Rock Paper Shotgun, I love you guys. That said, I wanted to write a rebuttal to your recent Editorial entitled “Why VR is going to be an enormous flop” because I don’t think your giving VR a fair chance. Let me start out by saying I am an Oculus Kickstarter Backer, and I own the original Oculus Developer Kit, and the DK2. Let me also say that recent announcements from Oculus have made me really upset. Before I get into that however, let’s talk about game and controllers.
We’re all PC gamers first a foremost (no offence to those heathens who prefer consoles), which typically means we prefer our FPS titles to be played with a mouse and a keyboard as God intended. Some people disagree with that, and that’s OK! (Seriously: play what you like on the platform you like. I don’t really care.) The point is, there are better interfaces, and there are terrible interfaces. Try playing Tempest on a keyboard. No fun at all. Try playing a FPS with just a spinner and some buttons (PC port of Clancy games come to mind here). Interface matter. Up until now, controls have been the primary interface we have had with games. We watch the screen, we interact with the controls. VR is going to change that, and I think it’s going to require some rethinking by the game developers that could spring forth a diversity in game styles we haven’t seen since the 80s and 90s.
I’ve been playing in VR with various games and demos for the last two years. I can say definitively the games that are the worst in VR are what all the big publishers poop out every quarter: First Person Shooters. It’s a terrible experience in VR. For one, you (currently) are sitting down while your character is standing, or prone, but is almost never sitting. That sucks. Pressing a button to walk forward makes sense with traditional controls, it doesn’t with VR. Valve’s whole room solution might be interesting, but (as evidenced by a recent Hot Pockets commercial) it’s also going to be a royal pain in the ass. Most people do not have the space for this, I certainly don’t. It’s interesting, but probably not mass market. On the other hand, games where you are sitting like Elite: Dangerous and Project CARS are AMAZING in VR, especially if you have good controls. I’ve got a massive Saitek HOTAS X55 joystick system for Elite: Dangerous, and a Logitech Wheel system for Project CARS. Combine that with a DK2 and it’s hands down the most immersive, incredible experience you can have.
But, strap on a DK2 and then load up Team Fortress 2? Not so great. Don’t even get me started on streaming your XBONE to a virtual TV in a virtual living room. This is the same sort of thinking that dominates 3D movies, and by the RPS analogy 3D TVs. How many films have been SHOT intended for a 3D release? Avatar, TRON: Legacy, Resident Evil 3D, The Hobbit Trilogy, and… that’s about it. Everything else is a shitty 2D->3D post conversion. Most of the response by the community was that FPS in VR is kinda terrible. The major developers then moved the camera to 3rd person and declared job done. To me, this is the equivalent to 2D->3D post conversion. Even WORSE is the “let’s build a 3D space and then project a 2D image/movie into it” trend that DOMINATES Gear VR. I cannot come up with a good analogy for how stupid I feel this is.
So, what can be done? Build for VR, don’t bolt VR into the existing game pipeline. Let’s look at the Oculus pre-E3 announcement last week: 5 games announced. 3 are first person shooters. 2 are space simulators. I’m excited about the last two: EVE Valkyrie and ADR1FT. Everything else I was uninterested in (full disclosure: I have my eye on Damaged Core, which is an FPS but looks like TRON 2.0 so I’m partially sold already). There are a lot of interesting demos made by individual developers or small independent studios for the DK1 and DK2. Very few that are popular are FPS games. Some are first person simulations (like being able to walk around parts of The Enterprise, or Serenity, or the ships from Interstellar), and they are a fun way to introduce people for 5min. If you want someone to spend an hour in VR? I go for either Elite: Dangerous or Project CARS again. The experience is that good.
That said, it’s not all positive. We have competing API standards in VR for no really good reason. Some games are specific to some APIs, and thus specific hardware. This takes me back to the 3D accelerator wars of the late 90s. It was terrible! One system (now) only works on Windows (Oculus), and the other works on Windows, Mac, and Linux (SteamVR). All the games Oculus is promoting are probably going to use the Oculus API only, which is a bummer because I really don’t want to buy TWO VR headsets just to play some games in one and some games in another.
We don’t need another steam clone. Period. Ever. I don’t care if it’s all 3D and designed for a XBONE controller. So is SteamVR. Stop reinventing the wheel, and work with the community. Speaking of the XBONE:
Console controllers are not the future of VR. I’ve already pre-ordered a Steam Controller, but not really for VR use. The SteamVR controller and the Oculus Touch are much more promising to me, but we won’t see them for a while yet (maybe Valve will surprise us, but I’m not putting money on it). Also, let’s be clear: beyond immersive games, controllers are the second most important part of VR.
So, it’s not all bright for the future of VR. Lack of a single API is going to be a real hindrance, and controls are still an issue. The biggest problem is still taking market staples and wedging them into VR, instead of making games for the VR environment. That’s a commercial problem that I don’t have an answer to, but I still don’t think that VR will be a flop.