Dustin Chertoff has pulled experiential design insights from the advertising world to come up with a more holistic theory of presence in virtual reality. In 2008, he was in graduate school and was dissatisfied with the major theories of VR presence. His gaming experience showed him how much of his feeling of immersion was related to the content of the game. He wrote an essay published in the journal Presence where he laid out what he saw were the two major limitations of VR presence theory at that time, “First, many models tend to focus heavily on perceptual issues while focusing less attention other facets of virtual experiences, such as cognition and emotion.” Second, “these models fail to provide an interpretable, extensible framework with which to understand and apply the theoretical principles to practical applications.”

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Chertoff finished his Ph.D. thesis titled “Exploring Additional Factors of Presence” in 2009, and then published his Virtual Experience Test questionnaire in the 2010 proceedings of the IEEE Virtual Reality Conference. Presence researcher Richard Skarbez first alerted me to Chertoff’s work after I asked him if he’d seen any prior research into presence looking at the different dimensions of my elemental theory of presence, which breaks down the subjective quality of an experience of VR into different combinations of Embodied Presence, Emotional Presence, Active Presence, and Social & Mental Presence. I was encouraged to see that Chertoff had independently come to an identical framework through his survey that was designed to holistically “measure virtual environment experiences based upon the five dimensions of experiential design: sensory, affective, active, relational, and cognitive.”

I had a chance to catch up with Chertoff in San Francisco during GDC this year, and we each concluded that our experiential design frameworks are functionally equivalent. We talked about his FearlessVR company that he co-founded where they design VR exposure therapy experiences for different phobias, but we spend the bulk of our discussion exploring how he came to looking to looking at the field of experiential design to inform presence theory. We also compare and contrast how each of our experiential design frameworks create tradeoffs and amplify different qualitative dimensions of an experience.

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Chertoff’s Ph.D. thesis “Exploring Additional Factors of Presence” has a great survey of presence research (see his summary graphic down below), as well as inspiration he’s drawn from flow theory and video game design frameworks like GameFlow. He summarizes Forlizzi and Battarbee’s definition of “experience” by saying it’s “something that can be articulated, named, and schematized within a person’s memory. Experiences of this type have beginnings and ends, but anticipation of, and reflection on, the experience may take place before or after the event.”

The idea of experiential design is that deeply immersive experiences form stronger memories, and that it’s easier for us to store new information along when we’ve had related experiences. Chertoff says, “Experiential designs are successful when they encourage people to create meaningful emotional and social connections—personal narratives that involve episodic memories, and positive associations with the artifacts of that experience.”

Chertoff cites Joseph Pine & James Gilmore’s book The Experience Economy as his source of inspiration for the five dimensions of his experiential design framework that make for a memorable and immersive experience, which map nicely over to my elemental theory of presence.

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Embodied Presence corresponds to Chertoff’s sensory dimension which he says “includes all sensory input—visual, aural, haptic, and so forth — as well as perception of those stimuli.” I’d also include different virtual body representations, as well as the virtual environmental components which help transport you into another world and trick your perceptual system into believing that you’re in another world. Most presence researchers research embodied presence as virtual reality uniquely stimulates our sensorimotor aspects of perception beyond what any other communications medium can do.

Emotional Presence corresponds to the affective dimension which “refers to a participant’s emotional state. For simulation, this dimension can be linked to the degree to which a person’s emotions in the simulated environment accurately mimic his or her emotional state in the same real-world situation.” For me, this includes the storytelling and narrative components as well as music, colors, symbols, and deeper myths that all engage the emotions. Emotional presence can also come into the experience through social engagement with other people.

Mental Presence corresponds to the cognitive dimension, which “encompasses all mental engagement with an experience, such as anticipating outcomes and solving mysteries. For simulation, much of the cognitive dimension can be interpreted as task engagement, [which] is related to the intrinsic motivation, meaningfulness, and continuity (actions yielding expected responses) of an activity.” Game designers often talk about mental friction, and if there isn’t something in an experience to stimulate your mind then you’ll risk getting bored.

Social Presence corresponds to the relational dimension, which is “composed of the social aspects of an experience. For simulation, this can be operationalized as co-experience — creating and reinforcing meaning through collaborative experiences… Experiences that are created or reinforced socially are usually stronger than individual experiences and they further enable individuals to develop personal and memorable narratives.” I combine mental & social presence into the air element, because they both deal with the abstractions of thought and communication. But it also emphasizes the fact that not every experience has to have a social dimension to it, and that solitary experiences can be just as immersive and engaging to your mind.

Finally, Active Presence corresponds to the active dimension, which Chertoff described in the interview the degree to which you can express your agency, and physical engagement through taking action within the experience. He also sees it as a form of subjective engagement by saying “Does he or she incorporate the experience into his or her personal narrative; does he or she form meaningful associations via the experience?”
Chertoff assigns a few things to the active dimension that I would categorize elsewhere. For example, I think empathy is more of a function of emotional engagement, and that connection to the environment, avatars, and identity are more related to embodied presence. I tend to think of active presence being primarily as an expression of agency and will that includes exploration, curiosity, creativity, physical or virtual locomotion, and any type of interactivity.

There are qualitative dimensions of an experience that are sometimes hard to clearly schematize into a single category, and I believe that all of these different dimensions are happening at the same time all the time. But I do see that there are tradeoffs between active presence and emotional presence that I explore in much more detail in this introductory essay about elemental theory of presence..

A Survey of Presence Research

Chertoff has a lot of other references to presences research, the evolution of experience economies, insights from the user-system-experience (USE) model of user-centered design, as well as combining game design theory with flow theory with GameFlow.
Here’s a summary graphic of Chertoff’s survey of presence research as of 2009, where he summarizes the major components of presence in the different major models:

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Chertoff argues that a lot of these models don’t have a good conceptual framework that can account for role of content in cultivating a sense of immersion and presence, and he sees that Experiential Design and Flow Theory can fill in those gaps.

Flow theory shows the relationship between the objective skills of a user and the objective challenges within an experience that result in a variety of different internal subjective states in the user.

flow-theory

When the skill and challenge is low, then that can lead to apathy or boredom. When the challenges are high, but the skill is low, then it can create anxiety or arousal. Flow states happen in a sweet spot of high skill of the user and high challenge within the experience.

Flow theory connects the objective aspects of an experience to the internal states of a subject, and it’s also helping to evolve existing user-centered design models. Most user-centered design research has focused on the usability of an interface with a specific productive output, but for gaming the experience of playing the game being the reward itself and so it’s more about the playability of the game and whether or not it helps the player achieve a flow state. Flow theory has been applied to Game Design in the GameFlow theory, which shows the role of content in creating a sense of immersion and presence.

GameFlow-Model

Anyone interested in different frameworks and models of experience will find a wealth of references in Chertoff’s three papers: Improving Presence Theory Through Experiential Design (2008), “Exploring Additional Factors of Presence (2009), and Virtual Experience Test: A virtual environment evaluation questionnaire (2010).

Moving to An Experience Economy

Finally, I think it’s important these two experiential design frameworks are independent of virtual reality, and they can be applied to creating any human experience. Pine & Gilmore wrote a prescient article “Welcome to the Experience Economy” in the Harvard Business Review in 1998, and they say, “We expect that experience design will become as much a business art as product design and process design are today. Indeed, design principles are already apparent from the practices of and results obtained by companies that have (or nearly have) advanced into the experience economy.”

I’ve talked before about how Snapchat shows how we’re moving from the Information Age to the Experiential Age, and this article from 1998 lays out some of the economic trends that led experiential design paradigms used by companies like Starbucks and Apple. Here is a graphic from Pine & Gilmore’s article that describes the fundamental characteristics of this new experience economy that is moving from delivering intangible & customized services on-demand to staging memorable & personal experiences that are revealed over a duration of time.

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Virtual and augmented reality technologies are driving our culture towards having more and more immersive experiences, and learning how to holistically create immersive and memorable experiences is going to continue to become a vital part the future of our economy and our culture.

For a more in-depth discussion about my elemental theory of presence, then be sure to check out this interview with Jessica Brillhart, an early discussion with Alex Schwartz, my SVVR 2017 keynote talk, and this No Proscenium podcast interview with me talking about how it could be applied to immersive theater.

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mel-slaterVR Presence researcher Mel Slater is fascinated by what makes the medium of virtual reality unique and different from other communications mediums. He says that VR activates our sensorimotor contingencies in a way that fools our brain that we’re transported into another world, and that what is happening is real. He breaks this into two primary illusions where the Place Illusion answers the question “Am I there?” and the Plausibility Illusion answers the question “Is this happening?” These two illusions happen inside of your mind and are very difficult to study, but Slater has develop an experimental research protocol that draws inspiration from color theory research the combination of the objective spectral distribution as well as an individual’s subjective perception of color.

After seeing well over a thousand VR experiences, I started to cultivate my own ideas about an Elemental Theory of Presence that describes different qualities of Embodied Presence, Social & Mental Presence, Active Presence, and Emotional Presence. Slater says that these different qualities of experience are more related to the content of the experience, and that they’re not unique to virtual reality. You can be just as emotionally engaged with a movie or a book as you are with a VR experience, and so looking at how the content contributes to his conceptualization of presence isn’t an interesting research question trying to figure out what’s unique about VR.

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My elemental theory of presence is more of an elemental framework for experiential design that’s isn’t unique to VR, but it has been useful in helping to understand the component parts of a VR experience. Slater is primarily interested in researching the objective and measurable dimensions of a VR experience that contribute to the place illusion and plausibility illusion that he sees are the primary factors of the subjective feeling of presence. I personally don’t believe that you disregard the role content in how it helps cultivate a feeling of presence, but I acknowledge that it’s a difficult thing to study in controlled academic research environment. There is not a universal formula for what combination of content and experience ingredients that will help you achieve a sense of presence whether you are in VR or not. There are limits to predicting the degree to which a piece of content will resonate with someone, and the successful approaches are usually market-based solutions that big data collections of behavior to drive the content recommendation algorithms at Amazon, Netflix, Facebook, and Google.

My interview with Slater explores the threshold of the boundaries of his theory of presence as I try to understand it through the lens of my own elemental framework of experiential design. He cites NASA’s Stephen Ellis who once said that any good theory of presence will provide a series of tradeoffs that allows you to make choices amongst features that are within the same “equivalence class.” Slater’s approach to presence focuses on the objective features of the VR system while my elemental theory of presence focuses on the qualitative aspects of the specific content. Slater says that it’s a completely valid approach, but that it’s just completely different than what he’s interested in looking at. This conversation clarified for me the differences between objectively controllable VR hardware & software variables and the specific content of a VR experience. I think that both contribute different things to the subjective feelings of presence, and experiential designers will have to take into account both the objective features of the VR hardware and software as well as the specifics of the content in order to create the qualities of presence that they’re striving for.

Want to discuss more about this podcast? I’m having an experimental discussion about it with my Patreon members here.

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richard-skarbezMel Slater’s Theory of Presence includes two major components including the Place Illusion (the degree to which you’re transported to another world), and the Plausibility Illusion (the degree to which you believe what’s happening in that world is believable). Presence researcher Richard Skarbez thinks of these two components as “immersion” and “coherence,” and we previously discussed his presence research where he found that both illusions are vital for a deep sense of presence. The place illusion is largely enabled by the objective details of the VR technology with features such as 1:1 head tracking, low latency, and large field of view. But all of the different dimensions of what makes an experience plausible are still widely unknown, not very well researched, and also difficult to isolate and determine.

Skarbez was back at the IEEE VR conference in March of 2017 showing some of his efforts to break down presence into different factors that included interactions with virtual humans, high-end VR tracking to get fully immersive body tracking, interaction abilities within the environment, as well as whether or not the scenario was coherent and believable. He also deployed a new research method where the subject would experience the full fidelity of the screen, and he’d slowly dial up the fidelity of these different factors to determine which ones were the most helpful in cultivating presence. Presence surveys are not that great at aggregating multiple individual subjective rating the degree of presence on any type of scale, but you can judge relative degrees of presence based upon your own previous experiences. Skarbez was able to determine that full body tracking was one of the biggest indicators of the depth of presence that someone felt within their experiment.

I had a chance to catch up with Skarbez in Los Angeles at the IEEE VR conference where we talked about his presence research as well as how his different components of presence plausibility mapped over to my Elemental Theory of Presence.

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Nick-OchoaNick Ochoa curated some of the top artists producing work entirely in VR for the Magik Gallery show that happened in San Francisco, CA on May 20th. It was an ambitious effort to introduce VR creation tools for artists within a fine arts context in the Terra Gallery space. There were physical posters of scenes showed around 15-20 VR stations featuring an individual piece of art, as well as opportunities to try some of the VR art tools like TiltBrush. Most of the VR art pieces featured some dimension of scale or vastness that showcased some of the unique affordances of art within VR, and the intention was to inspire the art scene within San Francisco for how VR could be used as a medium for expression and storytelling. I had a chance to catch up with Magik Gallery founder Ochoa the day before the showing to talk about his efforts to get art within VR to be taken more seriously within the larger art world.

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The VR artists featured in the show were Steve Teeps, Vladimir Ilic, Liz Edwards, Sougwen Chung, Issac “Cabbibo” Cohen, Danny Bittman, Sutu, Wesley Allsbrook, Mike Jelinek, Abraham Aguero, and Edward Eyth. The write-up by VRScout’s Jesse Damiani features more information on some of the individual art pieces that were being shown, as well as in this twitter thread:

Magik Gallery is going to be focusing on holding VR art shows in physical spaces as there are a number of other virtual art gallery initiatives and efforts for virtual spaces.

Other VR Art Initiatives

I’ve seen a number of recent gallery efforts including VR Chat’s Infinity: VR Art Gallery. No Proscenium has a great write-up about the Alejandro González Iñárritu piece Carne Y Arena that is showing at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (and it is sold out until September).

Acute Art VR aims to be Contemporary Art’s Virtual Reality Home & features work by Marina Abramović, Jeff Koons, and Olafur Eliasson

The FLOAT Museum pilot @ SFMOMA featured some VR art during GDC

The VR Society’s The Art of VR Show at Sotherby’s just happened a few weeks ago.

Zach Krausnick’s VR Galactic Gallery showed at VRLA and should be releasing on Steam soon

You can find out more information on the artists and Ochoa’s future plans on the Magik Gallery website and @MagikGallery on Twitter.

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tipatatVirtual Reality Headsets have not sold as many units as some of the more optimistic analysts have predicted, and VR Fund’s Tipatat Chennavasin says that the relatively quick adoption of smart phone technologies have spoiled a lot of people within the investment community. But despite the adoption being slower than some had hoped, Chennavasin still sees a lot of optimistic indicators for the long-term investment of companies that are driving the evolution of the medium in different industry verticals. Some of those indicators are a Magid Insights survey that found that a majority of VR consumers “very satisfied” and say product performance exceeds expectations, that there are at least 30 VR games on Steam that have grossed more than $250,000, and that there are a number of enterprise VR companies with revenues between half a million to a million dollars.

I caught up with Chennavasin at the Silicon Virtual Reality Conference on March 31st to talk about the state of the VR ecosystem. We talked about how he sees Chinese investors could be shifting focus to AI and local Chinese companies, the market challenges for educational VR companies, and why he thinks that the lack of revenue in the 360 video could bring a reckoning moment for 360 video technology and content companies. After traveling to 36 VR conferences over the past year and seeing over 2000 VR demos, Chennavasin sees some of the most promising VR industry verticals as being healthcare, advertising technology, collaborative meeting and product design apps, enterprise applications, as well as architecture, engineering, and construction. He’s been advising companies try to create applications that could only be done in VR, and that if you build something of value then you can find a way to pay you for it.

He provides some updates on some of VR Fund’s investments including Owlchemy Labs (which was acquired by Google in May), Against Gravity’s Rec Room, Vivid Vision, and InstaVR. He’s seeing enough positive indicators form his portfolio companies to continue making strategic investments in the VR ecosystem for the long-term path towards more ubiquitous adoption.

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dale-henry-avatarIn March 2016, Oculus announced their Oculus Launchpad program with the idea that in order for VR to be successful, then there needs to be a diverse range of content created from diverse set of creators who are informed by different ethnicities, cultural backgrounds, and gender identities. Oculus brought together over 100 diverse content creators for a one-day training, and awarded scholarships to 11 projects from the dozens of prototypes submitted at the end of the program. Oculus Launchpad participant Dale Henry wrote up a detailed critique of the Launchpad program that provided a lot of constructive criticism for improvements that he’d like to see.

I reached out to Henry to unpack his feedback on the lessons learned from the Oculus Launchpad program, but we also talk what the larger VR community can do to support diverse initiatives such as different community-driven mentorship models. We also talk about his personal journey in using VR to help children on the austism spectrum deal with bullying, and some of his struggles as an aspiring VR developer. We also dive into some deeper systemic issues, and have some difficult conversations about how only 1% of funded start-ups have black founders, larger diversity in tech issues, some of the unconscious biases that women and people of color face in raising funds, and whether or not VCs even know how to evaluate people of color.

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I reached out to Oculus for a comment on the improvements that they’re making for the second iteration of the Oculus Launchpad program, and it looks like they’ve integrated a lot of the specific critiques from Dale and expanded their mentorship program. Here’s the kickoff message from Oculus VR’s program manager for diversity and inclusion, Ebony Peay Ramirez.
launchpad-improvements

Henry would also like to see more transparency in how the money is being allocated, some of the metrics for success, a more detailed road map that shows how to grow and sustain these diversity initiatives, whether there are other external diversity initiatives that Oculus/Facebook is supporting, and some candid feedback of their own internal lessons learned so that other VR companies can learn from these programs. Henry argues that everyone benefits from diversity in VR initiatives, and that he’d like to see more openness and transparency in these efforts to provide more opportunities for feedback, but also the possibility for more collaboration amongst competing VR companies to share insights and combine resources to support larger diversity efforts in the VR and tech ecosystem.

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dandypunkThere was an amazing projection mapped, immersive theater piece at Sundance this year by Heartcorps called “Riders of the Storyboard.” Trained street performers interacted with a virtual projection-mapped 2D objects, and through the slight of hand of magic broke these flat objects into the third as glowing 3D props. There were 15 people packed into a small room with about half a dozen performers for a 13-minute show about a these 2D characters who interact with the performers who are playing Alchemy of Light gods in the third dimension. It was an awe-inspiring performance, and the projection mapping technology provided a shared augmented reality experience. Heartcorps is proving out some of the techniques with projection mapping technology that should also work really well in the future of live performance and immersive theater designed for augmented reality glasses.

I had a chance to catch up with the Heartcorps member and performer dandypunk, who talks about their process, ritual inspiration, and mixture of immersive theater and cutting-edge projection mapping. Be sure to check out the trailer and clips from their show at Sundance down below.

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Here’s the Trailer for the Heartcorps “Riders of the Storyboard” that showed at Sundance New Frontier:

Final three minutes of the “Riders of the Storyboard” show at Sundance

If you’re interested in immersive theater, then be sure to check out Noah Nelson’s No Proscenium podcast. I talked with him in episode #95 about my Elemental Theory of Presence as well as the cross-over between VR and immersive theater.

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katya-stepanov

VR World NYC is a new VR arcade that opened on June 24th in New York City right next to the Empire State Building. They have three floors with 55 different VR experiences, and they’re using an all-you-eat buffet business model of paying $39-$49 to have unlimited access to play all of the available experiences. It’s a great opportunity for tourists and New York residents to get their first room-scale and 360 VR experiences, but it also has a bar, plenty of places to hang out, as well as a number of different multi-player social VR experiences.

Drew-ArnoldI happened to be in New York for the grand opening of VR World, and had a chance to catch up with Chief Creative Officer Drew Arnold and HR Manager Katya Stepanov to talk about the process of experiential design and curation of VR experiences. I also had a chance to check out the IMAX VR experiences at the AMC IMAX theater, as well as see The VOID’s Ghostbusters VR experience at Madame Tussauds Wax Museum

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The challenge for a business like VR World is to market themselves to first-time users and foot traffic of casual tourists who are willing to explore for a couple of hours, but also have a streamlined system for if and when they do get really popular to still have it be a good user experience. They have a queuing system where you can sign up for a single VR experience if it’s busy, and then you can try out one of the other 50+ experiences that don’t have a line. But if they have too many people and get too popular, then they’re going to face what most VR events & digital out-of-home experiences struggle with is throughput and long lines. But they’re using an innovative approach of buying access to every experience, and then not trying to overplay or schedule it from there.

Other VR arcade options like IMAX VR has the approach where you have to buy individual $10 tickets for each experience that you do. IMAX VR also tends to have a number of premiere experiences not generally available yet, as well as some special VR equipment like DBOX chairs or a helicopter platform simulator with StarVR HMDs for The Mummy VR experience.

Both Sundance and Tribeca have moved to models where you have carte blanche access to all of the available experiences for a limited time, and this is a great blend of scheduled and unscheduled time that I feel like works really well for VR. There’s a certain amount of unpredictability for when a VR experience will begin or end, and having carte blanche access makes it so that you’re not constantly evaluating whether or not the individual experience that you’re having was worth the money that paid for it. With carte blanche access, it sometimes becomes more of question of is it worth waiting for other people to finish an individual experience, but overall you tend to feel like you got your money’s worth when you get to have a variety of different experiences.

VR World is perfect for first-time VR users or even for existing VR owners who want to try out a number of different commercially-available experiences without having to purchase them yourself. The price of admission is about what it would cost to purchase a single high-end VR experience, and there are plenty of the most popular VR experiences available to play. There are also a few experiences that use unique hardware peripherals that you’re likely not going to have at home, and I’d expect to see more and more of these types of experiences over time.

If you know anyone who is traveling to or who lives in New York who is interested in trying out VR for the first time, then VR World is the perfect place to send them. It’s located at 4 East 34th Street, and is open from 11am to 11pm Tuesday to Sunday and extended hours to 1am on the weekends.

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Dan-BeelerThe process of diagnosing a concussion is largely a subjective process of variations of attention, focus, and balance, which means that the existing self-reporting methods are unreliable and easily gamed. Using foundational research from military research, SyncThink has created a portable concussion diagnostic tool that uses a tablet and either a Gear VR or Oculus Rift DK2 fitted with an SMI eye tracker. They claim to be able to objectively detect symptoms of a concussion within 60 seconds through subtle variations of attention and an impaired ability to make predictions of a moving dot within VR. I had a chance to catch up with SyncThink CTO Dan Beeler at TechCrunch Disrupt SF in September 2016 to talk about the science and technology behind their EYE-SYNC product.

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SyncThink just announced the second generation of their EYE-SYNC product on June 26th with features a “cloud-connected, HIPAA compliant analytics platform that delivers results in under 60 seconds without bias from the patient or clinician.” Watch their promo video below for more information or check out their website. Note that the demo being shown at Disrupt last September was using a DK2, but that their latest promo video shows a Gear VR being fit with SMI Eye Tracking technology.

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David-RogersOculus premiered about a dozen games ahead of GDC this year, and one that stood out to me was Mage’s Tale dungeon crawler for it’s distinct art style and passion in using VR to fulfill childhood fantasies of becoming a spell-casting magician. Mage’s Tale is an action RPG dungeon crawler where you search for dozens of different potion ingredients to create over 100 different spells, and then battle enemies with variations of your fire, ice, wind, and lightening spells. I talked with the lead designer David Rogers about some of the core gameplay mechanics driving Mage’s Tale, how they inspire exploration by hiding potions off of the critical path, as well as the tradeoffs between the choices you have to make while progressing your character.

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Mage’s Tale was released on June 20th, 2017 as an Oculus exclusive, but will be eventually released on other platforms as well.

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