VR Event Success - Part 1: Designing and Developing your App for Live Events
Oculus Developer Blog
Posted by Patrick Curry
June 13, 2019

Today we hear from Patrick Curry of Farbridge AR/VR, as he provides recommendations for application/game development with a focus on premium event experiences. We hope this post, along with next week's article from Melissa Swanepoel, will enable you to maximize the value of your next conference, expo or local Meetup.

So you’ve been making an awesome new VR experience, and you’re ready to show it off to the world. One of the best ways to get people excited about your game/application is to let them play it, and doing so at a live event lets you learn from their experiences and feedback.

Our team at FarBridge has been giving regularly scheduled VR demonstrations since the release of Oculus DK1 in 2014. As these demonstrations have grown from gatherings of friends to giant conferences open to the public, we've learned a ton about how to share all types of VR applications spanning the educational (MasterWorks: Journey Through History) to physically active multiplayer (Jar Wars). We’ve also adapted our VR experiences to be shown at live events and created original experiences custom-designed for gatherings.

Before you take your VR game, app or experience to a meetup, conference, showcase or block party, you should make an event-friendly demo build to show it off in the best light possible. Here are our favorite tips for making your VR software event-proof!

Know Your Demo Goals

Just like every VR developer, every event is unique and different. It’s important that you know what you want to get out of your live demonstration before you start hacking at your project. Your goals when showing VR at a banking conference are likely different than those at a local VR-themed meetup.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

Are you attending the event to sell your VR game that’s already on the store? Are you trying to get feedback on your new mechanics? Are you looking for a publisher or funding? Are you trying to get attention from the press?

No matter your goals, it’s important to keep in mind your audience, the setting and the context of the event. While we don’t make radically new builds for every event we attend, we often change up which types of content we present.

Keep the Demo Short

Time is always a factor at live events. A player who owns a VR system wants a deep experience to immerse themselves in -- but at events, each person who tries out your demo has to wait for it. The longer the experience, the longer the wait, and that impression carries over to the player’s enjoyment and presence while in your game. Keeping your demo short gets long lines moving faster -- which encourages people to join your line and lets as many people as possible try your experience!

We try to keep each participant’s time in a headset to under 10 minutes -- and more athletic experiences should be much, much shorter. We recommend picking the absolute best 5-10 minutes of your experience and make a custom demo of just that content.

Look at popular music or rhythm-based VR games -- the songs are all under 3 minutes or less. You don’t want people to leave your experience drenched in sweat, or so exhausted that they can’t enjoy the remainder of the event.

In our game “Jar Wars”, we use a mixture of soft-timers and hard-timers to keep the experience moving along. When players first enter the game, they’re in a lobby where they can safely try out the mechanics of the game. We usually give the players 1-2 minutes to orient and experiment with the controls, then we start the match.

We use a hard 3-minute timer for each competitive match, this way, everyone who waits in line is served the same-sized slice of gameplay. After enjoying a minute or two of celebration in the post-game trophy room, we display a giant “thanks for playing!” screen in VR. We found that this is the easiest way to signal that it’s time to take off the headset.

Keeping your demos short also has hardware benefits! Short demos keep hardware and battery packs from running low or getting too hot after continuous play, especially on standalone headsets.

Keep the Demo Easy

No matter how technology-savvy you expect the audience to be, as of 2019 you will be giving most of the attendees their first experience with any VR device. After executing thousands of VR demonstrations at live events, we have a theory to help explain this: if an attendee owns a headset, they likely won’t wait in line for most demos -- on the other hand, if they don’t have a VR setup at home, a live event is the perfect opportunity!

Work with this “first time” assumption and design your demo as if you not only have to teach the player how your experience works, but also how the VR headset and controllers work. You can’t assume that they’re familiar with any particular device or know the difference between the “trigger” and “grip” buttons.

If your demo presents a challenge to you or to other seasoned VR players, it is absolutely too difficult for an audience at a live event. Make your experience much easier for first-time users, and let folks opt-in for more challenging content later when they buy your game.

One of the easiest ways to keep your VR experience from being too difficult is to keep failure “soft.” For example, in a shooting-range game, if the player misses a target, let it fly past and be a missed opportunity, rather than resulting in having to start over. Keeping failure soft keeps the player in the game, lets them keep trying and learning, and once they score a point it will be that much more rewarding for them.

Avoid a “Game Over” screen and other “hard” failures, which punish the player for trying something new. This could cause players to have a negative experience and potentially dislike your game/application. Hard failures yank the player out of the immersion and magic of VR, and for any newcomer to the medium, it’s a really unwelcoming experience.

If the player’s character can die, come up with a near-instant respawn mechanic. “Jar Wars” is all about multiplayer combat where you eliminate your opponents. We keep the failure of elimination softer by making it clear that the game is not lost, you immediately respawn into a safe area, and the eliminations don’t include any realistic gore. It’s all silly, cartoony fun.

Even if you’re making a singleplayer VR experience, you can still use this model of instantaneous respawn. There’s a bit of programming required to make it work, but it will improve your live event experience AND speed up your ability to iterate and playtest.

Keep the Demo Accessible

When you take your VR demo to live events you get to see a multitude of people try it out -- people of all shapes, sizes and levels of physical ability -- and you’ll be surprised how many times people point out things that they physically can’t do that you never noticed.

We’ve heard things like “I’m not tall enough to reach that item,” “I can’t bend over that far,” and “I can’t stand up for that long,” enough that we’ve put extra time and focus into accessibility features.

One of the easiest ways to make your VR demo more accessible is to let people play the game while either seated or standing. This has actually led to some of our favorite VR accessibility features! For one, we can now support a spectrum of player heights. Plus while seated, it’s often difficult to turn your entire body around 180 degrees. We’re big fans of “bump turns,” where the user can use the joystick to turn themselves in the virtual world in 45-degree increments. We often come across players who want to use bump turns, even while standing, so it’s a double-win for accessibility.

We also try to keep our controls ambidextrous by mirroring the functionality that’s available on the left hand with the right. This not only has the benefit of letting left-handed users play the game with the same gusto as right-handed users, it also opens up your experience to those who can only use one hand.

Probably our favorite accessibility feature is “reach assist.” While making a physics game in VR, we got really sick of bending over to pick things up off the floor, so we added extending arms, like a cartoon robot would have. Now the hands can grab whatever object the user reaches their hand towards, no matter how far away it is. This paid big dividends, as it eliminated the need to bend over, making the game easier for seated and very tall users. It also simplifies movement -- you no longer have to move “close enough” to pick something up!

Finally, you want to avoid elements that could cause users discomfort. We prevent involuntary camera movement, and make sure that teleporting is the default movement technique in all of our experiences:

Make Your Demo Self-Explanatory

You want the user to focus on having fun and enjoying the splendor of virtual reality, not trying to figure out how your controls or mechanics work. Make your demo so easy and self-explanatory that a user can have fun in it without needing you to guide them.

If your experience has a tutorial level, this is a great place to start for live events, especially as it usually makes the least assumptions about what the player knows while introducing the world, concept and mechanics. Is your tutorial longer than 10 minutes? Then you may want to consider a micro tutorial level.

Even with a simple “how to” level in place, you should always lean towards interactions that don’t need explaining. If you want the user to turn the lights off and on, don’t invent a complicated user interface, use a light switch. If you want the user to pick up and hold an object, have them hold the grip button to grab and hold it. One of the awesome things about VR is that we don’t have to teach players a million new things, we can let them bring what they already know about the real world into our virtual experiences.

Wrapping Up

Taking your VR experience on the road is a great way to get feedback from users outside your immediate social circle, and serves as a preview of what you can expect at launch. We hope you found these tips helpful!

In our next post, we’ll share our favorite tips for how to plan, manage and execute your VR events for the most awesome sharing of VR, whether your team developed the apps or not!

See y’all next time!

- Patrick Curry

Learn more about FarBridge and the VR Austin community

Disclaimer: This blog post features insights, learnings, ideas and comments from a guest author. This content is not promoted, sponsored or technically validated by Oculus.