Roundtable: What we learned about VR at GDC
Virtual reality is a current reality, but its future remains a question mark - the GI.biz team reflects on VR we saw during GDC
If there was one big trend that dominated last week's Game Developers Conference, it was virtual reality. It was obvious going into the show that VR would be prominent, what with the imminent launches of the Rift and Vive and a two-day "VRDC" summit taking place during the show. However, the degree of interest and enthusiasm surrounding VR surprised even the show's organizers. After the first day's VRDC talks packed not only their conference rooms but planned overflow rooms, organizers rearranged the show schedule overnight, moving the entire track into larger auditoriums in another hall of the conference center a block away. That set the tone for a week where seemingly everyone wanted to talk about VR, whether they were long-time advocates for the tech, new converts, or immutable skeptics.
The GamesIndustry.biz team was no exception, so after allowing a few days to process everything we saw and heard and experienced during the week, here's how GDC 2016 informed and impacted each of our perspectives in the dawning era of VR.
After having tried several more VR games during GDC last week, including Valve's The Lab and Star Wars: Tatooine demos on Vive, I'm finally a believer in the promise of VR. Admittedly, there are very few people who are going to have an ideal space in their homes or apartments for proper room-scale VR that Vive can offer (especially in parts of Asia), but what The Lab and Tatooine showed me is just how incredibly immersive VR can be. I've never had that sense of presence in a video game more than I did with Vive, and it's truly astonishing to think about all the wild games and experiences that could be built using that technology. There are several questions about VR that will take some time to be properly answered, however. When will the games feel less like demos and more like full-blown titles? How many brand-new genres will pop up to take advantage specifically of VR? How long will it be before we can all get into VR without selling our blood and kidneys on the black market? How long can players truly play a VR title without feeling out of sorts? The same genres that we can play for 2-3 hours on an HDTV may be difficult to stay engaged with for that same period of time wearing a headset.
For me personally, motion sickness is still an issue - not in all games, but anything with faster movements and lots of head turning and spinning. In playing Ubisoft's Eagle Flight, for example, while I didn't have a severe case of motion sickness, after using my head to steer the eagle for a period of 15 minutes I began to feel slightly woozy. Not only that, but from the hardware perspective it's still a major annoyance to have VR goggles smashed up against your own prescription glasses. Vive feels slightly more comfortable to me, but then again with Vive I had to be aware of all the wires coming out of the back of my head. Jacking into the matrix is a blast, but being on the lookout for wires definitely takes you out of the experience. Over time, all of these issues will be addressed. VR headsets will be made ever more streamlined and comfortable, you'll likely be able to get custom prescription lenses (as Jesse Schell predicted), and wireless headsets will be the norm (AMD already has one it's promoting). And yes, VR is currently a luxury for people who have lots of disposable income, but that's always been true for any new exciting technology. We're all walking around with supercomputers in our pockets nowadays, and they are completely commoditized - eventually VR, AR or some mixture will get there as well.
I think VR's greatest potential lies in what it can do to connect players with in-game characters and indeed, other players. Playing Ubisoft's Werewolves Within (a social deduction game) forced me to engage with my fellow human beings in a way that no other online game has. Being fully immersed in a VR world also can allow players to sympathize and empathize on a far greater level than we have with characters in traditional games. Imagine how intense a game like Papers, Please might be in VR, for example. Likewise, emotions may be so strong in VR that already developers during GDC talked about the very real dangers of pushing people's fear buttons too hard. VR is a new paradigm and it's going to take some time to iron out the wrinkles. Remember the jump from pixels and sprites in 2D to the very first 3D polygonal games? There was a ton of excitement but also, frankly, a lot of utter garbage. But the industry is undoubtedly better for it.
The most exciting thing for me at this year's GDC, aside from watching my boyfriend scream his way through a Paranormal Activity VR demo, was realising just how much new blood virtual reality is bringing to the industry. GDC is so often a place to see all the usual faces, the AAA people in their expensive IP celebrating t-shirts, the indies making us all look like middle-grade math teachers, but this year there were a whole bunch of fresh faces. The new technology has attracted people from the worlds of film and television, as well as new indies, and they're offering a totally new perspective that doesn't come from years of making and playing console games or mobile time munchers.
"It's time to stop pretending that the VR revolution is an 'if' and accept that it's a 'when'"
The Paranormal Activity VR demo was a good example of an intense experience that could only have come from a team familiar with the pacing and set up of a good film or TV show. Gary The Gull is another personal favourite, a collaboration between Limitless and Motional, both founded by former Pixar employees who understand characters and connection in an entirely different way.
A lot of people will want to focus on the problems VR will face -- motion sickness, marketing, comfort, content -- but then when the motorcar was invented a lot of people were worried they would scare the horses. PlayStation VR's price has made this a truly accessible technology -- less than the latest mobile phone -- and the fact that pre-orders have sold out for it and all the other headsets prove there is an appetite. It's time to stop pretending that the VR revolution is an "if" and accept that it's a "when".
For me, GDC posed a lot more questions about VR than it answered, reinforcing the same familiar strengths and further accentuating the size and importance of the lingering problems.
The most obvious of those was player movement, a particularly difficult issue due to its role in inducing motion sickness through acceleration, deceleration and independent movement of the player's viewpoint. If you are designing a VR experience in first-person -- and this is where much of the promise of VR lies -- then the smartest choice is to limit the player's in-game movements to those they can make in the real-world. With Vive, due to the wire that tethers the headset to the PC, this means walking a few feet in any direction. With Oculus Rift and PSVR, neither of which have an equivalent to Vive's Lighthouse technology, the player's avatar is better off sitting or standing still. There's a very good reason why Valve and HTC are insisting that wand controllers are part of the entry-level package, and I now believe that Oculus and Sony should be doing the same with Touch and Move respectively. Packing in an Xbox One controller, in particular, sends the wrong message to both players and designers alike.
"It isn't so much a problem with the hardware as a problem with the human brain, and until there is an omni-directional treadmill in every VR user's home, we will have to make do with 'solutions' like teleportation"
Ultimately, the limitation on movement is a severe limitation in general, one that directly contributes to the absence of substantial experiences that Rob Fahey pointed out in his editorial last week. When the player must stay in either a single position (as with Oculus and PSVR) or a very limited space (as with Vive), and they can only interact with objects within touching distance (via hand inputs), there are only so many nails the developer's hammer can strike: either contained, focused and brief, or a game where the player's static position is integral and organic to the game design, hence the surfeit of experiences based around racing and flying.
For now, this mix of dog-fighting and short, sharp shocks will suffice, but the assumption that a solution to limited movement will arrive in the near future seems hopeful at best. Put simply, it isn't so much a problem with the hardware as a problem with the human brain, and until there is an omni-directional treadmill in every VR user's home, we will have to make do with "solutions" like teleportation - a feature of almost every demo I tried that wanted the player to actually explore and interact with the world, and one that felt abstract and immersion shattering every single time.
While everyone is excited to see the creative possibilities VR will offer game developers, I'm wondering about the creative possibilities it could offer other industry players. Specifically, I look at mobile VR right now and I see an opportunity for companies to rewrite history, because repeating it beat-for-beat probably won't work.
I don't think Apple intended free-to-play to dominate like this when it launched the App Store, but it was a rational endpoint when you had an open platform hosting inexpensive games that also suffered from discoverability problems and virtually no platform management apart from forbidding games that were straight up stolen or dared to comment on something relevant in the world. With mobile VR, I wonder if that rational endpoint, or the route there, might still be changed.
"I don't think the standard mobile business model will work for [mobile VR], but I'm not sure it can borrow the premium models of its PC and console cousins, either"
For one thing, the installed base of VR headsets isn't large enough to support the massive communities on which free-to-play games thrive; there simply aren't enough whales in that pond (at least, not yet). Beyond the cold numbers, I don't think VR games are good enough to make free-to-play viable yet. The model works best with games that get their hooks into players and keep them coming back again and again for months or years. To date, all the experiences I've seen in VR have been driven more by the novelty of the tech than any long-term appeal. Developers are still coming to terms with the basic language they use to talk about making VR games, and we're a long way from having effective VR gameplay templates that can be endlessly reworked, reskinned, and rehashed like in the free-to-play mobile space.
Then there's the increased potential mobile VR has to command a premium price point as a standard. People get that it's a different experience, and I suspect they're willing to pay specifically for that difference in the same way movie theaters charge a few bucks more to see the latest blockbuster in 3D (We can debate whether the analogy can be further extended to 3DTVs some other time).
While mobile VR is the area I have the least interest in as a consumer, it's the area I'm most curious about as an industry watcher. I don't think the standard mobile business model will work for it, but I'm not sure it can borrow the premium models of its PC and console cousins, either. If mobile VR is going to find its footing, some of the bigger players in the field will have to articulate a clear vision of how the market's going to work and what they want it to be.
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