Media & Entertainment

Designing Next-Gen Virtual Reality Gaming Experiences

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Michael Wesolowski

Contributor

Mike Wesolowski is a Senior Experience Architect at ÄKTA, a Chicago-based experience design and digital innovation consultancy.

It wasn’t until I conquered my first dungeon in The Legend of Zelda at my friend’s house that I decided to throw a convincing tantrum at my parents about why I also desperately needed my own Nintendo Entertainment System. Like many other millennials, it was the very first video game console I owned.

Back then, I just wanted to save a princess from an evil king; I knew very little about how Nintendo actually redefined the language of how we interact with video games. I had, what I suppose UX nerds today would call, a good hardware user experience.

Fast forward a few years and the global gaming market is expected to rake in $86.1 billion in revenue in 2016. Driving this projection is the expected quick increase in consumer adoption of Virtual Reality (VR) technology hardware products such as Microsoft’s HoloLens, Sony’s Project Morpheus and the Oculus Rift. It’s no longer just about unique and memorable game characters and exciting incentives, but holistic and immersive user experiences.

VR will make its way successfully into consumer gaming because of clearer and more definitive user expectations for next-gen gaming experiences — and technologies like movement detection, sensors and beacons. Consoles like PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One have already shifted gamers’ expectations for visual fidelity and sound design. Such huge advances in user interaction elements taking place in incredibly immersive gaming environments (thanks, Nintendo Wii!) have created momentum for nextgen gaming hardware in the consumer entertainment industry.

A Gapless Gaming Language

Gaming technology has always been used from an “external” perspective; the hardware is an accessory apart from the physical self. With VR aiming to blend our physical environments and virtual worlds, next-gen gaming experiences will become more visceral and life-like. Users will be able to use their five senses and manipulate their surroundings using their entire bodies instead of just a controller.

The key to the success of next-gen gaming UX is the removal of obstacles in front of the user, like unnecessary actions, buttons or even distracting visuals. Users will be able to immediately jump into their VR experiences without tutorials, manuals or even the game itself guiding them. Devices could even become weightless or, at the very least, be made from the lightest materials.

Without the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), the video game market in North America could have completely receded (whew!). More than the machine’s usability and the intuitiveness of the human-machine interactions, people across the world loved using NES — mainly because of how much fun they had playing the actual games. The gamers’ fidelity to the experience was largely hinged on the game narratives rather than the seamlessness, ease and novelty of using gaming consoles.

What will make these new gaming experiences so different from anything we’ve ever had before is that these VR products (and Augmented Reality, as well) will continually aim to break down physiological boundaries. Yesteryear’s gaming experience designs allowed for stimuli-to-action interaction gaps, leaving it to our imaginations to fill in the void. Nextgen gaming experiences are not only going to be fully immersive, but will become less and less about users “playing roles” and more about being enveloped in a virtual world that feels absolutely natural.

Intuitive And Gorgeous: VR Gaming For All Ages

Though it became a cultural phenomenon and leapfrogged the Atari 2600, from a usability perspective, NES was a failure. From the poor ergonomics of the controller and a slow 8-bit processor, to clunky software that sometimes didn’t work at all (until you blew into the game cartridge), the NES was at its best, a total pain to use correctly.

The poor integration of the software (role-playing and storytelling aspects) and the hardware’s usability is exactly why Virtual Boy failed when it was released in 1995 — it was just too big of a mental leap for gamers. Explaining to younger gamers today that there was a time we played Mario Tennis using a table mounted VR headset is sure to get some laughs.

Nintendo Wii’s runaway success was always attributed to the intuitiveness of using the Wii-mote. The console was able to cater to casual and hardcore gamers from multiple demographics. Next-gen VR gaming software and hardware will have less usability issues and flatter learning curves for users of all ages, cognitive abilities and console loyalty (first-time gamers included). Game systems will also allow advanced users to perform those tasks faster and more efficiently for a more tailored experience (cue: AI and intelligent machine references).

With the onset of material design, users also expect their products to be beautiful and simple, not just useful and functional. Nonetheless, it’s a well-known fact amongst UX designers today that good-looking interfaces aren’t necessarily very usable, and vice-versa — simple and minimal interfaces are sometimes the most useful UX. With this shift in expectations, users will come to expect HUDs (head-up display) and interfaces to become more minimal and gorgeous as much as they are intuitive and highly useful.

Three Next Steps For VR Gaming Development

First, designers must find the right balance between the new and the familiar. Users generally respond well to new and innovative products because these experiences introduce new ways we can interact with our environments and create new contexts for human-machine interactions. It will be critical for next-gen gaming to concurrently seize innovation and a sense of familiarity. Reinventing the wheel too quickly might stupefy users, causing even the most technologically advanced hardware to end up like Virtual Boy. It was trying to reinvent the wheel when users didn’t even know what wheels should and can do in the first place.

Second, usability testing must take center stage. User-experience can make or break the most elegant, useful and beautiful software and hardware products imaginable. Ironically enough, consumers have spent most of their lives using products with poor UX, like our old VCRs (did anyone ever figure out how to get the time display to stop blinking?). Because VR technology in gaming is in its early stages of user adoption, designers, engineers, product managers and anyone on the manufacturer’s side should keep iterating and testing for what works. There’s a wide array of usability methods and tools on a UX designer’s tool belt that would make Batman’s look like it was a Fisher-Price knockoff.

Third, cutting-edge qualitative methodologies will be key to developing meaningful interactions. VR experiences will become like the multi-sensory and socially shared experiences we have in the physical world (VR online dating, anyone?). Because these virtual environments will share the same traits as physical worlds, they cannot be evaluated simply based on learnability, efficiency and effectiveness like experiences on a mobile phone; they have to be felt. Ethnography, cognitive walk-through and heuristic evaluations are just a few of the many methods to collect these qualitative data points needed to ascertain what resonates with gamers at a deeper emotional level.

Games allow us to explore uncharted worlds, enhance our own creativity and help us understand and solve complex problems in ways we never thought possible. Next-gen gaming experiences should keep these core ideals alive. If all else fails, games should ultimately just be fun, right?

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