Saturday, March 22, 2014

All aboard the VR train!

Some of you may know I'm doing a "I'm going to move abroad and create some solo projects" kick right now.  (Previous 2 blog posts are on this topic)

As I'm finding out, an interesting thing happens when you ask yourself “where would I move to if I could live anywhere in the world?”  It’s an awesome opportunity, but I hadn’t quite weighed just how daunting that question would be.  There are SO many choices to consider.  The only obvious way to answer the question is to truly nail down what is important to you.  Warmer winters?  Nearby travel?  Culture?  Beachy hammock town?  Affordability?  Walkable downtown?  Food?  You have to narrow it down and focus.

An interesting thing also happens when you ask yourself “what games would I create if I could make anything I wanted?”  Again, an awesome opportunity, but just as daunting of a question.  There are SO many choices to consider.  The only obvious way to answer the question is to truly nail down what area you’re looking to participate in.  Quirky retro PC games?  Downloadable console titles?  Casual mobile?  Tablet games?  Adventure games?  You have to narrow it down and focus.

Like any designer should, I have decades of compelling game concepts that I’m dying to prototype and dive into, but at this last week’s GDC (Game Developers Conference) I landed some much needed clarity with regards to a starting point.  I have to thank the Oculus VR team, and the Eve: Valkyrie demo for that clarity.

(Background info just in case - Oculus is a company that has been making a run at creating a truly effective virtual reality goggle setup… a dream initiated in the 90’s and basically abandoned until more recently where technology is finally catching up to the dream of really immersive virtual reality headsets)


The Eve: Valkyrie demo put you in the seat of a classic sci-fi space fighter cockpit.  I have the earlier version of the Oculus at home, but the new version on display at GDC was the first time my suspension of disbelief was so completely entrenched.

(This is what many gamers have wanted for so very long.  In high school I even flew to Chicago once to try out the very first generation of the Virtual Worlds Battletech cockpits.  They fully enclose you, have a couple monitors, etc… but they don’t even scratch the surface of how far this has come.)

When I first put on the new headset they were pimping at the show, I was instantly transported to the pilot seat of every kid’s dream who wanted to be Luke Skywalker blowing up the Death Star from his X-wing.  I looked down and saw this pilot’s body exactly where mine was in my chair.  The chest was exactly where mine was in space, the legs were right… it just felt utterly *spot on*.  The audio was well done, with filtered breathing in a tight chamber, you could practically smell the dashboard floating in front of you.

When the launch button is hit you’re blasted out of the fighter bay down this long launch tube, and again visions of Vipers from Battlestar Galactica flood to mind.  Whooom!  Then you’re in space, and it feels exactly like it should!  As I turn my head around a missile tracking reticule is in the center of my vision, like a cursor.  An enemy fighter streaks by and I turn my head instinctively to track it as it passes over me.  I’m literally looking backwards over my left shoulder while banking around when I acquire lock on and fire off a shot.  I think I broke my face grinning so hard, and it wasn’t some mechanic that needed so much as a tutorial to implement.  It just felt natural.

Nearby there are huge capital ships that we are weaving around.  That’s a great thing about VR over any other format, scale suddenly REALLY matters.  I’ve got a missile tailing me at one point and I fly under the capital ship and start pulling up in a long loop around the giant ship… the whole time I’m staring straight up and seeing the detail of the ship passing over my head, meters from the cockpit glass.  I complete the loop and renew the order for the stupid grin I must surely be wearing.  I throw in a quick spinning roll for the hell of it, and my stomach goes “HHHURRRRRRR” for a second.  The dizziness isn’t because the hardware is somehow to blame in this case, but because my brain totally believes I just did a freaking barrel roll at some ungodly speed.

I’ll shut up about the specific experience now, but suffice to say it delivered in spades on the promise of the premise.


If there’s anything certain about the games industry, it’s that things evolve quickly, and it’s only getting faster with each year.  I often talk about trends as “trains leaving a station”.  I have close friends who had tickets on the “small mobile games” train, friends on the “Facebook casual games” train, and generally I think Gears of War was on the “next generation console gaming” train as it pulled away in all it’s normal mapped glory.

VR feels to me like a train about to leave the station.  There’s enough major players throwing chips on the board that I don’t think that’s an unfounded opinion.  At GDC Sony unveiled their VR headset for the Playstation 4.  Several other companies are in heavy R&D in the market… it’s exciting.

Even better, VR is exciting for several reasons.  It’s a movement that’s passionately about giving the player a more in-depth visceral experience, realizing an authentic geeky holy grail.  It’s not a movement that focuses on business models and methods of turning game designers into marketing analysts.  It’s a movement with loads of room to grow in quality and execution still, with loads of interesting issues to work through.

Counter intuitively, one of the most fascinating things about VR is something often stated by naysayers as a mark against it, “loads of the most popular current games don’t work particularly well with it”.  YES!  Exactly!  You mean we’ll have to shake shit up?  We can’t just slap a standard first person military shooter on it and start leveling up our MP5s with ACOG sights and extended clips?  How ever will we cope with having design challenges and interesting parameters to consider?  What horrors await when designers have to rethink what will be accessible on such devices?

There’s room for so many new design solutions and innovative concepts.  Long neglected genres like flight sims might become areas for designers to revisit and continue evolving.  We’ll probably see a rash of early games focusing exclusively on very 'known' actions that feel fresh again based on the device; but right out of the gate there are aggressively creative designers and indie developers who have long been discouraged with the current status of the industry, and they’re going to be pushing envelopes.


No, it’s not a “sure thing”, but, what is?  We’re an industry full of skeptics, gifted at looking back and explaining why things turned out how they did, yet fairly poor at predicting future results and placing interesting bets.

Naysayers have loudly proclaimed issues with VR headsets since Oculus first started gaining traction.  They say:

“You look like a dork with that thing on”.  News flash, you look like a dork sitting at your PC and playing WoW as well, but several millions do it.

“It isolates you from your real environment”, aaaand?  That’s the point.  It’s escapism dialed all the way up.  Exactly how worried are you that someone is breaking into your home while you’re plugged in?  Again I’ll throw the image back of rows of gamers with headphones on in front of their PCs.

“It’ll never be mainstream”, there’s different definitions of mainstream I believe.  Will every kid who plays Minecraft have a $350 VR helmet?  Probably not, but holy hell I’d love to play Minecraft with a state of the art VR headset!  Maybe it’s the “not mainstream enough” argument that will see indies support such devices?  Personally I think that’s one of the problems mitigated as hardware becomes higher quality and cheaper.

“It makes people feel woozy after a while”.  Yes, but this is also a factor of quality and experience.  These side effects are a large chunk of research at the companies working on the devices, and the developers who are establishing best practices for games running on them.  We’re on pre-launch hardware currently, and we’re already seeing major strides towards less unwanted side effects of extended use.  Have some faith ;)

“VR is limited in the types of games it can support”.  I have to call bullshit; in fact I have to double down and call classic overly conservative naysayer developer bullshit.  I have to assume these people didn’t see the “Couch Knights” tech demo a friend at Epic put together.

We don’t KNOW what these devices have to offer yet; at least we don’t know any more than we predicted the designs and success of Flappy Bird, Clash of Clans, Candy Crush, Puzzles and Dragons, Angry Birds, Infinity Blade, or the whole F2P and microtrans boom back when Apple said “hey, we’re gonna make a phone with a touchscreen y’all!”.

Hell, prior to GDC, I saw some merit to the general sentiment that you couldn’t make a real “gamer game” with VR because you can’t make a player look around quickly or interact with fast moving objects.  The EVE: Valkyrie demo had loads of quick elements and fast reaction situations, and it was holding up really well.  While the relaxed pace of something like Dear Esther or Gone Home might be a positive on a VR device, I definitely no longer see that as a ‘requirement’ for design in that area; it’s merely one consideration to balance.

I know there's potential snags still, but nobody wins from crapping on the potential of an entire array of future devices.


Long story short, I experienced this demo and in two minutes knew instinctively that I needed to dedicate my solo indie career to supporting these devices.

As gamers and devs, we win when there are new frontiers to explore.  We win when there’s competition between players like Sony and Oculus to drive those advances and offer different options for distribution.  We win every single time a “train leaves the station”.  I’m excited to see one is boarding right now… ticket for one please!

Now I just have to find a place to live...