As anyone who's attended recent trade shows like E3 or GDC will tell you, it's hard to go anywhere without someone bringing up virtual reality. The excitement around VR is palpable and there isn't even a single headset (mobile aside) on the market for consumers yet. GamesIndustry.biz recently chatted with Epic Games CEO Tim Sweeney and CTO Kim Libreri about the potential of VR, but perhaps what was more interesting was to hear Sweeney's thoughts on augmented reality (AR).
While Sweeney wouldn't go so far as Warren Spector and label VR a "fad," he did acknowledge that the market will be much more limited in its scope.
"VR is a 150 million user audience but it's not for the whole world. Whereas AR, if you look out a number of years I bet the majority of mankind will have an AR device - it will redefine interaction with computers and replace computer monitors, tablets, televisions and every kind of play technology. I think it's the next big development in the history of civilization, if you put it in perspective," Sweeney remarked.
"I liken it to the birth of film, people are just working out what the laws are"
AR is definitely still in its infancy. Microsoft's press briefing demo of Minecraft on HoloLens generated plenty of buzz, but the real-life demos of HoloLens were much less impressive. Clearly there are some kinks to work out, but that should happen over time. "It's a ways out. It's not going to provide the experience for hard core gamers in the next couple of years whereas VR is doing that right now," Sweeney said.
Indeed, VR demos at E3 by and large drew more positive reactions, and Epic is hoping to do its part by supporting VR with its latest Unreal Engine build. Sweeney noted that it's a fairly simple task to adapt an Unreal-based title for Oculus, Morpheus and Vive at once. "Unreal provides all the hooks for the major VR devices. You focus 95 percent of your effort on building a game and the remaining 5 percent goes into tweaking it for the different configurations," he said.
Libreri said he's encouraged that most developers in the VR space have been supportive of one another, sharing information on what works and what doesn't. It's not about competition; it's about a rising tide hopefully lifting all boats.
"We have a large community that makes Unreal experiences and games... I liken it to the birth of film, people are just working out what the laws are. I actually think the openness we're seeing in the industry about what works, what doesn't work, how to avoid motion sickness, the coolest way to move a player around a space, these things are really great because we all have to learn these things before we can make a great experience. We're very happy to be part of that," he said.
Libreri added that one of the reasons we're all seeing so much excitement around VR in the development community is that for the first time in a long time, creatives are being legitimately challenged to make something fresh, to make an experience unlike anything gamers have enjoyed before.
"I think creatively, people like new challenges when they're building stuff - you get into games or any creative [career] because you love it and you want to innovate and have your consumers, your audience experience a new thing. Even though there's this whole new rule set that has to be established for this next generation of VR games, most designers and developers are loving this challenge because it levels the playing field. For this first few years of this new medium, you're not going to have to necessarily make the big AAA Call of Duty style games. I think people will just be very happy to be entertained, as long as they believe in the space or the characters and world that's presented to them," he said.
"They don't have to have a very complicated experience because they're novel and new. On the technical side, we try to help people by supporting the major platforms to make it a little bit easier - but we do have the issue that you're trying to render very high resolution frames in stereo at a high frame rate. You have to be clever about your content and make sure performance is something you think about, but it's the creative challenges that are all new; they're not scary, people love it."
Creative challenges aside, there are numerous technical challenges that must be overcome with VR too. Most of the GamesIndustry.biz staff has tried out the bad, nausea-inducing type of VR, and if even just a few of those bad experiences make it onto the market, it could sour some gamers on VR for years. Motion sickness is simply unacceptable in VR gaming if it's going to be a success.
Sweeney noted that the keys there are "ensuring the frame rate and lag from input to output and motion tracking are sufficient" and ultimately "convincing the player that what they're seeing is consistent with the sensation that their body feels." He added that "one way to absolutely guarantee that is to make sure that there's direct mapping between the player's position and position in the world," but of course if you're building a big open-world game like Skyrim or GTA that sort of direct mapping becomes impossible.
It's also a matter of dealing with how the brain perceives motion, Libreri explained. "One of the hardest things we do as human beings is as babies we learn to move and walk and there's a lot of calibration that happens and anybody who works at DARPA would tell you how hard it is to get a machine to move. We take our abilities for granted; our vision and movements of our body happen in lockstep [but] it's a problem for a machine. As soon as you unbalance that equation [in a VR world], that's when you start to introduce problems," he said.
"It definitely changes the rules. You cannot take a game designed without VR and just easily [remake] it for VR. It'll be an experience that doesn't look right, doesn't feel right, and makes you sick pretty quickly"
Another VR challenge for developers will be the uncanny valley. Yes, developers already have to contend with it in traditional console and PC gaming, but as soon as you place someone in a virtual environment, less-than-believable characters will really stick out like a sore thumb. While ultra-realism may one day be an attainable goal, Libreri suggested that following in the footsteps of Pixar or Dreamworks may be the best approach for now.
"Being more stylized in the character design helps. We saw a cool demo from Sony built for their Morpheus system which looks a little cartoony but when you see it in VR you actually believe it as a character. It's not a hyper photo-real character. I do think eventually people will create pretty amazing experiences that do cross the uncanny valley. But for now in these early days we can be smart about the character design," he said.
Sweeney sees a parallel to the rise of mobile game development. Anyone who attempted to simply port console or PC genres to smartphones generally failed. Just as mobile required a new way of thinking, VR demands a different design.
"It definitely changes the rules. You cannot take a game designed without VR and just easily [remake] it for VR. It'll be an experience that doesn't look right, doesn't feel right, and makes you sick pretty quickly. Experiences that are built for VR at the foundational level are quite different - you can draw an analogy with smartphone and tablet gaming. The major genres on there are not your console genres because it requires a different style of gameplay. We're still very much in the early stages of the learning process," he said.
So what about Epic? Will the studio look to lead by example in VR with its own IP? Sweeney said the company will jump in when the time is right.
"If you look at how we approached the Unreal Engine 3 generation, the first two years of Unreal Engine 3 were some awesome tech demos we built to show what was possible and then a year later we unveiled Gears of War in partnership with Microsoft. I think with VR we're going through a similar episode of market development. We're building up the technology, showing it with tech demos and then if we do something with the Epic name on it that would come later to hit the sweet spot of the market," he explained.