Developer Perspective: Tips to Develop a Relaxing VR Adventure Game
Oculus Developer Blog
Posted by Andrea Marinelli
June 6, 2019

For today’s developer insights post, we feature Andrea Marinelli who has been developing VR games/applications since 2013. He founded his company, Frost Earth Studio with his partner when they initially purchased a DK1 and launched their first game that same year. Most recently Andrea has been developing Mind Labyrinth VR Dreams, a calming VR experience that enables you to take a meditative journey across numerous fantasy-inspired environments. In this post Andrea will share his knowledge from developing this unique VR title, providing tips on how to integrate calm and tranquility in your next VR game/application.

Today we’re going to discuss my tips for developing a game/application that delivers a sense of calm and relaxation. These tips were garnered from developing my most recent game, Mind Labyrinth VR Dreams, where our goal was to create a world that the user could explore, while enabling them to feel certain emotions throughout the “adventure”. I hope this post helps you save time and think more creatively about adding a calming UX to your next VR app/game.

The Impact of Music in VR

Music has a much greater impact on the UX of an VR experience as opposed to standard games, in turn, we experimented a lot to see how our environments were affected by each track.

A certain type of dark music can sometimes be enough to make a relaxing environment feel creepy, while the right sort of peaceful music can help make a dark/scary environment a lot more comfortable and soothing.

We also experimented with binaural audio, which is recorded using two microphones (usually on a manikin) to mimic a person's sense of hearing [see this recent blog post from the Ubisoft team for more detail on the technique]. This type of recording was combined by what is called harmonic brainwave music, which is created to use the same frequencies your brain emits during sleep or a calming state. Combined, these two audio techniques can be powerful, but monotonous, so we added a few original melodies to make it a lot more enjoyable.

Calm The User Through Color

Since our game primarily focuses on relaxation and soothing emotions, we used a wide spectrum of colors which helped provide a sense of calm in each environment. Bluish and violet hues were used for more tranquil, peaceful scenes, while reddish and warmer tones were helpful to stimulate more frenetic or energized sensations.

We decided to spend more time on a well-designed, calming atmosphere, as opposed to one that is hyperrealistic, as users tend to "pick apart the details" with environments that are trying to mimic the real world. This gave us more options to experiment with other aspects of the scene, pushing the boundaries of what we can achieve in a single environment.

Take Advantage of “Finger Tracking”

Unlike most controllers, The Oculus Touch controllers can track your thumb and pointer fingers, which is something you don't see on most of the other motion controllers. This capability can truly enhance user presence and we’re surprised how developers quite often underestimate the possibilities of this feature.

As an example, we encouraged users to take full advantage of this feature by enabling them to interact with objects, or to shoot darts within their environment, we found that this feels a lot more immersive and intuitive. There were many other opportunities to experiment with 2-finger tracking, like pushing away tiny objects or letting a butterfly rest on your finger (we recommend the following Oculus Rift S tutorial for a few great examples). We look forward to testing this feature even more in the future, potentially enabling a deeper, more precise interaction with animals, or even for new relaxing exercises.

Provide a Delightful Surprise

We as developers must recognize that surprise effects don't always have to be “jump scares”. In fact, a few of our favorite moments in Mind Labyrinth take place when you come across the wandering, mystical creatures which can be found randomly wandering the environment. If you can place the right element of surprise, at the right time, in the right digital environment, you can bring a genuine smile to the user’s face, an achievement that we feel is truly powerful.

Play With the Scale of Your Experience

Experimenting with the scale of objects in VR is extremely fun and powerful. The same animal could feel extremely cute if small enough, or incredibly dangerous if too big. This is also true for static objects. We found that even massive objects like still planets can make people feel overwhelmed and fearful.

It obviously depends on what you're trying to achieve, but if you have a bit of freedom then feel free to play with the scale of objects and try something different, don’t feel obligated to reflect the real world. If you're rendering a chair, it would feel off to not have it 1:1, but if you're rendering fantasy creatures, sci-fi landscapes, or looking to communicate metaphor in some way, then don't be afraid to experiment. In VR, scale can make the difference between something truly epic and awe-inspiring, versus something mediocre and unimpressive.

Implement Calming and Relaxing Interactions

Sometimes having a specific purpose or goal within a game can give the user more frustration than satisfaction. If you always have a task to accomplish, your brain tends to focus on what you have to do to complete the task instead of actually enjoying your environment.

In VR have you ever found yourself simply enjoying the digital scenery around you? Probably not too many times, as you’re looking for how and where to complete a quest, or accomplish your goal as quick as you can. Instead of giving objectives the player must complete, we use what we call “soft objectives”, meaning there are several things you can do, but these are not required. For example, the player can locate a candle on a shelf and use it to turn on fireworks, it’s not needed but it helps to enhance the experience. These fireworks with relaxing music now help increase the sense of calm, and it’s all quite rewarding for the player as it reinforces the mood of the scene, something that should make them feel more empowered during the experience.

Another calming interaction example, is the way we use a torch to reveal hidden elements of the game. These types of interactions actually help the user to focus on what’s taking place around them without requiring the completion of a task. This kind of design mindset also helps elevate the sense of surprise when the user comes across a new interaction they may not have assumed was available at first glance!

As we continue to develop this VR experience we’re always looking to find new and interesting interactions and puzzles, all while trying to keep a good balance between the emotional status and the gamification aspect of our title.

Especially in video game development, it's really important to experiment... in VR even more so. What in theory may seem fun and immersive, once implemented could feel empty or simply not fun. Finding the ideal balance between gameplay and relaxation is not an easy task, but experimentation and collecting feedback as early as possible made a significant impact on our title.

When designing Mind Labyrinth VR Dreams, we wanted our users to play and enjoy themselves, but even more to feel something powerfully relaxing, like they had just experienced a magical, dreamy world of calm and serenity. We feel that testing numerous combinations of visual, interaction and hearing cues enabled us to achieve this goal, and we hope this article helps you to create your next calming VR experience,

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- Andrea