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18 December, 2016

Interview: Accessibility in VR with Stirfire Studios

Virtual reality can widen the accessibility of gaming up to a whole new audience, and Aussie developer Stirfire Studios is leading the way with Symphony of the Machine.

Hailing from Perth in Western Australia, Stirfire Studios (of Freedom Fall fame) made some waves at PAX AUS in 2016 with its game Symphony of the Machine. A puzzle game that tasks users with returning a barren landscape to thriving life by manipulating the weather, it's zen gaming at its best. (You can read our hands-on.) After playing the game, I got chatting to managing director Vee Pendergrast, and the topic soon turned to her passion for accessibility in gaming. She sees VR as a big opportunity to expand what is possible, so I took the chance to interview her for further insight into the future she sees for the hardware.

When we met at PAX, you spoke about accessibility in video gaming. Why is accessibility an important goal for you?
On a raw business level, we want as many people to be able to play our games as possible, so building accessibility into Symphony of the Machine from that perspective is a bit of a no-brainer. At a more ideological level, as a studio we want to be able to share the games that we love with people who may find other titles challenging to play. Particularly in VR! VR presents a numerous amount of design challenges and we do not really have a universal language or expected control conventions to work with like we do in other mediums and genres. Like platformers on a console, for instance.

What developers and games do you feel are approaching accessibility from the right perspective?
Outside of the VR space, we particularly like games like Monument Valley, which are contemplative or Gone Home, which is very accessible from a player perspective, yet addresses a particular issue thematically in a very tasteful way. There are certain games that allow the colours to be adjusted for colour-blind people, too. In VR there is not a lot that attempts to address this issue. Games like Fantastic Contraption or Job Simulator are easier to pick up and play, or are less confrontational than some of the more intense experiences. I was able to play Job Simulator without motion sickness, so that is a plus.

What can VR as a medium do for accessibility?
At a practical level, we spent a lot of time in the design for Symphony of the Machine making sure the puzzles could be solved in various ways. To this end, we observed players of varying heights solving the game's puzzles differently due to the positioning that is required in-game. Knowing that your players will have different bodies, heights and abilities is important, particularly if your experience is in room-scale VR. For the PSVR version, we adjusted the game for seated play, which is of course part of the Sony experience, but we were also very conscious about how this affected the movement and positioning available in-game.

The other massive design issue is VR motion sickness. I suffer from motion sickness in real life and tend to get it whilst playing a variety of VR games as well, so much so that I often struggle and give up. Of course I have been heavily involved in the testing process with our game, so Symphony of the Machine offers a more relaxed experience, where people such as myself can experience it as well.

Another major design challenge with VR is locomotion - the ability to get from one place to the next, particularly in regards to not encouraging motion sickness. Early in the design of the game, we researched different methods available and have settled on the “teleport” mechanic which we felt worked the best.

Also, there is no language or standard forms of writing in the game. To maximise our market and remove the issues for people who may not speak the same languages as us, we made the game have the bare minimum of spoken or written language. This allows us to explore world-wide markets and make it as accessible as possible.

Finally, we wanted to make the game as culturally sensitive as possible, so we spent time researching how to avoid any in-game issues that may deal with cultural sensibilities. For instance, in the prototype, the players’ hands were represented by tattooed hands in-game. Our research turned up specific cultures that would not have found that amenable. So we represented the user’s touch points by controller models of the system they are playing on instead.

When you are going to approach the design of a product with these philosophies in mind, you have to try and address as many issues as possible. For a product like Symphony of the Machine, which is going to work in this space, it is simply sound business sense when it comes to marketing the game. We enjoy games of all different genres, including horror and shooters, but that was not what we were doing here. We want players to play those games… and then spend some time afterwards playing Symphony of the Machine to chill out.

What goals, in terms of features, have you set yourself for Symphony of the Machine so you meet your accessibility markers?
To be able to be played by people who suffer motion sickness and to be available on the most prolific platforms available for starters. The PSVR is certainly building up to be the most accessible device that meets our requirements from a price perspective. The other issue is that VR is often a particularly intense experience by itself, and many games are spectacularly intense on top of that. Older players, people new to VR or people with any other particular issue should not be locked out of VR because the experiences available are simply too intense or could be upsetting. Symphony of the Machine was designed to be a nice place to be, so it is about the least confrontational game one could play in that medium.

The demo at PAX showed a simple escalation in puzzles, as more objects and elements were added. Was that typical of the challenge curve, or more of a vertical slice? How will you escalate the puzzles through the entire experience?
The PAX demo was quite short as we wanted to give players a basic understanding of what the game was about and leave them intrigued as to what the whole experience will be like. To this end, the full game will be more drawn out with a steadily increasing difficulty curve. It is interesting seeing how long players take on the more advanced puzzles at the end. As mentioned, there is no one right way to solve many of them, so players can experiment.

We escalate the action by varying what form of weather is required, making the required conditions more complicated than simply sunny, rain, etc. We add a series of additional tools for creating the weather and shields will often block the obvious route for directing the game’s core mechanic - the beam - into the symbols around the tower. In the latter stages of the game we have definitely seen players spending more time experimenting as their initial attempts solving the puzzle in hand have failed.

Puzzle games need to walk a fine balance between offering a challenge without birthing frustration. What demands does this put on the design of a game like this and how have you approached providing enough of a nudge to players to maintain this balance?
We introduced a robot helper that will often provide subtle hints and helps the player throughout the game. It also assists in the basic tutorial time at the start of the game. We skirt the balance between making it too obvious, but providing enough handy advice to help prevent the game becoming frustrating. It is certainly a challenge!

I really like the premise for the game – bringing life back to the wasteland by manipulating the weather – but is that developed into a full story, or is it more just a setting?
In the full version of the game, there is a bit more story involved, but you will have to play it to find out! We have a lot of plans for the setting if this initial game does well. The game itself does not concentrate heavily on story elements, aside to put it all in some context. We concentrated more on the gameplay and art for this experience. It is a core design philosophy for Stirfire that we always make beautiful games, and we think we have succeeded here.

The game demand fine motion controls as you pick up and manoeuvre objects, are the VR controllers giving you everything you need for a game like this?
For the most part, yes. We are aiming at this stage to launch primarily on Vive and PSVR. We ran into quite a few issues on the PAX AUS expo floor as there were so many Vives, they were interfering with each other. Not to mention the general interference and challenges of demoing a VR game at a show like that. In a more controlled environment, the game plays fine and most users have no issue manipulating the in-game tools and mechanisms.

Where would you like to see VR control input options move and evolve into the future to better facilitate games like Symphony of the Machine?
We believe the conventions of VR play are still being worked through and evolving, so this will influence future VR titles we will work on. We are also really watching how precise the motion controls become as it really benefits a game like Symphonyof the Machine in terms of positioning. Of course there are a lot of experimental VR peripherals that will be heading to the market. But for a game that aims to get out to as many people as possible, there could be a certain price barrier with those.

You can teleport around the play space, but there was little need to do it in the PAX demo; do other levels/locations give a much larger play space that would make use of this feature more?
The full game, with the more complex puzzles, will require the player to move about the space a lot more. The intro to the game even requires the player to make several teleports onto the elevator and platform.

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