How to design death in virtual reality

Death in virtual reality is one of those things that you may not think about when you begin to design a game, but the difficulties become immediately obvious once you begin to playtest your game. Death is uncomfortable when the player feels like they’re inside the game, and it’s an issue that CCP wrested with when designing Eve: Valkyrie.

“We did a lot of tests. The idea was that we wanted to give you this experience where you die and you are pulled into a new clone. We did a lot of testing to give you the experience of like, pulling your consciousness out and traveling someplace else. As you would suspect, a lot of that didn’t work very nicely for VR,” Sigurdur Gunnarsson, the game’s senior programmer, told Polygon.

Gunnarsson and I had discussed this issue last year; the original thought was that death should be a violent, uncomfortable thing; in the Eve universe your mind leaves the body at the time of death and moves to another cloned version of yourself. The process should be disturbing and uncomfortable, but nothing they tried that maintains that uncomfortable feeling worked in virtual reality. It’s hard to get across the idea of a disturbing death without crossing the line into making the player sick.

So how did they fix it?

“Currently your body freezes over, the glass breaks, and the screen fades out like you’re closing your eyes,” Gunnarsson said. “You then appear in a new body in a clone vat.” You can look around inside the room to see the other bodies and to choose which ship to ride back into battle.

There are no best practices for this sort of thing in virtual reality yet

I went over to one of the stations to try the game again, dying on purpose to experience their solution. It’s still a bit hard to watch; your ship’s canopy breaks and your cockpit and body are frosted over.

The screen goes black rapidly, as if you were losing consciousness due to lack of air. It’s still not comfortable, but it didn’t make me sick. You open your virtual eyes in a new body, in a room with multiple clones, allowing you to choose your ship and play with the options.

It’s a solution that solves a few problems, and they were able to keep the sense that this isn’t a fun process while keeping the player comfortable. There are no best practices for this sort of thing in virtual reality yet, and many of the solutions that seem obvious in retrospect were only found after many, many tests.

Eve: Valkyrie is planned to be a launch game on the Oculus Rift and Sony’s Project Morpheus.

Gameplay preview: EVE- Valkyrie – Gameplay Trailer (Fanfest 2015)