VR can be a nauseating experience. Even the slightest turn of the head or unexpected camera movement can make even the most experienced players feeling sick. Despite rapid advancements in VR gaming over the past few years, that still serves as a queasy barrier of entry for many players.
Developer Trebuchet wanted to solve that problem. The studio specializes in VR games, creating clever games like Jousting Time and Prison Boss VR. This Spring, Trebuchet will release an open-world flora-planting game called Winds & Leaves for PSVR, which features an innovative approach to motion sickness reduction.
Digital Trends sat down with Trebuchet’s co-founders Vincent Brunet-Dupont and Alexandre Pernot Lopes to discuss how Winds & Leaves tackled the conundrum. Surprisingly, the answer isn’t less movement; it’s more.
Winds & Leaves is a game that is built around mobility as players explore its nature-filled world. The developers describe the game as a mix between Journey and Stardew Valley. For Trebuchet, it was important to create a system of movement that reinforced that idea. That meant that the usual VR tricks, like blinking players forward or jerky head turns, weren’t going to cut it.
The studio began experimenting with locomotion with its earliest VR projects and found that physical movement helped ease players’ stomachs.
“At first we did a project called Jousting Time,” Trebuchet CEO Vincent Brunet-Dupont tells Digital Trends. “It’s a jousting game where you have to move your left hand up and down like you’re holding like the braids of a horse. Screaming would accelerate the movement of the horse. When we did this, people who were usually sensitive to motion sickness said “I didn’t notice anything!” We felt like there was a way to dig deeper with people moving their hands and making people feel like they were doing it themselves.”
“It really helps the brain when you’re doing real gestures,” adds co-founder Alexandre Pernot Lopes. “There’s less disconnection between what you do and what you see in the headset.”
Expanding on Jousting Time’s locomotion experiments, Trebuchet devised a unique movement system built on stilts. Players hold two long sticks in their hands and must physically pull themselves forward by staking them into the ground. Think of it like a skier using their ski poles to pull themselves across the snow. Trebuchet says that those big, physical movements have led to a decrease in motion sickness.
“In the beginning, you would have to do these big movements,” says Brunet-Dupont. “Now, you can technically move quite lightly, but having the animations of the player doing more ample movements makes it feel more comfortable. If we did movements one to one, you’d get super motion sick.”
That trick goes hand in hand with some more traditional solutions that developers have used over the years. Many VR games tend to put a static image on screen, which can help ground players’ perspective. Trebuchet originally experimented with that idea by putting a nose in the player’s first-person view. That idea was eventually scrapped in favor of some static HUD elements.
The studio took some observations from the real world to tweak to reduce nausea even further. One of their biggest inspirations comes from driving habits.
“There’s an illusion in VR where people tend to go where they look,” says Lopes. “We make it so the aim of the controllers slightly changes the direction you move in. Generally, when you drive and have a long turn, you’ll look at the end of the turn while doing the movement. It’s a bit of the same thing in VR. Instinctively, your hands will go towards where you look.”
Trebuchet’s solution doesn’t come from third-party studies by neuroscientists. Instead, it’s based on the studio’s own empirical analysis from watching players experience the game.
“We just take the most sensitive people on the team and use them to test,” jokes Brunet-Dupont.
Trebuchet’s techniques are yet another innovation in a technology that’s always evolving. Brunet-Dupont likens the rapidly changing world of VR development to that of early cinema.
“The films from the early 1900s discovered how to change framing and do editing,” he says. “For them what was live-action theater going to cinemas, the gaming industry going into VR is kind of a similar thing. The language has to be made. Movement is pretty nailed down in general gaming, but we still have to do all these experiments in VR.”
Trebuchet says it is all-in on VR and will continue its work to raise the bar for gaming. The studio is already looking ahead to Sony’s next iteration of its VR headset. When asked about how the studio feels about the device’s newly announced controllers, which include adaptive triggers and haptic feedback, both developers immediately perk up.
“We want it! We want it!” Lopes gleefully responds.
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