Sumo Digital: VR – It’s a funny old game

It is a curious state of affairs that leads me to northern California.

150 years on, this once rugged geographical frontier is still being hailed as a ‘brave new world’, offering all the gold and hope of 1849 for those with the tenacity to hunt it out – albeit nowadays with debug software and a handful of travel sickness pills rather than a prospector’s pick and pan.

Because that’s what’s missing – genuine creativity!

I’m pretty green regarding VR, in more ways than one; I suffer from vertigo looking for conkers, let alone traveling through space and time in six degrees of freedom – and mainly because of that, I remain naïve to the possibilities of the form; it’s always seemed a ‘couple of years’ away from reaching real fruition.

But VR’s exciting; it has the ambition and potential to change the way we play games, how we view entertainment and even how we go about our daily work… so of course I’m interested to learn more; I’m keen to find out if there’s yet a way to reduce queasiness; if there are compelling gameplay experiences that I’m otherwise unaware of, if there’s new hardware to get excited about and what the bleeding edge of VR development is realising beyond my immediate questions… I went to San Jose, to Oculus Connect 4, to learn more.

This year’s convention kicked off with an inspirational key-note from Zuckerberg Himself; his dynamically-worded ambition of getting VR into a billion homes ASAFP boosting the heart-rate of all attendees in the auditorium. He’s quite convincing.

And that ambition is not without merit; VR as an application does NOT have to be isolationist – it can absolutely be an indispensable social experience – and Facebook is the perfect platform to milk that. 

We can all immediately see how stage-diving with your friends at a live Dolly Parton show or striding the red carpet at the launch of ‘Star-Wars-Affiliated-Product-# 19’ could be an amazing and very social experience. Hell – even running a virtual office secretly from beneath your duvet makes VR a must-have application alone, but BEYOND that – as a gaming device – something’s currently falling short.

The VR community, at least as conveyed by Oculus, seems to have a very different threshold of what’s exciting compared to the gaming community – and the two are very different entities at the moment. 

Take the ‘Facebook Space’ avatars for instance – they’re great, but they really are nothing new in and of themselves – aesthetically, they’re not much more than Miis – and yet fairly significant time and space is given over to showing them off as a pioneering aspect of how VR can be personalised.

It’s a bit weird.

Contrastingly, in Carmack’s unscripted key-note on Thursday, he appears to deride the ambition – not of the tech – he talks at length about the power of that – but of the software so far: “… all of the ingredients we really need are already here, they’re just not stirred, cooked and seasoned exactly as they need to be…”.

His honesty is genuinely refreshing – and a realistic counter-balance to Zuckerberg’s dogmatic optimism. 

Carmack’s call to arms – for developers to “fill your products with give-a-damn” resonates more strongly to me than anything anyone else says – or can say – at the conference.

Because that’s what’s missing; genuine creativity; exciting games that involve the player and compel them to grab the headset and jump back in as soon as that ever-present nausea dissipates.

What’s there at the moment is a bunch of potential that’s falling slightly short of enthusiastic expectation. We all want it to amaze us and engross us repeatedly. We really do… but no matter how desperately we search for it, it’s not quite there.

This lack of creative innovation isn’t necessarily the fault of the developers. It’s certainly not the fault of Oculus either – but it may be an inevitability of the marketplace.

VR currently calls for pioneers; indeed, as almost every seminar states at some point; “there are no development rules yet – just guidelines”.

That statement is usually followed by an indication that it is up to the exuberant VR development community to push these guidelines further – to break the walls down; to march towards that ever-glowing, abundantly creative horizon; that elusive wild blue yonder.

The promise of potential is almost overwhelming and it certainly makes for an optimistic pep-talk.

It’s also an attitude that loops back to my opening statement; VR development is sold to us as an opportunity; a rush; a chance to get in on the ground floor – hee-haw – but the difficulty of achieving that opportunity in real-reality is not really acknowledged.

Pioneering is a full-time job.

It takes a lot of time and therefore costs a lot of money.

Tom Heath, whose fascinating talk about locomotion conceded that the best they had, after four years of prototyping within Oculus, was some loose ideas and vague directions for developers to build upon – proved that there is still too much to discover before anything resembling basic standards can be established that would allow exciting games to be created efficiently and reliably.

Once that work has been done, I have no doubt whatsoever that the doors to great content will begin to creak open – but it’s a misnomer to assume that everyone can afford to explore unknown territory themselves; they can’t.

So, what’s the answer?

Sorry. I haven’t got one.

As I ponder my learnings, VR STILL feels like it’s a couple of years away from fulfilling its potential – at least game-wise.

Untethering the experience and offering it affordably with Oculus Go will, without doubt, broaden the potential market.

This, in turn, will strengthen investment, which will lead to more developers being able to bear the cost of pioneering, which will end up with coat-tail riders creating great content on the back of those efforts.

Oculus Go feels like the right step to take and I can feel a twinge of (don’t tell anyone) – optimism – but until I can remove the goggles without feeling green-around-the-gills, and until I have a library of great games that compel me to dive back in, VR, sadly, still feels a bit like the future to me.

In the meantime, give me a SNES-Mini for great gameplay.

There’s a lesson in there somewhere.

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