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Is VR The Future Of Gaming?

Fantastic voyage or sweaty facebox?

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Once a week most weeks, the RPS hivemind gathers to discuss An Issue. Sometimes it’s controversial news, sometimes it’s a particular game, sometimes it’s favourite things and least favourite things, sometimes a perennial talking point. This week, in the wake of the Oculus Connect conference and all its many reveals about the Facebook-owned side of virtual reality, we’re talking VR. We’re a few years into what some say is gaming’s next big leap, but it’s still all sweaty plastic faceboxes and a great uncertainty as to whether headspinning and handwaving can sustain their merriment across the course of what we snootily call Proper Games.

Are the Oculus Rift, the Valve Vive, the GearVR and the rest of ’em really the future of games? We definitely sort the matter out once and for all below. Definitely.

Alec: Are any of you absolutely certain that you are not a pair of eyeballs in a jar with a VR headset strapped to it, a GeForce Titan XXXXX Ultro Look At My Genitals rendering a simulacrum of reality so convincing that you really do believe you are a games journalist writing into a shared Google Document?

Adam: I rewatched The Lawnmower Man a couple of weeks ago and there’s absolutely no reason that I would have done that unless I were living inside some kind of virtual hellscape created by the most awful man in the universe. So, no, I’m not at all certain that I’m a real body in the real world. I hope I’ve got a brain strapped to those eyeballs though because I don’t trust the GeForce to keep things going when the next driver update comes around.

Alec: You rewatched it? Then the most awful man in the universe has just been outed.

Adam: Well, the first time I watched it I was a wee thing and I was interested to see how terrible it is! It is terrible. And it wasn’t my choice – it happened to be on a screen and I was in the vicinity and, well, I couldn’t help but watch the whole sorry thing.

All of those old virtual realities have that CyberSpace thing going on, where there’s a distinct architectural and aesthetic quality to VR – it’s very definitely a different place to anything that exists outside it. And now that the Oculus Rift and the rest are actually things that we can use, I’m slightly confused that, apparently, virtual reality is just another way of looking at things that I’m already familiar with. And even more surprised that that’s exactly what I want from virtual reality – I want to watch films using a headset or play Euro Truck Simulator 2, rather than play some “KILLER APP” designed to create its own cyberspace reality. Which is to say, if my real life is actually virtual. That’s fine. I don’t even get motion sickness.

Alec: As you might have surmised, we are gathered here today to discuss whether VR gaming is The Future or not. Alice couldn’t be with us today but sent this message via satellite link to kick things off:

Alice: Hello, chums! I cannot chat right now, but let me throw this out there: I think the current VR craze is still a passing fad, because we haven’t seen compelling enough reasons to buy and wear sweaty cybergoggles – which don’t work properly with my eyes anyway and mess up my cool hair. Please respond in several thousand words of debate more informed than this opinion I’ve casually tossed off.

Adam: Sweaty cybergoggles are indeed sweaty. I’ve only used the Rift but, damn, does it get hot in there. And I think this goes to the heart of my doubts about VR. I think there’s plenty of software already, plenty of existing things that can utilise this current model of helmet-controller comfortably, but I’m not sure I’d want to use the hardware all that often. It is heavy, it isn’t all that comfortable for me – but more importantly it’s isolating. Even when I’m playing a game on my own, I don’t like to feel completely cut off from the rest of the world.

Graham: I have used the DK1, DK2, the Crystal Cove, the Gear VR, whatever the most recent Rift is, the Vive, and I read Neuromancer for the first time earlier this month. I’m ready to connect the nanotrodes to my limbic and deck into the sprawl – or whatever. But – but – I’ve never heard a criticism of virtual reality that I disagreed with. It is sweaty in there. It is isolating. It is a novelty.

It’s just that the novelty is enough for me. VR is particularly good at scale, and with that and the added immersive aspects, it’s also unusually good at conveying a certain feeling of awe that I don’t get from normal screens. I’m not a well-read enough man to know whether this is sublimity as traditionally described, but I’ve gazed into the eyeballs of whales and across San Franciscan cityscapes and upon unfathomably large and distant stars and on each occasion I’ve been made to feel quiet and small and as if I’ve gleaned some greater appreciation for the grandness of life and all things. VR makes me sentimental like flying in planes makes me sentimental.

So I don’t care that it’s a novelty or that I’ll only use it a couple of times a year and mostly to play a trucking sim; fuck it, I’ll spend a few hundred quid to feel like that sometimes.

Alec: If you like that whale so much, why don’t you marry it?

Adam: When I think whales, I think Metal Gear. That’s the way it is now.

I don’t disagree with anything you say, Graham, despite having all kinds of doubts. The first time I used a Rift it was one of the best entertainment experiences (what a phrase, eh?) I can remember. I had a huge grin and completely lost my usual journalist poker face and just kept laughing in amazement. Having one at home would feel a bit like having a little theme park tucked in a drawer.

Earlier this year, I saw a virtual reality station, with Rift and Sony’s thing if I remember rightly, set up in a public place with an audience that weren’t the usual games expo crowd. There were people popping it on to have a go aged 8-80 and just about everyone who did try it was absolutely giddy with excitement afterwards. Anecdotal, I know, but it flies in the face of the idea that VR is something that only the nerdiest of the nerds will have any interest in. It might not be Wii Sports big but it does have an instant appeal. Again, the isolating factor might make it slightly less of a living room staple than it might otherwise be.

Alec: I don’t disagree with anything you say, Adam, (ooh, callback!), but I would say there’s a big difference between all the people who gormed excitedly at 3D tellies when Panasonic or whoever put one in the middle of shopping centre and those who actually went out and bought one. Yeah, most people will find VR very, very exciting as a thing to play with, but won’t be bothered with the practical realities of it unless they’re super-dorks like us.

For gaming I put ‘em somewhere near flight sticks in terms of appeal – those who have ‘em swear by ‘em – though I think they will be much more popular than that presuming they’re affordable, as they have more universal, cross-genre application.

There is no way in hell I’m not buying one, or several over the years, because I love tech and I love making games pretty and immersive, but my girlfriend, for instance, is never, ever going to sit and wear on these things for more than five minutes, unless they really do manage to make them into a pair of sunglasses.

What I do think might be a little different is the mobile variant for video-watching, the GearVR and the various cheaper ones. People do want to isolate themselves from the world when they’re on the train and surrounded by sweaty, noisy people and their horrible stinky sandwiches, though there are obvious massive downsides to that, and they also want to distract themselves from their teidum. Watching something on a five inch screen is shit. Not having time to go to the cinema is shit. Watching a cinema screen on the bus makes sense, just so long as there’s a way to know where you are. There’s a big social impasse to be overcome of course, but people used to say that about using a mobile phone in public, y’know?

Graham: Remember when people said that cities would be designed to accommodate the Segway? I think the same would need to happen to buses and trains for VR to take off in those contexts, and I think that’s about as likely as Georgian Bath being rebuilt to suit the Segway. I’m a relatively happy-go-lucky chap, and I wouldn’t trust strangers not to rob me/take photos of me/draw things on me if I was watching The Matrix Revolutions on a train with my GearVR.

Adam: PLANES. I just had an image of all the passengers on a plane plugged into helmets to watch films in VR. It swiftly became sinister because the crew were clearly panicking due to some crisis while all of these people were unaware, merrily laughing at a giant rom-com being beamed onto their eyeballs.

Alec: I’ve said this before, but what VR needs urgently – even before smallness, lightness, resolution etc – is some way of seeing the outside world as well as the made-up one. A picture-in-picture thing or a toggle or something, but it’s vital, both for practicality sake and so you don’t feel so totally vulnerable.

A GearVR kinda thing is what I can imagine using more regularly than a Vive though. I feel tired just thinking about setup and cables and base stations and syncing and distances and space, but whacking on some wireless goggles in bed which show simple games and movies from my phone sounds easy and something I’d do in preference to a half hour on the ipad. Dressing myself up in all this wearable stuff and dancing around to play Dishonored 4: The Outsider’s ReVRenge doesn’t sound entirely like a thing I would bother to do often, however.

Adam: I always mention Euro Truck Simulator because it’s my VR dream and I absolutely adore the idea (and reality) of VR for flight sims, but first-person “in body” games are a problem for me. By “in body” I mean not “in cockpit” – games that have me controlling my own body’s movement rather than it being stationary within a vehicle or seat. The illusion of being the avatar in first-person shooters, or even walking simulator type things, is broken for me by VR – in the very limited experience I’ve had. Concentrating on movement of the body using a controller while having independent movement above the neck is horribly uncomfortable and just made me feel confused and unhappy. It’s something that might get better with experience, I guess. Any thoughts?

Graham: Yeah, I’d agree with all of that. In some respects, first-person are both the best and worst kind of VR game. Best when you’re a person in a cockpit, worst when you’re a person with legs. There are moments when it’s great in the latter – little signs when playing retrofitted Minecraft or Half-Life 2 of how it might work – but as soon as you need to jump up a mountainside or over a crate, it’s deeply awkward and jarring.

Counter-intuitively, I think even strategy games and third-person platformers, in which your VR-camera hovers external to the characters you’re ordering around, work better. And in a way, work better than their flat screen equivalents, since a wonky camera is still one of the biggest problems with many of those games. I’d play a Shadow of the Colossus VR game, for example, which was still third-person but where you could lean and tilt and cock your head around the colossus you were climbing.

I think the HTC Vive has solutions for some of these first-person problems, because you can physically walk around VR spaces with your actual legs, but only at room scale. Valve say they have solutions for travelling longer distances, but I struggle to imagine them being anything other than similarly awkward.

Alec: I suspect we may have to go through an irritating VHS/Betamax war while we wait for one VR tech to become the most prevalent too. Will games which support Vive base stations support whatever Oculus does with full-body movement? Will Valve’s wands work in stuff made for Oculus Touch? It’s faintly nightmarish to think about leaving games behind because they don’t support the headset you’ve got. I don’t want platform wars all over again, and genpop certainly isn’t going to get involved much until there’s one clear winner.

Graham: Valve have pretty much outright said they’re against exclusivity and SteamVR will support the Rift as much as it supports the Vive. The whole reason they got into the race is because they didn’t like, or feared, what Facebook might do.

Who knows how closed Oculus will be with their systems, but I suspect that if they go down that route, it might encourage them to attempt what Apple do, and provide a service which is consequently more polished as a result of being more tightly controlled. That might not be a bad thing for genpop, at least.

Alec:What people say and what people do are two different things. And what developers want to do and what they get given funding or support for are two different things too. I’m really not predicting universal, cross-headset plug’n’play for a long, long time.

Adam: In genre-specific trends, there’s already a big horror VR surge, which is interesting to me because I am a silly person who enjoys nothing more than frightening myself half to death. I have absolutely no interest in VR horror though because it seems TOO horrible. Perhaps it’s because I find the goggles I’ve used a little claustrophobic or perhaps it’s because I’m a coward, but I can’t imagine enjoying something like Capcom’s Kitchen demo. It just sounds extremely unpleasant in a way that seems designed to create a spectacle of the person playing – which is in itself a horror game trend – more than anything else.

I can imagine all kinds of clever uses for VR in specific genres, often related to HUD info. In horror, SOMA’s a recent example of a game that might happily benefit from some VR tomfoolery, but that’s mostly thanks to its sci-fi setting and playful teasing about the player’s identity rather than because monsters jump in your face and go boo. Like the 3d movie thing, where something as to get lobbed directly out of the screen in almost every 3d film, VR can encourage bad habits on the cinematography and design side. And, yes, that it might encourage a few bad habits doesn’t mean I want to burn the whole thing down, but I do worry about the possible negative influence of new tech on design. I’m a worrier.

Alec: I think I just want a mod that lets me fly around my MGSV base in VR (including the animal conservation platform, of course), and I’ll do that forever and never need anything else.

So, we’re all happily going to become early adopters, then? We’re not going to wait and see how this shakes out?

Adam: If I didn’t write about games for a living, I’d wait it out. I’d do the thing where I wait for one person I know to get one and then burn out on it while visiting and then wait ‘til a) I know which of the various bits of kit I want and b) it’s cheaper. As it is, I’m really interested to use VR at home and with various games, and to work out exactly what I think about it all. I won’t know for sure until I’ve spent more time playing.

Graham: I will be an early adopter. I will buy a Vive as soon as one becomes available to me. I’m not expecting all games to become VR games or to be using it every day, but I think it’ll be an interesting peripheral alongside my already occasional use of steering wheels and flight sticks. That plus the novelty intrigue is enough for me – especially, as Adam says, as a write-about-games-for-a-livinger.

Alec: I’m very excited about it, but I need to see how bad my tax bill is first. I’m secretly hoping it gets delayed to even later next year. And yeah, we’re extremely privileged in that we can justify the purchase to ourselves by writing about the things we do with it – which only leaves me more concerned that this is only the realm of a cheerfully nerdy minority, to be honest.

No-one’s buying into the idea that this will become a wholesale replacement for how we play games, though? To me it already seems – conceptually – akin to playing a console rather than a PC, or a mobile for a change from the keyboard, rather than something that will wipe out everything else.

Graham: Yeah. I don’t think it’s any more likely to put a bullet to how we currently play games than videogames are likely to stop people watching films. Or to follow on from Adam’s theme-park-in-a-drawer line, any more than it is to stop people going on actual rollercoasters. It’s a neat addition, alternative, and occasional enhancement, and that’s fine.

Adam: I’m going to download a Kindle app for a VR headset and read a book on it. It’ll be just like reading a book in the real world but the print will be massive and I’ll have to move my head from side to side to read a line. Can’t wait.

Alice: Hullo again, I’m back. I have no idea what you all decided, but I will obviously buy a pair of cybergoggles anyway for the Motoko Kusanagi aesthetic.

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Alec Meer

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Co-founder of RPS. Dungeon Keeper & X-COM 4 Life.

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