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What It's Like To Play Non-VR Games In Steam VR

Desktop Theater mode makes standard games massive

We already knew that Valve was planning something called Steam Desktop Theater, in which non-VR games could be used within their Vive headset (and, indeed, any other headsets which end up supporting the SteamVR APIs), but I wasn't expecting to see it until the first giant boxes full of matte-black hardware arrived at pre-orderers' houses.

Turns out that Valve snuck out a beta update to Steam over the weekend, part of which was an early version of Desktop Theater. In like Flynn, me. The good news: it works. The bad news: I'm now more certain than ever that the hardware needs another generation or two before it's truly ready for the world.

Something I've almost been more excited about than full-on 3D, 360, sensory-overload VR is playing games and watching movies on a virtual giant screen. That's partly because it's theoretically epic, partly because the jury's still out on the walky-wavy VR experiments and partly because Desktop Theatre might mean I never need to find the money and desk-space for one of those ultra-wide, curved, high-refresh monitors I spent half of last year unhappily price-checking.

Desktop Theater isn't the only tool aiming to offer this kind of functionality on the coming wave of VR headsets, but it is the first official one and also the only one that, so far, is integrated into Steam itself rather than requiring external jiggery-pokery. You enter Desktop Theatre by firing up SteamVR, strapping on your facebox then launching a game from the specially-modified version of Steam Big Picture that acts as SteamVR's default menu system. Find any old game, rather than the specific VR-enabled ones, and the UI will display 'Play In Theatre' rather than simply Play.

Not everything works, I should say right off the bat, but most things I've tried do in some capacity. The rule of thumb is that, if it works with Steam Broadcasting, it'll work in theatre. I'm not 100% clear whether Theater is using Broadcasting's on-the-fly encoding tech or if it's just a comparison, but a bit more on that later.

If a given game does work, you'll soon find yourself sat or stood within a reasonably-sized screening room, at the front of which is a large screen. I'd say it's a 'respectable independent cinema-sized screen', not IMAX or anything like that, but I'm sure resizing options will arrive later. It's pretty obvious that, for the current default, they've settled on the largest size at which you can still take in the whole screen without having to turn your head too much. After all, we're simply not accustomed to panning our gaze across a big screen when playing a game. Pitching it relatively safe for now only makes sense.

It's big enough, though, and it looks good. The Vive's limited resolution hampers it a little, though. As I said in my extensive breakdown of what it's like to use one in your home, the real-world experience is akin to pushing your face right up against a 720p screen, so it's jagged edges and screendoor effect galore despite an on-paper res of 2560x1200.

It's no different in desktop theater: even the sides of the virtual screen have jaggies, you could count the pixels if you had a couple of hours free, and then once a game loads there are brand new issues to contend with. Foremost of those is text. Until now, I'd been exclusively been playing VR-specific games on the Vive, whose menus and dialogue boxes were either dispensed with entirely or displayed in big, chunky fonts.

For a game not made with VR in mind, its standard-size text may well cross the line into unreadable. Games with scaleable UI options get around this to some degree, as does fiddling with the overall display resolution, but it's a lottery. The Tides Of Numenera beta was unplayable because of this, for instance, but Hitman's relatively low-text and biggish font approach got around it.

It's not necessarily fair to blame the Vive or SteamVR for this, of course: it's running software it wasn't really designed for. If developers make future trad. games with this kind of usage in mind - i.e. we see more titles with resizable user interfaces - then it becomes more manageable. Basically, though, the effect is akin to running a game made for 720p minimum on a standard definition TV.

Making up for this somewhat is that, yeah, it's massive and cinematic. I want to play games like this: the intimacy of a monitor but the scale of a movie theatre.

While, for Vive-specific games, physical space is a bit of an issue for anyone with a small house, the opposite is true when it comes to playing sat-down games. The headset takes up a whole lot less space than the hulking 34" ultra-wide, curved, adaptive sync, high refresh monitor of my former dreams would. Hell, it even costs less, which is not a phrase I ever expected to use in the context of the Vive.

The res issue means the Vive can't be a substitute for my current monitor when it comes to trad. games, but presuming VR survives long enough to get a few successive generations (and affordable graphics to power them abound), I have pretty much shelved all plans to upgrade my screen. In two years, hopefully, I'll get a Vive 2 or an Oculus Rift 3 and that will be my gaming display. This requires a great many things going to plan, but it's a future I want.

One of the things which needs to go to plan is performance. Steam Desktop Theater is in its initial beta, so I'm not even beginning to accuse it of not being up to scratch in that regard, but it's definitely going to need a few updates before it's anywhere near fit for purpose. In many games, the image judders and seems to flicker in and out of sight. There's also a bit of what feels like input lag. It's hard to work out if any of this is framerate or some kind of image sychnorisation going haywire.

As we know, Steam VR hardware requirements are pretty steep - regardless of what the final image you see looks like, your PC needs to render 2160x1200 at 90 frames per second - so clearly running max-settings Witcher 3 at big-res and big-refresh is an issue in and of itself. I'm running at GTX 970, which is basically the bare-minimum required GPU, and I'm resigned to upgrading that later this year.

Straightforward framerate has not been my main problem, though. A game juddering and blinking unbearably in the headset looks to be running reasonably smoothly in the mirrored window displayed on my monitor. So it doesn't seem to be a raw performance problem. That said, 2D games are fine, recent 3D games are without exception problematic, while Devil Daggers, something of a halfway house, is also fine.

Hitman, Rise of The Tomb Raider and XCOM 2 were my main test subjects for recent titles: all quite demanding, whether accidentally or deliberately, but all of which continued to spike and stagger wildly, even nauseatingly, no matter how low I dropped settings and resolution. I have two theories as to why so many high-end games appear to run so badly in Desktop Theater. I may well be wrong: there isn't much info yet, and the software is early, so all is guess work.

One is something related to V-Sync. In Tomb Raider and Hitman the problem lessened significantly when I turned V-sync on, and lessened further still when I forced it to cap the frame rate to 30. No such dice in XCOM 2, though for all I know that's due to its technical woes.

Again, the Vive's native refresh rate is 90 Hz, so at a wild guess the juddering is related to attaining or not attaining specific fractions or multiples of that. While, for the time being, I'm struggling to find many high-end games I'd play for long in Deskop Theater, I expect this stuff to shake out or, at the very least, be explained more clearly over time. If nothing else, the community are bound to come up with per-game tweaks in the NVIDIA and AMD control panels.

My second is less a theory and more wondering aloud. If the official line that anything which runs in Steam Broadcasting will run in Desktop Theater is more than a coincidence, perhaps the flickering juddering is related to that. Is my PC transcoding the game it's playing and then playing its own HD stream back to itself? I don't know, but it would provide a certain explanation - especially as Desktop Theater games do seem to lag a little bit too.

I might be entirely off-base with this: I'll keep my ears to the ground, I'll keep trying games and I'll try out any Desktop Theater updates. If, however, I am not off-base, it may be that I'm experiencing more problems than others might for a particular reason. That reason is my six-year-old Intel Core i7 980X CPU. I have no reason whatsoever to upgrade this CPU - it's got six cores, has been overclocked to happily run at 4.2GHz and presents zero issues in any games.

If I upgraded it to something more modern, my real-world performance gains would be minimal at best. However, it does lack a few bells, whistles and instruction sets of more recent CPUs - and Steam Broadcast is a CPU-based activity. Perhaps something is errant there. I'm far from convinced that the judder and flicker is because of that, but I'll try and find my way to a PC which has a relevant chip, so I can at least rule that out.

Meantime, I'm pretty much having to restrict myself to 2D games such as FTL and Sunless Sea. Resolution-fiddling can make them pretty much readable, and a giant pretend screen suits them well enough, but clearly Desktop Theater is going to be at its best with big, cinematic action games. I hope things improve, because I really want to use this.

The final problem is that of resolution. While VR games by and large run a specific res to fit the headset, in Desktop Theater retain their standard settings menu, leaving you free to choose what you want. Handy, but I've been unable to find a resolution which seems like it's natively fitting the Vive, and again the main problem there is text. I'm ending up with it either too small or too blurry; usually I can find a readable middle-ground, but it always feels like a compromise.

I'm hopeful that word will soon be out about best-fit resolutions for Desktop Theater, even if it involves adding custom res in driver control panels. I did try various variations upon the Vive's res, including the total 2160x1200 and the per-eye 1080x1200, but no dice: because the Vive composites each eye's view into one wider image, I'm still somewhat unclear as to what the image we actually see (as opposed to the one which is rendered) would be. Fingers crossed for info, and at least a road forwards for manual tweaks.

Just to address a potential question: yes, you can run non-game software in Desktop Theater, but right now that pretty much involves alt-tabbing out of a running game to then get a feed of your desktop. I've tried movies, which looked OK but seemed a little slow-motion, despite looking fine in the mirrored window on my monitor, and I've tried reading RPS in a browser, which requires zooming in quite a way.

An even newer update to Steam now allows movies bought via Steam to be watched in Desktop Theater. I gave Mad Max: Fury Road and spin and while it broadly worked, the flickering was there too. Right now, it's just not comfortable to watch for long, plus quite frankly the 'screen' was not big enough. Really hope manual screen resize/zoom and also curvature is on its way.

So, potential's there but the practice is, for now, quite disappointing. The mystery flicker is a deal-breaker, at least as it stands. It's extremely early days for the Desktop Theater, so I expect things to improve over time, but while there's every chance either my GPU or CPU or both need upgrading in the not-too-distant, the essential readability of game text is a hard-wired issue.

Either future games are designed with VR headsets' resolution and screendoor effects in mind or they're not, and if it's the latter then any number of titles simply aren't going to be a good time. That said, options to further enlarge the virtual screen may improve matters considerably, so long as we can adapt to turning and moving our heads to find further-flung parts of the image.

I remain a full and true believer in VR as The Future, but the more I use the Vive the more convinced I am that it's going to require a second generation, with a far, far higher-res screen, before it can really take off. Jury's still out on how much full-size, VR-native games can get around this by being designed with headset readability in mind though, and I'll be wittering more about that as titles start to launch in April.

If you have a Vive and want to try Steam Desktop Theater, you'll need to follow these brief instructions to try it out.

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