The Secret to ‘Beat Saber’s’ Fun Isn’t What You Think – Inside XR Design


Our series Inside XR Design highlights and unpacks examples of great XR design. Today we’re looking at Beat Saber (2019) and why its most essential design element can be used to make great VR games that have nothing to do with music or rhythm.

You can find the complete video below, or continue reading for an adapted text version.

More Than Music

Welcome back to another episode of Inside XR Design. Now listen, I’m going to say something that doesn’t seem to make any sense at all. But by the end of this article, I guarantee you’ll understand exactly what I’m talking about.

Beat Saber… is not a rhythm game.

Now just wait a second before you call me insane.

Beat Saber has music, and it has rhythm, yes. But the defining characteristic of a rhythm game is not just music, but also a scoring system that’s based on timing. The better your timing, the higher your score.

Now here’s the part most people don’t actually realize. Beat Saber doesn’t have any timing component to its scoring system.

That’s right. You could reach forward and chop a block right as it comes into range. Or you could hit it at the last second before it goes completely behind you, and in both cases you could earn the same number of points.

So if Beat Saber scoring isn’t about timing, then how does it work? The scoring system is actually based on motion. In fact, it’s actually designed to make you move in specific ways if you want the highest score.

The key scoring factors are how broad your swing is and how even your cut is through the center of the block. So Beat Saber throws these cubes at you and challenges you to swing broadly and precisely.

And while Beat Saber has music that certain helps you know when to move, more than a rhythm game… it’s a motion game.

Specifically, Beat Saber is built around a VR design concept that I like to call ‘Instructed Motion’, which is when a game asks you to move your body in specific ways.

And I’m going to make the case that Instructed Motion is a design concept that can be completely separated from games with music. That is to say: the thing that makes Beat Saber so fun can be used to design great VR games that have nothing to do with music or rhythm.

Instructed Motion

Ok so to understand how you can use Instructed Motion in a game that’s not music-based let’s take a look at Until You Fall (2020) from developer Schell Games. This is not remotely a rhythm game—although it has an awesome soundtrack—but it uses the same Instruction Motion concept that makes Beat Saber so much fun.

While many VR combat games use physics-based systems that allow players to approach combat with arbitrary motions, Until You Fall is built from the ground up with a notion of how it wants players to move.

And before you say that physics-based VR combat is objectively the better choice in all cases, I want you to consider what Beat Saber would be like if players could cut blocks in any direction they wanted at all times.

Sure, you would still be cutting blocks to music, and yet, it would be significantly harder to find the fun and flow that makes the game feel so great. Beat Saber uses intentional patterns that cause players to move in ways that are fluid and enjoyable. Without the arrows, player movements would be chaotic and they’d be flailing randomly.

So just like Beat Saber benefits by guiding a player to make motions that are particularly satisfying, combat in VR can benefit too. In the case of Until You Fall, the game uses Instructed Motion not only to make players move a certain way, but also to make them feel a certain way.

When it comes to blocking, players feel vulnerable because they are forced into a defensive position. Unlike a physics-based combat game where you can always decide when to hit back, enemies in Until You Fall have specific attack phases, and the player must block while it happens, otherwise you risk taking a hit and losing one of just three hit points.

Thanks to this approach, the game can adjust the intensity the player feels by varying the number, position, and speed of blocks that must be made. Weak enemies might hit slowly and without much variation in their attacks. While strong enemies will send a flurry of attacks that make the player really feel like they’re under pressure.

This gives the developer very precise control over the intensity, challenge, and feeling of each encounter. And it’s that control that makes Instructed Motion such a useful tool.

Dodging is similar to blocking, but instead of raising your weapon to the indicated position, you need to move your whole body out of the way. And this feels completely different from just blocking.

While some VR combat games would let the player ‘dodge’ just by moving their thumbstick to slide out of the way, Until You Fall uses Instructed Motion to make the act of dodging much more physically engaging.

And when it comes to attacking, players can squeeze in hits wherever they can until an enemy’s shield is broken, which then opens an opportunity to deal a bunch of damage.

And while another VR game might have just left this opening for players to hit the enemy as many times as they can, Until You Fall uses Instruced Motion to ask players to swing in specific ways.

Swinging in wide arcs and along particular angles deals the most damage and makes you move in a way that feels really powerful and confident. It’s like the opposite feeling of when you’re under attack. It really feels great when you land all the combo hits.

Continue on Page 2: Motion = Emotion


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Ben is the world's most senior professional analyst solely dedicated to the XR industry, having founded Road to VR in 2011—a year before the Oculus Kickstarter sparked a resurgence that led to the modern XR landscape. He has authored more than 3,000 articles chronicling the evolution of the XR industry over more than a decade. With that unique perspective, Ben has been consistently recognized as one of the most influential voices in XR, giving keynotes and joining panel and podcast discussions at key industry events. He is a self-described "journalist and analyst, not evangelist."
  • jerronimo3000

    Great piece! I find this to be true in every creative medium. Everything you do makes the person feel something. Words evoke emotions in books. So do sounds/music and visuals in movies. VR uniquely allows you to incorporate body positioning and movement in addition to those other three tools to further encourage a particular emotion in the player. “What do you want the player to feel?” is absolutely the first question that should be asked. It drives everything else.

  • ViRGiN

    It’s an overhyped rhytm game that would work equally as good, if not even better, on a Kinect “3.0” in front of a TV.

    It’s really pathethic that this could be considered “killer app” for VR.
    Noone have ever asked for anything like this prior to consumer VR, because everyone had much more noble desires.

    This took off cause with mods, you could have many more hours of ‘gameplay’, as long as the music last, compared to regular VR games that you can have more than enough after 30 minutes..

    But i’d rather always read a book or go for a walk than play this crap.

    • Ben Lang

      Nobody is “considering” it VR’s killer app… the market decided that.

      • ViRGiN

        Yeah, it’s collectively “us”. And that’s disappointing.

        • Ben Lang

          Ah I see. Gotta start somewhere. Angry Birds was a killer app for smartphone gaming for a while, but now we have a much broader range of options, many of which are far deeper.

          • ViRGiN

            Angry Birds was right for the platform. It still took a long while for ‘real’ games to appear, and I would say we are getting there just recently, like with CODM, Warzone Mobile, or Alien Isolation (paid title).
            It’s also hard to sell games on mobile phones.

            However, Beat Saber started as PC game. The same PC machine could have run infinietly more complex flat games. And yet masses went to play Beat Saber, still roughly #2 on PCVR to this day.

    • kat

      How is it overhyped? I think it’s a great way for people to get exercise where they otherwise wouldn’t because it’s a game.

      It obviously isn’t a traditional rhythm game, but it still has rhythm. I think it’s just a fun game to play. Get lost in the music and slicing blocks.

      As for the modding space, yes, mods bring a ton more content to Beat Saber, but the same can be said with other games, like Skyrim, Fallout, Terraria, Minecraft. Hell, modded STALKER is a completely different game. Beat Saber is a great concept, and mods just bring more to it.

      Also, if you don’t like it, just don’t play! There are still a lot of VR games to enjoy.

      • ViRGiN

        > Also, if you don’t like it, just don’t play!
        And I don’t!
        Saying anything like this is some sort of gatekeeping. If you like it, just play! Let adults talk about things.

        If you can’t see how it is not overhyped, then there is no such thing that could ever change your mind.
        #1 PCVR game is Gorilla Tag. Do you think it’s not overhyped? It peaked in the last 24h at 1301 concurrent players. Alyx peaked at 450, nearly 3 times less.
        For Beat Saber it was 942, a solid #2, on SteamVR alone.

        • kat

          Gorilla Tag got #1 because of its unique gameplay, controls, and popularity with younger players. While I don’t play it, those aspects of the game paired with the popularity it has on the Quest platform makes it easy to understand that why it’s number 1.

          I find Beat Saber to be quite engaging. Even though it does have a limited amount of base content, the community content and mods gives so much more. It’s also a good way for people to get some exercise where they otherwise wouldn’t because it’s a game.

          Beat Saber also has a competitive space contributing to its popularity, just like many other popular rhythm games like osu!, ADOFAI, Muse Dash, etc. I personally don’t care much about the comp scene and the “tech,” I just find it a nice way to get some energy out.

  • XRC

    Hi Ben

    Thanks for another great article in your ongoing series, always super enjoyable to read.

    Thoroughly enjoyed playing “Until you fall” makes the player feel incredible during combat with a very polished progression. Very satisfying to play and finally complete, has a great physicality which anchors the player.

    “Beat saber” also makes the player feel incredible, easy to get into a flow state, whilst the constant body movement generates a rich stream of proprioceptive goodness. Overall it just feels really good to play, no wonder we are still playing all these years later!

    • Ben Lang

      Absolutely, having it all happen right within arms reach is another huge benefit thanks for proprioception and embodiment! I should have at least mentioned for passing viewers that I talked in depth about embodiment in the previous episode:

  • Dragon Marble

    You are missing the point. A first-timer may find that they can’t get S+ no matter how perfectly they hit every single note. That’s because they are playing it as a traditional rhythm game.

    The article is talking about design concepts that only exist in VR. None of these would be applicable to a flat game ported to VR, which would simply be — a rhythm game.

  • This is an article both on Until You Fall and Beat Saber… maybe more Until You Fall than Beat Saber :) Very interesting to read, thanksf for writing it

  • NicoleJsd

    The problem with beatsaber is that it focuses merely on arms motion too much.

    Yes there are fitness maps and they are nice but they are few in between.

    If you really want to duck, jump and move around you have to go through dozens of maps to find those that have walls and beats synced nicely

  • Rhythm gaming in VR is fantastic, and Beat Saber is rightfully recognized as the biggest of them all – despite missing that overly strict requirement of having a timing-based scoring system.

    It’s the same thing in non-VR. What is one “normal rhythm game” anyone knows of? Guitar Hero. Which happens to not have a timing-based scoring system either.