This post is by MFA graduate and Incubator developer Maria Mishurenko. You can learn more about her and here work at Synesthetic Echo website.

Hello! I am Maria Mishurenko, co-founder of Synesthetic Echo design studio and a XR designer / developer. This is the first post in the series about design and development of Bizarre Barber, accessible VR action game, supported by Oculus and NYU Game Center Incubator

We are making Bizarre Barber with the emphasis on accessibility and fun, that’s why we always need diverse players. If you want to be our beta-tester or just want to ask some questions or know about the release date, sign up!

What is Bizarre Barber?

Bizarre Barber is an accessible, fast-paced VR action game for Oculus Rift set in a surreal world where you play as an alien barber providing stylish haircuts for eccentric clientele. Instead of a comfy adjustable chair you’d see in most barber shops, all of your clients move chaotically through the world unable to sit still even for a second. Players will make perfect cuts, dodge dangerous obstacles, catch speed boosts and power-ups, and even earn money to unlock new tools and new worlds. 

Bizarre Barber was born about a year ago, Summer 2018. I just finished my first year of game design grad school at NYU Game Center and had to think about my thesis project over the summer.

I thought something so fun and weird as competitive VR hair cutting with the surreal vibe of New York City subway can keep me interested enough for a thesis year and will be a good fit for the school. 

Playtest that changed it all

We were super lucky to have support of Play NYC, premiere New York game convention organized by Playcrafting– they have commissioned a prototype development under wonderful Graffiti Games initiative. Basically, Play NYC together with International Game Developers Association selected 6 first-generation immigrant game developers and sponsored them to showcase game prototype at the convention itself. This showcase changed everything for us and actually gave an enormous push to our small prototype. 

First prototype look

It’s really hard to properly evaluate ideas for VR, because of the small user base and general usage friction. Participating in the large convention with huge turnout happened to be the best possible way to do it! We had 300 playtesters over two days, most of them replayed our small 4-minutes prototype several times. This is not something game designers usually do on such early stages of the project. The early stage prototype playtesting is reserved for peers and colleagues. But why would you do it, spend your time to show your very raw VR prototype at massive event? Here is our learnings.

Playtesting with 300 people over 2 days: results

  • We immediately got the confirmation that the idea is fun. The friction of VR usage is high enough to encourage honesty of players; if the game is not fun or not comfortable, people usually just drop it immediately. The show floor had many amazing finished games to play, but nevertheless people hang out with us and replayed our prototype over and over. 
  • We got multiple insights on how to make our game even more accessible just because players were so diverse. We got 4 years old and 70 years old playing. We had people over 7 feet tall. We got players with hijabs, dreadlocks and afros, glasses and contact lenses, with wrist issues and with ADHD. We got people in suits and people in bikinis. We got drunk, jetlagged and overexcited people. 90% of them played VR for the first time. 
  • We asked people what would they love to see in the game and we basically got the roadmap for the project, that still works perfectly. The idea of boosters, songs, bosses, different barber tools… all emerged from this one playtest!
  • We learned about target audience: women were more excited about the game than men, hardcore gamers are constantly trying to cheat for higher scores, children were making up the stories about the world and the characters and had a lot of fun. 
  • We learned what people really think about VR. There might be some predictions about the future of the industry from the marketing agencies, but nothing beats sincere conversation about it with non-biased people. 

Playtest at PLAY NYC 2018

How to do that on a budget

We were extremely lucky to have our booth sponsored, but if you want to do the same, you can do it for free. You can rely on various no fee game expos / playtest events or you can partner with a bar, a hotel, a museum and playtest there (it’s always a win-win situation for the establishment). 

Playtests continue

We were very inspired by our first playtest and made some decisions on how to proceed with the game. First, we decided to work on prototype further and apply with the project for Oculus Launchpad competition . Second, I made the game my thesis project.  We continued to playtest twice a week throughout the year and this approach never failed us. I successfully defended my thesis and graduated in May 2019. The game won one of the Oculus Launchpad 2018 grants and was accepted to the NYU Game Center Incubator 2019. We are planning to release soon and now, in beta phase, our playtests are much more rigorous.

We have playtested at GDC, at NYU, at the conferences and meetups, bars, arcades and retail stores, at coworking centers and company offices. We just ask people if they want us to come,set up the game and let us observe them play. Usually people like being entertained and welcome us. 

Part of NYU Game Center methodology is iterative game development that relies on playtesting. The Playtest Thursday is weekly, free community event for anyone who wants to play or test games. I learned everything I need about proper playtesting practices from the  “Game Design Workshop” by Tracy Fullerton (very good and condensed reading, highly recommend). Then I made a few additions and changes for VR and compiled my own practices.   

 

 

How I playtest VR games, best practices:

 

Ensure the comfort of the process

 VR is generally very painful to get into for many people. They worry they can’t play because they don’t have enough experience, the headset might not fit everyone properly, people are afraid of falling or looking silly. I usually offer VR mask, help them to fit the headset and promise that I will watch them all the time and they are going to do great. Something as simple as that can go a long way and make people feel more relaxed. 

VR always comes first

For VR games, embodiment and comfort are far more important than game design issues (scores, boosters, obstacles, visuals, difficulty curves, etc). If the player feels claustrophobic or motion sick, they can’t objectively give you feedback on your game design solutions, you have to fix your UX first. Sometimes game design and user experience are intertwined and affecting each other. In any case, make sure that the game runs on solid 90 FPS and if it can’t because of the design issues – well, get rid of these issues first. 

Smiles are always a good sign 

Don’t explain anything about the game or the world before the playtest

 This is very hard, because most testers want to know what they are committing to. I tell how long it will take them to play the build, what they will be doing (cutting hair) and also make sure they understand they can stop it whenever they want. That sets up the proper frame of mind for the playtester, but doesn’t give up extra information. One of my goals for the general public playtests is to evaluate environment design and narratives and to do that, I don’t give up any clues about the game before. This way I can get unbiased information. 

Pay more attention to body movement than to what’s happening on screen

 I look for tensions, for the general coordination, for wrist and shoulder angles that look strange. Generally with the good gameplay players move gracefully and always keep balance. One of the goals for the game is also to let player to be performative, so I dutifully observe whether current gameplay allows them to do so and adjust the difficulty curves accordingly. 

Never ask people to talk out loud and comment on their actions in the game

Asking players to talk out loud while playing is  widely accepted playtesting practice. However, VR is overwhelming enough to add some extra cognitive load on top of that. I always make sure to let players know I’m here and listening if they decide to talk. Usually, about half of my testers start to talk and comment on their actions after they grasp the mechanics.

You have your game length + 60 second to get your data

VR can be overwhelming emotionally and physically, so building discussion after the person takes headset off often feels anticlimactic. While playing, people are often immersed, “in the flow” (especially with fast-paced arcade style games), and after this feeling is gone, they barely can remember what happened. So the short period of about 60 seconds after they take the headset off is your best bet to ask important questions and get answers. That’s why it makes sense to …

Add data hooks to the build 

Try to automate playtest as much as possible. Collect data that you think you don’t need: you are most likely will use it at some point. We have hooks for player height, session length, score of each level, missed cuts, perfect cuts, boss victory timings and manually keep track of player demographics (gender, age, background, previous VR experience). The latter can be also be automated with keyboard shortcut input. 

Care about spectators

When playtesting for arcade-type VR you are also playtesting spectatorship. You have to make sure the game is engaging and interesting to observe. For that you can make simple features that will go a long way. Smoothing camera movements and making observer’s scoreboard is easy and  will attract spectators to your playtest. 

Impromptu tournament at NYU Game Center

Process feedback immediately

We usually have 15-minute team meeting after each playtest where we quickly process the feedback. The VR game development is hard and we don’t want to keep working on the features that players don’t like, so it’s very important to iterate as often as possible. The processing algorithm usually looks like this:

  • Compare notes
  • Make a list of current bugs discovered
  • Define main pieces of feedback for the session
  • Make actionable to-dos for it – we usually add them straight to the game’s github issues and mark them as features / bugs / enhancements
  • Check if we have some design problem that requires more time / help to solve and make a separate meeting to work on that. 

In conclusion, I want to quote game designer and scholar Tracy Fullerton:

Playtesters are your eyes and your ears. They allow you, as the designer, to keep your finger on the pulse of the game, even a er you have played it hundreds of times. If you learn to listen to your playtesters and analyze what they are saying, you will be able to see the game mechanics for what they are, not what you want them to be or imagine they should be. And that is the key to good design. It is understanding what it is you have created and being able to make it even better, not in one flash of brilliance, but step-by-step over months and even years. If you can master this process, then you have mastered one of the key skills to being a great game designer. 

Game Design Workshop by Tracy Fullerton

I really liked how Tracy Fullerton put an end to the myth of “lone genius creator”. It really takes a village to make the game and it’s very important to trust your playtesters and iterate on their feedback constantly. 

Current look

We are making Bizarre Barber with the emphasis on accessibility and fun, that’s why we always need diverse players. If you want to be our beta-tester or just want to ask some questions or know about the release date, sign up!