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Is VR just another gimmick or is “Flat Screen” gaming here to stay?

Virtual Reality has been the on the minds of many in the videogames industry this year, and having dominated GDC earlier in the year it was time for its presence to be felt at EGX Rezzed in London.

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PlayStation VR

Virtual Reality has been the on the minds of many in the video games industry this year, and having dominated GDC earlier in the year it was time for its presence to be felt at EGX Rezzed in London.

If you had asked me last year whether I thought VR could actually take off, I would have said no. It would not have been a forcefully definitive no, but it looked to be just another gimmick, in a medium where gimmicks had (in part, at least) defined the previous console generation. The Wii with its motion controls had good intentions, and at first helped to broaden both the way people interact with video games and the audience that was playing them. However, the innovative use of motion controls was for the most part short lived, and mostly relied on Nintendo to demonstrate what could be done. Nintendo made its fortune from motion controls and influenced both Microsoft and Sony in their decisions to create new accessories for their ailing systems. Sony’s PlayStation Move at the time quickly became irrelevant due to a lack of support from third parties and Sony itself, whereas Microsoft’s Kinect camera – that allowed for controller-free motion controls – was a financial success for the company, although the device failed to provide the intuitive experiences that were promised upon launch; painfully evident with the much maligned Kinect Star Wars that did not allow players to feel like a Jedi or one with the Force (and the less said about Han Solo’s dancing the better).

With the start of the current generation of consoles motion controls were not forgotten, with each console supported them in one way or another, but it was difficult for anyone to get truly excited about them. What’s more, the consoles themselves did not seem to provide the technological leap between generations as had traditionally been the case, which was especially concerning given the near decade-long length of the previous generation. Within a year Microsoft publicly backtracked on its media ambitions and with it essentially gave up on its new version of Kinect. Sony had also failed to utilise its PlayStation camera that launched alongside the PS4 in any meaningful way, and Nintendo was struggling to capture the audience’s attention with asymmetrical gameplay via the Wii U gamepad.

Last month I mentioned how my limited control of the space around me led to a more personal evaluation of the importance of handheld consoles. This was in preparation for a presentation I was about to give on the significance of Nintendo’s Game & Watch series and its impact upon this area of the video games medium. At first I had no intention of mentioning VR, as on the surface the two types of video game hardware are quite different, but by going through the history of the Game & Watch’s creator Gunpei Yokoi and given the resurgence of VR, the Virtual Boy needed to be brought to the attention to those unfamiliar with Nintendo’s failed attempt at VR from 1995. Most recently, Palmer Luckey (founder of Oculus) stated back in January that the Virtual Boy hurt the perception of the VR industry in the long run. With my presentation now ending on the potential impact of VR it generated some discussion, such as in response to the mentioning of being isolated from reality in the metaverse, and where this period of the video games medium might line up with that of cinema. However, with the exception of one person in the audience (who’s focus is on VR in health care) no one (myself included at the time) had actually had any experience with a VR headset, meaning we had no personal understanding of what it is like to be immersed in these virtual environments.

Fortunately, a week later a colleague in my research group (the audience member looking at VR in health care) brought in one of their older Oculus Rift development kits for me to try out. Unfortunately, however, due to recent software updates I was only able to try out two demos, neither of which had any interactive element to them for they were solely visual experiences. Nonetheless they still managed to demonstrate to me the potential for VR, as even though the graphics were not particularly impressive, when combined with the response to my head movements, it was still enough to trick my eyes into believing it was an accessible space. When I took the headset off my eyes had to readjust to the non-virtual world. I could now begin to understand why people were so excited about this technology; except that did not mean I was completely sold on the idea.

I was already going to EGX Rezzed in London, but when I had obtained my ticket there was still very little actually confirmed as to who was exhibiting at the event. By the time of my presentation most of the exhibitors had been announced, and shortly after it was revealed that Sony would be bringing their PlayStation VR to the event as well (except it was to be a closed display). It was during my time at the event that I got the chance to try out the consumer version of the Oculus Rift, and this time experience gameplay. When we think of VR it is often of a first person experience, but I got to try out Gang Beasts VR, which is a multiplayer brawler where all of the players can be seen at the same time. Here the VR provides the player with increased control of the camera, and this could be used to their advantage. Whilst I was waiting for my turn I observed one person who discovered that by standing up and looking downwards gave them a “godlike” perspective of the action, giving them a greater understanding of the distance between platforms (one poorly judged jump and you are out for the round) and their general surroundings. This was a fascinating example of using real physicality to alter how you can interact within the virtual space.

Trucks

First person experiences were also tried with the Oculus Rift, and it was in this instance that I was properly able to notice how far the consumer version has come since the development kit. Non-first person viewpoints could potentially be more experimental, but first person does seem more immersive, and it was during my time with Esper 2 that I completely forgot about my physical surroundings. At one point in the demo the goal was to throw a ball at a target, I was unaware that to throw the ball all you had to do was hold down the right trigger. Instead I had discovered that by swinging my head from side to side and then releasing the ball achieved a similar effect; except of course I must have looked crazy to anyone observing me. But I was completely immersed in what I was doing, and as far as I was concerned the only thing behind me was a wall that the ball could rebound against.

Despite being impressed with the Oculus Rift, I was still excited to get some hands on time with the PlayStation VR. However, because the online pre-registration broke, I had to queue up for a timeslot. This in itself was not a problem – it was a very efficient solution – but what it did mean was that I could only try out The Playroom VR, an asymmetrical game where one person has the headset and up to four other people with DualShock controllers take control of characters on the TV screen. I was disappointed at not being able to try one of the “proper” VR games, but at least this meant I could try on the headset. After my short time with the headset my sense of disappointment went away. The PlayStation VR headset is incredibly comfortable, but what makes it truly stand out is how the display seems to wrap around your eyes, fully immersing you in the world. Combine this with a pair of headphones and you are truly in the metaverse. It was just a shame that demo is not particularly long, as I simply wanted to spend more time with it.

After my time with The Playroom I stuck around for a bit in the PlayStation area watching people play RIGS: Mechanized Combat League whilst also talking to the attendant assisting those with the demo. Sony have been toting RIGS as the first VR eSports game, which the attendant was all too keen to emphasise, but that still did not help to explain what the game is; as the trailers do not, nor does watching over someone’s shoulder. What I was not expecting was to be provided with a comparison to Nintendo’s Splatoon in order to explain the basic premise of the RIGS. Both involve shooting other players, but that is not the core objective of the game; Splatoon is covering the most of a given map in ink, and in RIGS it is to score a goal (with you essentially being the ball) whilst in “overdrive” mode, that you activate by collecting orbs from defeated opponents.

Before the event came to a close for the day I attended one of the developer sessions titled “What Will VR Games Be Like?”. Having now had some hands on time with VR headsets I was interested to hear what developers experimenting with VR were encountering and where they thought the technology could go in the immediate future. From the start they stated that VR presents a new set of problems to deal with and that stories cannot be told in the same way as before. This in part due to how the camera is utilised within VR. For video games that are viewed in First Person the camera cannot be taken away from the player (think how in the Halo series the camera moves out of Master Chief’s helmet to a cinematic perspective and then back again) as doing so will instantly make the player nauseated. This can also extend to video games that are not in the first person, for it is the lack of control whilst in an enclosed situation that causes the disorientation.

Field of view is crucial for ensuring a smooth experience in VR, therefore the position of the player’s head in the virtual space has to be an important consideration. One example came from Steve Bristow of Rebellion and his experience with developing Battlezone VR. He explained how the cockpit is kept level in the vehicle and by doing so helps to prevent motion sickness. This is then combined with the way in which the terrain is designed, as it gives the illusion of depth, but is actually a largely flat surface; again to prevent the experience becoming too much for the player.

In addition is consideration for the User Interface (UI) – which is something that can easily be taken for granted in all gaming mediums – but in VR if not implemented properly will contribute in bringing the player out of the experience. To get around this the virtual environment has to be considered and in turn utilised to incorporate the UI elements. Again this is where the use of a cockpit is useful as the UI elements can believably be fashioned into its design. It was during this discussion that the term “flat screen” video games was mentioned, which takes a bit of getting used to (is it derogatory?), but it is useful in distinguishing the difference between the two visual interfaces.

The “flat screen” is not automatically redundant when a VR headset is being used though, as thanks to Sony’s term for it, the “Social Screen” exists. Primarily this is used to display what the player with the headset is seeing; but it can also be used, as is the case with The Playroom, for other players to control different elements of the game either to support or hinder the player with the headset. It could also provide new possibilities for either existing genres or a genre that might not even exist yet. Despite the panel’s enthusiasm I did get a sense of déjà vu from their talk regarding the “social screen”, for they were referring to asymmetrical gameplay (which to be fair they did acknowledge), but the overarching ideas were essentially the same as some of the premise for the Wii U’s gamepad, where the player with the gamepad (like the headset) has one view and everyone else watches the TV screen to control their characters. Unfortunately, Nintendo has struggled to highlight the possibilities of local asymmetrical gameplay and it is difficult to see another developer succeed in this regard, although that does not make it impossible.

PlayStation VR

George Kelion from nDreams at one point said that VR is currently at the same stage as the Lumière brothers were in the development of cinema. This gives some indication as to where they think VR is in its developmental path. Kelion went on to state that VR still needs to work out what its speciality is, as opposed to being just another way to experience existing types of video games. He then gave examples of how when the radio was created it was used to deliver opera and when the TV first came out was used to broadcast theatre. It was only as time went on that experiences were created that made the most of its respective medium, but they still seem to build upon what existed before.

The whole session can be viewed here but if you are expecting a definitive answer as to the future of VR you will not get one; they concluded that in 2016 they still do not know the best way to utilise VR, but given how short recent interest in VR has been it would be ridiculous to already know what the technology is going to bring next. “Flat screen” gaming is unlikely to be going anywhere, and there is still no certainty that VR is going to take off (just look at 3D), but it does provide developers and players with a new means of interacting with video games. The challenge now is to figure out what ways do so effectively, and maybe something truly new will come about from it, as the medium cannot continue to reuse the same tired genres forever.

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Despite studying Politics at Undergrad and then War Studies at Master's level, James managed to write multiple essays relating to technology and more importantly video games.