Virtual dreams dominate GDC
Can the VR dream defy the odds and become a commercial reality in this generation of hardware?
Almost every conference on the games industry calendar makes some vague, buzzwordy claim to show its participants "the future", to look ahead down a metaphorical highway (probably a lovely straight one in the American midwest, like you'd see on the insipidly inspirational cover of a second-rate self-help book) and give us tantalising glimpses of things to come. Of course, most of this is rubbish. Consumer-focused shows' horizon on the future is about three months out, as they're meant to sell you games in the coming weeks, not get you excited about things you can't actually buy for real money yet. Business conferences, meanwhile, engage themselves in the task of teaching people about the present, not the future. That looks boring on marketing copy (which is why nobody ever writes it), but informing people about the market data, skills and tools they need today is actually a much more important and useful function than "a glimpse of the future" would be.
GDC is one of the only exceptions. It's not that GDC doesn't focus on the present, for the most part; it's just that it's pretty much impossible to put that many tech geeks together in the world's geekiest city (a title for which even Tokyo can't really challenge San Francisco) and not end up trying to peer into the future. Unburdened by the need to sell games in the short term and populated more heavily by technologists, designers and artists than by marketers and salespeople, GDC naturally evolves into a forum for talking about what's next, rather than what's now.
This year, what's next is virtual reality. VR isn't the only strong theme emerging from the show; there's continued excitement about the exodus of creatives making the bold leap from AAA development to indie, an important ongoing discussion about F2P techniques and its place in the market, and plenty more besides. But VR is the big, exciting thing that's coming down the pipeline. Oculus Rift has a new development kit, sporting vastly superior hardware to the last version, and now Sony has confirmed its ambitions in the market with Project Morpheus, a gorgeously designed prototype for a PS4 headset whose specifications are a close match for its rival.
"I think we need to be a little cautious in our optimism. Let's not forget that just because something is technologically possible does not mean that it will take off with consumers and creators"
The excitement is easy to understand; VR is a lifelong dream of many technologists. Ever since we first walked down a corridor in Wolfenstein 3D, we've dreamed of removing the greatest barrier to immersion in that experience - the monitor screen sitting in front of our faces, a flat, frustrating window that separates us from the increasingly beautiful and compelling worlds behind its dull glass. As successive generations of VR technology have stumbled and failed, both commercially and technologically, the dream of immersion has been kept alive only by science fiction. To dream of VR has been to dream of being a fly trapped behind a window, ever bouncing and skittering across the flat glass and unable to access the world trapped beyond.
Now it's closer than ever. The technological problems which held back previous generations of VR have been overcome by smaller, lighter, sharper LED and OLED displays with incredible pixel densities, by superbly sensitive accelerometers and gyroscopes, and by vastly powerful GPUs capable of maintaining the framerates needed for immersive VR without a sick-bag to hand. Moreover, VR suddenly feels like the right technology at the right time. There's a sense, perhaps somewhat misplaced, that the core gaming experience is under attack - that the unique experiences afforded by AAA software on consoles and PCs are being chipped away at the edges by social, casual and mobile games. Few core gamers welcome sweeping predictions that we'll all be gaming on mobile phones in the not-too-distant future, leading to a feeling that core gaming needs something new, big and exciting to justify the high costs and bulky, whirring boxes. VR could be just that something, a white knight riding in to save the core gaming market with the kind of experience mobile games are unlikely to offer for quite some time, if ever.
GDC is excited. Hell, I'm excited too. Introducing functional, usable VR tech into the mix opens up new realms of possibility for games, as well as asking a great many more questions that require creative answers. How will we control VR games, for example? Sony is definitely on to something with the PlayStation Move controllers, which have proven themselves to be fantastic for manipulating objects in 3D space, while there's also the fascinating possibility that Microsoft's Kinect technology might come into its own as a VR controller thanks to its ability to track whole-body movements. We're starting to learn already that VR games require new ways of thinking about HUD and other GUI elements, that they restrict some things about character movement (the sick bag thing again) while opening up new potential in other areas. Game design for VR headsets is going to be a new challenge that's quite different to designing for a flat screen, it seems.
Yet for all this enthusiasm, I think we need to be a little cautious in our optimism. Let's not forget that just because something is technologically possible does not mean that it will take off with consumers and creators; the lesson of 3D TV and the legacy of countless thousands of unloved 3D glasses gathering dust behind consumers' TVs should tell us that. Oculus and Sony are in the fray and Microsoft is making interested noises, but as of this moment, no VR headset actually exists in final market-ready form. Nor does any VR headset have a price point, a release date, or a finished piece of software to its name. These things will come, of course, but I'd be surprised if we see a 2014 release date for any consumer VR headset - and I'd be equally surprised if any such headset costs less than a decent, medium-sized television. Those costs will inevitably limit the early audience for VR, and as this would-be revolution begins to gather pace, there's a danger that a flood of low-cost imitators offering sub-par experiences could try to occupy the cheaper price points exposed by expensive premium hardware and consequently derail the whole dream.
"Even if this revolution stumbles and falls in the consumer arena, the efforts being made in technology and design will undoubtedly help to fuel another VR effort further down the line"
Then there's the question of software. I suspect that a lot of consumers, and perhaps even some developers, imagine themselves plugging in VR headsets and enjoying their favourite games in perfect immersion - but this isn't what's going to happen. VR games will require far more significant recoding and redesigning than games for 3D TVs did. The controls, the HUD, the movement systems and even the entire layout of some levels will need to be reconsidered. No doubt, a "language" of VR interaction and presentation will rapidly evolve, providing ready-made answers to some of the challenges of turning an existing game world into a VR experience - but the effort involved will remain significant. Custom-built VR experiences will be better, of course, but developers will be relying on selling such games to a pretty small installed base, at first.
Ultimately, that's going to be the big commercial challenge facing VR - installed base. Both Oculus and Morpheus are designed as peripherals, something you buy to attach to an existing gaming system, be it a PC or a PS4. As with any ambitious peripheral that's existed in the past, developers will face a choice between focusing efforts on building an experience for everyone who owns a PC or a PS4, or devoting resources to building out a VR experience for the minority who have also bought a headset. In many cases, commercial sense will win out over technological idealism, and VR adaptation will be an afterthought, or simply non-existent. Sony, in particular, is in a position to alleviate some of this difficulty thanks to its first-party studios and its influence over third-parties, but putting expensive VR headsets into the historical context of other optional peripherals is a sobering mental exercise.
None of this is to say that the work being undertaken on VR is worthless. Far from it; even if this revolution stumbles and falls in the consumer arena, the efforts being made in technology and design will undoubtedly help to fuel another VR effort further down the line. This is one dream that seems very unlikely to be abandoned, no matter how many times it fails to win traction among consumers, and one day the technology will be cheap and ubiquitous enough to make truly mass-market success inevitable. That day may actually be tomorrow (well, next year), or it may be far off in the future - we won't know for certain until the efforts of Sony, Oculus and others are actually out in the marketplace and facing the tough judgments of consumers.
Perhaps that's the real problem with visions of the future; they rarely come with an accurate date attached. Given enough time, almost every technological dream (or nightmare) will become possible. I have no doubt that VR's time is coming, but no certainty about how far off it may be. In the present hardware cycle, many of the signs are positive - but until consumers finally get to choose whether to buy expensive VR headsets, and developers face tough choices about whether to spend big on supporting the VR dream, we won't know whether this is really a glimpse of the future, or another Kinect-style albatross in the making.