Ever since developers first put animated pixel to screen, the industry has been on a quest to create a truly immersive world. As tech has progressed, we’ve got closer, turning blocky scenes into near photo-like depictions. Virtual reality could allow us to take the final step, from peering into the action to being in it.
“For the first time we will finally be inside of the game,” said Brendan Iribe, CEO of Oculus VR, makers of the Rift, at the company’s E3 presentation. “Gamers have been dreaming about this for decades.”
Developers, having had the opportunity to try out various demos that have been shown at conferences over the past few years, have also been filled with wonder about the prospects for VR.
“Once you’ve had a compelling VR experience, it’s hard not to get excited by the possibilities,” said Chandana Ekanayake, game director of VR adventure game Wayward Sky from Uber Entertainment, which is being developed for Sony’s Project Morpheus. “It’s the reason we decided to explore games in the VR space.”
But while there is undoubted excitement for the format, the industry higher ups aren’t exactly leaping on board. There’s a sense of caution in the air and the majority of bosses are taking a wait-and-see approach rather than jumping into projects for a format that they don’t yet know will be successful.
“I think that this industry is going to continue to progress by being entertaining and creating experiences that are fun,” Nintendo America COO Reggie Fils-Aime told the Guardian newspaper. “I’ve tried a lot of the different experiences – some were fun, some less so. But at the point that it’s consistently fun, it will be a real innovation.”
The dominant VR genres
In less than a year, the three standout consumer VR headsets – the Oculus Rift, the HTC Vive from Valve and Project Morpheus for Sony’s PS4 – will be out and in the hands of consumers. And with an array of games on the way, they could be immense fun.
“There’s an incredible feeling of being transported to another world that you just don’t get with any other type of gaming platform,” said Brian Allgeier, creative director of Insomniac Games’ Oculus Rift horror exclusive Edge of Nowhere. “Escapist fantasy is a big part of video games and VR has the power to transport players to amazing new worlds.”
However, VR is not likely to simply replicate the current array of games in a virtual form. Instead, certain genres are looking set to blossom on headsets in a way they have not done recently on consoles and PCs. Most notable of these is horror, thanks to the level of shock and emotion that a virtual experience offers.
“When I first put on a VR headset I immediately felt an incredible sense of presence, but at the same time a feeling of vulnerability. I wasn’t sure what might be behind me and as the world felt more real, the instinctual part of my brain became highly aware of my surroundings,” said Allgeier. “For that reason I think horror will be a very popular genre. But not everyone is going to want to scared out of their wits.”
For those not keen on having their nerves frazzled by immersive virtual shock, games focusing on wondrous visuals are also likely to do well.
“VR has the power to create amazing experiences that create a sense of wonder and delight. For example, there’s a great demo for the Oculus Rift where you can see a small model city, stare into the eyes of an alien, and look up at a massive T-Rex,” he said. “There’s an experiential component where simply being present can be engaging. I think we’re going to see a wide range of different experiences over the years.”
VR could also see a re-emergence of other genres that have fallen into the niche zone in recent times, such as JRPGs and simulators. A demonstration of the latter’s potential was shown at Oculus’ E3 event, in the form of Eve: Valkyrie, a first-person space combat simulator from the makers of Eve Online.
“What’s really a surprise is how much the concept of virtual reality added to the experience,” said CCP Games CEO Hilmar Veigar Pétursson at the event. “With the final Rift hardware we can say with confidence is that Eve: Valkyrie is the closest thing to being a real space fighter pilot. You get something so real, it’s more than real.”
Technical challenges of gaming in VR
As exciting as the prospect of VR gaming is, the elephant in the room is the fact that it does not yet get close to matching some of the portrayals in fiction. Shows such as Sword Art Online depict vast, truly realistic open worlds with complete sensory perception that gamers can explore via headset, and, of course, the reality is a little less awesome. In fact, even the idea that you can take a game and port it effortlessly to VR is rather unrealistic thanks to technical limitations and the risk of motion sickness.
“Many people assume you can take existing genres and put them in VR. Unpredictable camera motion and rotation might be fine in non-VR games, but if you’re doing that with the player’s head, they’ll suffer from severe motion sickness,” said Allgeier.
However, there are ways to tackle this, and the current crop of VR game developers are currently forging a path that many future games will no doubt follow.
“With EoN, we were very conscious of discomfort from the start and designed the game to have a ‘north facing’ camera that moves with the hero character down the path,” he added.
“The camera never rotates; we leave all of that up to the player, who can freely move their head to look around. The result is a natural, comfortable, and immersive experience.”
Camera control looks set to be one of the defining differences between regular and VR games, and Uber Entertainment is planning a similar approach for Wayward Sky.
“We set out to make a game that would be a good introduction to VR and something that wouldn’t make people motion sick,” said Ekanayake. “The third-person camera cuts as the player moves the main character Bess around, which solves the locomotion issue that first-person games have trouble with in VR.”
Known issues with VR’s role for games
Of course, there are some things that VR cannot yet do. Outputting to a headset means a computer or console is effectively outputting to two screens rather than one, which effectively halves the graphical capabilities of a regular game. For this reason, it will be a fair while before we see games that can match the graphical quality of current triple A games, and discussion about how the technology will advance is common among the major players in the field.
The current software for these virtual reality devices cannot be played simultaneously by a number of people – Shigeru Miyamoto
The multiplayer issue is a less discussed, but equally limiting factor. For the most part, VR simply cannot run multiplayer on all but the most powerful machines, and in a world where co-op content is a must, this could be a real problem.
“The current software for these virtual reality devices cannot be played simultaneously by a number of people,” said Shigeru Miyamoto, Nintendo senior managing director and general manager of the company’s entertainment analysis and development division, in a Q&A session with shareholders.
The exception here is Project Morpheus, which was confirmed as having multiplayer support for up to four people at Sony’s E3 event. The showcase title for this feature is mech soccer game RIGS, developed by Guerilla Cambridge, but it is notable that this only supports three players simultaneously.
It appears that the more players the game supports, the lower its graphic quality – a trade-off that may not be appealing to some players.
The gaming industry’s hesitant enthusiasm for VR
For all its limitations, many game developers are still itching to try their hand at VR, including heavyweights such as executive game director for the Deus Ex series, Jean-François Dugas.
Those that have been given the opportunity have been keen to take it up, as was the case with Sunset Overdrive maker Insomniac Games. “There are a number of VR enthusiasts at Insomniac and when we were approached by Oculus to make a game, we jumped at the offer,” said Allgeier. “I think most game developers are naturally excited by new technology and the unique challenges it presents.”
However, it’s up to those in charge of the money to decide whether a game is made, and few have seen the opportunities as fiscally sound. The exception is Ubisoft, which has announced that it will be releasing several games for the format from next year.
“We believe a lot in virtual reality because we see that it is really giving a chance for gamers to be more immersed in worlds, and we are developing a certain number of games that are going to take advantage of this new possibility,” said Ubisoft CEO Yves Guillemot in a press call with Polygon. “We are very bullish about the potential. We think it is going to bring more players to the universe of video games, and we are going to come with our brands. We will have a few titles in the first year and we will have regular games coming following that.”
The virtual future of games
As hesitant as the industry is, many feel that the technology has a firm future in gaming, even if it takes several iterations of the hardware to cement its place.
“While non-VR games are not going to die anytime soon, I think more people will adopt VR as headsets get lighter and cheaper,” said Allgeier.
Along the way development approaches, and therefore games, are also expected to improve.
“I think it will take years for the market to grow and for developers to really figure out what makes a great VR experience,” said Ekanayake. “During that time, we’ll see hardware improvements that will make it more appealing for people that are still on the fence about it. Right now it’s mostly enthusiasts, early adopters and developers all exploring the space.”