Designing great AR games

Designing Great AR Games: Tips & Suggestions – Part 1

In this post, I want to share with you some insights that I’ve gathered throughout the countless hours I spent in the Augmented Reality realm, playing AR game sand testing many AR apps. This post, however, will focus on the gaming aspect of things. I want to share with you what made me get excited and what things I’ve seen that I think need to be improved.

In this Designing Great AR Games, I will share some tips and suggestions that can inspire you and help you design better AR games or just to help you get inspired when designing your next game.

These are topics that I was personally found important to talk about. Furthermore, this list is long and I want to talk about each topic in-depth. This is why I will publish these articles in parts.

Keep in mind that maybe only part of the suggestions might be relevant to the exact type of game that you plan on developing. That being said, I am pretty sure that you’ll find some good suggestions here that can fit your particular game. This list is also only the first part of others to come. I didn’t want to make a quick list, because I want to explain the reasons behind each one.

OK, let’s start!

Make the entire space your playground

AR Block Tower mobile game for kids

Lately, I can see more and more developers producing large-scale AR games. Type of games which are better experienced in a large space or outdoor environment.

I really enjoy playing those type of games, like Lightstream Racer and Tibb AR just to name a few. Those games give you a feeling that space around you is the playground. The virtual, therefore, has a more significant presence in the real world space around you.  You can compare it to games like Castle Must Be Mine and Lego AR Studio which uses a larger gameplay space and you can clearly understand what I mean.

Now, I am not negating any type of game that was designed for a small gameplay space. What I am saying, is that utilizing a larger portion of the space for the game can create a more entertaining AR experience.

A few of the main reasons for that is the ability to point the device to different angles to observe the gameplay from a different perspective, therefore also being able to observe how the virtual is mixed with the real world. In some AR games, I was almost always looking towards the table when playing the game, getting no good angle of view ro observee the blending of the virtual and the real scene, nor I was encouraged to move around the game and enjoy how the natural-looking presence of it in the real world scene.

Take good use of the Vertical Space

RC Club iOS game screenshotIn other words, don’t make your game look flat. Many AR games that use Apple’s ARKit technology, use surface detection to so they can position their game onto a surface in the location where the user is playing the game.

Usually, that location is the room’s floor or a table in the room. If the game’s height is somewhat short not it uses the open Y-axis space, it can render it less exciting to play.

When I play AR games, I really enjoy seeing the virtual invading my personal space, not looking like a digital boardgame projected on the floor.

Due to the limited field of view of the mobile device’s camera, with better use of the Y-axis, the player is encouraged to tilt or move his phone’s camera around or even more himself around depends on how the game is played.

This allows the user to better observe the virtual scene in relation to the real-world environment. Even by just moving the device (camera) up and down, you can better comprehend the distance between virtual objects and the real ones. Closer virtual objects will move more compared to those further away from it. This creates kind of a parallax effect which enhance the perception of depth in your AR game. The same can be said for the horizontal space as well, but because most games are played on the floor or a small table, the use of the vertical space becomes even more important.

Few good examples of that are Nighternfell Shared AR, AMON, Meddling Martians AR (when catching bombs in the bucket), Rocket Cows, and AR Block Tower, just to name a few.

So even a game that has very small size can make good use of the vertical space like for rockets flying above, maybe clouds floating in the air, enemies shooting from above, etc.

You know, one of my most memorable moments when I start playing AR games was moving around rocks in the game The Machines. Furthermore, this is what made an app like Rampage: AR Unleased feel so great and each photo I take look so epic. The large-scale virtual character also helped to create beautiful unusual scenes with large creatures appearing on huge buildings.

Now with ARKit 1.5 vertical plane detection, developers can create more compelling AR experiences by utilizing the vertical planes in their games.

Make your game adapt to different gameplay area sizes (if possible)

1.5 meters gameplay area, Meddling Martians AR

Some of the AR games that I’ve played have a fixed size, others needed a very large space, so each game is different in terms of how much space it is required.

The fact is that not everyone has a large space to play an AR game at home (like myself) nor everyone would want to go outdoors just to play your game. This is why if your game can support it, try to build the game so it is scalable (or “Responsive”, size wise) and can perfectly play in different gameplay area sizes.

A few ways to do it is, again, if possible, to allow the user to resize the game to fit the size of the area where’s playing. A second option is to spawn some game elements only in areas which are within the available physical space. Extending the area virtually to place objects on undetected planes can hurt the immersion, making objects appear in unnatural locations. The AR “magic” works when virtual objects appear like they are looking like a natural part of the scene. The fact is that all the virtual objects render on top of the camera video stream and without any occlusion support, they will appear on top of certain physical objects, rather than hidden fully or partially behind or below them.

Aside from the visual aspect, adapting the game to different gameplay areas allows you to reach a broader audience and allowing them to play your game everywhere they are.

Sometimes you might need to not just change the size of the game entirely, but also change the game character sizes (e.g. enlarging them), so they won’t appear so small when the user reduces the size of the game. For example, in AR Baseball, when you resize the game to a tabletop size, you can’t even see the players, they are so tiny.

Let’s take Lightsream Racer for example.  I really enjoy playing this game, but I didn’t enjoy playing it in my little room. This game required a large space in order to fully enjoy it. You can still play it in a small room, but the tracks don’t look like part of the environment, they just overlap anything in the room and makes the game looks like a mass. Same goes for Tibb AR. it plays great outdoors, but when I played it in my small room, it spawned eggs all over the place which made it look awkward. Maybe balancing the game for different play areas is hard and this is why this is not done this way, but I am not sure

Spatial Audio

Using 3D positional sound can really enhance the gameplay experience, at least for some games (mostly games that make use of a large area).

You know, it’s like in real life. When you get close to a noise source you hear it louder and when you get far from it it’s weakened or when the sound source is on your right or behind you, you want to know its location by just hearing its voice.

We want our virtual game to blend well with the real world, an at least when the sound is concerned, it needs to obey the rules (I am not talking about physics, there you can go totally crazy).

Without spatial audio, you just hear a singular volume leveled audio for all audio sources in the game no matter how close or far you are from the sound source. I remember LEGO AR Studio using spatial audio, but the volume gradation didn’t sound that natural.

Implementing spatial audio can make the virtual mixed better with the natural environment. It also helps with the perception of depth, as you can determine a location of a virtual object by just listening to the sounds it omits.

Another reason is that sometimes hearing all the sounds playing at the same time can lead to a big audio mishmash. In LEGO AR, for example, the little guys inside the ship made noises, but you couldn’t hear it until you got really close to the ship.

Make your game social

Playing JumpBall.io in AR mode

Until AR Cloud becomes easily accessible and a common thing for many multiplayer AR games, you can still add social some social aspect to your app that doesn’t rely on absolute accurate positioning.

You can create a multiplayer game or add social interaction to a single-player game. I can tell you that one of the things that excited me the most when I first start playing AR games is playing games like HoloGrid: Monster Battle AR and The Machines, and knowing that those are real players controlling those virtual characters.

No, this is not the first multiplayer game I’ve played, but when the controlled character was in AR, it felt like I someone was here with me playing the game. It’s hard to explain the feeling, it’s like someone invaded your place, the other player felt more real compared to a multiplayer game played on screen.

There are so many augmented reality games who could have been so much better with those social elements but the developer opted out not to include them, at least not in the first release.

All of this might be true also to standard games, but in AR I felt that it really enhanced the gameplay experience and could have greatly enhanced other games that I’ve played.

BTW, I’m still playing JumpBall.io and enjoy every minute of it but eagerly waiting for Smash Tanks! to get its own online multiplayer matches and ranking system.

Don’t be gentle with those Visual Effects

Ship explosion in the sky

Visual effects like, for example, explosions and environmental effects, look amazing in AR. I remember enjoying just placing a fireball on the couch and observing the effect without any other interaction.

The fact that those 3D visual effects render in the real environment and are observable from different angles makes all the difference in the world.

It completely wowed me Nightenfell: Shared AR, and I can’t forget the beautiful lighting and storm clouds in Twilight Pioneers: Dragon Arena. dazzled me

The fact that I remember those in-game moments means that they had a fundamental effect on me (check this footage out).

Pay Attention to Shadows

Orbu ARKit game screenshot

Shadows are very important to make a virtual 3D model appear part of the scene, especially when we are talking about 3D objects that which are placed on flat surfaces, even more on brighter ones.

I probably wouldn’t bring it up if I haven’t seen so many apps that nailed it wrong. I thought that ARKit supposes to nail this thing perfectly without any need for further adjustments. I’ve seen many apps where the shadows were either too dark misplaces when the device is rotated and even completely disabled sometimes.

Without shadows, a virtual object placed on the floor can appear disconnected from the plane it supposes to be placed on. Furthermore, if the object is floating in mid-air, this is the only visual way to give the user an estimation of its distance from the ground.

Hand Fatigue Considerations

I am using the iPad for all my reviews, so hand fatigue is much more serious for me compared to if I played with an iPhone. Nevertheless, game developers need to consider the fact that holding the device straight up front for more than around 2 minutes leads to physical inconveniences.

If you design the game that is played in a way that it requires the player to hold the device in front of him, make the game session shorter. I tried it myself, I’ve played a game that required me to hold the device up front, and after 2 minutes my arm started showing fatigue signs.

It’s obviously easier to design a game that is placed on a surface like a floor or a table, the user then holds the device facing down, which require less muscle effort for holding it.

If you design a game for children, it’s even more important to pay attention to it.

I actually find out that when the game requires physical movement and constant changes of positioning (more physical movement), I could hold the device up front for a longer period of time, probably due to better blood flow to those muscle areas, but I am not a physician, so I don’t know the exact reasons for that.

Furthermore, you can design your game so it won’t require constant front-hold by either designing a game that also uses the lower-end part of the real-world space or makes the in-between screens either not in AR or ones that don’t require front-holding.

Let me give you an example. I’ve played Meddling Martians, and although the game has long session rounds, due to the physical movement and the combination of using the surface for gameplay as well, I didn’t feel any inconvenience.By the way, this game, which I think not so many people heard of, actually was designed really well. Some people might not like the physical aspect of it, but this is was one of my favorite early AR games that I’ve played.

To be Continued…

This is the end of part 1. In the second part, I will discuss animating virtual objects to enhance the perception of depth in games, sound effects while interacting with virtual objects, physicalizing the game, and many other interesting tips and suggestions that I think are worth mentioning.

I hope you enjoy reading this article. If you did, please don’t forget to share it. Your support is really important to me and helps with my efforts in bringing you great content. Thank you.