side, we had talks about including games user research in the University as a module of games design and the differences between GUR in the industry and in the academia. Different methods, such as the use of eye-tracking and diary studies for games user research were also discussed. We also had topics around accessibility and cutting-edge technologies like virtual reality.

In this post I will try to briefly explore, explain and mention the 15 main points and lessons that I’ve taken from this conference.
1. Eye tracking is a window to attention dynamic. We have different ways to process information in time. Shape, size, colour, motion, and emotional content are attractive factors and the position of these elements also influence attention. We need to think strategically while analysing eye tracking data in games user research, particularly because each visual element transmits a message.

2. “Is the player looking at how the designer expected?”. By using eye tracking in games user research we could try to map these dynamics. This is very similar to the lesson number 1. The research question here is about expectations, positioning and design.
3. Games User Research as a module in BA education. With a module that explores theory and research, it is possible to include GUR at Universities in the Undergraduation level. Theories like fun and flow, engagement, challenge and difficulty are a few examples. Students can learn research tools so they can test their own games.


4. Transferable skills are crucial for GUR. Yes, students and professionals should have good transferable skills as, for example, communication, cooperation and interpersonal skills. Empathy, leadership, collaboration and oral and written communication are also a few skills in this list.
5. What makes a good games user researcher? When looking for a career in GUR, it is crucial that you know that games user research means and what it really means to be a good games user researcher. You should be able to review games, use the right vocabulary and communicate a clear message to your audience.
6. Communicating with everyone is crucial. Communication is definitely a key aspect in GUR. For example, stakeholders need to be aligned in order to avoid invalid research questions.
7. Write clear and concise reports. Think about your audience. Developers could misinterpret the reports and take the wrong actions, due to the lack of consideration of the whole report, including the solutions and suggestions.
8. Academic GUR vs. Industry GUR. In the academic world, games user research usually summarise the findings and it utilises “finished” games, whereas in the Industry is more “formative”, influencing the development stage.


9. Indie studios need training to be able to do games user research by themselves. Indie studios could playtest their games in their own houses as one way to address GUR in a more viable way.
10. Never underestimate diary studies! You need time to analyse and write your report. Giving support to players is also necessary.


11. Need for haptics! Clothing, hardware, lights, vibration – make use of haptics to replace or reinforce the audio cues that gamers depend on, while designing for deaf audiences.
12. “Designing for a specific group doesn’t mean that it only has benefits for that group”. Look at your core audiences when you’re testing your game.


13. There is a need for a new grammar for interaction design in virtual reality. This could be undertaken by creating conventions and affordances.
14. Cyber sickness and comfort play are the main concerns in terms of VR. Make sure to recognise the symptoms of sickness in VR: opening mouth, heaving breathing, replacing chair, doing nothing in the game, moving at slow pace.


15. Network. Doing networking and playing games after the conference was great. I really had the opportunity to know more the people involved in the conference. Always make sure to network. :)

I believe that the main points from this day just highlighted the importance and the role of Games User Research as an activity and as a mindset. GUR is not about finding bugs. GUR is about people. GUR is about understanding what people do in games and why they do this – and how the games (developers and designers) provide such interactions. GUR is about a conversation. It is about communication and it does not happen in a vacuum! We need to know how to communicate the research findings in a quick and easy way.

I will definitely share my notes from each talk in further posts. See you all in 2017!

For the full conference, please watch:

And if you want to know more about GamesUR, here is a nice video:

#EWIGCONF 2016 – Design challenges in Virtual Reality games

VR and player comfort
In early September this year (2016) we had the opportunity to attend to the European Women in Games Conference 2016 at the Greenwich University. It was a very good conference, lots of great people from both industry and academia, asking questions about the games industry, diversity and cutting-edge technologies such as Virtual Reality (VR).
In this post I will try to bring a little bit from 1 session that I’ve attended: the VR workshop.

The main topic of the workshop was “Presenting the main issues while implementing Virtual Reality”. In this talk, Laura Dilloway from Guerrilla Cambridge introduced us challenges and possible guidelines for the creation of games in VR environments. I might say that most of the content in the talk was new to me. Laura showed the case of the RIGS Mechanized Combat League, the new game from Playstation that features a combat with robots in different arenas.
First of all, VR is quite new, so we could ask questions like if there are different rules and possible different gameplay in games that use VR, for example. Some of the design challenges are related to player immersion and presence like:

  • Giving the player a body
  • Correct the placement of camera
  • Physical body motion
  • Enduring that everything is in the right place

In fact, as designers we have to review the way the player perceive the world as the position of the camera is crucial.
There is also a challenge related to the sense of scale, which could be conveyed by other elements in the game environment. Crowds and doors are a few examples. The assets need to be in realistic sizes.
Another aspect mentioned by Laura is that when creating in virtual reality you need to test it all the time. We should not underestimate VR! The relationship between 360 movement and fixed point should also be considered.
In the end of the day, interface design is the main strategy when dealing with VR games and player comfort. As a designer you can use optic flow and brightness in order to bring comfort to the player. Try not to use absolute black and white for example. Materials could be used in the same way. For example, when you walk the character you could leave footprints in the sand. For ground rush, the choice for material should be strategic. Designers should also bear in mind that sometimes some details are not rendered with enough pixels.
One point raised by Laura was that everybody’s eyes are different so we need to test with a wider audience. This shows that testing is crucial. Thus, one way to solve this problem of diversity is to bring more choices in the game. Yet, it is still a big challenge. One strategy mentioned in the talk was the use of blinkers in order to avoid peripheral vision by the players.
The biggest question about virtual reality is still player comfort. Don’t take away the camera from the player. One advice is to avoid placing things directly in front of the player. As Laura mentioned, performance is king, and I totally agree. As designers we could use defaults like 60fps and mart usage of dynamic lights and correction of player view camera. By using horizontal lines we could also help the player to situate the camera correctly. It is all about the position of the camera.

Another strategy presented by Laura was that designers tend to “climatize” people through tutorials until they get used to it while playing the game. I think this could be a very successful way to bring people inside the game and provide them all the support and guidance required to proceed in the game. Players should be able to customise their settings according to their preference (always, if possible).

I think that the lessons to take home are that in VR and games we need to test a lot with fresh eyes and we should not be afraid, just because it is new. Using defaults and providing these defaults to the design community could also be one way to make it easier. As it is a cutting-edge technology, we need to share, test and publish as much as we can. We will get there! Thanks, Laura!

Follow Laura here: @GuerrillaLaura

Read more:
On-device motion tracking for immersive VR: Freedom from wires
New RIGS Mechanized Combat League trailer shows off Dubai arena
10 THINGS I LEARNT AT THE EUROPEAN WOMEN IN GAMES CONFERENCE 2016

Talking about haptic dimension

In the gaming world, things tend to be focused on visual aspects. Take as an example, Virtual Reality (VR) and the investment in visual interferences that evoke immersive reactions. This aspect of feeling that the reality and the virtual is the same can be called as Telepresence. The telepresence is enhanced by media “richness”. However, most of the times, the “touch” or “tactical” sense can be overlooked. Let’s take the 5 senses as a guideline. In games, we have sound, images.. but we don’t have touch, smell and taste. I’m not sure if the technology is yet there to create a smell-tasteful experience in the game, but the touch, yes. And that goes beyond the vibration of the game console while playing the game.

While watching this video from Casual Connect about “Wearable Haptic Feedback” (by Ehren J. Brav), you can understand what I’m talking about.

As Ehren J. Brav shows in the video, the haptic experience is usually used for simulation, but it can also bring information for the player as feedback. And that’s the main point. This device showed in the video is more as a helmet because it can be used for VR experiences. In the game it can also bring another dimension to the player – even to solve challenges in the game. It sounds incredible!

The main point now is that haptic feedback gives another dimension for HCI. It’s not about visual aspects anymore. It’s a combination of senses. Imagine what that could bring for different types of gaming experiences!

Now, imagine haptic situations that you don’t have a wearable. Disney has been researching about 3D haptic experiences with different interfaces. It’s like touching a screen but it has haptic “waves” enhanced by algorithms and lots of different aspects.

The idea of haptic feedback was also explored by another project from Disney in order to improve storytelling, bringing together linguistic and touch. And yet again, no wearable, just a touch screen device, as tablets and mobile phones. This shows that it is possible to transform technology into haptic screen. Why not? Imagine reading an ebook and feeling everything that is in the book just from the touch?

It is time to think. What are the design theories that could be applied into haptic dimensions? How does it vary for each individual? Maybe haptic could be applied in health-related gaming, helping people to overcome diseases? It is possible that the area of health and technology could benefit from those aspects, particularly for people that need treatment. But, yet, it is necessary to understand the types of applications. In the area of education and for young learners, maybe haptic could bring more immersive experiences for students in order to improve their learning experience – why not?

It seems that the combination of gaming structures and immersive technologies for the 5 senses is the main area to be explored. However, we still have a lot to do! What do you think?

References:

Kortum, P. (2008). HCI beyond the GUI: Design for haptic, speech, olfactory, and other nontraditional interfaces. Morgan Kaufmann.

Kim, S. C., Israr, A., & Poupyrev, I. (2013, October). Tactile rendering of 3D features on touch surfaces. In Proceedings of the 26th annual ACM symposium on User interface software and technology (pp. 531-538). ACM.

Israr, A., Zhao, S., Schwalje, K., Klatzky, R., & Lehman, J. (2014). Feel effects: enriching storytelling with haptic feedback. ACM Transactions on Applied Perception (TAP), 11(3), 11.