How a year changes everything

by on Sep.10, 2016, under games design


For every covertcreations post, the apology is implicit. The time between updates flies by. I guess that’s what one gets for having a child, buying a house, and filling the idle moments with gaming goodness (Dark Souls 3, absolute best of the bunch recently). With the time gaps comes an avalanche of topics to write about. Often I don’t even know where to start! That aside, I’ll pick a random topic and see where that takes us.

It’s 2016! Almost a whole year since the last update where I lavished praise upon the Penny Arcade Expo. Honestly, if you have the chance do make a point of going. Go! The hot topic then, and still, is the release of Generation One for Virtual Reality. In the intervening time I bit the bullet (a rather costly one) and acquired an HTC Vive VR headset for my wife, the darth bunny herself. Have we enjoyed it? Of course! Are there issues with it? Of course! I can’t help but feel like I’m still in a tech demo when I use it. To me (and one may disagree) there is no killer app for VR. I’ve read claims that “Star Trek Bridge Crew” is “it”. But I’ve heard that about a few other titles as well (e.g. Cliffy B most recently. To me, if someone needs to proclaim “THIS IS IT!!”, then it’s instantly not true. A real killer hit will just happen without anyone making any bold proclamations about it. It’ll just be so good on its own without needing to point it out. I’ll cite the original arcade Space Invaders or Pacman. Half-Life 2. Quake. World of Warcraft. I will assure you that there is no Quake-level amazing equivalent for VR today (I’m talking about Quake as a total experience, not just a simple videogame).

VR isn’t in a rut, per se. It’s got a lot of pressure on it to take over and be totally amazing for everyone. That day has not arrived, but I’m sure it will come. The market promises indicate that VR as an industry will soar to being worth something like 150 Billion by 2020. That’s a lot of sauce for a still nascent tech. But here we are in the latter half of 2016, and the predicted timeframe gets far closer than an influx of killer titles and experiences.

Don’t get me wrong. The technical demos and various experiences are really quite something. I”ll point out that thedarthbunny claims Recroom, La Peri, theBlu and Portal Stories VR lead the pack. Yet, as I’ve said now, there’s nothing that is going to blow the world away with sheer awesomeness right now. I am happy to be corrected on this if you have recommendations. Bunny also warns that the rollercoaster sims should be avoided.

Let me explore what’s missing.

There is lot of developers, even triple-A companies, using their vast experience, resources and skills to create a videogame in VR. Of course they are! That’s not an issue, but what I have found is that the “world” of VR is simply not the same as a making a typical computer game. There is less crossover between the two ideas when you really think about it. Even Palmer Lucky in his early days (before he sold to Facebook and became an industry pillar for the word, “sell-out”) said something very poignant about input schemes in VR. I’ll paraphrase him out of sheer laziness : “People have to remember that VR has different requiremnts in terms of input technology. Superhuman input schemes don’t work very well. They’re very jarring and non-immersive. Remember, the mouse is a superhuman input device. And it just doesn’t work very well in VR at all.” OK fine, here is a link to one of many instances where he said something approximating this. This applies to a lot of concepts that stem from thinking “videogame” and then applying it to VR. And to me, this is wrong. They are not the same. I think that the missing element is the acceptance that VR is an entirely new medium unto itself.

If history tells us anything, a new medium requires a whole new way of thinking.

Is there a solution? Well if I knew that, would I be sitting here writing this article? OK probably. But seriously, I believe that we are on the right track with the Vive and the Rift. Roomscale is a winner. Embracing other input modes (the fancy Vive controllers and Touch), very good. I’ve not seen the Touch yet but if it delivers on allowing one to reach out and grab things with just your hands then it’s got my vote. What else?

  • The resolution needs to go up and up, and not stop being increased. Yes, I know this is hard with the OLEDS within the headset but I’m sure they’ll figure it out.
  • No more “screen doors”. Even the Vive has this and it’s a problem.
  • Stop making games. Make experiences that have games in them. When you think of them in terms of games, there is an implicit agreement between the player and the title they are loading. “I am about to start a game that I will play and then stop.” WIth the immersiveness of VR, it needs to drop you into the world and wrap you up in it immediately. No title screen, no HUD, all context, theme, story and interaction must take place within the confines of the virtual. And no pause button.
  • Roomscale-to-playscale calibration needs to be totally fluid. The Vive needs recalibration periodically and it’s an immersion breaker.
  • Binaural audio. I predict that when a true 3-dimensional sense of sound becomes a standard part of VR gaming, this will help immensely. I’ll even go further than that and say that accomplishing the same sense of “3D sound” in VR (where your physical head turns and the virtual sounds have to adjust where they’re coming from) would likely be helped by a dedicated sound processor, just like a graphics processer (GPU). Lets return to the days of the Soundblaster Pro! (Wow, they’re still around!)
  • Safety and environment. These headsets need cameras and they need to warn you when you’re going to bump into something or when the real world needs your attention. I’ll cue my story of getting smacked in the head by my wife with her controller as she’d completely forgotten that I was there. It was OK, but it sums up the problem nicely.

Clearly not an exhaustive list, and not earth-shattering either. I appreciate the technology and innovation that’s been brought to bear thus far, but it still has a way to go to gain wider acceptance. Yet I believe that solving, no nailing, is an absolute must for this to happen.

Fast forward a mere four years and we’ll see where we’ve gone. If the mere one year since my last post has anything to say, we’ll definitely get there.

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