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Bridging the Gap: Differences of Traditional Game Design and VR


The gaming industry has always been at the forefront of technological innovation, constantly seeking new ways to push the boundaries of entertainment. In recent years, Virtual Reality (VR) has emerged as a significant game-changer by redefining how we interact and immerse ourselves in video game worlds. However, with this new frontier, game developers and designers have had to adapt their strategies to cater to immersive and highly interactive experiences in VR, as opposed to traditional gaming. How does game design differ between these two realms? More importantly, how can game creators craft successful experiences in each domain? In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore the nuances of game design in the traditional and VR arenas, offering insights for professionals and enthusiasts looking to make their mark in either domain.


The Evolution of Game Design for Different Realities


Before diving deep into the distinct approaches to game design for traditional and VR platforms, it’s essential to recognize the evolutionary trajectory that has led them to where they are today. Early video games were simple and sprite-based, utilizing the limited graphics and processing power available at the time. In these formative years, traditional game design focused on strict 2D planes and top-down perspectives to create engaging gameplay.


As technology progressed, the advent of 3D graphics unlocked a new dimension for game design. Developers started to think about space, depth, and three-dimensional movement, revolutionizing how players experienced games. The result was a more immersive environment, albeit confined to a 2D or 3D television screen.


The leap to VR was monumental. For the first time, players weren’t just looking at a digital world – they were standing in it, able to explore and interact in ways previously the stuff of science fiction. This transition to a fully immersive, 360-degree environment has rekindled the essence of video games – escapism.


Understanding the Audience and Play Experience


One critical aspect of game design adaptation when transitioning from traditional to VR environments is understanding the audience. While some players are versed in both mediums, many may be new to VR and its design conventions. Designers and developers must, therefore, approach their work with a clear understanding of VR users’ unique needs and expectations.


The Traditional Gamer


Traditional gamers are accustomed to the conventional game format, where the player interacts with the game environment using a controller or keyboard. These gamers expect what a game should offer regarding gameplay, story, and controls. For them, games are often a casual or dedicated pastime, emphasizing sitting back and enjoying the experience.


The VR Novice


On the other hand, VR novices often approach their first VR game with a sense of wonder and exploration. Interaction with the environment is more direct and personal, as the line between the game and reality blurs. These players will likely be more involved in the experience, seeking greater immersion and activity from their gaming session.


Understanding these audience nuances is fundamental to crafting a game that resonates effectively within each medium.


Designing for Space and Movement


One of the most significant changes in design lies within space and movement. Traditional games are often designed within the confines of the screen, with the camera being a storyteller’s most powerful tool. However, in VR, the play space is no longer dictated by the edges of a monitor – it’s the real world, augmented and expanded.


In traditional game design, level layouts and camera angles guide players through the experience. Game environments are typically static, with the player’s movement being the primary variable. This linear progression ensures that the player’s focus is maintained and the narrative direction is clear.


Conversely, VR offers a vast, unbounded canvas for players to look around and explore. This opens up completely new design paradigms, where the environment becomes an interactive element. Designers must consider how players will interact with objects and NPCs and the potential for non-linear exploration and dynamic, player-led storytelling.


Creating a Satisfying Interaction


Interaction is the lifeblood of game design. In traditional games, interaction is mediated through controllers and interfaces that translate player decisions into on-screen actions. These interactions are designed to provide responsive and satisfying feedback, often through visual and auditory cues.


VR interaction design creates a more visceral and immediate experience. Players can reach out and touch the game world using hand controllers, body tracking, and haptic feedback. Designers must ensure that these interactions feel intuitive and realistic, contributing to the sense of presence and immersion that VR promises.


Hurdles of Interaction Design in VR


However, this level of interaction comes with challenges. Ensuring interactions are both robust and free from frustration is a complex task. Poorly implemented VR interactions can lead to what’s known as ‘Virtual Reality Sickness’, a state analogous to motion sickness that unsatisfactory virtual experiences can induce. Game developers for VR must carefully consider and manage the relationship between player movement, the virtual environment, and the physical constraints of the real, physical space.


Balancing Immersion with Comfort


Balancing immersion with comfort is another critical consideration in VR interaction design. With traditional gaming, players are usually stationary with respect to the game world, but in VR, the potential for player movement is vast. This can lead to a disconnect between the physical and virtual experience, potentially leading to discomfort for the player.


Clambering over these hurdles requires a multidisciplinary approach, incorporating psychology, interface design, and ergonomics to ensure that VR interactions are engaging and comfortable.


Crafting a Unique Audiovisual Experience


The audiovisual aspect of game design is the most obvious compared to traditional VR games. Traditional games rely heavily on audiovisual feedback to convey information, set the mood, and enhance immersion. In a traditional setting, the screen and speakers are the windows and speakers to the game world.


In VR, the audiovisual experience must be all-encompassing. The environment must react to the player’s movements and interactions, with sound and visual elements coming from all directions. This demands a 360-degree approach to audiovisual design, carefully considering how the player’s movements and positioning will affect their sensory experience.


The Power of 3D Audio and Immersive Soundscapes


Advancements in audio technology have enabled VR games to utilize 3D audio and immersive soundscapes, where the position and depth of sounds change in relation to the player’s head orientation and position. This enhances realism and plays a crucial role in guiding and alerting players to events and threats in the game world.


Visual Realism in VR Environments


Visual realism in VR environments also presents unique challenges. While traditional games strive for high-quality graphics, VR adds extra layers of complexity. The hardware required to run VR is significantly more advanced, and the expectation for realism is elevated with the added dimension of depth perception. This can strain development resources, as achieving high fidelity in a VR environment often requires more detailed assets and higher texture resolutions.


Navigating Storytelling and Player Agency


Storytelling is an art form in game design, and both traditional and VR games offer different approaches to narrative. In traditional games, the story is typically scripted, with the player often serving as an actor or observer within the narrative, making choices that influence the outcome.


In VR, the potential for player agency is elevated. Players can actively participate in the story, shaping narrative threads and outcomes through interactions. This dynamic storytelling approach more closely mirrors real life, where decisions have consequences in a world that reacts to our actions.


Structuring the Narrative for VR


Structuring a narrative for VR requires rethinking traditional game story design. Linear stories with prescribed paths may feel limiting in VR, where the player expects freedom and exploration. One approach is emergent storytelling, where a coherent narrative emerges from a series of interconnected events and player choices.


Maintaining the Essence of the Narrative


However, it’s crucial to maintain the essence of the narrative and offer a satisfying story arc. The challenge for designers is allowing player agency without sacrificing the overall narrative quality. This can be achieved through various means, from subtle guidance through environmental storytelling to more complex branching narratives that seamlessly converge at key plot points.


Technical and Design Considerations


The differences between traditional game design and VR extend beyond the conceptual and experiential realms into the technical and logistical arenas. Game designers and developers must adapt their creative processes, toolsets, pipelines, and development frameworks to support the unique demands of VR game creation.


Engine Compatibility and Performance


Selecting the right game engine is critical. Traditional game engines are well-suited for crafting games within the parameters of a screen. Still, VR engines must handle complex 3D rendering and player interactions in real time without sacrificing performance. Unity and Unreal Engine have emerged as leaders in the VR space, offering robust toolsets and support for VR-specific features.


User Interface and User Experience


The user interface (UI) and user experience (UX) of a VR game are unlike anything in traditional game design. The UI must be intuitive, responsive, and seamlessly integrated into the player’s movement and interactions. Traditional HUD elements and menus are replaced with spatial UI that responds to the player’s gaze and actions, providing information contextually within the game world.


Going Beyond the Visual: Haptic and Tactile Feedback


While visual and audio design captures much of the attention in traditional and VR games, the sense of touch should be noticed. Haptic and tactile feedback can significantly augment the player’s sense of presence and immersion, particularly in VR.


The Role of Controllers and Accessories


Controllers designed for VR often include haptic feedback, providing a tactile response to in-game interactions. These can mimic the sensation of pressing buttons or grabbing objects, reinforcing the player’s actions in the virtual space. Additionally, accessories such as haptic vests or gloves can offer even more nuanced feedback, adding another layer to the immersive experience.


Integrating Haptics into the Game Design


Integrating haptics into game design requires a thoughtful approach. Haptic feedback should serve a purpose, whether to enhance realism, indicate a change in the game state, or provide directional and spatial cues to the player. Designers must balance the use of haptics to avoid overstimulation while making sure that each sensation adds value to the overall experience.


Marketing and Monetization in Different Realities


The differences between traditional and VR games also extend to marketing and monetization. VR’s expanded interactive nature offers opportunities for innovative marketing campaigns that leverage virtual experiences to drive interest and engagement.


Demonstrating Value and Attracting Players


Demonstrating value in VR games can be more challenging, as the experience is often the primary selling point. Marketing materials must effectively communicate the game’s unique features and immersive qualities, often through immersive trailers or playable demos that convey the sensory experience of the game world.


Monetization Models in VR


Monetization in VR also requires a different approach. While traditional games have primarily settled on models such as upfront purchase, subscription, or free-to-play with in-app purchases, VR games can take advantage of more flexible models. Virtual economies, DLC, and in-game purchases for cosmetic or experience-enhancing items can be more viable in VR, given the player’s investment in the immersive experience.




The transition from traditional game design to VR represents a significant leap with its own challenges and opportunities. By understanding each medium’s unique requirements and potential, developers and designers can create experiences that resonate deeply with their audience.


Advancing in VR game design isn’t just about adapting the technical side; it also involves a fundamental shift in the philosophy of game creation, placing more emphasis on user experience, immersion, and the interplay between the virtual and the real. It is an exciting time for game designers and developers, with the potential to craft experiences that were once the realm of imagination. With the right approach, creativity, and attention to detail, the future of game design in VR is boundless.

Fresh Perspectives on VR Game Crafting
  • Game Developer


As a game developer, I found this blog post to be incredibly enlightening, offering a deep dive into the complexities of VR game design compared to traditional formats. It’s a must-read for anyone looking to understand the nuanced considerations of creating truly immersive VR experiences.