Leading engine firms Unity Techonologies and Epic Games both stunned GDC audiences last month with the unveiling of virtual reality game editors.
Adapted from their established tools, these new products enable developers to slip on a head-mounted display and build their virtual environments from within the game itself.
The technology was impressive. While Unreal’s version appeared more advanced – and is already available via GitHub – Unity’s prototype aims to include features virtual reality devs are expected to demand over the next few years.
I was even lucky enough to try out the Unreal version myself, quickly getting to grips with moving and resizing objects, adding lighting and navigating a virtual world – but one thought struck me: is this even necessary?
The VR titles that already available on Gear, Oculus and in the works for Vive and PlayStation VR have been developed on very traditional, screen-based editors – and the demos shown to the industry certainly don’t seem to have suffered for it.
During GDC, I caught up with both Epic and Unity to find out if they really expect demand for these new tools.
“The way I see it, you can use a horse for transportation but it’s much better to use a car,” says Epic Games’ CEO Tim Sweeney.
“We’ve been building our VR experiences up until now using a non-VR editing experience on a monitor, keyboard and mouse. Going into VR to do it is both far more productive and far more accurate. It’s more productive because instead of using a whole load of different mouse movements to control abstract widgets on a screen, you reach out, grab objects and move them around. Your brain has enormous intuition for how to move objects efficiently because you’ve been doing it all your life. You can do in one action what might take three or four on a mouse.”
When you’re creating something for this immersive space, you probably need to be able to create within that space rather than being disconnected from it.
Clive Downie, Unity
Unity’s CMO Clive Downie agrees, adding: “No aspect of VR is a novelty. Certainly, Unity don’t believe it is. We believe that both virtual and augmented reality is going to be one of the pre-eminent ways that large numbers of the planet’s population participate with different versions of the world today.
“The technology expands possibilities, and we’re not just talking about gaming: education, social, travel, adventure, R&D, industrial design – everything. So we firmly believe VR is going to proliferate into most, if not all, categories that actually exist today.
“Therefore, there are going to have to be authoring tools that change the way people think about creating for that space. It may not look like what we’re presenting today, but it will have links to it. When you’re creating something for this immersive space, you probably need to be able to create within that space rather than being disconnected from it.”
Sweeney points out that developing games and building environments from within virtual reality, makes it easier to notice fine details that you might miss in the standard 2D editor.
“You could be building a scene on your monitor but when you go into VR, you might find your facade of your building is completely flat and looks like a cardboard cutout,” he says.
“Your brain doesn’t buy that, so you really need to be building that VR content in VR. Otherwise you’ll be endlessly going back and forth between VR and the monitor to tweak all those problems as you discover them.
Going into VR is far more productive because instead of using a whole load of different mouse movements to control abstract widgets on a screen, you reach out, grab objects and move them around. You can do in one action what might take three or four on a mouse.
Tim Sweeney, Epic Games
“During the development of Bullet Train, [creative director] Nick Donaldson would put his headset on and take it off many hundreds of times a day. That’s a real productivity loss, and it also reduces the quality of the content. If you have less time to work on your game, you’re naturally going to accomplish less.
“Right now, you can spend a fairly significant portion of your development time in VR actively building things, and then you only need to take the helmet off if you’re going to do something in 2D tech for a really long time – but that’s only while your monitor resolution is superior to VR.”
Unity aims to go one further by providing a rendered miniature of the level you are building within the VR editor itself – something the firm refers to as the chessboard. While Unreal’s VR editor also lets devs shrink their creation down to a miniature version, giving them an overview of their creation, Unity’s renders the whole level twice: once as a floating diorama where the dev’s in-game wrist would be, and once as the world around them.
“The chessboard feature of the VR editor we’re prototyping essentially allows you to look at a version of the immersive scene from almost a view mode,” Downie explains.
"It allows you to seamlessly switch you from that but within the context of being immersed in the environment. So we’re already starting to think about blended techniques of what people realise now in terms of planned project views but also what people will want in terms of immersion into the environment and how we’re blending that. It’s a fascinating moment of experimentation.”
HAVE YOUR SAY
Do you think VR editing is a novelty or necessity? Do you plan to be building your virtual reality titles from the ground-up using either Unity or Unreal’s editor, or will you stick to traditional methods? Have your say in the comments below.
This article is part of our month-long Virtual Reality Special.You can find more VR content here.