After years of hype and promise, VR finally became a reality for consumers in 2016.
The year kicked off with the PC-based and expensive Oculus Rift and HTC Vive headsets rolling out. And in just a few weeks virtual reality is coming to the console space in the form of PlayStation VR.
Many developers have told MCV that making games for this hardware isn't overly different to the other virtual reality tech on the market – but there are some advantages to Sony's hardware.
When you develop for a console, you know that the output is going to be the same for everyone,” Flavio Parenti, CEO of Loading Human developer Untold Games.
You don't have to worry about people having different graphic cards, which can lead to problems on PC. People are going to play exactly what you have built for them. This is another thing that for an experience such as VR, that has so many limitations to do with hardware, frame rates, all that stuff, it's a big deal to be in control of the output.”
(From left to right: Crytek's Jackson, Untold's Parenti, nDreams' O'Luanaigh, CCP's Geddes and Supermassive's Harris)
With VR being a new medium and a new technology, it has posed a number of challenges for developers making games. Many tropes of 'traditional' game design simply do not work with the immersion granted by VR.
This is an entirely new paradigm in game design especially. I liken it the progression from Wolfenstein to Doom to Quake,” Simon Harris, the producer of Until Dawn: Rush of Blood and Tumble VR studio Supermassive.
We went through everything being completely 2D to suddenly introducing the concept of depth to the point where we bring in proper 3D worlds. As we went through learnings and hardware transitions we had to think about game design in a completely different way.
Now VR is bringing what we thought we knew as 3D into a whole new way of doing things. Everything from the input mechanisms to understanding the biomechanics of how the body works and how you can make experiences more comfortable to really designing in 3D. Previously we built 3D worlds, but we knew you were either focused on a character in the screen or have a very specific view cone in a first-person game. You orientated your game and world to help the player with that. Now suddenly you are in a position where you're really putting the player in the world where they can look around and they pick things up and interact with them. There are some subtle changes that have tripped us up and we have to think about how we present these experiences in a way that people intuitively expect and make everything tactile even though all they are doing is holding a controller.”
Crytek's Elijah Freeman, executive producer on Robinson: The Journey, adds: VR is a new medium. Although we can use best practices from our previous games, we need to test all of our assumptions again, and we have new and unique challenges to solve. This is an exciting time in game development. The technical requirements to deliver a great VR experience are obviously challenging. For Robinson we need to hit a consistent 60 frames per second or 120fps reprojected on both screens.”
One of the launch titles for PlayStation VR is a spin-off to Supermassive Games' PlayStation 4 horror title Until Dawn called Rush of Blood. It sees players trapped on a terrifying rollercoaster that has them confront fears such as spiders.
With the extra immersion provided by virtual reality, experiences have the potential to be much scarier – but Harris says he's seen no evidence of this during Rush of Blood's development.
It's something we have been asked about a few times,” he says.
One of the things we built when we made Until Dawn was a test that we used to understand whether we were doing a good enough job of building up tension and horror. We had a set-up that uses galvanic skin response monitors and we could analyse people and understand what made them tense and how they reacted when they were surprised. We don't have any data from Until Dawn that suggests that that experience of being scared is any worse in VR. However, what VR gives us is some really cool tools and things that you don't have with a traditional game, such as immersion, to set up those things. Everyone is so individual and different things trigger different reactions in different people. So you get some people that can watch a film and will jump at everything. There are others who will be caught out by nothing.”
The technical side of development has become a real focus for virtual reality developers. With a regular 2D game, a constant frame rate is ideal, but not essential. But with VR, a frame rate needs to be high and constant – a single drop can trigger motion sickness in users.
We really pay attention to getting the technical details right because if you have latency or lag in VR game, it has an effect beyond annoyance,” Eve Valykrie brand manager at CCP Ryan Geddes says.
In a 2D game, if you have latency or lag, you notice a visual impairment that hampers your ability to enjoy the game to its fullest potential. If you have latency or lag in VR, if it's bad enough it can make you want to leave the experience altogether. We try to avoid that at all costs. We've been doing VR for a while. There are always going to be bugs, there are always going to be issues that arises.”
nDreams is the company behind The Assembly. Its CEO Patrick O'Luanaigh says that VR games need to be optimised from the start of development. Normally this process takes place very close to the end of development, but due to the importance of a steady frame rate, this is a much more important consideration with VR.
We've come up with internal tools and a QA process to rapidly identify any areas in our games where the frame rate is dropping and address these issues instantly,” he says.
We run automatic tests overnight and utilise some pretty ingenious solutions. Sony's certification process is there to make sure that all VR games that launch are high-quality, so won't drop frames and make anyone feel ill – that has to be a superb thing for consumer confidence.”
With a price tag of 349 – and requiring only a 259 PS4 instead of a 1,000 PC – PSVR potentially stands the best chance of success when it hits shelves next month.
We're very bullish about PSVR,” O'Luanaigh says. Sony have created a supremely comfortable headset and are launching it at a great price. For the 40m+ PS4 owners, you don't require any additional hardware – just plug in the headset and camera it just works. Plus, you don't need lots of space. Furthermore, the quality of the games is incredibly high – we particularly love Sony's Playroom VR social games. For these reasons, we think PSVR will sell extremely well. What's more, with multiple pre-orders having sold out already, that seems more than likely to us.”
He continues: It will be the leading ‘high-end' VR headset for the near future given the fact that it's a big launch with lots of units, plus Sony has such a compelling enterta