Immersion is easily virtual reality’s greatest strength over what you might call flat gaming. When done well, VR can transport us to familiar worlds, fairytale fantasies, a galaxy far, far away, and even the mountainside for a quick scramble. When players are thrown directly into these 360-degree spaces, the medium is a true delight that cannot be recreated on a TV or PC monitor. Often this comes down to intuitive use of motion controls – and in VR, hand movement is an essential part.
Some VR games support traditional controllers, but honestly they never lived up to the format. Direct hand and finger tracking is promising but limited, making motion controls an adaptive middle ground. While unable to replicate our exact hand, grip and trigger buttons add significant physicality when holding objects. But this raises another problem. How can you convey object weights differently for games that use the same controllers for object interaction? Picking up items is one thing, throwing them accurately is another.
After releasing several physics-based VR games like Boneworks, I was curious to learn more, so I spoke to two developers. The first is Immersion Games, the developers of Disc Ninja, where I spoke to CEO Bartosz Rosłoński. His team is currently working on a major update to Disc Ninja’s “fly and throw” model, which will allow them to expand the game’s throwable arsenal. After that, I spoke to Kalle Max Hofmann from Tunermaxx, the game director of Rainbow Reactor: Fusion, an enhanced version of Rainbow Reactor. Currently, the team is developing Snow Scout, which uses a “physics-based approach.”
At first glance, Disc Ninja and Fusion are two very different games. The core premise of Disc Ninja revolves around a feudal Japanese take on disc golf, while in Fusion we restore the energy of Rain City’s power plant and throw paintballs at a grid in a match-three puzzler. However, both of them have a gameplay community, which is throwing objects to reach your goal. So I questioned each team’s design philosophy to better understand what’s going on.
With Disc Ninja, Roséoński acknowledged that Immersion followed “key objectives” rather than a set philosophy focused on immersive and enjoyable gameplay. Because the “full-body experience” requires extensive testing, they invited a professional Polish frisbee player to test disc throwing games. “Unsurprisingly, none of the titles we tested felt like the original,” Rosłoński tells me. VR hardware keeps getting better, but he believes the current options “limit the sensory experience and the interaction between the game and the player in both directions.” Accordingly, Immersion aimed to bring “arcade-like usability and simulation” into to reconcile.
As for Fusion, Hoffman told me Boneworks 2019 ushered in “a kind of new thinking.” [as to] how to represent the player’s body in VR.” When he told me that previous games put your hands where controllers are, he said “that works best for giving a sense of connectedness with VR” and that this is particularly useful for newcomers. However, there are problems. “Virtual objects can’t ‘stop’ your hands as you move through them,” he told me, “because there’s no feedback in the real world to hold them back.” Hands obey physics and collisions like they would in the real world or even in a traditional game.” However, this can lead to situations where virtual hands are not in the same place as your real hands.
Regarding object weight, Roséoński cites the hardware limitations mentioned above. “Vibrations help add some ‘resistance’ to virtual objects,” he said, but adds that they don’t feel all that different from the controller. Ultimately, he affirms that these factors make the visual element crucial in handling objects. You can throw or set your swing direction freely, he explains, saying that Immersion has tried to provide “a more accessible way to learn, to follow the rhythm, and to enjoy the beautiful surroundings.” Immersion told me that developers have many hidden tricks, and chose a “more obvious way to simplify the throws” while still leaving distance and height up to players to master.
Regarding Fusion, Hoffman elaborated on the design philosophy, telling me that when we sync player hands with real hands, “there’s absolutely no chance of creating a sense of weight in something that’s weightless.” Much like Rosłoński acknowledged that you can only adjust this by vibration feedback. It’s a solution that has gained wider acceptance as Sony prominently supports haptic feedback in PlayStation VR2. Microsoft isn’t that keen on broader VR games – aside from Minecraft – although it has explored the use of haptic controllers and previously showcased a wrist-worn device called the PIVOT.
Using a physics-based approach, Hoffman confirmed that such games “can show the weight of the object in a visual way, by showing your hand being pulled down by the object once you grab it.” He calls this method interesting for experienced players but warns that it can be confusing for newer users. Regarding throwing paintballs, he admits that “it’s very difficult to accurately simulate the process of throwing objects in VR,” saying that everyone’s depth perception is different because of things like our facial features.
Finally, Hoffman explained Fusion’s unique position as an expanded release, taking feedback into account. When told the paintballs felt too heavy, Tunermaxx reworked them to make them heavier. The compromise? Trajectories became more difficult to predict. Therefore, Hoffman recommends pushing paintballs forward “like a shot put motion” for the best results. Visually, hands become invisible once a tool is gripped in Fusion, shifting its point of origin relative to the player’s real hand. Obviously, it’s difficult to make up for this, as Fusion was criticized at the time for the paintballs lacking in precision and feeling too light.
I’m not going to pretend there’s an easy fix here, and for VR to continue to build on its immersive promise, it needs to be addressed in future hardware. I doubt VR will ever be perfected – I would also say (perhaps controversially) that the perfect console doesn’t exist. But as hardware evolves, I’m sure object handling will too. Until then, the developers are making a commendable effort and I’m personally excited to see what comes next.