#221: Nicole Lazzaro on the Four Keys to Fun in Virtual Reality

Nicole-LazzaroNicole Lazzaro is the founder and president of XEODesign, Inc., has twenty years expertise in Player Experience Design for mass-market entertainment products. She’s recently started developing and consulting on a number of different virtual reality projects, and has a lot of insights in terms of how to go beyond an interesting VR tech demo and the elements required to translate that into a full game.

She’s come up with a model called Four Keys to Fun, which she describes as the following:

  1. Easy Fun (Novelty): Curiosity from exploration, role play, and creativity
  2. Hard Fun (Challenge): Fiero, the epic win, from achieving a difficult goal
  3. People Fun (Friendship): Amusement from competition and cooperation
  4. Serious Fun (Meaning): Excitement from changing the player and their world

She talks about some of the VR experiences that she thinks have started to bridge that gap between a novel tech demo and experiences that start to incorporate those challenging and hard fun elements.

Nicole also recently gave a presentation about 5 Must Have VR Strategies for Better Games that provides more details. For more information, then be sure to check out her website for XEODesign, Inc.

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Rough Transcript

[00:00:05.412] Kent Bye: The Voices of VR Podcast.

[00:00:11.958] Nicole Lazzaro: I'm Nicole Lozara and I'm the founder of Zeo Design and Zeo Play. And we're doing a game right now called Follow the White Rabbit. And it's a virtual reality adventure game. It's all about a magician who's been a charlatan like all his life until one day his magic actually works. The rabbit goes into the hat but does not come back out. And to make matters worse, it was wearing a priceless diamond bracelet picked from the audience. So now you, the player, and everyone else wants to follow the white rabbit.

[00:00:40.696] Kent Bye: Nice. And so, you know, you've done some research in play and talk a bit about your previous research in video games and then how you're kind of applying that to VR.

[00:00:49.222] Nicole Lazzaro: Great, yeah, so what I do is I'm a game developer, so I measure emotions on people's faces while they play games. What we've done for the past 22, 23 years, we've actually worked on a number of very famous games to improve the emotional responses of players. So we've consulted on games like Myst and The Sims. We've done a lot of work with LucasArts and Sony and EA on different titles. And what we look at is we look at how games create engagement from the interaction, because games are about action. They're about the gameplay. And there's actually emotions that come from the gameplay, not the story, not the audio, and not the animation. So we call it the four keys to fun. And what we found is that games are really played for four reasons. They're played for novelty. They're played for challenge. They're played for friendship. And they're played for meaning. So we call those four things the four keys. And we found that best-selling games tend to, people's favorite games, tend to bring the player in using three out of the four keys, and they would move between these types of interaction on a per-session basis. So they would, if you can imagine, it's kind of like being an artist, and you can change a person's emotions by changing the color or the font. With the four keys, what you can do is you can change the person's emotions by changing the types of choices, the types of features that are in the game, the types of things that they can do. So we look at that to create better game experiences. And if you think about this, it's like in terms of emotions, there's sort of curiosity is this emotion that first pulls you in. And in the VR context, it's very, very, very important. So you have curiosity, wonder, and surprise from exploration, and role play, and fantasy, and just sheer goofing around. And those kinds of experiences last for about 15 to 20 minutes at the high end. But then after that, we find that gamers want something more. They want a goal, right? A traditional game. They've got a goal, we want a challenge, and we've got obstacles to that challenge. So we want to overcome them. So we move from what we call easy fun to those other types of fun, which is goals and challenges. And we call that hard fun. It's hard because there's a little bit of failure in there. And you can't just put the basketball into the hoop. Basketball's fun because the hoop is small and it's high overhead. It's hard to get to. And then when you make a goal, that's when like, yes, I got it. You know, I got it, make a hoop, make a point. So I get points. Whereas easy fun is just dribbling the basketball. That's fun all its own. So we go from easy fun, dribble, dribble, dribble, to all right, we get a goal or we get a score. We make that thing. So that's hard fun with goals, obstacles, and strategies. And then there is people fun, which is all about the emotions from social interaction. We look at amusement a lot because anytime people are laughing together, they're having some kind of social bondings going on. We laugh with people and we laugh at other people. So we like create our social groups with amusement. But there's also other ones like, well, like the like button on Facebook. It's just an Amici mechanic, just a chummy like, hey, you know, you know, we're all primates. I'm just picking a digital flea off of you. So we're going that way. And there's more emotion in social interaction, like emotions like schadenfreude, than the other three keys combined. When we see people play the same game in the same room, it's a wider variety of emotions, more intense emotions, you know, more frequent emotions than if we play the same game in two different rooms. So that social interaction, huge source of emotions, and that's why social games, the multiplayer games, are so popular. Because just playing that same thing, not only from the heart, from the strategy, but just simply that when you play a game, like Plato would say, like, you know, I know more about a person playing, if I play a game with them for an hour, then like a lifetime of conversation, something like that. So that's people fun, the third one. And then what happens next is really important for games because there is this serious fun, which is after you win, that feeling of Fiero, that when your arms punch the sky, yes, I just got the boss monster. I use the word Fiero from Italian. that fades fairly quickly. It's a very big emotion, but then it fades. And so games tend to have different additional features that emphasize that win. So people play games to change themselves or change the world. That's how they describe Serious Fun to us. But it is kind of collection and completion. Badges are one small slice of that. But it's really about how that gameplay changed that world and what is the effect of winning that moment in and how does that tear out, how does that roll out to other areas of the game. So that's sort of an overview to the four keys. And then what we're doing now is looking at VR. So we've been looking at virtual reality and measuring emotions in people's faces while they play. We've been looking at, ever since Cardboard came out, we've been looking at VR experiences. And you can think of the obvious thing is that we need to have a very tight, easy, fun, micro loop of gameplay. So it's that easy, fun, very moment to moment, curiosity, wonder, surprise, exploration. need to have that to get people in. And that needs to be unique to VR. So there needs to be some VR element that you couldn't do on the console or a mobile device. It's kind of like, if you think about it, you know, so many games are porting to VR right now. It's really heartbreaking for me because it's sort of like, you know, the early iPhone days and, you know, I actually designed the very first iPhone game at iPhone Dev Camp and you were, you know, we did it together, right? You were on the team too with Tilt. is that they're just porting, you know, a first-person shooter, or, yeah, with a lot of challenges, or a racing game, or a RTS. RTS is pretty good because it has this god camera. But then, once I've played it, or a tail gunner game, once I've played it, it's like, well, I kind of played this game before, and it's, you know, once the 3D-ness wears off, it's like, I watched the Pixar movie in 2D, I'm watching it in 3D, it's kind of fun, but I already know the story, because it was already there. So we're really not getting something really new with VR in a lot of these games. And that's what I really want developers to do is more on that. And the reason why people don't play more than 20 minutes is because of that novelty window. Okay, hey, it's fun in VR. Yeah, that's kind of cool. But then once the novelty dissipates, their attention wanders and they pull the goggles off, they pull off the magic glasses. But if there's hard fun that's new, that's in VR, that is VR dynamics and stuff like that, then people will stay. You have to innovate. You can't just manage or clone or just like one-two thing. You really need to be in there developing new content. And then the social interaction, of course, in VR is a really great opportunity. But a real challenge because a lot of these emotions, you know, especially for a face-to-face interaction really is about the face, right? It's really about that connection and it's not a face as in an avatar. It's these little tiny moment-to-moment micro expressions that happen on the face as you go moment-to-moment. That's what creates a lot of the social bonding. And the social stuff we've seen is like just because your avatar is there is going to be the social bonding you might see in a World of Warcraft. But not nearly what you're going to see on the couch with a multiplayer and then like not nearly what you would see in like playing a real 3D chess game, Star Wars 3D chess game, you know, on the Millennium Falcon, whatever. Really seeing that other person's face is huge. It's really, really, really huge. And then, of course, the last thing, of course, was serious fun with VR, is that, you know, you really want those game mechanics to do something. I think Bazaar does a neat job with that from Templegate Games, is that they've got the progress map, is that you fill out, you get little stars, you win little glowing lights, and then they Fly up to the sky and they become these constellations and once you finish the constellation you get like a power-up Or the next level and that kind of thing so that progress map gives you that sense of progression It's the serious fun of that game awesome, and it's up above in the sky out of the way, but then always there It's not a UI you bring up with a button press. It's just always there. I thought that was a really really nice thing I And I can talk about UI and all kinds of other stuff. But for VR, it's a very challenging space. But exciting because we're writing a new book. And that's the thing. The potential of this is huge because we don't have the hit VR game yet. And with this platform transition, we have more physiological, more psychological, more design challenges than any other game platform transition in the history of games combined.

[00:08:32.228] Kent Bye: Yeah, just recently I was helping curate some of the VR experiences at the XOXO Festival, so I got a demo build of Lucky's Tale. And it was just a 10-minute level, but I actually played it for about four hours, because I was coming up with different challenges for myself to go and play through the same. And so Lucky's Tale, to me, is the first game that I felt really started to bridge that gap in terms of being able to cross over that novelty window of the first 20 minutes. It has a lot of these challenges. I'm curious from your perspective if you found any VR games or experiences that you find, you know, kind of meet those magic number of like three out of four of those fun keys to be able to find this VR experience that's going to be like lasting.

[00:09:13.467] Nicole Lazzaro: Yeah, so it's really, I think it's still really early yet. I haven't played something that has all the legs that it needs. I think that Lucky's Tale is good, and the camera is surprisingly effective. I think that they've really, you know, taken it from the 2D scroller and really made it a 3D game. They're taking advantage of that, so I think that definitely is pretty cool, because it does matter which direction you're pointing for some of those puzzles, which is really great. But getting up there, I think that the I expect you to die. That's kind of fun. And let me tell you a little bit why, is that they've used an iconic situation, which is a really great, easy, fun technique. And they've used humor. So it's basically, you're a secret super agent spy, and you're inside the bad guy's car. And I'm not going to spoil it or anything like that. But then you have this voice that's mocking and very British, which works really well for an American audience. And it's funny. So you're getting like, if it's a little sloppy, it's OK. If it doesn't quite work right, or as you expect. And so there's a bit of a fantasy, and you bring to it because it's pulling on these tropes. That's very different than cloning a genre, bringing in an iconic situation for your story. Then you just have to trigger them in a couple of unique ways, and then that gives the player's brain something to do, and then now they're narrating it out for themselves. So I think that that's really cool. And then Black River Studios has something called Rokoko, which has a nice, just, it's not a full four keys thing, but they've got some nice techniques that they're using. They're using direct attention to move you from one location to the next. So they have this little stream of smoke that goes out when you intend to move to another location. smoke goes out from your location, your camera to where you're going, then you fade out, you appear at that new location. And so we've gotten some techniques there. But I really don't think we've gotten anywhere near what we're going to need to see to have that really break out, this is what virtual reality is about. And it's really challenging because along with porting, you know, it doesn't make sense to put a transparent D-pad on an iPhone game. You know, nobody likes that, or one in a thousand like that. Similarly, putting those same controls, putting an Xbox controller into your VR experience, this 5-button monkey or 13-button monkey thing, it's just not going to feel at all right or all natural or all integrated. And then the things that we use, you know, if you think of a traditional game, some classic games, they use a lot of things to keep your attention. If I put something in front of your face and it has a strong emotion resonance for you, you're going to focus on it. Like if I have a pencil and a knife, you'll track in my two different hands, you'll track the knife, the hand with the knife. You'll definitely do that. So take this to the game world. That's kind of why we have, you know, like why do we have boiling lava? And why do we have rickety bridges and like little ledges without railings and stuff like that? Well, because it creates fear and it helps you focus on that screen inside the frame and not like, oh my goodness, my spaghetti is boiling over. In VR, you don't have that challenge because you're in the headset. You don't have to pull the person in and anything you do is magnified a lot. It's like, you know, just because it's, you know, you can turn it up to 11 doesn't mean you should. It's like a lot of games I'm playing now, it's like typing in all caps all the time. It's like, let's not do that. Hitchcock wasn't the master of fear. Hitchcock wasn't the master of jump scares. Hitchcock was really the master of suspense. And that's the tool, those kinds of subtle things into the mix. That's what's going to really drive these VR experiences. That is what's going to make VR have that must-have quality and must play this.

[00:12:40.965] Kent Bye: Yeah, and today is the day when they're kind of showing the Toy Box demos for the first time to this many developers. And I've heard a lot of really kind of revelatory experiences from people about what they've experienced. And when I experienced it, I can definitely sense the keys of the friends, of the social experience, because there's someone in VR for the first time. But also the interaction controls that felt so intuitive that they almost disappeared so that you're able to interact with the world in such a way that was really novel. So it really nailed the novelty and the friendship in a lot of ways. But, you know, what do you see? It sounds like you have some criticisms of that, from your perspective, of what kind of things that you're looking for for making all those keys of making a really amazing experience.

[00:13:23.388] Nicole Lazzaro: Yeah, absolutely. You know, we're all learning, right? You know, there was a Ant VR demo at E3 and, you know, the first day they had first-person shooters, like, they're walking around, you know? Second day, too, everybody had, they pulled all the swivel chairs from their mobile thing and put them up on the stage for the first-person shooter stuff, so they're all seated. We're all learning, right? So with the Toy Box, what's amazing is that, yeah, it does have a little bit of social. And in the demo, at least the demo, I'm sure the demos vary, what you really want to do is you want to have communication, because I could hear the other person, which was great, and the stereo audio was awesome, but then cooperation. So, there was a little bit, he lit, you know, the sparklers and that sort of thing. There's some stuff there, but you really want that, I have to do this. I mean, you want tank controls. I mean, you know, not literally tank controls, but you do something and I do something in order to achieve a goal together. That's how you could really plus out, for that particular demo, that's how you could plus out, one way to plus out the social aspect. The feeling of hard fun and the feeling of the controls, you want the feeling of controls to have a lot of easy fun. So where in my experience do I want to look? That micro loop? And then you want to escape out of it with hard fun and people fun and other things. But that micro loop has got to be, you really want to have just using the controls should be fun. And they're still working on it. Again, it's the first thing out. But you want to have a couple of things with VR controllers. This is true for people developing their own hardware, is that you want to have natural pose. So your hands go out in a clapping gesture, right? You want to have natural pose. Or maybe they're palms down, but usually palms facing together. And then you want to have a general thing would be like a baby grabbing stuff. So that's what we are. We're babies grabbing stuff. So making really sure that that grabbing gesture feels satisfying. and that it activates the thing that you want it to activate, so putting a button underneath the middle finger, good idea. You want to make sure that that button is in the right digit of the right segment of that middle finger so that it feels like when you get the pressure and the feedback, it feels like you're grasping. And when you've got a grasping thing, you also want to be able to release and be confident that that controller is not going to fall out of your hand. And so one of the cool things is it does have that nice rim on it, so I think you can open your hands all the way. But you want to be able to like feel like it's not going anywhere And then the grasping gesture is going to when you close your hands you feel all the tendons in your arm your forearm will tighten That's how your hands contract so providing that feedback is going to make it feel like You know and having some resistance to that is going to make it feel much more like you're in like the gallery but that you're picking up a bottle and you're you know you're throwing it around or you know, in the Toy Box demo, that you're lighting a firecracker or you're building blocks and stuff like that. So, it's a really great novelty demo, so it does a really good job on that easy fun. You can goof off, you can kind of go off-track. Off-track play, racetrack backwards, driving racetrack backwards, putting Sims in the pool, pull out the ladders, those are the kinds of things you want to do. Being able to shoot, you know, the other guy and make him shrink, so you want some deviant play, that would help a lot with that demo. But really, it's got to be when you get the four keys in, that's what moves something from a tech demo to a more rich experience. And I think that's actually one of the secrets behind what Vive is doing, is that platform aside, just the demos that they're showing have very rich emotion profiles, even though they're not that interactive. They have very explicit emotion slash story beats in them. And so when you come out of them, you've been entertained, your body has been entertained, your mind, you're laughing or crying or whatever it is that you're doing, depending on the experience. And that richness makes the graphics feel better. Right? And, you know, like Nintendo Wii, right? When it came out, it had one-tenth the processing of that next generation, the Xbox 360 or the PlayStation 2. One-tenth the graphic processing power. But everybody was talking about it because it created all these emotions. You know, games are not about technology. VR is not about technology. VR is about the experiences it creates in the player.

[00:17:08.862] Kent Bye: And finally, what do you see as the ultimate potential of virtual reality and what it might be able to enable?

[00:17:15.184] Nicole Lazzaro: Yeah, so I think the ultimate thing that virtual reality can create are worlds that you could really go in. We're going to be lost in these new experiences. And the sweet spot is they're experiences that you've always wanted to have. So flying may be difficult for this current generation just because of comfort issues, but having a mystery, going to explore the pyramids, going out and doing things that you can't do in real life. I think in our game with Follow the White Rabbit, it's a magical world. So magic is grounded. There's real stuff there. And then the world starts to, as you explore the mystery and figure out what happened or what is happening, and can you prevent it or not, then some of those rules become unglued. And that is what I think really virtual reality is all about. It's that mix of reality and presence and then these experiences that you can't have in the real physical world and feel kind of still a detachment if you saw a movie about them. And the sense of agency is kind of like this, you know, if you have on the vertical axis if you have immersion with movies, you know, going up and becoming more immersion from Birth of a Nation to, you know, Inception. And then on the horizontal axis you have, you know, Pong to, you know, like Mass Effect to Journey, you know, greater and greater emotional like, you know, agency. So you have agency on one axis and immersion on the other. VR is in that sweet spot of those two interacting. And we won't get there with just language of cinema. We're not going to get there with just classic game design tropes. It's going to be a new kind of experience, but I think it can affect us much more deeply. Because these experiences that we will have, it's like lucid dreaming. And that we'll have the feeling of that that comes from the agency too. Because I opened the curtain to see the hidden map, to go wherever it is, and I feel it much more because I was part of that Agatha Christie mystery. Or that maybe some more Marshall kind of experience.

[00:19:09.281] Kent Bye: Is there anything else that's left unsaid that you'd like to say?

[00:19:12.042] Nicole Lazzaro: Oh, my goodness. Yeah, we're working on so much now. I mean, I think they just want to encourage people to think about it as a new medium. It's a blank slate. And, you know, you can sort of in classic management theories that you can business theories that you can manage your way, you know, for about a 5% change. Right. And so, you know, if you're going to reduce risk, clone last generation stuff, you're only going to be able to get five or 10% change. This is a new medium. And just like you can't manage your way into battle, you have to lead your team into battle. And so what I really want to encourage folks to do is to really think about what does design leadership look like to them? If they're working on controls, you know, what are a set of controls that are so natural I can play blindfolded? If they're looking at the emotions, what emotions can I get that really pull people in? So curiosity is a great one, because it just really pulls you into that experience. And then maybe use a little fear, maybe a little disgust, but be careful not to bounce them completely out. Because when you see a dead body in VR, I mean, it looks like a dead body. And it looks like a dead body. So that's not necessarily fun. So I think that we're really focusing on creating new worlds, new experiences that really bring the things that you can only imagine happening and making those impossible things happen.

[00:20:28.049] Kent Bye: Great. Well, thank you so much.

[00:20:29.355] Nicole Lazzaro: Welcome. Thank you so much. Thank you so much for having me. It's been great. It's been really, really good. And if you want to find out more about some of the models, so you can get the four keys to funds available on my website. So you can go to 4k2f.com is the short URL for that, or xeodesign.com, xeodesign.com. And then we're also publishing an infographic on five design strategies for better VR games.

[00:20:51.371] Kent Bye: Awesome. Sounds great. Thank you.

[00:20:52.472] Nicole Lazzaro: You're welcome. Thank you. Take care.

[00:20:54.655] Kent Bye: And thank you for listening. If you'd like to support the Voices of VR podcast, then please consider becoming a patron at patreon.com slash voicesofvr.

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