Stare to Win – A Bad Trend in VR Design

There’s a gameplay decision that’s trending in VR games at the moment, and it’s starting to worry me. I call it ‘stare to win’, and I believe it’s having a negative effect on gameplay and VR games in general.


‘Stare to Win’ is where all players have to do is to look at objects long enough to complete an action, for example – to shoot down a craft I just stare at it, or to walk somewhere I just look at that spot. This isn’t games where you guide an object with your sight, as these have an immediate response, your head is a controller.


Sure, there’s been some interesting applications of ‘stare to win’ but on the Gear VR it has a built in touchpad, you have a button ready and waiting to be used, so why not use it?


The excuse I’ve seen is that having your hand tapping the side of your head is ‘tiring’, or that staring is more intuitive than a tap. I’m going to go through a few reasons why I believe that just having stare controls is not a good idea. I can break this down into; Waiting for the Computer, Defying Natural Expectations, Lack of Player Agency and No Tactile Feedback.


Waiting for the Computer

As a player, I’ve made a conscious decision to interact with something, but I have to wait until the computer says it’s OK. This isn’t OK – as a player I don’t want to wait for an arbitrary amount of time before I’m allowed to move somewhere or interact with something. I already made my decision and I expect the computer to react as fast as I do.


You think it’s bad seeing the spinning hourglass or ball cursor on a PC – in VR, it’s naturally worse. I’m constantly seeing a waiting cursor in the middle of my eyeline, a constant reminder of ‘hey, you’re waiting for a computer’. It’s a rather easy way  to take you straight out of any immersion you may have had.



Defying Natural Expectations

How many things in real life are ‘interacted with’ by staring? Staring isn’t a natural human interact tool unless we are talking with someone. Staring is an action to take in what’s happening around you, rather than send out commands. So a game should not have staring as it’s primary input method for activities that do not involve social interaction.


Lack of Player Agency and Timing

To really feel like they are inside the game, players need to have a feeling of agency, like they have control of themselves and are having an effect on the world. A stare does not offer this, I’m not inputting a command – things are just happening for me. It’s frustrating as a player as I want to feel like I’m the one that’s in command, rather than waiting for the computer to agree with me.


Let’s look back to the start of AR in games – Sony’s EyeToy Play. They had a system that was a little similar where you had to wait for a button to fill before it said ‘enough is enough, you have interacted’. Why does this work and VR stare does not? That’s because the player is performing a physical action to be able to interact with the button. The simple act of rubbing it means that they feel like they are having an effect and some control over the game.


Balancing a ‘stare timer’ that states when something has been stared at long enough, involves some tough choices and a no-win situation. Too long, and the player gets frustrated, but too short and the interaction can accidentally be triggered. In either case, it’s still too long for some interactions.


Some of the games I’ve played have mixed not only having stare interactions, but having to time a reaction. In a normal game – the only thing between having seen a target and time to shoot is the player’s own reactions in pressing the button. With ‘stare to win’, it’s not only the players reactions but also they have to time when they start the stare in order to correctly time interacting with the object! That’s a long to think about in VR and makes you very aware that you’re just playing a game and waiting for a computer.


No Tactile Feedback

So why have we as in industry spent a fortune on rumble controllers and mobiles, and how a button feels to press? This is because tactical feedback is so important, the feel of an action. We’re already fighting with trying to make every action feel real, so why would you avoid the easiest feedback of them all, touch? By only using stare controls you remove the single greatest bit of feedback that players have to signal the fact they have performed an interaction. Now by just using staring controls, you have to design lots of over the top feedback and UI to compensate for that loss, and you still don’t get the satisfaction of being to touch something.


Again, you are fighting natural human behaviours by not allowing a touch interaction. The first things we do when seeing what something is as a child is to pick it up, squish it, and put it in our mouths (for better or for worse). By not allowing for touch, now all we have is our eyesight, which frustrates us on a core level.


When is it right?

Staring to interact works for users who are totally unable to move apart from their neck and head. this is a positive thing for them to have the range of games out there that suddenly they are able to play just as well as any other player.


But there are options for these players to still be able to play via input and with a sense of agency, devices like chin and blow controllers. Also, a touchpad is great to use for players that still have a part of their body that they can use to touch on the pad. We actually had a player which didn’t have a right hand to interact with, but they were able to with what remained of their arm.


As I mentioned before, in social interactions staring can work really well. If you stare at a character in VR, and that virtual person calls you up on it – that can be a powerful thing. But this cannot be used for everything in a game.


In Conclusion

Have a serious think on why you are choosing to implement ‘stare to win’. Just because something is possible to do now, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily the best for the player. We don’t use ‘hover mouse over to win’, so why start using ‘stare to win’ instead?


Post Publish – Extra Notes
Some great things I’ve seen people mention;
Aubrey HesselgrenYep! Gaze is not intent! Necks are horrible replacements for hands as manipulators!
John CarmackTap-to-skip should always be on UI even if timed.
Geos13This article demonstrates why it is so important for input to come bundled with the headset.