Pip and Adam are out in the wilds of GDC, hunting the grounds of the convention centre and the streets around for the most interesting people and games in the world today. In one dark room, in an unassuming building on a busy street, they found a crowd of virtual worlds.
This was the Oculus Rift Game Day, in which the VR devices were on display along with selected launch titles. From sport to slaughter and strategy to stealth-horror, here are our thoughts on the first wave of VR games. And our first verdict on the launch window and the all-important Touch controllers.
Pip: I got off to a deceptively promising start with this one as I apparently have a knack for three point basketball in virtual reality. Ball after ball sailed into the basket and I felt like a hero. Surely this is too good to be true? Obviously it was and my basketball pride came before an American football fall. I don't understand American football. I have no idea what I was trying to do while playing even though you've explained it to me. All I know is that I caught the ball from the bendy-over squatting man and then threw it to someone else. After that the camera changed to the perspective of the catching player, I tried to catch the ball and the cycle started again. The developers said that it was just a matter of listening to the tutorial to follow what was going on and that did teach me the basic movements but I never got an overall sense of the game or how I was influencing my own progress. I wanted to spend a bit more time with it and see if it finally just clicked with me, especially as the three point basketball mode had come so naturally and the last mode – the slam dunk basketball challenge – had also felt more intuitive.
Adam: It’s probably a massive oversimplification to say that VR Sports is the Rift’s very own Wii Sports, but I’m going to run with that because I am occasionally a very simple person. That statement also ties in with my overarching impression of the Oculus Game Day event, at which we played all of these games. It felt like we were looking at the launch day lineup of a new console, with both the good and bad connotations that come with that.
Thankfully, the meeting of Rift and American sports seems like a happy one. It might not do the Wii Sports trick of becoming the party game of choice for people who wouldn’t think to pick up a more traditional controller, but it’s taken the smart approach of zeroing in on the elements of each game that suit particular types of intuitive movement rather than trying to simulate every aspect of each sport.
That’s true in theory, at least. We only got to play two games, basketball and American football, so can’t judge the ice hockey and baseball. Those latter two will concentrate on shooting and goalkeeping (shunting and blocking), and batting and fielding (swinging and catching) respectively. The aim, from a development perspective, is to present the player with a highlight reel of each game in which they get to be the star. And they get to be the star by performing actions that are natural and intuitive.
Football, which I didn’t get a chance to play, didn’t seem particularly intuitive. When I was watching you play, it seemed like you would have needed more knowledge of the sport to appreciate the context of your goals at any one time - whether choosing a play, picking out a receiver or trying to throw a leading pass. The ‘bullet’ throwing motion didn’t seem to come naturally at all.
Maybe that’s fine though. Maybe it’s good to have at least one minigame that you need to spend time learning and maybe that one game is American football in this case.
The best thing about the entire demo was my three-point attempt in the basketball mode. I was awful. So excruciatingly bad that I realised the developers were speaking the truth when they told us that there was no aim assist. When you were playing, I was convinced that was a white lie. Turns out you’re just awesome at basketball.
My favourite part of the actual game was the slamdunk challenge though. It’s like the bits in a motocross or skating game when you’re in the air performing tricks, except you’re not pressing buttons. You’re manipulating a ball that felt completely real in my ‘hands’, bouncing it off the backboard, tossing it from one hand to the other, playing with the physics in what feels like a real space. I remember it as a real thing that I did, that handling of the ball, rather than part of a game. That’s pretty incredible and it wholly convinced me that Oculus Touch can do incredible things.
And this wasn’t even the best implementation of Touch in the games we played. More on that later.
Edge of Nowhere
Pip: This one I really liked for its sense of place. You play as a guy stuck up a mountain, traversing these ice caves and ice walls and skirting round crevasses. You're finding out about these monsters another explorer (I think he was an explorer – my memory lets me down here – has been insisting exist but you had your doubts. It's a third person game which I thought might feel particularly weird in VR – like you were harassing someone, permanently hovering over their shoulder – but it actually worked neatly. The camera follows the main character at a slight distance so you can move him about and make him interact with the environment but you're slightly removed from those acts, watching him instead of seeing things through his eyes.
The overall effect, I think, turns something that could be vertiginous and uncomfortable into more of a companionable and moderate experience. You get to peer around the landscape without having to directly contend with its hazards. You guide and curate and listen instead of being the one climbing and falling and hacking with our ice pick. The other thing I found really interesting about Edge of Nowhere was that when I was talking to one of the developers they were explaining that they had originally intended to have a big arsenal of weapons but that it made the experience clunky so they decided to stick with only a few options, but to get various objects in the environment to function as weapons instead. That's part of why you can throw rocks at these weird seed pod-looking structures growing out of surfaces and have then sprout defensive spikes – it's a way of creating weaponry you can use against enemies so you could lure one of these insecty monsters in by making a noise with a rock, then hurl a second rock at the spike ball triggering it and making it iskewer the monster.
Adam: A third-person VR game seemed like a disastrous idea to me. When I watched you playing, seeing what looked like a regular third-person stealth-horror game on-screen, I thought it was even more disastrous. The camera was swinging around all over the place in a way that didn’t give me a sense of what you would be seeing or how the sense of space, and the character within that space, was being communicated.
And then I played it for myself and it all clicked into place. There’s a fairly tight control, by the game itself, of the camera so it adopts a position and then you can look around and enjoy the scale of the caverns FROM that position. The actual game itself is neat, with all of those environmental hazards you described and the ability to play with the AI in a satisfying way, luring it and avoiding its attentions or using its behaviour to your advantage, but I was most impressed by the fact that, hey, third-person VR games aren’t completely horrible to play!
Pip: I liked this in the sense that I think it's nicely executed but it's one of the games I'm not convinced needed to be in VR. I do like that this was the second game we saw at GDC which was aiming at making RTS more pick-up-and-play-able to people (the first being Tooth and Tail), and I did think the transformers element where you switch from being a land unit to an air unit was really nice. We seemed to end up in a stalemate, though, which meant I wasn't really sure what to make of the experience. I always get that feeling when I don't experience victory or loss. It feels unresolved. I did kill you a lot though and I am going to hang onto that.
Adam: Has there been anything we’ve played this week that you haven’t killed me in? When we played basketball, the entire court literally burst into flames when you were playing, because it was so happy. When I played, icicles formed on the backboard.
As for Airmech, I half-agree with you here. The game seemed fun - and it already exists and has a playerbase that would agree that it’s fun - but I’m not really a fan of RTS games where I control a unit within the playing field. I’m never sure if it’s better to play it as an action game, using my overpowered commander unit to trounce everything or to take a zoomed out view and play in a more traditional fashion.
Airmech goes some way toward solving that problem by having your commander also be your cursor. You need to fly or stomp around to activate, to give orders and to build, so even if you’re taking a distant view you’re flitting in and out of the action.
The VR isn’t a necessary part of the game but it wasn’t a distraction either. As with Edge of Nowhere, the main thing that I took away was that it’s exciting to see a strategy game actually working with the Rift. I want to play Supreme Commander looking down on the battlefield as if it were a wargaming table. Hell, I’d probably be happy playing a good Chess game using the Touch. And Tabletop Simulator VR? Yes please.
Even though this WASN’T a Touch game it did get me thinking about how capturing the pleasantly tactile nature of boardgames and wargames in VR makes a great deal of sense. Maybe I could even pretend to paint miniatures using a virtual box of paints and brushes.
On page two, more games, including Fantastic Contraption and a verdict.
Smashing The Battle
Pip: I rather liked the rhythm of this but it was another one where I'm not entirely convinced by the VR aspect. I feel like that maybe makes me a killjoy, like, why wouldn't you want to toy around with this stuff and experiment and learn things and use it to make your games, but I guess I'm looking to find projects that could only really work in VR – things that exploit the medium in new ways or which simply couldn't exist using more traditional frameworks. This isn't that, although I did enjoy watching you rack up kills and the flow of movement felt pleasant.
Adam: This is the only game I was good at so I feel very generous toward it. It turns out I am very good at being a busty anime lady who hits robots with a spanner. The game reminded me of Smash TV if Smash TV had taken a few lessons from Bayonetta. Combat is nowhere near as smooth or fluid as in the latter but the combos and style points did give it a very compulsive sense of rhythm.
If we hadn’t played it in a room full of Oculus banners, I’d probably have forgotten it was a VR game though. It’s an isometric biff ‘em up and I barely moved the camera (my head) at all.
Colopl had two games on show. Fly To KUMA is a puzzle game with BEARS. VR Tennis Online does not contain any bears.
Pip: The bear game was a spatial puzzle which reminded me a bit of Lemmings, with you trying to guide your teddy bear charges across a landscape to a space ship avoiding various obstacles and causes of death. It had moments of charm but was otherwise unremarkable and the VR interface actually got in the way at points. The tennis game was better in terms of how it played although I didn't see why I would play this and not, say, Wii Tennis. I was also not a fan of the female character model I picked as it had a disproportionate focus on her body compared with the male character I'd played.
Adam: The bear game really was a lemmings-y thing, wasn’t it? I found it quite difficult to play because it requires use of your head-tracking to highlight objects you want to use but then you have to use the controller bumpers to manipulate those objects. And to view the level from different angles you use the D-pad. I felt like I was rubbing my tummy and patting my head at the same time. Maybe it’ll become more intuitive, that combination of controls (mouse and keyboard isn’t exactly the most intuitive control method to an FPS newcomer), but I didn’t think the VR brought enough good things to the table to make up for the distractions.
The tennis game was like Virtua Tennis but I couldn’t see the entire court at one time because I was hanging in the air somewhere above and behind my character’s head. I hope you weren’t hanging in the air behind your character’s bum.
Pip: This was an F Zero X style racing game which I really enjoyed, although it came closest to invoking the nausea of older Oculus Rift headsets and games. I insisted on starting with the hardest racecourse because I find that helps me not feel daunted in the way that creeping upwards through stages does. But in this case there was a lot of information whizzing at me in a short space of time. Essentially the racecourse is a pipe so you spend a lot of time trying to trace the shortest route along the outer surface of the pipe (the inside curve) while also passing over speed boosts. At points on the track you'll also encounter red and green forcefields – red damage and slow you whereas green are safe – and blue areas which flip you onto a different surface. I wanted to spend more time learning the levels and finding out how to use the racers' physics to better move around the track]
Adam: I didn’t enjoy this as much as you did but I am not a huge fan of the genre. I kept falling off the track, Pip, and when I fell off the track electricity hit me in the face until I was dead. My biggest complaint also applies to Wipeout, which probably makes me an idiot - I do not like having so many elements of the track that caused me to slow to a near-standstill when I touched them. Crashing into a wall and slamming to a halt feels sensible and often involves a spectacular aftermath. Here, I was driving into a light that was the wrong colour and then disintegrating undramatically.
As a VR experience, though, it was one of the better available on the day. Being able to look down at your body, strapped into position, gives a strong sense of immersion, and when you look to the left or right, cockpit elements come into view really quickly. I didn’t feel at all nauseous - and we were playing at the end of two and a half hours of rifting - and even though I don’t like feeling dizzy and sick, I was kind of disappointed that I wasn’t at least a little bit woozy when I stood up and removed the Rift. I worried that the Rift was becoming an everyday experience, stripped of the ability to make me go ‘wow’ and ‘oh!’ and ‘ugh!’
I needn’t have worried because….
WOW! OH! UGH!
Pip didn’t get a chance to play this one so you’ll have to put up with me.
I’ll admit that I wasn’t entirely sold on the idea of playing a game about building things using sticks and wheels. Fantastic Contraption, in its new 3d VR form, is a remake of a game originally released in 2008. It used to look like this:
And now it looks more like this:
The mixed reality video is the best way to get an idea of how the game works, I think. Obviously, that’s not what you’d be saying if you were playing the game, but it’s important to have a sense of the space that would be around you because - and this deserves capitalisation - I FEEL LIKE I SPENT TWENTY MINUTES STANDING IN THAT ABSTRACT WORLD STROKING A CAT AND BUILDING CRONENBERGIAN VEHICLES THAT TWITCHED AND SCURRIED AND WRITHED.
If it’s fair to say that some of the games in the launch lineup don’t seem to integrate or benefit from VR in a particularly impressive or valid way, it’s important to counter that with the fact that Fantastic Contraption took about five minutes to make me a believer. Using the Touch controls, I was kneeling, stretching, reaching and even jumping at one point as I assembled devices to try and solve each level’s particular puzzle.
The sense of presence and tactility were astonishing. Not in a way that made me feel dislocated but in a way that makes my memory of the play session seem to take place on a small platform hovering in a void rather than in a small cubicle in a vast hall in central San Francisco. The platform and the blue sky is what I remember. That’s just how it was.
And the most amazing thing of all is that I would never sit down to play Fantastic Contraption if it wasn’t a VR game. The hardware made a game accessible and enjoyable when it would otherwise have been so far out of my wheelhouse that I’d have rather spent my time shooting more hoops.
I have a very poor sense of spatial awareness when it comes to manipulating objects on a screen in the way that this sort of game requires, but that wasn’t an issue here. Sure, my contraptions were hardly fantastic, but being able to walk around them, find a better angle to understand how everything was holding together, and simply to reach out and touch each element - that made the task far more intuitive and, more importantly, made failure into a delightful experiment.
Although we’re working with a limited sample - to play every launch game we’d have to move into virtual reality on a permanent basis for the duration of GDC - there are certain trends evident in the games we played. On the good side, it was impressive to see VR being used for a fairly wide range of genres and ideas, but on the negative side, some of the games seemed to be there to fill a specific slot on the (virtual) shelf. In much the same way that a new console often has a racing game, a platform game, a shooter and so on, so does the Rift. In some cases, even where the game itself seemed absolutely fine, it wasn’t clear how it benefited from the VR implementation particularly. The Rift, as a piece of hardware in need of titles and variety, benefited more by the game’s presence than the game benefited from what the Rift could offer.
And that’s probably at least partly due to the fact that thirty is a good round number that suggests a solid foundation to build on. Thirty launch titles is a more attractive offer than ten, eight or five launch titles even if only a small number will be remembered fondly. But how many consoles have been able to boast more than one or two memorable launch titles? The Oculus Rift is hardware and even though it might not have thirty solid pieces of software right now, it isn’t a device in need of a game to validate its existence (though Fantastic Contraption won’t be ready for launch and validating the price point to yourself is, of course, another matter).
The Touch controllers are at the heart of some of the most memorable experiences and elevate VR from a new way of looking at a game world to a new way of interacting with a game world. That’s enormously important, particularly as many of the apparently 1000s of developers talking to Oculus about bringing their games to VR will most likely incorporate Rift controls to tilt cameras and point cursors without significantly harnessing the stranger and more impressive qualities of the medium.
VR isn’t 3d cinema. There are things that a good designer can do with a VR space that have the capacity to leave a lasting imprint on your feelings and thoughts about virtual worlds. And something as seemingly simple as pulling off a trickshot in a game where you can feel a ball in your hands is a completely different experience to mashing buttons to pull off combos. Touching, feeling and seeing rather than repeating arbitrary controller inputs.
This isn’t 3d cinema because it’s not a gimmick, but that’s not to say it can’t be used as a gimmick. VR’s similarities to the new wave of 3d cinema will be at their most obvious when games start to release with unnecessary VR modes. Like the retro-fitted 3d that is an ocular annoyance in so many films that weren’t produced with 3d in mind, the first generation of VR is most likely going to leave a lot of detritus in its wake. And all of that trash will make an easy target for the people who don’t, can’t or won’t accept that the actual tech, and it’s potential impact on creative design, is extremely impressive.