It's official: The Year of VR is upon us, whether we want it or not. The PlayStation VR has a price and a launch window, and the Occulus Rift and HTC Vive will both be launching within the next couple weeks. Throughout GDC, it was all VR all the time, with almost every discussion centering on whether it would "make it" or not.
And yet, it still feels like early days for the tech. In an effort to give VR a proper shake, I wound up taking a ton of appointments to see if there was any merit to the technology. Some of what I found was undeniably cool - EVE Valkyrie had the kind of action-packed, setpiece-driven starfighter gameplay that Elite Dangerous lacked, and it wound up being one of my most memorabe VR experiences. Some of it felt half-baked, like the clumsy Loading Human, which looked and felt like it was made in 1995.
Mostly, though, I found lots and lots of tech demos - technical proofs of concept that offered some neat tricks and not much else. I had someone guide me around an enclosed space like a blind person while I "climbed" Everest; I teleported around a train station and shot bad guys in in Bullet Train; I watched a cute Pixar-like short in which I nodded and shook my head in response to a chatty seagull's questions, and I blocked blaster shots with a lightsaber. Most of these were cool and interesting one-offs that showcased the potential of the technology, but amounted to little more than that.
As the show progressed, it became more and more apparent to me that the platforms may be ready for launch, but the games themselves are still in something akin to a beta phase. There are still some pretty significant technical hurdles to overcome, particularly the problem of motion sickness, which occurs anytime you start "walking" in-game. The virtual movement fools your brain into thinking you're actually walking, which throws off your inner ear and causes nausea. I encountered some pretty novel solutions to this issue: Time Travel VR puts you in a cockpit, Bullet Train gives you its aforementioned teleport ability, and the co-op VR shooter Raw Data has you guard a terminal. Most of these ideas are workable, but they also feel clumsy in their own way - an obvious concession to the limitations of the human body.
Another limitation is the problem of weight. It feels undeniably cool to wield a katana in one hand and a gun in the other in Raw Data; but it all gets a bit weird when you're supposed to be holding a heavy shotgun, which feels oddly toy-like in its lack of substance. Obviously, short of directly interfacing with you brain or literally making the controllers heavily, the sensation of weight is going to be an ongoing problem for VR. Nevertheless, the illusion of weight matters in games - it lends heft to the action and adds to the sense that you're actually there. Traditional games use all sorts of tricks to convey a sense of weight, from force feedback to intense sound effects, but it's much harder to fake weight when you're actually "holding" a weapon.
As I wrote in an earlier piece, it's basically 1995 all over again for VR game developers. We're back to a place where games have to invent entirely new control and camera concepts from scratch. In that light, those who decide to drop cash on a VR headset at launch are early adopters in the truest sense of the word.
Still, there are some instances in which VR can be said to have "arrived." Music games are a natural fit for VR, with Rez Infinite and Audioshield making music an almost zen-like experience as the outside world disappears and you become totally immersed in the beat. Cockpit games such as EVE Valkyrie and Driveclub are likewise a natural fit for VR in the way that they greatly enhance your ability to view your surroundings while avoiding the pitfalls of motion sickness. These games have the benefit of feeling more fully-formed than their counterparts while being attractive to the hobbyists who will form VR's early market. Other genres, though, are still clearly a work in progress.
Ultimately, you can view this steady march of progress through either the lens of optimism or the lens of pessimism. The pessimists will say that the barriers to the mass adoption of VR are too high, that it's not fun to use over long periods of time, and that the games are too raw for a platform that can cost as much as $800. The optimists will say that the technology is going to improve. While waiting to play Gary the Gull, I spoke to one of its co-creators - a Pixar character designer turned entrepeneur by the name of Tom Sanocki. As one of the founders of a startup dedicated to VR development, he is clearly drinking the kool-aid. In arguing for VR, he told me, "This is the worst VR will ever be. It's only going to getter from here."
Not exactly a convincing argument for spending hundreds of dollars on a VR headset at launch, but very much in line with the unbridled optimism at this year's GDC. It's true: new and innovative technology never arrives fully-formed. Early adopters must accept their role as a guinea pig in exchange for access to the bleeding edge of tech. And yes, VR is only going to get better.
Nevertheless, it's tough to square the rough state of VR game development with the notion that virtual reality has truly "arrived." It may yet get there; but even with the major headsets launching this year, that moment is still a few years away.
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