Why are game developers only now considering player comfort?

During and since E3 I’ve read and watched a bunch of previews for VR titles, often done with the developers of those titles. One of the best trends I’m seeing is that VR developers worry a lot about player comfort. They really don’t want their customers getting sick while playing their games/experiences. This is obviously good news for potential consumers and good business sense on the part of the developers.

But why did it take VR to get developers thinking about this? There are plenty of people who struggle with “motion sickness” in non-VR games but most developers don’t seem to think about them very much, at least based on my experience as one of the sufferers. I’ve actually written about motion sickness at least twice (here and here) and the constant struggle between my love of gaming and my dislike of having headaches and nausea.

Over the past few years I’ve been kind of self-evaluating myself and motion sickness. I found some things I could do to help fight it: play in a well lit room, get enough rest, and work on acclimating myself to a game. But more and more I’ve been noticing what causes it and it’s all to do with camera control.

I recently downloaded the demo for the new DOOM. I’d heard that it was super fast so I assumed it would make me sick, but it didn’t. Speed of movement doesn’t seem to factor into my motion sickness.

Conversely I’ve been playing through last year’s Mad Max this week. The game is broken down into two basic parts, driving bits and on-foot bits. I can play the driving bits all night long comfortably, and if I get out of the car and fight in the open, I’m good there too. But as soon as I go into a building I start getting sick. This really illustrated what causes my motion sickness.

The problem boils down to games where I have to fight the camera. In DOOM there’s no head-bob and the camera (at least in the time I played) never moved itself on me. So it was completely comfortable. In Mad Max when you’re in buildings in narrow hallways, the game is constantly taking control of the camera and adjusting things. Since I also am moving the camera, this causes discomfort.

I finally came up with a real-life analogy that maybe some of you can related to. Have you ever been sitting in your car at a stop light and the car in the lane next to you starts to move, and for a split second you think YOUR car is moving and you micro-panic and your stomach gives a lurch since your eyes are saying your car is moving but your body isn’t feeling it? (Hopefully this isn’t just me!) Well that’s the same kind of situation.

I’ve been playing this game and moving the camera. My brain, eyes and thumb are on the same page and everything is good. Then the game decides it doesn’t like where the camera is and moves it (and it doesn’t have to move it much to cause issues). My brain gets confused. It didn’t tell my thumb to do anything but the eyes are saying things are moving. And the headaches and nausea begin.

Now if a game doesn’t ask me to control the camera at all, I have no problems. But when a game asks me to take control of the camera, please let me control the camera and don’t correct things on me. If I can’t see something, that’s on me…I’ll move the camera until I can. Don’t “fix” the view for me.

I hate when game players say adding a feature would be simple because we don’t know, but it seems like offering an option to turn off “Automatic camera adjustment” shouldn’t be that hard and it would make a lot of games so much more comfortable for people like me who suffer from this style of motion sickness.

Working on a motion (simulator) sickness theory

A few weeks ago I decided to go back and finish Infamous: Second Son. It was a game I’d played and enjoyed early in the PS4’s life span but as so often happens at some point I got distracted and drifted away.

Almost immediately I ran into a problem that I don’t remember having back then: “motion” sickness (which I guess more technically is simulator sickness since of course I wasn’t moving). Second Son was making me physically ill, and not just a little bit. I’m talking about breaking out into a cold sweat and needing to lie down for a while. There was a mid-game boss battle in particular that I just couldn’t get through because I’d get to where I felt like I was going to vomit if I didn’t put down the controller and walk away.

I wrote it all off to old age and uninstalled Infamous: Second Son so I wouldn’t be tempted by it.

Fast-forward a month or two and I started playing Watch Dogs, and having a ball. Then one night, Watch Dogs started making me sick! I couldn’t understand it. I wasn’t doing anything differently, so why all of a sudden was it having this impact on me?

Uncharacteristically, I stopped and thought about it, and two things occurred to me. One was that I was really tired that night. Second was that I had no lights on. And let me explain that.

Not too long ago (but after my Infamous experience) I was finding that by the end of the day my eyes were so tired that they’d start watering to the point that I couldn’t do much more than go to bed. Through some sequence of events that I don’t recall, I discovered that it was my habit of sitting in a dark room staring at a big-screen TV that was causing the fatigue. By turning on a lamp in the room my eye fatigue went away. I guess my mom was right when she’d always scold me for sitting in the dark!

Anyway since then I’ve been leaving a light on while gaming, usually. But that night playing Watch Dogs I hadn’t bothered turning it on. And that was the only night Watch Dogs made me feel ill.

I finished the main story of Watch Dogs a few nights ago, though there is still plenty to be done in terms of side quests and such. But I was ready for a break, and I thought about Infamous: Second Son again. And I thought about the light. So I re-downloaded the game.

Last night I fired it up, with my light on, and beat that boss battle. I still did get a little woozy after some time playing but nothing close to how I’d been feeling when I tried playing just a month or two ago.

[One sure-fire trigger to get me sick is when the camera moves unexpectedly without me moving it, which happens in Infamous because the character is really ‘sticky’ when it comes to surfaces he can jump onto, often grabbing things I didn’t intend for him to grab. I think it’s the same reason I sometimes get car sick (IRL) when I’m a passenger but never when I’m driving.]

I don’t have enough data to state any facts here; this is just a theory for now. Still, I thought it was worth sharing my story just in case anyone else struggles with ‘motion sickness’ while gaming. If you happen to sit in a dark room, try turning on some lights. It really seems to help me, and maybe it’ll help you too!

Portal Sickness

So I’m probably the last gamer on earth to get around to playing Portal, which I did this weekend.

I’m prone to getting motion sickness while playing FPS and Portal does some really mind-bending things to you where ceilings become floors become walls. I was turning green really quickly. Which was really frustrating because, like everyone else, I was really grooving on the gameplay and on GLaDOS.

Then I had an idea and it worked, so I figured I’d share. Rather than play full screen, reduce the resolution a bit and play in a window. For me at least, that broke the ‘immersion’ enough that my eyes and inner ears got back in sync and my stomach was a LOT happier. It allowed me to finish the game pretty comfortably.

And the rat pellet of GLaDOS singing Jonathon Coulton’s Still Alive totally rocked.

I won’t even bother to ‘review’ the game because a zillion people have reviewed it, a zillion people have loved it, and I loved it too. Don’t have a lot to add, really. If you haven’t played it then I encourage you to do so. You can buy it off Steam for $20 direct download, or of course it comes in Valve’s “Orange Box” which is available for PC, XBox 360 & PS3.