The next era of the games industry has arrived.
After years of developer hardware iterations and a growing number of technology companies being swept up in VR’s momentum, 2016 will see the release of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR to consumers.
The headsets are far from the industry’s first stab at virtual reality – insert your own joke about Virtual Boy here – or even the most recent VR devices to hit the market.
Yet, the arrival of the three most-discussed peripherals in gaming’s history could prove to be an evolutionary step on par with the respective leaps to 3D graphics, online multiplayer and the smartphone – even if it isn’t as immediately obvious.
“VR will be a different launch than iOS,” admits Jason Rubin, president of worldwide studios at Oculus.
“The App Store didn’t open for well over a year after the iPhone existed; it started as a utility and became a gaming, entertainment and everything else device.
“VR’s a little different, because it isn’t innately a utility – you don’t have to have VR. However, what I also know is that if you handed someone an iPhone back in the day they said: ‘This is really neat.’ But they didn’t come out crying – it didn’t change their life.”
"If you gave someone an iPhone back in the day, they said: ‘This is really neat.’ But it didn’t change their life."
Jason Rubin, Oculus
It’s a bold statement, but the idea of VR transforming the face of gaming is hardly a sentiment exclusive to Rubin.
Oculus reignited belief in a legitimate virtual reality solution with its record-breaking Kickstarter in 2012. In the three-plus years since, companies both small and large have been converted, with Oculus itself being absorbed by Facebook for $2 billion just two years after its formation.
While serving as a blessing for the viability of VR as a platform, the multitude of headset makers has presented developers with a conundrum – a fragmentation of platform and technology. Rubin dispels any worries over potential confusion.
“In the early stages of a technology like this, the more players that are out there creating ideas – whether it’s software ideas or hardware ideas – the better it is for the marketplace,” he enthuses. “The more money, brainpower and work that goes into creating VR, the better VR will do at launch.”
Simon Benson is director of PlayStation’s immersive technology group. He believes that the division of virtual reality hardware is a situation developers are already well versed in.
“If we think of each VR offering in the context of its platform – for example, PS VR uses PS4 as a platform, Vive and Oculus Rift use PC, and Gear VR uses a Samsung smartphone – then actually, we can see that these entry points are already very familiar to developers and the platform holders are pretty well defined,” Benson explains.
“These strong relationships were responsible for guiding the whole gaming industry to where we are today and if they guide VR in an equally effective manor, then the future should be very bright.”
Although on paper they may be rivals, Valve’s Chet Faliszek highlights the willingness of VR advocates to work together to boost awareness of the sector as a whole.
“With Steam, we have always encouraged everyone to publish on as many platforms as they can – with OpenVR we are also encouraging and helping with that in VR,” he tells Develop.
Several VR platforms have gone one step further in facilitating this freedom. One such example is the open-source VR platform OSVR and its Hacker Development Kit (HDK) headset, which is backed by peripherals firm Razer and VR specialist Sensics.
Jeevan Aurol, product marketing manager for Razer, agrees with Faliszek that, counter-intuitively, creators should bring their games and apps to as many headsets as they can in order to foster a rivalry that is ultimately beneficial to all.
“It’s important for devs to not put all their eggs in one basket and thereby create a closed-off ecosystem that stifles competition and a healthy market,” he argues. “Supporting platforms like OSVR enable anyone – from small Kickstarter projects to mega corporations – to compete and ultimately drive the industry forward.”
Despite the communal effort, Benson sees the traditional battle tactics of the console space eventually emerging in the nascent sector.
“Platform exclusivity is something that is, again, a very familiar topic and we can expect this to play out as might do for any other platform launch,” he predicts. “Typically this doesn’t tend to cause too much of a growth issue and, with so many developers creating VR games, there will be enough to go around.”
"The more money, brainpower and work that goes into creating VR, the better VR will do at launch."
Jason Rubin, Oculus
Whether it’s Vive’s 3D spatial tracking, PlayStation’s console appeal or Gear VR’s mobile accessibility that made up your mind, you’ve finally narrowed down which platform(s) you plan to build for. Now comes the hard part of actually beginning development. First step? Forget everything.
“Pretty much everything that held VR back in the ‘90s has been well and truly conquered with the current generation of hardware,” Benson explains.
“Possibly the greatest challenge at the moment comes from the fact that gaming has evolved for several decades to fit the format of a TV screen and button-based controller.
“We are resetting the clock and starting the evolution of VR gaming right now. We know we have a lot to learn – and ‘un-learn’ – as we pioneer this new frontier, but it’s going to be a hell of a journey and we are going to experience a lot of amazing discovery and fun as we take each new step.
“When we think back over the last 20 years and reminisce over the key moments when a special game came out that introduced us to an amazing new feature, mechanic or technology that transformed gaming as we knew it – we get to do that all over again in VR.”
Faliszek offers some design advice unique to Vive’s ability to track the player in 3D space.
“Whether you are doing a room-scale experience or seated, you have 360-degree tracking,” he reminds developers.
“This lets you design experiences that put players in the centre of the action, not at the edge of content. You can immerse people in the experience and they will always have their controllers and head tracked, no matter where they are looking. The ability for the end user to stop thinking and worrying about if they are going to lose tracking because they turned wrong frees them up to lose themselves in the experience.”
Speaking more generally, he utters the mantra of virtual reality: ‘Framerate matters.’
“It is now about matching what the system requires; not because you want it to look smooth, but because if you don’t hit framerate you will get people sick,” he warns. “This also means you need to start in performance and stay there during development – no more crunching at the end to get into perf.”
Benson highlights accessibility through clever design as key to building momentum among players yet to experience virtual reality.
“The first step to mainstream interest is to launch a VR system that people can easily access,” he states. “The main help that developers can provide with this is to create lots of amazing VR experiences for everyone, but also to focus on making the experience as easy to access as possible; never assume that players know all of the terminology or understand how VR games work.
“Putting effort into polishing up the user experience will make a big difference to people’s first venture into VR.”
As with any new technology, not every idea will pan out. Rubin reassures developers that success in virtual reality is a case of iteration.
“People did port first-person shooters over – they don’t work as well directly in VR,” he recalls. “This all works out with time. Developers come with what they know, they see what works and what doesn’t.
“I have an incredible amount of respect for the group brilliance of the development community. They’ll figure out what works and make it better, they’ll figure out what doesn’t work and revolutionise and change the way it’s done.”
For VR newcomers, Rubin says familiar tools are an ideal starting place – but taking your own route is just as acceptable.
“Unity, Unreal and CryEngine are very well situated to get in and not only make 3D assets, but then have those assets show up in VR,” he explains. “Having said that, there are teams out there that are using their own engines and it’s not causing them a lot of headaches.”
"With VR, you need to start in performance and stay there during development – no more crunching at the end to get into perf."
Chet Faliszek, Valve
VR’s infancy has seen many studios merely dip a toe in the technology by porting across existing titles. While avoiding the risk of going all-in, the trend has led to scattered criticism of virtual reality as little more than a platform for tech demos, rather than the basis of full-scale experiences.
“This is a temporary thing to help bridge the gap until new titles being developed from the ground up for VR are ready,” Aurol retorts. “Big titles take time so, in the meantime, ported titles can give you a first glimpse of VR, despite paling in comparison to games designed specifically for the medium.
“Then there is the middle-ground solution that caters to both VR and standard gameplay experiences, where a VR mode was part of the initial conceptualisation of the project. Not all genres lend themselves to that, so having 100-per-cent-VR games is still crucial to fully leverage off the new possibilities VR offers – but ‘dual-mode’ titles enrich the overall content platform.”
Benson points out developers’ ability to overcome some of the perceived drawbacks of VR – such as the suggestion that the technology can be isolating.
“A huge area of opportunity for PS VR is the social features,” he expresses. “Many people just think about a single player inside the headset, but playing together has always been a cornerstone for PlayStation, so we added a few cool social features into PS VR to allow developers to create some unique social experiences.
“An example of this is our ‘social screen’. Games can use mirroring mode, so everyone in the room can simply see what the VR player is seeing, allowing them to follow the story, assist with problem solving or just know what made the player react. This makes it much easier to ‘pass and play’, as you would with any traditional single-player game.”
He encourages developers to look beyond their understanding of conventional gameplay to offer experiences unique to virtual reality.
“Just exploring a virtual world in VR can be a pretty amazing experience – even if there is no game to play,” he reveals. “This type of content can appeal to a much broader audience, but fundamentally uses game technology to drive it – this could be an interesting new opportunity for game developers.”
The early days of virtual reality were plagued by reports of motion sickness and nausea. While hardware refinements have diminished the risk of the notorious ‘barfogenic zone’, Rubin advises developers to remain considerate of VR virgins who may find particular experiences overly intensive.
“As we progress, there’s going to be somewhat of a theme park-like variance to the products out there,” he predicts. “There are some things that everybody is going to be able to use. Then there will be some products that people look at and they say: ‘You know what? I don’t generally like the really exciting things and I just will avoid them.’ That’s fine.
“As long as the industry makes sure that people have signage that makes them aware of that, everybody is going to find something to love.”
Don’t put all your eggs in one VR platform basket.
Jeevan Aurol, Razer/OSVR
The release of the big three headsets to consumer marks a turning point for the games industry. Yet, developers have already experienced multiple iterations of the devices throughout their infancy – and the next few years are sure to bring further major changes and advancements. So, what can we expect from the future of VR?
“More than ever before, developers are learning, sharing and working together,” observes Faliszek. “What we saw last year at GDC was just the start. This year you will see experiences that move you and throw you into scenes where you need to react and move – be physical. Games like Space Pirate Trainer make it where it isn’t your avatar that feels like an action movie hero but you – because you are the one doing the crazy moves.”
Benson agrees that “the next year will be about breadth of experience”.
“I look forward to seeing lots of VR games that push the boundaries of play in many different directions and start to show us just how much creative opportunity VR can offer,” he continues. “After this, I hope to start to see more standardisation of some VR elements, such as control schemes, user feedback and locomotion methods, as the industry starts to relearn how to interact with this new format.”
Rubin reaffirms the effect that capturing a core audience will have on both the absorption – and creation – of VR content.
“Release is great because it democratises the platform,” he states. “Everybody can buy a headset, anyone can play with it – you don’t have to request a developer kit.
“Now that the hardware and the SDK underlying it and everything else is stabilising, it makes it easier for the software to move quickly. You will see software revolution over the next few years as opposed to the hardware revolution that’s been happening over the last few years. That will lead to better content.”
And what does more content mean? Aurol offers some foresight.
“As more content becomes readily available, prices come down and the ease-of-setup improves, VR will become available to broader audiences and eventually will evolve into the next ‘big thing’ that impacts and disrupts the way we interact with technology in our daily lives,” he responds.
Rubin looks to 2017 and beyond by praising the efforts so far by creators that have stuck with the platform and proved its viability.
“In a few years, we’ll be in a great place – the content’s good now, it’ll be great over the next few years – and we’ll really start to see what genres are going to become the centrepieces of VR,” he says. “A lot of that is content that we will have never seen before that people will come up with over the next few years, in new genres enabled by VR, that moves us forward.”
How will the consumer versions of the big three VR headsets differ from their developer kits? We asked their makers
Chet Faliszek, Valve: “From the first developer kit we delivered back in 2014, we have made sure developers were able to target the system shipping this year.
“While features have been added and the headset refined, what developers were creating back then still works today and our target has remained the same: a headset, two motion-tracked controllers and two base stations for a full 360-degree room-scale experience. But we do continue to iterate on ergonomics and other refinements.”
Jason Rubin, Oculus VR: “Using a DK2 is like stepping back in time. The framerate is utterly different. The screen’s not as good. The lenses are not as good. It’s plastic, it’s gimmicky, it doesn’t feel as well-balanced – just all-in-all, the experience is nowhere hear as good as the latest Rift hardware that we’re going to be launching to consumers. Just putting it on your head you feel the difference, and the quality of the experience is equally as different. Additionally, there are some practicalities to things; we didn’t have a warranty on DK2.
“There are things about going into real consumer business that cost money. We’re not making a profit on the Rift at $599; we’re not out there to make money. That is the fair price for the manufacturing, warranting, shipping, distribution and components costs. I do believe it gives you an experience that is worth that amount of money.”
Simon Benson, PlayStation: “While the hardware has been in its final stages for some time, we have continued to make iterative improvements to the software to further improve the PlayStation VR experience.”