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Uncharted Territory #2: What’s the best way to move in VR?

Long before I joined the team at Archiact, my first two experiences with virtual reality happened in 2013/2014, and they went like this:

I was participating in a holiday game jam, and one team was making a VR thing. I say thing, not just because game jams so rarely result in games, but also because no one had any idea what the in-VR experience could possibly be like.

Oculus Dev Kit 1, a boxy black piece of virtual reality hardware with the Oculus logo on the front.

One of the jammers was a VR enthusiast (which felt a bit like saying “Bigfoot enthusiast,” something equally bizarre at the time) and they had gotten their hands on a genuine DK1.

We all gathered around that first Oculus Dev Kit, and took turns checking out the thing that these jammers had made.

You were a bird, ostensibly, and you flew at a fixed height over crisp lime-green planes of “grass.” The thing was, undeniably, a flying thing.

The second came months later, during the dimly lit air-conditioned tech circus that was SIGGRAPH 2014. Everyone was abuzz about the same demo, dubbed Birdly: a combination hardware/software experience that strapped attendees into a contraption that looked like this, and...

Can you guess what you did? Yep, flying!

I think it’s interesting that my very first step into the world of virtual reality wasn’t a step at all, but a flap and a glide.

Of course, the creators of these early prototypes weren’t focused on the literal flying movement itself, but rather pursuing the ultimate dream of earth-bound humans: that of flight. And yet the experience is framed almost entirely through the lens of movement, freedom, and immersion.

You don’t need me to tell you that VR has come a long way since then. And while flying experiences might seem trite now, we’re still grappling with the fundamental questions those first virtual flights posed seven-odd years ago:

What is the best way to simulate movement, or “locomotion,” in VR?

How does locomotion affect the gameplay experience, or vice versa?

What is the criteria for “good” locomotion?

As a developer, sometimes the process of finding, prototyping and answering these questions for your VR experience feels like developing a second game entirely.

The developer of a point-and-click horror game doesn’t need to prototype new mouse movements! But true to the name of this series, VR is uncharted territory, and we don’t have the luxury of preset standards like WASD or Press Triangle To Jump. Yet.

What do you do when you have no maps to follow? Start charting that path yourself! Let's start with the easiest question first.

Animated gif of the VR game Evasion - two futuristic soldiers rush towards the camera with weapons and shields drawn.

What is the criteria for “good” locomotion?

Good locomotion puts comfort first, always.

The longer you develop VR games, the easier it is to forget how challenging it can be for new users to just exist in VR, let alone move, let alone move quickly or in any other direction than forward. Yes, there are subreddits full of excellent tricks to mitigate an uncomfortable experience (Ginger supplements! Strategically placed fans!) but some players never get their “VR legs,” which leaves the onus on developers to mitigate discomfort on their own.

Ginger root on a table, some whole, some chopped. Nearby is a knife.

There are about a thousand articles, think pieces, and tweet threads with oodles of advice on how to implement smart, effective comfort options for VR, so we won’t repeat them here. Our key message here is to avoid overlooking comfort, and always respect it as the significant barrier to new VR adoption that it so often is.

The team here at Archiact feels this is especially important now. Quest 2 and the next generation of PlayStation VR are well-positioned to drive mass adoption on an unprecedented scale, but we’re also learning that many of these new adopters are not well-versed in VR, or even games.

A woman in comfortable clothing plays virtual reality with an Oculus Quest headset and controllers, in a home environment.
Taken from Oculus's recent Meet The Oculus Quest Gamers blog post.

They’ll be exploring a brand new medium, and ensuring their first steps into VR are comfortable and safe will be critical to ensuring our new audience doesn’t get cold feet. Let’s take good care of them, devs!

Good locomotion gives you options, options, options.

Common games industry wisdom tells us it’s rarely a bad idea to give players more choice, especially when it comes to customising their game experience at large. Key bindings, accessibility options, visual options and more are all standard practice. The same wisdom carries over to VR, but the choices we developers offer to players tend to require a little more curation than simple button remapping.

To start, we recommend offering a variety locomotion styles (eg. teleport versus smooth/stick-movement) or generous options to customise locomotion to player preference (eg. snap-turn increments, movement speed, etc.)

Key art for the VR game Evasion, featuring a team of four futuristic soliders standing back to back with weapons and shields drawn, firing at unseen enemies. The backdrop is a dramatic daylight planetscape. The blue and white Evasion logo appears overlaid.

Released in 2018, co-op FPS game Evasion emerged into a world where no perfect locomotion solutions existed, and room-scale still wasn't an easy solution, so we made it our mission to offer as many choices as possible to our players. We ended up with teleportation, smooth-stick locomotion, and an all-new, somewhat quirky option: “Jogging Mode,” where a continuous head-bob movement of the HMD would simulate the up-down cadence of a runner, and move the player forth.

A man and a woman play VR with head-mounted devices and controllers. They duck and dodge, aiming the controllers like guns.

All of this was in service of the game’s core promise of dynamic battlefield maneuvers a promise that’s echoed in the name itself. We wanted players to move!

And while playtesting revealed that most players only checked out Jogging Mode out of curiosity before returning to one of the more orthodox modes, the project was ultimately an excellent exercise in rapid learning, testing, and prototyping towards a specific goal.

That leaves us with two criteria so far. Not a bad list to start with!

What makes locomotion “good” will undoubtedly change a lot from developer to developer, player to player, and while these ones might seem simple or foundational, they have served us well.

Which means we might just be ready to tackle the next question:

How does locomotion affect gameplay experience, or vice versa?

There’s an old saying: oftentimes, your greatest weakness is also your greatest strength. While it’s easy to frame VR through its hardware limitations, we challenge ourselves to embrace what is possible in VR locomotion, instead of focusing on what’s not.

Evasion marked our first bold steps towards building interesting and effective options for players to choose from, but you could be forgiven for feeling like those options were always a little at odds with the VR experience itself.

Our next project had to be different.

Animated gif of the VR game FREEDIVER: Triton Down - the player swims with their arms before them, diving deep underwater into a dark ventilation shaft. They take a glowstick from their arm, light it, and place it back on their person.

FREEDIVER: Triton Down was born of a single challenge, passed from our Studio Head Kurt to Creative Director Seb: make a game that excels in seated play, without losing the concept of movement altogether. In other words, a game where the player doesn’t walk, run, or move by traditional methods.

Screenshot from VR game FREEDIVER: Triton Down, featuring a the player floating with arms aloft in a calm underwater lagoon environment. Schools of brightly coloured fish swim through the invitingly blue depths below.

After several rounds of prototypes, we stumbled onto a deceptively simple solution: Swimming! Once the basic mechanic of moving one’s arms in a front-stroke pantomime was nailed, the rest of the game's world and design sprung up smoothly around it.

We released FREEDIVER: Triton Down in 2019: an underwater adventure that offers calming lagoon swims, and terrifying struggles for breath amid the catastrophe of a sinking ship.

The reason the swimming-by-locomotion mechanic works so well might seem obvious. It’s a type of locomotion that relies entirely on the arms/hands, which are trackable entities across every major VR platform. But that’s not the real key to its success.

Which brings us to another, less commonly discussed criteria for “good” locomotion:

Good locomotion does more than just MOVE the player.

FREEDIVER’s swimming mechanic isn’t great because it’s simple. It’s great because it does more than just move the player around the world; it roots them within it. So much so, playtesters were unintentionally holding their breath whenever they dived underwater, sometimes even gasping for breath when their avatar broke the surface into an air pocket.

Animated gif of the VR game FREEDIVER: Triton Down - the player scrambles to pull themselves up an underwater ventilation shaft, arms failing until they break the surface of the water.l

The act of moving your arms through the water is meditative in the calm, unhurried prologue of the game you turn by churning your hands in the water, an act that requires intention and time.

And when you’re finally plunged into the harrowing ship-side portion of the game, your desperation to escape, to just get to the next air pocket, affects the sureness of your grip and the speed of your front-stroke. Not because we designed it to be harder, but simply because you’re panicking a little bit, and the barrier between you and FREEDIVER’s locomotion is thin enough for it to seep into the experience itself.

Screenshot from VR game FREEDIVER: Triton Down Extended Cut, featuring the player's arms outstretched to show the wrist-mounted interface and O2 meter. They are underwater, facing an ominously locked door.

We also employ diegetic UI (something we’ll discuss in our next blog post!) so that glancing at your wrist becomes an intuitive and natural movement done throughout the experience. Suffice to say, the best games are the ones where you can stop worrying about the controls and lose yourself in the experience.

And no matter how good you are at FREEDIVER and navigating its dark, claustrophobic corridors, nothing gets your blood pumping like looking down and seeing single digits on your wrist-mounted O2 meter.

What else can good locomotion do?

Locomotion that serves a purpose beyond simple movement feels like a great new direction for all VR developers, and we want to push that even further with future projects. As the VR adventure guides, it’s a bit of a mission of ours to prove to ourselves and our industry that VR is truly its own medium.

It borrows much from games, yes, but it also leans into film, theatre, and other creative media. We hope that solving the “problem” of locomotion doesn’t result in perfect simulations of what exists in games already, but something entirely new and worthy.

Is it time to stop thinking of VR games as games? Is it time to create worlds and experiences that don’t have to move? That’s the promise of VR; that’s what keeps us up at night.

You’ll notice we haven’t answered the original question.

The big one at the top: what is the best way to move in VR?

The answer, of course, is that there isn’t one. As hardware continues to advance and the barrier between player and experience becomes ever thinner, it’s likely that we’ll discover even more ways to move in VR, and that each way will be unique to both player and experience.

Standards like comfort and customisation are good to establish, but when it comes to something as subjective as locomotion, the conversation will likely continue and evolve for as long as the industry itself does!

Here are some questions to move that conversation forward...

  • What would a VR game look like with plenty of action, but no locomotion whatsoever?

  • How can you move the game world without moving yourself?

  • What happens when a VR world becomes non-euclidean?

  • What happens when locomotion is mapped to something other than movement through a physical world?

  • What would it look like to move through time?

How would you answer these questions? Have you played a VR game that already does? Drop by our Discord and let us know! We’re always looking to discuss interested answers to questions like these, especially with other VR developers.

And don’t forget to stay tuned for our next installment of the Uncharted Territory blog series, where we’ll dive into DOOM, design, and diegesis!

A stylized photograph of a snowy, windswept mountain peak in vivid orange and teal. The Archiact Arrowhead logo appears in blue, with white text overlaid: "Your VR Adventure Guides."


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