A couple months ago, I found myself working on a game/experience as part of my coursework (Read more). As a team, we wanted to take the opportunity to experiment and explore social interactions between 2 players in VR. During our early prototypes we chanced upon a mechanic that made players stay in the experience for up to 20 minutes. The key fact here is that there were no changes in difficulty, content or audio. What started out as a deep dive into creating an out-of-the-world experience quickly evolved into a search to discover what makes a game or experience oddly satisfying.
As we play tested the experience by adding features, it became clear that they did not contribute towards improving it. All we knew for sure was that the core mechanic of lying down and swatting stars away while they floated towards you was soothing. We had quite some difficulty understanding which part of this made players want to stay. At that point, we decided that we would make an experience that was soothing and almost meditative.
I want to discuss those observation we made while trying to answer the question – what factors contribute to an oddly satisfying experience? It is hard to explain that feeling we have when we sit in front of a campfire and just look at how the flames dance, twist and twirl. Sabrina Faramarzi has discussed the psychology of oddly satisfying visual experiences – videos. I would like to think I add to this by briefly touching on factors that contribute to a similar feeling in games and interactive media.
During our development, we looked at games like Stardew Valley, Thomas Was Alone, Kingdom, Proteus and other soothing experiences made in VR like Lumen VR and Luna VR. There were some common factors I observed in these vastly different, yet somehow similar games.
The music is melodic, putting the player in a trance. I cannot emphasize this enough. One could just play the soundtracks to help themselves fall asleep. So when my teammate Brandon added Shooting Star Summit from Paper Mario, it transformed our experience. And thanks to his composition skills, we were able to use a BGM that helped us put the players at ease.
The visuals are usually simple. In many of the examples I gave, the games have a pixel art style. Even the VR experiences incorporated only what is necessary for the core experience. They are presented in a way that curbs sensory overload.
Creation or transformation of the environment made the player feel needed. It made them feel empowered. This was tricky as letting the player build things too fast or have negative consequences made them nervous. I say this by observing RTS games like Age of Empires, Warcraft, etc., which require the player to build things to use mainly for destruction or to defend from it.
Interactions are repetitive and fluid. Even though Kingdom has moments where the player must defend their settlement, the parts leading up to it make up for the adrenaline that’s generated. Lumen VR makes the player move in almost a tai-chi like way. This GDC talk by the designer of Luna VR adds more context.
This played a very important role in letting the players give in to the flow of just making something instead of having to worry about consequences. There was a lesser sense of pressure as the responsibility was shared. I will discuss this in a bit more detail below.
With just these observations, we built a soothing, collaborative artistic experience for 2 players in VR. It lasts for about 5 minutes and lets the players view the result of their combined efforts on the computer screen. The toughest questions to answer were about creation and co-operation. One of my instructors, Jesse Schell said, “Asking people to create art is a tricky thing. They will tense up and think about failing to create something worthwhile. And to let two people do this together will be much trickier. So, using abstract shapes is not a bad way to go.” His advice got us thinking about how a player who is not artistic might react to this. We took a few lessons from Improvisational Acting techniques and incorporated them into the game. Each player has a unique set of abstract shapes that they can place using a laser gun, on the spinning globe in front of them. The other player is obscured by the “planet” in front of them and cannot see what they placed until it comes into view a few moments later.
Building Cosmic Origins has only brought up more questions in my mind. How can we leverage this feeling of satisfaction to create games that not only engage the player but also revitalize them? Are there more parameters that contribute to it? How does the mind perceive such interactions? Can we reproduce these emotions in other media like mobile phones, which don’t necessarily immerse the player into the virtual world?