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


Motion = Emotion

So what can we learn from Instructed Motion when it comes to XR design?

Well, it’s clear that certain motions can be fun, but beyond fun, certain motions can make players feel a certain way—like being able to add flavor to their experience.

Take for example the beat map in the track Radioactive. The motions in this song are these huge punchy hits that really speak to the song’s powerful lyrics. And there’s one part where you fling your hands way up in the air right as there’s a break in the music and the singer takes a deep breath—a motion that makes you feel perfectly in tune with that moment in the song.

On the other hand, the beat map of Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger literally makes you move with robotic motions, which perfectly aligns with both the tone and theme of the song.

Intentionally making players move in these unique ways makes these beat maps feel completely unique from one another by making the player experience different feelings while they play.

This connection between specific motions and how they make players feel means you can even think of Instructed Motion as Instructed Emotion.

But how can you apply this to games that don’t have anything to do with music?

Rather than starting by building out a world and filling it with objects and enemies and then figuring out exactly how players will interact with those things, my recommendation is—before you do anything else—sit down and come up with an idea of how you want your players to feel—like a specific set of emotions you want them to experience.

Once you have that feeling locked down, you can experiment with motions and interactions that encourage that emotion.

This is exactly how Schell Games approached the development of Until You Fall.

Until You Fall concept art | Image courtesy Schell Games

Until You Fall Producer Kirsten Rispin told me the studio built the game around the idea of making players feel like a “sword god.” Specifically, she said the team honed in on the words “powerful, strong, and smart” for how they wanted players to feel while they played.

But how do you build a combat system that creates those feelings? Instructed Motion was the key.

Until You Fall Art Director Justin DeVore told me the team worked hard to “choreograph the combat to feel powerful and complex.”

“We tried to design poses that would pop onto the screen in ways that felt good. If we put a block angle in one direction, we want to make sure the next angle will make it feel cool to have moved to that new position. And so there was a lot of iteration and back and forth on making sure the choreography of the Instructed Motion mechanics delivered the ‘Sword God’ feeling we were chasing.”

While many of the game’s Instructed Motion mechanics use explicit visual indicators, some of the mechanics that make players feel powerful are more subtle. For example, the way you pick your reward at the end of each stage by crushing it in your hand.

It would have been much easier to use a laser pointer to select the reward from a menu screen, but this simple motion absolutely contributes to the feeling of being powerful within the game.

So, as the final takeaway: making the most of Instructed Motion means matching the motions—and thus the emotions—to the fantasy you want to deliver.

If you’re making a horror game, the player should feel scared. If you’re making a stealth game, the player should feel skilled and sneaky. And if you’re making an action game, the player should feel capable and deadly. So spend time thinking about what motions can contribute to the particular feelings that your game wants to deliver to players.

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If you want to see how Until You Fall delivers the feeling of being a Sword God, you can find it on Quest, PC VR, PSVR, and PSVR 2.

Enjoyed this breakdown? Check out the rest of our Inside XR Design series and our Insights & Artwork series.

And if you’re still reading, how about dropping a comment to let us know which game or app you think we should cover next?


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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.