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Last summer, Google conducted a survey of PlayStation 4 owners, in an attempt to better understand what gamers expect from virtual reality. At Casual Connect Europe, Ubisoft's Chris Early presented a selection of the findings, offering a sense of the distance between what consumers want from VR and the reality of what they're actually getting.
Among the most popular categories were "fully interactive narrative experiences" and "totally original experiences designed for VR," both of which were deemed desirable by 40% of respondents. The most popular of all, though, was "full games like those I already play on PlayStation 4."
"I don't presume to even guess what long-form VR games are going to be like in two years time"
For the most part, Early said, these descriptions don't map to the majority of content currently available on VR storefronts. Instead, the descriptions that best fit the bulk of contemporary VR experiences ranked among the least popular: "quick experiences based on famous games" with 15%, "simple games: arcade, point 'n' click, puzzle" with 12%, and "games inspired by classical board games" with just 10%.
The impression is of a young medium that is still largely marketed to gamers, but that isn't giving the most engaged gamers much cause for excitement. When I meet Early after his talk, which he gave in concert with Red Storm Entertainment creative director David Votypka, that dissonance is at the forefront of my mind. For Early, though, this is very much what Ubisoft expected at this early stage.
"It's simple ease," he says, referring to the size and relatively simple experiences that define VR's early offerings. "There's so much that we don't know. I don't presume to even guess what long-form VR games are going to be like in two years time. They could be completely different from the games that we see and think about today."
Speaking to both Early and Votypka, it's clear that the early years of VR have been limited by that lack of knowledge, but also hindered by unreliable data and false assumptions. In his talk, Early recalled being instructed by "one of the headset manufacturers" that the optimum session length for a VR game was seven minutes. "After that you should basically let people take off the headset and take a break," he told the audience, "and we should plan all of our games around that length."
Given what Ubisoft understood about the gamers who were likely to be among VR's early adopters, seven minutes seemed, to quote Early, "really short... I was like, 'how can we possibly do that and have somebody engaged in a game?'" However, once Ubisoft started testing its first VR title, Eagle Flight, it became clear that a seven minute session was far short of what players' could manage.
"As the hardware has improved, as our techniques have improved, the gameplay time has gone up dramatically"
"It's just a lack of data," Votypka says. "Particularly with the early headsets, you could just look around the room and feel nauseous - without even moving, y'know. That leads you to think 'okay, we have to be careful about how long people are gonna be in the headset.'
"But as the hardware has improved, as our techniques have improved, the gameplay time has gone up dramatically. First, it was getting improved hardware, then it was trying it and playtesting it, and then ultimately releasing [a game] to get our first real set of data."
Until now, Early says, the goal for VR has been as much about ensuring "the lack of a negative" as anything else; another key factor in the cautious assumptions around session length. "If you put on the headset and you're suddenly bothered by nausea, or it's too heavy, or you're sweaty, or you trip on the cord - those things will all jerk you right out of the experience, and you don't want to keep going. When those things don't get in your way, then we can have more freedom to make something fun."
There is an economic factor, too, of course, though Early and Votypka don't address it directly. However successful VR games eventually prove to be, there's no escaping the fact that, right now, the market is small enough for even breaking even to be something of an achievement. Any product that is ground-up designed for VR can't be ported to other platforms if sales are slow, and so developers must budget based on a small addressable market. It is very likely that a single-player, narrative-driven experience with enough art assets, animation, voice-acting and plot to last 12 or more hours isn't economically viable for anyone at this stage. The closest we have come so far is Capcom's Resident Evil 7, but the majority of people that bought it will never even try the VR mode.
For Red Storm, a wholly owned subsidiary of Ubisoft, the focus is on "social VR," which both Early and Votypka frame as a counterpoint to the perception of VR as an inherently anti-social activity. Indeed, Votypka studied VR in college in the mid-90s, and has either worked with it or maintained a strong interest in it ever since, but he only seriously considered the possibilities of social VR when he saw Michael Abrash give a talk at Carnegie Mellon in 2014. Oculus' chief scientist contended that VR wouldn't just be social, but the most social medium yet invented. Hearing that from such a respected figure was, Votypka admits, "surprising."
That talk proved to be the catalyst for the path Red Storm ultimately chose, releasing the social VR title Werewolves Within at the end of last year, and now preparing for the launch of Star Trek: Bridge Crew on PlayStation 4 and PC. Both games are multiplayer experiences, constructed around social interactions, and the usage patterns of Werewolves Within have shown that 30% of people are staying in the game for at least an hour at a time - far surpassing the assumed tolerance of VR users. For Votypka, this is a very positive sign, because the concept of social VR games is still obscure to the majority of the audience.
"It's starting to change, but leading up to recent times probably not very many [knew about it]," he says. "There aren't very many social VR experiences out there for people, so when they see something like Werewolves Within they don't know what to expect. It's multiplayer only, it requires voice commands to play, and it's entirely driven by player personalities. All those things in one game is a pretty big question."
By focusing on social, Red Storm is creating experiences that can not only be played for longer periods, but replayed again and again - a similar value proposition to a story-driven, 20-hour adventure, but without the larger upfront costs involved in making that content. In fact, Early regards Bridge Crew as evidence that AAA VR products have already arrived.
"The third or fourth game beyond Star Trek, that's AAA and you can play it for 10 to 50 hours, what does that game look like? I don't know," he says. "What I feel super strongly about is there will be AAA VR games - I think we're making one with Star Trek: Bridge Crew.
"People will play that for hours and hours and hours; that's what we're seeing in play-tests, that's a AAA game."