Every step you take, every move you make, every treasure you take, developers are watching you with in-game analytics. Accumulated game data informs a developer’s decision making on anything from level design to difficulty and ability balance. Based on player interactions, a developer can tell whether an event is interesting, or if players can easily find and interact with a key object. I wanted to know, are VR developers using this technology, and what is it teaching them about their players? Are analytics pushing the boundaries of a game’s physical fitness application?
Advanced analytics are used by major game studios to count everything. These stats get extremely granular too. In a shooter game, for example, developers might track:
- How many bullets you shoot
- How often you reload
- Number of steps and where on the map
- What you touched
- Where you crouched
- How often you ran out of ammunition
And many other critical statistics.
These questions led me to Observer Analytics, a company that works with many VR developers. Many VR titles are labeled early access, so presumably some of these developers are utilizing in-game analytics. I also reached out to Ian Fitz of Thrill of the Fight, and looked closer at how statistics are used in VR game development.
If you’re a stats nerd, an aspiring game developer, or you want to know why some games feel “just right”, then read on to see how analytics is changing VR fitness.
Stats Rule Everything Around Me
What exactly do in-game analytics collect? The most obvious statistics are categories like overall playerbase, or active multiplayer population.
In major game development houses, teams might work on several games including ports to other devices. Each requires careful monitoring of an active player base to grow the game. But there’s more to stat tracking than just who uses the application.
QuiVR recently added boss and puzzle events to its world. With event tracking, BlueTeak can adjust the challenge based on player completion rates. They even have precise data on where players get stumped, making adjustment easier. Players still get the challenge to fulfill the objective, but data collection gives developers insight into how the player accomplishes this goal.
VR Physio is an FDA licensed application, so data collection must be a core focus. Balancing for a wide adoption rate is less useful when the objective is individual rehabilitation. With Physio, a data collection tool can measure range of motion to provide a baseline of patient progress. Medical staff can adjust intensity and goals in game as well, creating a tool that progresses with the user, basing progress on hard medical data.
For an FDA approved application, event tracking is a medical necessity. The average release on Steam (or the Oculus Store) is looking at player engagement and goal completion. Just like a trainer at a gym, motivating you with ever-increasing challenges to help avoid the plateau, VR fitness developers are learning more about the games they’ve created for you.
Have you ever noticed VR-specific applications (AKA, not a Bethesda VR port) have lots of design concentrated to specific areas of the map? Like enemy spawn points or points of interest, for example. In-game analytics track player behavior in the real and virtual worlds. This data informs developers of where users point the headset, concentrating design to those areas.
Player performance has important implications. If players can’t see or respond to certain cues, they can’t progress. They may become frustrated and leave.
FitXR used Observe Analytics to discover something interesting about player onboarding. Longtime BoxVR players may recall a height adjustment tool that players could use to manually adjust height in early versions of the game. The team discovered that the adjuster was unnecessarily complicated. Instead, they automatically adjusted the height of incoming objects based on headset position. No more height adjustment meant players could dive right into the tutorial section and proceed to a workout.
Balance work is one of my favorite aspects of game development. As a long time DotA player, I am excited by the way subtle and unexpected changes can completely change the dynamic of a game. Much of this work is made possible by data collection, especially when balancing nuance like the speed of a weapon or the force of a strike.
VR adds another element to this already complicated formula: player ability. Performance can teach developers a bit about failure rates, but it falls short of conveying the average player’s ability. With the size of VR’s audience, a game’s success hinges upon how well the average player takes to it. Aspiring developers may do well to pay attention to their playerbase.
I had the opportunity to talk with Ian Fitz, developer for The Thrill of the Fight. He told me analytics do inform developers, but player experience is where the real insights can be found. “I collect some analytics, but mostly I focus on player feedback I receive to decide what needs changing.” Fitz said that the real learning can be found in watching how players interact with the game world. Long time Thrill players will recognize his omnipresence on the Steam forums, asking for videos or descriptions of the gameplay situations that frustrate his players.
“Analytics and player feedback are both just tools to diagnose problems, but both often just point to the symptoms and not the cause of frustrations. When looking too heavily at analytics, it’s sometimes easy to make a change to fix your numbers without actually solving the problem and making your players happy (and in fact, sometimes you just cause new problems and make players even more upset).”
Finding New Ways to Engage
We all know Creed gets more interesting once you leave the gym, so the gym has to interest you to keep you motivated. It also has to teach you basics so you understand the rules. Analytics help developers turn those initial engagements into a long-term play session.
Creed is a great example of how a game can just flow from one action to the next. Your fights are dependent on how well your training session plays out, so you need to stay focused. Your training sessions have weight as a result. When the fight arrives you feel ready, or perhaps you’re not, and your opponent gets the mental edge on you before the first punches are thrown. All dependent on the training mechanic built into the game.
Analytics help developers find new opportunities to build curiosity and awareness into the game. Consider how Superhot begins with fairly linear confrontations that quickly spiral into more complex encounters. At first, players use whatever is in front of them to dispatch opponents coming toward them. As new weapons are introduced, bad guys begin appearing from all angles. Eventually, these systems weave together for a high-intensity and immersive experience.
Final Thoughts on VR Analytics
VR’s power as a fitness platform seems like it comes from the way players engage with it. In a virtual realm, we’re more curious about what we can see or touch. Especially when the world is hostile to us. Our immersion sharpens reaction times. We’re no longer reacting to a screen, we’re living the game.
Developers have a wealth of data to work with once they integrate in-game analytics, but the numbers aren’t a magic fix for every situation. Sometimes, you need to look at how players utilize your application before you can think of clever fixes to their fitness challenges. Larger studios may be at a slight disadvantage here because they have the manpower to monitor analytics, but may have different metrics for success.
To the aspiring developers out there: try and stay conscious of the forums and any gameplay videos you come across. Sometimes it does pay off to read the comment section.