To quench my thirst for more information on virtual reality and what it brings to the gaming space, I attended the “Making Virtual Reality a Reality” panel at EGLX 2016.
The developer panel included Lee Vermulen, a developer behind the recently released Modbox for the HTC Vive, Lucas Johnson, a famed narrative writer and CEO of Silverstring Media, and Dustin Freeman, a former worker on Microsoft’s Kinect and a Mixed Reality engine for Occipital.
Much information was given on virtual reality and the effect it will have on the gaming industry–and I promise it’s not all that obvious. Read on to learn about the best VR headsets and applications, the difference between AR and VR, and the development challenges when making games for the young technology. Answers to all of these questions and more have been taken straight from the mouths of industry experts.
1. The Best VR Headset
You’ll be surprised to learn that the best virtual reality technology does not necessarily involve the headset itself. “I wasn’t interested in VR at all until I tried Vive,” says Vermulen. Virtual reality wasn’t something he wanted to develop for was because of things like motion sickness and a lack of unique ideas for the technology. What makes the Vive different than the other headsets he’s tried in the past is its use of two handheld controllers that offer “complete 3D precision.”
He thought that Valve’s virtual reality experience gave a level of interaction that something like the Oculus doesn’t provide, and won’t provide for a while.
One of the games that enlightened him to the world of VR was Tilt Brush, which lets you paint in 3D. “Trying that [the Vive], you realize that there are so many more applications for system-based games and interaction stuff once you can really interact with your environment.”
I hadn’t thought about the implications of having controllers to accurately manipulate in-game items. By comparison, the PS VR doesn’t give you the same level of 3D interaction, because the move controllers are simply not up to snuff. The fact that the Sony’s technology was only spoken about once during the panel–to congratulate it for the market penetration its cheap price will likely afford–says a lot about what developers consider to be true next-generation virtual reality.
2. AR vs VR
Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality are terms that get thrown around a lot. We have seen gaming applications that use AR technologies on Nintendo’s 3DS handheld and the likes of Microsoft’s HoloLens, but what is the difference between this technology and the technology of augmented reality?
“In virtual reality you’re wearing something so that you see none of the real world and you are 100 per cent in a different space, and that different space doesn’t correspond to reality. Augmented reality is where you see the real world and then you see some objects on top of it.”
That, as explained by Freeman, is the technical difference, but what development barriers exists?
Unlike virtual reality technology that is coming into its own, Freeman believes that augmented reality won’t be fully realized for years to come. The reason? Augmented reality requires precision in order to make the changes to real-world environments look authentic. The technology has to make you believe that there is actually something happening in your environment, and that means the overlaid effects used in augmented reality have to render with very low latency–if not, the experience will not provide an authentic feel.
“If you’re working on AR, level design doesn’t matter,” he boldly says. Whereas virtual reality relies on procedural structures, augmented reality technology has to take into account that the player may be in a different space each time they play the game. The world in augmented reality is real, and therefore dynamic; the world in virtual reality is developed by the game creators, and therefore has expectations for how players will interact with the systems in place.
3. VR is not a new way to play games
“TV didn’t kill the theatre. There is still going to be videogames that you play on the TV. VR in my mind is a different medium–you are creating a different kind of thing.”
This poignant statement made by Johnson not only challenges how many of us may think about VR and its application in gaming, but it highlights the importance of thinking of VR games as more than just a copy-and-paste effort to give us existing games with the ability to explore the in-game world virtually.
Though I love the idea of being able to venture into game worlds, the developers have better insight on how this technology will be best used. The example of Skyrim was brought up as an ideal game world to have in virtual reality. It sounds great, but in practice the endless exploration that is led by the movement of a control stick can become nauseating.
Going forward with the distinction in medium, Vermulen suggests that games in VR will feel better if the environments are made with VR in mind. That means more complexity in a smaller space.
This is what he says about games like Skyrim being ported for VR: “It’s interesting in 3D because your walking through these environments but you’re just constantly going into new spots and there is nothing in your vicinity to interact with; it is just incredibly boring.”
For this reason, new and interesting methods of play need to be explored that can only be experienced using VR. An example that was mentioned during the panel was to have the ability to look under a table or peer into compartments like a cupboard or behind a wall.
I haven’t considered this detective-like search mechanic for VR gaming–I think that as gamers we look to worlds that are large and open. We like to speed through large areas and take in the beauty on a more macro level, but pass on the opportunity to explore objects within the environment. I could see this type of interactivity, especially with the motion controllers offered by something like the Vive, become a staple of future story-driven games. Titles like Gone Home or mystery/horror titles like those found in past Resident Evil games would benefit from being able to pick up notes, turn over emblems, and twist keys.
4. Development Difficulties
It is sometimes hard to imagine the woes suffered by a developer, especially when it comes to creating games for new technologies. One of the difficulties of developing games for VR is what Freeman calls “attention design”. Attention design is a method of game design used to provoke and control the player’s gaze in order to direct the player’s attention toward what the developer wants them to see–a focal point–in a given moment while playing a VR game.
Freeman uses the room the panel takes place in as an example of an in-game environment where our attention would be split in so many ways:
“I load the person into the room [your character in VR], and they are just going to spend 90 seconds being like, what? what? what? And the game has already started and there was an experience you were supposed to be paying attention to.”
To solve this issue using attention design, he says he would simply have all the lights in the virtual room turned off except for the one that spotlights the area he wants the player to look.
In addition to the methods developers have to come up with to prevent gamers from rubbernecking, cutscenes in VR also require special attention because they are not possible. That’s right, static cutscenes can’t be developed for VR, at least not in the same way we experience them in non-VR games. Instead, developers will have to rethink environmental design so that visual and interactive stories are told through the aesthetic of the games. Talk about showing and not telling!
These difficulties go hand in hand with the imperative to think of VR games as a different medium. I think that once developers establish the differences between VR and traditional games, they will appropriately shift their development methods.
5. Harassment in VR Multiplayer
“When you’re in VR multiplayer with another person, it really feels like you’re there, which is great especially when you’re with your friends. But when you’re with a jackass it’s a horrible experience,” Vermulen gripes about a new way for online players to drive you mad.
He explains that in current online games, competitors can only trash talk in the lobby, but in VR games–as with his experience–they can do things like wave their hands in front of your face for the duration of the wait time.
It seems that with all its highlights, not even VR gaming can save serious gamers from harassment. Maybe a virtual slap in the face will resolve this issue.
There you have it–VR applications, woes, challenges, and innovations straight from the developers themselves. If you’re looking to learn more about this critical shift in gaming, head on over to my article so see why I think we haven’t seen such a movement since Super Mario 64. For more on VR at EGLX 2016, you can read my hands-on demo of Mervils early next week.