Virtual reality studio Owlchemy Labs on the universal benefits of accessible game design
VR developers have a unique opportunity to become accessibility champions, Andrew Eiche, COO of Owlchemy Labs, told me during a recent chat at Gamescom 2022.
Eiche is one of the leading figures at the Texas-based studio, which has worked on notable virtual reality titles including Cosmological high, work simulator, Vacation Simulatorand Rick & Morty Virtual Rick-ality.
During a frenetic week in Cologne, we sat down with Eiche for a few minutes to discuss Owlchemy’s approach to inclusivity and accessibility in VR, as the studio recently released a gigantic update. accessibility for Cosmological high which introduced a one-handed mode, dynamic pitch adjustments, localization improvements, character pronouns, and more.
Reflecting on the key differences between accessibility in virtual spaces and more traditional digital arenas, Eiche explains that VR creators should actively seek inspiration in how we approach accessibility in the real world – by learning to both our successes and our shortcomings in making their plans more accommodating to players from all walks of life.
“We can take advantage of the same real-world solutions that exist, right? Where we can’t put things too high, too low, or too far away. We can build spaces like this by holding take these factors into account,” he said. “Or we can add functionality that doesn’t exist in the real world and just have items fire into your hand.”
Eiche says the discretion of VR inputs means creators working in the space face unique challenges when trying to make their tactile spaces more accessible, though he adds that VR control schemes eliminate some issues that could frustrate developers working in other areas of the industry. .
“What we don’t have to account for are complex button presses that need to be pressed in a very specific sequence order,” he says, noting how some console titles have solved this by leaving the players slow down the game – which is a great solution, but (so far) unique to more traditional games.
One for all
More generally, Eiche suggests that if VR developers take a universal approach to accessibility, everyone will benefit. “When we think about accessibility, we try to find these universal solutions. So, for example, our solution for one-handed mode is that if the controller turns off, the game automatically switches to one-handed mode. C is great because [while it helps less-able players]it also helps people with depleted batteries,” he says, noting that everyone wins.
“When considering something like colorblindness, we don’t have a traditional colorblind mode. Instead, we used textured patterns and we keep those patterns the same throughout the game. We try to think of the best design universal given the situation.”
It’s a mantra that influenced Owlchemy’s decision to stick with teleportation, which sees players traversing spaces indicating where they want their character to move next, as the basic mode of locomotion in its VR games.
“We view our movement style as an accessibility feature,” says Eiche. “This might be a semi-controversial take, but we’re sticking with teleportation because we’re worried about the players. [choosing another method of movement] and giving their headset to someone else, who immediately gets very sick from that type of movement – and now the whole VR thing has been spoiled for them.”
Other VR titles sometimes allow players to switch between movement styles, with some offering more traditional mechanics that allow players to run and jump in real time. Eiche has no problem with others in the space innovating in these areas, but notes that there could be a selection bias within the VR industry that creates a false sense of security. around issues like motion sickness.
“The loudest voices are always going to be the ones playing VR the most, right? And they’re going to say they have iron stomachs – and that’s okay,” he continues. “But let’s say we snap our fingers and all of tomorrow’s content just uses the smoothest locomotion, okay? Automatically, people who get sick are going to opt out. They’re just not going to play — so of course the market (ie those left standing) will continue to demand it.
“I think there’s room for both – but I think saying ‘you have to have options’ or ‘some genres have to use one’ doesn’t necessarily help. So we’re just embracing teleportation. If anyone figures out how to make sure 99.99″ percent of people don’t get sick, we could let them down. But we didn’t find that. Of course, some people will get used to it, but we are virtual reality for everyone.”
Build it and they will come
The VR industry is still in its infancy and, according to Eiche, that means it has a unique opportunity to innovate right from the start. When it comes to accessibility, that means doing your best to develop mechanics that welcome as many people into the fold as possible – even if, on occasion, it might take a little time to get it right.
“Sometimes there are things that we just don’t have time to do or tweak – so we come back and look at the game very carefully. [to find the areas we can improve]. For example, we had a subtitle system that we were building after launch to Vacation Simulator because subtitles in VR are very difficult. It was not always easy for us to guarantee that everything would always work with one hand,” says Eiche.
“There will always be something we missed, so we go back and assess our plans with a fine-tooth comb. In the most ideal world, we would be able to release a game that is as accessible as possible on day one, but the VR games have been slow in terms of sales, it’s not like the majority of our players are coming out on top, and it allows us to continue to make deep passes further down the line.
Eiche repeats that it is better to stumble, learn and improve than simply not try at all. He thinks VR is still in its “NES era”, which means there are still a lot of knots to unravel, but it also gives developers in the space an opportunity to “set the tone” and get started. create solutions from the start.