The freedom of designing VR games for all
Updated: Jun 22
Fast Travel Games made strategic decisions early on that have contributed to their success shipping four titles in 4 years - including their recent release, Afterlife. These choices would go on to cement the company’s commitment to inclusive design. Before his appearance at Friday Stories, we asked the Studio’s Creative Director and Co-founder Erik Odeldahl to tell us why they’ve integrated inclusive design approaches, how this shapes the creative process, and why they draw inspiration from outside the industry.
Inclusive design from day one
Before VR gaming found the popularity it enjoys today, the pool of gamers with headsets was limited. Such a small user base made it imperative that VR developers served as many headset owners as possible. As a result, Fast Travel Games targeted all of the platforms delivering VR titles from the outset.
The Studio predicted that headsets with hand controllers would outperform those without, which Erik and the team felt ‘were a bad compromise between the past and the future’. So, from the get-go, they also committed to systems with motion controls only.
Finally, they wanted to ensure players could enjoy their games regardless of their physical abilities. Their titles would support player interactions whether they were standing, moving through space, or sitting. With a Fast Travel game, it wouldn’t matter.
It would be easy and truthful to frame this final decision as a smart business move. Without a massive pool of players, it was important not to exclude anyone if it could be avoided. Clever thinking and creative development could help them do that. This attitude toward inclusivity would eventually find its way into the company’s core, informing its values and practices when creating games. As Erik explains, Fast Travel Games makes titles ‘that are balanced to incorporate multiple play styles. It’s certainly a challenge, but we don’t even talk about it anymore. It’s something we just do.’ He continues:
‘With the trend in headsets sales, things have completely changed. Back in 2017, we were maybe nervous about their popularity, but now we’re not concerned about the size of the market. So, inclusive design is not just a business consideration any longer. It is important to us. Even if I were still in flat-screen gaming - standard console and PC gaming - I’d be thinking about game design like this. I feel there is no reason to shut people out.’
Using limitations to spur innovation
What some studios may see as a limitation, Erik and his team consider an opportunity. Erik explains that serving different play styles leads to more creative thinking: ‘It makes us think about design and ask why it has to be so complicated all the time.’ He adds:
‘A lot of games in the console/PC/flat screen space are needlessly complicated. I still play flat-screen games, but there are so many things in the way of letting players enjoy games… With VR, you’re usually using your hands in the game, which means many of the abstractions disappear. We don’t want to add more. Now it’s become a design philosophy.’
VR games design involves limitations that don’t exist for artists and developers in the world of PC and console gaming. Again, Erik and his team use these differences as the springboard for innovation. The lack of control over player guidance is a good example:
‘Player guidance in VR is a totally different thing than it is in flat-screen gaming where you actually control the camera. We never have camera control, so we can’t use learnings from movies - what people have known since the turn of the 20th Century - because it goes right out the window. Well, most of it just doesn't translate. And this adds a thick layer of complexity to any design. But it’s also very freeing! You don’t control the camera, and so we have to ask how can we frame things, how can we tell stories.’
Looking for inspiration beyond games
Unable to rely on the lens to direct the player’s gaze and provide player guidance, VR developers must find different ways to tell stories with the tools available to them. According to Erik, that requires more than a love of games and a little imagination.
It’s important to draw inspiration from other creative disciplines, too. For Erik, that’s theatre. ‘Because of that,’ he suggests, ‘the language of theatre starts to come naturally when designing. Your influences shine through in some way'. This is why Erik recommends aspiring games makers absorb different art forms:
'I would say that only being interested in games is a dead end. I ask everyone I hire and interns: what are your interests other than games? And this is super super important! This is my number one thing because if you’re only interested in games, I worry that you’re going to mimic the stuff you love. An interest in games and having played games is great, of course, but if you find yourself interested in games alone, you’re missing out on so much.'
There is still time to sign up to Erik's talk on Friday!