Virtually a Reality: My thoughts on VR

VirZoom. An exercise bike game controller. One of the surprisingly awesome VR experiences I had at GDC.

VirZoom. An exercise bike game controller. One of the surprisingly awesome VR experiences I had at GDC.

We're almost there!

Hello folks! Myself and 27,000 other people are just home from GDC 2016 in San Francisco. For many, myself included, it was our first GDC. This year also marked GDC's highest attendance to date, and there was no small focus on VR. They even went as far as to have an entire VRDC branch of the conference laid out with many talks and demos available for conference goers.

Personally, I was eager to try as much of the VR tech as I could, but more as a consumer than as a developer. My game is a 2D space sim, so VR is hardly going to have a major impact on it. Even further down the line, I can see myself favouring retro-style games (look at the company name, after all) than cutting edge VR, but I'm certainly interested in the area, as are many.

All the big players were at the conference and while many of the companies' wares were on display by (very) advanced appointment only (Virtuix Omni, Playstation VR, Raw Data on the Vive) there was still a lot that I got to try out. I was very undecided about the future of VR before GDC. How the game industry evolves still remains to be seen, but I certainly now have an educated two-cents to throw into the conversation (Don't mix metaphors. Don't mix metaphors. Okay, sorry).

We're closer than we've ever been, but is VR truly about to arrive for the masses, and if so, is it here to stay?

First Thought - Price

Before and after GDC, my thoughts on the cost of entry to higher-end VR gaming are that it is madly expensive. Even if I have now seen more of what I'd be buying in to, the cost is still a major obstacle.

The Oculus runs at $600 + shipping, and that's without the Oculus Touch controllers which aren't even released yet. The HTC Vive is $800, though it includes the VR controllers and the headset does have a camera, allowing AR (Augmented Reality) options that the Oculus can't provide.

Both of those options require a high-end PC in the first place which will run easily over $1,000. 

The Playstation VR might lead the charge when it comes to user adoption. At $400 for the headset, it's only about as expensive again as a PS4, and half the price of a Vive. While the quality is a little less impressive than its pricier counterparts, reports are that it's not that inferior at all (I didn't get to try it at GDC, unfortunately). Console gamers are already less concerned with having "the best" as compared with PC users and so I think here is where we'll see the biggest early adoption of VR, at least when it comes to gaming.

There are several cheaper options again, and these lead me to my next point.

Ambiguity & Choice Paralysis

Even for those who are willing to buy one expensive VR headset, they may well wish to wait and see what takes off in a year's time. The Vive can do things that the Oculus Rift can't, but some of those things require an 8ft x 8ft room. Many people will need to buy a house before they can make use of that particular VR offering!

The Oculus Touch controllers (which I did try with the game I Expect You To Die) do seem somewhat more natural that Vive's controllers, though I haven't spent a large amount of time with either.

I tried the Oculus Touch controllers. They aren't released yet, but they're looking and feeling pretty darned cool.

I tried the Oculus Touch controllers. They aren't released yet, but they're looking and feeling pretty darned cool.

Then you have the cheaper Samsung Gear VR into which you simply insert your phone (certain models of Android only) and you have instant VR. However, it only tracks your head movement and takes a single button input. This is not for advanced gaming. It's more the evolution of mobile games in that regard, but the lower price makes it very viable for people who just want experiences like 3D movies, guided tours, or VR porn (yes, it's already a thing. The porn industry has traditionally been on the cutting edge of technology - seriously).

Google Cardboard, the cheapest VR entry, can't even compare with the Vive or Oculus in terms of what it can do, but anyone can afford it and it works with a far wider selection of phones. 

What is VR?

So, what is VR? Well it isn't just one thing. That's a problem and an opportunity. The fact that there's an affordable VR option for everyone may lead to high adoption, but whether it robs the higher end companies of their desired market share or primes the public for that more exciting stuff remains to be seen.

I would guess that it will create a low-level interest in VR and as prices fall, we'll see more adoption of the better headsets eventually.

For the rest of the article, I'll focus more on the higher end products.

The games industry has been making the most noise about VR, so it's easy to forget its myriad other applications. Hospitals have tried adopting it to reduce depression and anxiety and ease recovery in patients. Architects are using it to show their designs in more detail than ever before. Even Six Flags theme parks have started using VR on actual roller coasters

I wouldn't be surprised if Google are working it into their Street View technology and all sorts of documentaries, concerts, and sporting events are sure to be recorded and broadcast in 3D in the coming years. Its use for mediation (see Deep - coming to the Tribeca Film Festival this year) or perhaps to treat forms of autism are very exciting also. And there's the porn..

Thinking of VR as being "the next thing in gaming" is an extremely narrow way of seeing it, and many games developers are bravely leading the charge when time could very well show them to have had been headed the wrong way entirely.

This is my opinion only, but I don't see VR treadmills designed for first person shooters as being the right way to go. I haven't tried any, admittedly, but neither have many other potential customers, and that's what counts. The FPS genre was pretty much fine as it was. It's run its course, even! VR doesn't lend itself well to lively first person movement. Older arcade shooters like Time Crisis may see a very positive revival because in those games you were tied to a single point in each section of the game, and then a cutscene moves you to the next. They worked just fine and as I watched demos of Raw Data (video below) and listened to the (very lucky) happy people coming away from their demo sessions, I think this is where VR shooters are heading.

I was very surprised to be asked "do you think VR will change the face of gaming" at GDC. For me there's no question. It won't! Look at the resurgence of 2D games, and the popularity of first person shooters. These games aren't going away and they don't need VR. Many 2D games exist because they're cheaper to produce and almost everybody can run them. It makes no sense to develop the next FTL or Spelunky as a VR game. Indies already struggle to make ends meet (okay, maybe not those two) so they won't limit themselves by developing for a smaller audience.

VR is a new peripheral (when it comes to gaming). It enables new types of games to exist, it will improve certain game genres, and it flat-out won't work for other genres. The gaming world as we know it won't change overnight, but it will slowly open up new territories.

Where VR shines for gaming

For me, any game where you are piloting or driving a vehicle will benefit well from VR. Being able to glance over your shoulder in a race car or fighter jet is something we've been missing and VR will really add to the experience. However, this is a very niche market. Headsets will sell well to the types of people who buy high-end joysticks or steering wheels, but these sales wouldn't be enough to buoy up the VR industry.

We need new types of games.

I've tried a bunch of VR games that I'd describe as neat but I wouldn't buy a headset for them and even if I had one I wouldn't play the game for more than a little while. The first game I saw that I could really see myself playing every day was Ubisoft's Eagle Flight.

You play as an eagle flying around an abandoned Paris. You hold a controller with buttons for acceleration and an attack, but all steering is done with the headset and it feels incredibly natural, smooth, and fun! There are single player and multiplayer game modes where you hunt down other birds who are attacking your nest (amongst other modes).

I queued for an hour to play this at GDC and I'm glad I did. I came away feeling for the first time like I'd really found a new type of game. The sense of flight, the field of vision, and the agility the player could quickly learn were all very compelling. And say what you like about Ubisoft (I frequently do) they know how to make compelling games that keep you coming back for weeks - at least! I can really see this one being big on Playstation, Oculus and Vive.

The problem of Fragmentation

Eagle Flight is a simple game with simple controls that works very well. I think it'll be one of the biggest early games of the VR generation. This is because most people, whatever they own, will be able to buy and play it. 

The Vive in particular is guilty of encouraging the development of games that simply won't be possible to play on the Oculus or PSVR. All the systems can track head movement and accept basic input, but the Vive can make use of a physical boundary scanning technology and front-mounted camera. This enables you to safely (if not yet 'confidently') walk around your living room while playing an experience, thus allowing types of games that we haven't even imagined yet to be created. While that's very exciting in theory, it's in no developer's interest to make games that can only be played on the Vive, when they could make simpler ones that will run on all (or most) devices.

Pushing the limits of the technology will yield great experiences, but someone who's just dropped a grand into the Oculus isn't likely to go over and buy a Vive for one new game. Who, then, is going to make the amazing games, and which platforms will they be available for?

I would predict a banality in the types of games that come out in the first couple of years until one platform or another really pulls ahead in terms of market share. That's when developers will choose their dev platform and really start pushing the technology.

Peripherals

As if the headsets themselves weren't expensive enough, there's a whole subset of companies developing movement controllers for VR devices.

I've already mentioned Virtuix Omni, and my lack of belief in the product's viability long-term. There are similar treadmills on offer, too, from other companies. I've even heard of virtual hang-gliders that you lie down and strap yourself into. I can only imagine how much floor space is required for that one! Presumably you wouldn't get much use out of them, either. Games get boring, after all. This has always been true.

I say that without having tried any of those aforementioned. What I did try was VirZoom.

I'd seen GameSpot's video (above) previously, and I was sceptical. How can you pedal a horse? That's bound to feel stupid! Same goes for a race car. I tried this at GDC and was pleasantly surprised.

You wear your chosen headset, then sit up on an exercise bike. There's a left and right trigger, and the pedals. Those are your main inputs. Tilting your head or looking at something directly is also a form of input. VirZomm provided five 1-minute demos back-to-back for attendees. I started off pedalling and the horse started moving. I was to lasso bandits off their nearby horses by catching up to them, looking at them and pressing a trigger. Simultaneously I had to avoid certain obstacles in the street.

After about ten seconds, I didn't even realise I was pedalling any more. The gameplay just took over. The same went for driving the race car and even flying the helicopter. When you're in it, it feels totally natural, despite how it looks to an observer and despite how unconvincing it must be to read about.

I finished the demo with a good warm-up done and a new appreciation for the types of games that could be created.

We run into the fragmentation problem again, here. Any games designed to work well for this exercise bike input will likely not be very convincing as a traditional game with an ordinary gamepad. Thus for the developers to make back money, one might expect the games to cost a lot, or at least to have been cheap to produce and probably lacking in variety. On the other hand, we see here that there are legitimately whole new directions to explore with VR. The retail cost of the bike is $400. Another steep investment. However, here you can weigh the investment against the cost of a road bike or gym membership. Maybe in colder climates where you can't cycle or jog in Winter, the gamification of exercise could really take off. The bike also folds down pretty small so it doesn't take up much space in your house.

If I already had a VR headset, I could honestly see myself making this the next purchase. I know I need more exercise, and while the best gameplay motivation in the current demos is merely to place on a world high-score chart, savvy developers could make some really compelling narrative games based around stories like Easy Rider, or Mad Max style road warrior games.

In Conclusion

I personally think VR will be a big part of our futures, but not that it will revolutionise gaming. I doubt it will revolutionise any particular industry. I think it hasn't quite arrived yet but that when it does it will be here to stay. The internet and the smart phone will likely remain the largest technical and social milestones in our recent history, but VR will certainly shake things up a bit and make the world a more interesting place to live in.

I can't wait until I can afford it..

Until next time..