Last week marked the final E3 before virtual reality would be made available to consumers.
Valve’s Vive VR headset arrives this year, while Oculus Rift and PlayStation’s Morpheus are set to launch in early 2016.
The tech is in place, but there remains a question mark over the content. Sony had a number of VR titles at E3, while there was a plethora of independently-developed projects from the likes of Rebellion, Crytek, Frontier, CCP and nDreams. But most of the titles on show at E3 were little more than tech demos.
It’s easy to be sceptical of any new tech, and I’m usually the first,” says development legend Tim Schafer, who isn’t building a VR title.
I credit a lot of (the VR hype) to novels like Snow Crash or Ready Player One. People have created… not necessarily positive visions of VR, but they have come up with an idea of what it could be like. I don’t think anyone ever wrote a book about how great it’s going to be when we have second screens.
Whether it’s with VR in those books, or [Star Trek’s] holodeck, these are things we can imagine and that we can aim for, because we already know they’ll be pretty awesome.”
Developer Cliff Bleszinski, famous for creating Gears of War, adds: One of VR’s enemies is that people are jumping on the bandwagon and some folks are coming out with some mediocre VR titles.
But if you play some of the really good experiences, using the latest Oculus stuff or the new Valve kit… that’s pretty magical. And anyone who hasn’t seen it and is criticising VR, needs to see it and re-evaluate.”
"Sci-fi has created a vision for virtual reality. No-one ever wrote a book talking about how great second screens will be."
Tim Schafer, Double Fine
Most of the companies that are backing VR today are smaller developers. Indeed, the big guns like Take-Two and EA are optimistic about VR, but have adopted a ‘wait and see’ approach.
Well, that’s fair enough,” says EA COO Peter Moore. There is a lot of work to be done to commercialise VR, to make it at a competitive consumer price point, to get it through launch and develop long-term strategies. We are looking at it very closely, and all the teams want to experiment with it. We have the development kits, as I am sure all the big publishers do.
Our sports teams are looking at this because we do have the tagline: ‘It’s in the game’. And to put you in the game, which you have the opportunity to do with VR, is something to get excited about. Everybody has to get this right, it is still a ways away, but when it is there, EA will be ready.”
Jim Ryan, European head of PlayStation, is sympathetic towards nervous publishers. It’s an unproven area. You can’t just take a regular game and stick it on Morpheus. That doesn’t work, we know that. So they have to figure out what the experience is. The unfortunate commercial realities of a publisher means it needs to get comfortable in terms of business model and install base and all of these things, and how do they make money for their shareholders?
It will take a little time. One of the roles of a first-party company is to have our own studios driving that process in terms of demonstrating what a great Morpheus experience looks like. Then as a platform holder we have to demonstrate that it’s a worthwhile thing to invest in. We’re just a little bit away from a point where we can go wide with firm dates, price points, and quantities. But when these things start to drop into place, we are confident that any publisher with an eye on what’s next can see this is going to be part of the future. And anybody who gets left behind does so at their peril.”
There was one big publisher that did back VR at E3: Ubisoft. The firm is yet to announce a single VR project, but it demonstrated a number of tech demos at E3, and promises announcements in the coming months.
It’s a real investment from our part in terms of time, focus and research,” explains Alain Corre, Ubisoft’s EMEA executive director. We’re still at the beginning of the VR adventure. But we are dedicating our best talent to develop for it.”
He adds: VR is here to stay and we are really investing in trying to find new ways to bring something innovative to our brands.”
One of the biggest challenges faced by VR is in getting that experience across to gamers. VR is not something you can just stick on a TV ad. A prime example of this was the fact that neither Sony or Ubisoft featured VR heavily during their E3 conferences.
It’s very difficult, almost impossible, to do VR justice on-stage,” explains Sony’s Ryan. We took the view that the best thing was just to let the experiences speak for themselves. And hopefully the media will get some decent hands on with them at E3.”
So what can be done to convince gamers to pick up these virtual reality headsets?
We have to tell a good story,” says Patrick Esteves, the design director at Crytek who is working on VR game Robinson: The Journey. VR is a lot more of a story-telling medium and there will be some watershed game where Grandma can play one of these games and go: ‘Wow that was really moving.’ It is not just about this core action-based experience. It is very nuanced medium.
As soon as we get over the hump of getting the VR headsets out the door, and get content that allows people to see there is a great future in it… then we’ll get there. The more creators that can tap into what makes VR great and not gimmicky, the better off the medium is going to become.”
E3 didn’t answer all the lingering questions about VR. We don’t know how much it will cost or what the line-up will look like. But there remains plenty of optimism from developers and publishers that this will break through.
I resolve myself to thinking if you put this much money and talent against something, you can make anything better. Frozen peas would be better” says VP of Amazon Games Mike Frazzini. It’s just impossible not to have something great come out of this.”