(tl;dr at the bottom)
Matt Haselton from Filament Games was kind enough to deliver a presentation to the Game Development Club at SJSU some of the philosophies he's learned after working on several VR projects. Their current project is an educational game about notable women in science called Breaking Boundaries.
Unfortunately since it was a rather impromptu event we weren't able to get a recording however I took notes again! Everything in bold are things taken from his presentation, everything else is my personal takeaways. Keep in mind the original presentation was targeted toward an audience of other developers who were making educational VR games.
Start From the Learning Objectives and Build Mechanics/Hardware That Support Them
I think this applies beyond just games meant specifically for education. Some games such as Gone Home and This War of Mine have a message to impart upon a player and their mechanics lend themselves to their message very well.
Gone Home is a personal story of discovery and growth. It's played from the first person perspective, and this helps the player assume the role of Katie more easily. The dark atmosphere adds a mysterious mood to the game making the player feel like a detective and the player is rewarded for his or her exploration by learning more about what happened to Katie's sister and seeing her perspective throughout the various clues she leaves throughout the house.
This War of Mine uses survival and RPG elements to convey what it would be like to survive in a war torn city. Having to control a group trying to endure looters, bombardments, and the brutalities of war complements the game's gritty aesthetic and ultimate message that war is horrible and unforgiving.
Any game that you might want to design can follow this philosophy and it does make quite a bit of sense. Want to design a game that people want to feel accomplished when completing? Take a look at QWOP or the more recent Getting Over It; both created by Bennet Foddy the objective of these games is to challenge the player. This is accomplished with strange , foreign controls and making the player adapt to overcome obstacles. In fact, the entire platformer genre is just that: a series of challenges the player is meant to overcome. Games that are successful at doing this because they don't lose sight of what they want to accomplish being: a fun, challenging, and in the case of Foddy's game punishing experience that rewards the player for doing well. The games have level designs, mechanics, and dynamics that work toward creating this specific experience.
Keeping the Goal of the Project In Mind Helps to Focus the Team
When working in a large group, it helps to use tools like Discord, Slack, and Trello to keep the team working in an orderly manner (or at least in principle). However these tools won't have direct influence on what the game designer ultimately decides should be the starting point of a level, or how the programmer creates the physics. Having a strong, shared idea of what the ultimate goal is of the game helps ensure that whatever is being worked on builds toward achieving the objective for the game; and when conflict arises then you refer back to this goal as a reference to see what idea moves closer to it.
Why Is Your Game Better Than Paper?
Haselton brought up the excellent point that paper is amazing. Me trying to capture the initial humor of his statement aside, he's quite right. When you think about it paper can be used to play various games like Tic-Tac-Toe and Dots and Boxes, it can be folded into a fortune teller, used to record and send messages, and with a proper dungeon master it can be used to go on an epic quest.
The takeaway for me was to take advantage of the medium you're developing in. Specifically as he mentions, VR can be used to take people to places they could never imagine to in real life. Extending beyond VR games can create experiences for people and allow the exploration of worlds created by the game. How many countless hours have been invested into CS:GO or World of Warcraft?
Being Evocative vs Being Explicit
The player can be effected by the game without it having to say what its meaning is. In education this is the difference between studying how an object's momentum changes when colliding with another moving object and actually trying it. In games the difference is telling a player that they can fly in Rocket League versus a playing seeing someone else flying and thinking "maybe I can do that too?" Or in the context of one of the games I've mentioned previously, This War of Mine, the game doesn't just tell you "war is bad" it shows you its horrors. It shows you in the gameplay, the art, and the story that you as the player influence. Between having to send members of your group out looting for supplies, the dark atmosphere that's been torn apart by the hailstorms of bullets the player is meant to feel a sense of dread and desperation that books and lines of text can tell you about, movies can show you, but games can have you experience.
The Game Impacts the Player, The Player Impacts the Game
In an interview the Game Dev Club at SJSU hosted with Kent Hudson (the developer of The Novelist), he said that he was "frustrated about how games were getting more and more cinematic" and that with The Novelist he wanted to "build a game where the narrative and gameplay are more connected" and the player is "actually changing the story through [his or her] gameplay." For the player to impact the world he or she, there must be trade offs, events must be situational, choices and actions must have consequence, and there the player should have personal agency (Haselton had referenced this from a GDC talk about interesting player decisions). The player should be involved in the world, and while VR can give players a connection to the game space, it doesn't mean that players will have any attachment to them. Right now there aren't that many VR experiences that have created a completely immersive virtual world but we're getting closer.
Again I would like to thank Matt Haselton for staying after his presentation with Oculus Connect to give it again to our Game Dev Club. We got a lot of great info and perspective from it!
Start from the learning objectives and build mechanics/hardware that support them
Keeping user interaction and goal in mind helps to keep the team focused
Think: why is your game better than paper?
Show not tell, be evocative rather than explicit
Games should have trade offs, various situations, consequences, and personal agency
Game impacts the player and the player impacts the game