For better or worse, 2016 will be a crucial year for virtual reality. With three major systems launching in the first half of the year, the general public is going to be getting its first proper look at how far the tech has advanced since it last traveled through the cultural consciousness in the '90s. Rebellion co-founder and CEO Jason Kingsley is sold on the tech--his studio is rebooting the classic Atari arcade tank shooter Battlezone for VR systems--but speaking with GamesIndustry.biz, he took a measured stance on its near-term prospects.
"I expect there to be a lot of noise because a lot of people are putting a lot of money into it," Kingsley said of VR in 2016. "I expect there to be a lot of excited early adopters. I also expect there to be a sort of counter-wave, which I think we've all seen. Something that everybody thinks is awesome, and then another wave comes along and a few people say it's awful. Then it will settle down into reality."
"There are things we can't do comfortably in VR that we can do in a 3D game on a 2D screen, or even a 3D screen that's separate from your head. See, we don't even have a language to speak about this properly."
That pragmatism is no doubt informed by Rebellion's experiences working with the technology. Developers are not just grappling with the metaphoric language of VR gaming (how to direct the player's view or effectively tell stories in VR); they're grappling with the literal language of VR.
"There are things we can't do comfortably in VR that we can do in a 3D game on a 2D screen, or even a 3D screen that's separate from your head. See, we don't even have a language to speak about this properly. I'm trying to explain around the words I'm using... You and I are just having this conversation and I'm struggling to explain to you what I mean, so expand that out to making things in VR."
End users may not need to know or care about those problems, but they'll definitely notice if they aren't solved.
"They'll know when it's wrong," Kingsley said. "Just like when you watch a movie when people do jump cuts that don't work or they cross the line, where somebody's walking from left to right in one shot then in the next shot they're walking right to left and you go, 'Hey!'. It takes you out of the entertainment. That's OK when you're watching a movie or TV show or something, but in VR it can actually hurt your head and make the experience less pleasant."
As an example, Rebellion has discovered over the course of making Battlezone that it is fairly unpleasant to drive a tank backwards off a cliff in virtual reality. It doesn't induce nausea, he said, "but it certainly does something to you inside and you feel it very differently when it's in VR."
The question that raises to developers is how to design the game in light of this knowledge. Do you put barriers on every edge to keep it from happening? Let it happen but only in specific places to achieve a desired effect? Let it stand as a way to players to be mindful of their surroundings? Kingsley said they haven't settled on a final answer for Battlezone just yet.
Problems like that have done nothing to stifle investment in the hardware behind VR, but they may be tempering the amount of money companies are risking on the software side.
"I think people are putting substantial sums into it, but they're also kind of feeling their way in terms of confidence."
"I think we've spent circa £5 million on what we'll be doing, so that's our bet," Kingsley said. "It's modest in terms of something like Sniper Elite, which would be significantly more than that, probably at least twice as big, if not three times or even four. We're investing what we'd invest in a smaller game, like Zombie Army Trilogy, for example... I think people are putting substantial sums into it, but they're also kind of feeling their way in terms of confidence. You'd be a brave person to put in multiple tens of millions into a VR game at this stage, in my opinion. Maybe in a year's time that will naturally happen, but at this stage I think people are being brave but sensible with their investments."
Kingsley suspects most developers will be taking a portfolio approach instead of putting all their eggs in the VR basket. Rebellion is doing the same with Battlezone; it will debut exclusively on the PlayStation VR at that headset's launch, with a port for the Rift and even non-VR versions following in due course.
"I'm comfortable that VR will be successful, but I don't think standard screen games are going to go away. One's not going to replace the other; VR is just going to expand what we can do."
While Kingsley is confident VR will establish itself in the market, it's unclear just how much VR the market could support. Even the traditional console market seems to waver between two and three systems at a given time, and it's unclear if there's room for Sony, Oculus, and HTC/Valve (not to mention the assortment of other VR makers) to peacefully coexist in the long run.
"[I]t's one of the strongest pieces of hardware for retail that's been out in a few years. You just need to wear the damn thing to see."
"VR is bigger than just one manufacturer," Kingsley said. "I think we're in one of those situations where none of the hardware manufacturers are competing with each other yet. They're actually competing to get an audience, so we're kind of in a land grab, if you like, at the moment. They're almost complementing each other. All their marketing is going into promoting VR as a viable thing."
Kingsley also dismissed the suggestion that VR could have trouble finding shelf space, with retailers turned off by expensive and low-margin hardware from a multitude of manufacturers with no cross-compatibility and spotty initial software support. To the contrary, he expected retailers to be eager to add VR to their catalogs.
"I think people will be fascinated by having a look at VR. I think it will drive footfall into retail," Kingsley said. "And they may just have a look at it and say, 'It's not for me yet but it sounds really exciting, and while I'm here I'll just buy some other bits and bobs from your shop.' I can see that happening. I actually think it will be a really strong driver of footfall in retail because you physically need to wear the thing to try it. I think it's one of the strongest pieces of hardware for retail that's been out in a few years. You just need to wear the damn thing to see."