If there’s one thing the gaming industry has proven time and again, it’s that change is inevitable and happening sooner than you think. A decade ago, motion was the new input of choice. A few years back, everything was in 3D. This year, after a few seasons of ominous burblings, virtual reality is everywhere. Here are eight major takeaways from our time spent virtually at this year’s Game Developers Conference.
GDC is close to celebrating its thirtieth year. But 2016 marks the inaugural VRGDC, with sessions devoted entirely to our new Virtual lords. On Monday, all of the talks focused on virtual reality were located in medium-sized rooms inside the West Hall of the Moscone Center, San Francisco’s sprawling suite of conference arenas located directly across from the Children’s Creativity Museum. These rooms were quickly packed with lines snaking around the hallway of frustrated attendees. By Tuesday, the organizers wisely moved all VR-related talks into giant rooms in the more spacious South Hall. Whatever VR is becoming, the people want to find out for themselves.
The very first VR game I played back in 2013 was a first-person shooter where I was given a plastic gun to hold—reminiscent of those horrendous Wii Sports tennis racquet attachments—and was dropped into a full-scale assault under an elevated subway rail. Lessons, as they say, have been learned. On a two-dimensional High-Def screen, more details pop and fill in the world. In a virtual space, you’re already in that world. You feel it without as many polygons telling you where you’re supposed to be.
One of my favorite experiences in VR at GDC was a simple music-rhythm game called Disco Flux. Most of your playfield is black space. As the music starts, neon dots float toward you; as they near a target, which you control by tilting your head around, you push a button on your PS4 DualShock on the beat. The song continues, and soon the dots turn into jumping fish or spinning glyphs. You’re already bobbing your head to the rhythm; that same motion is what maintains your aim. The whole thing is self-contained and doesn’t ask too much. The intuitive head-control and TRON-ish aesthetic doesn’t overwhelm with unnecessary nuance and detail. In VR, environmental expectations swap places; a realistic city feels artificial, whereas an abstract fluorescent innerspace feels real.
The VirZoom is a stationary bicycle that you ride while hooked into a VR headset. But this is no Tour de France simulation. As of now, they are just showing off snippets of potential; the GDC experience is a sequence of five short demos, one after the other, and in theory is the dumbest thing I’ve done in some time. And yet.
In Stampede, I’m riding a horse through a western town, looking left and right to see saloons and old-timey banks whoosh past. In Pegaso, I’m actually the horse, this one with wings, and I take off from a cliffside road and fly high above a canopy of trees. In Go Fast Car, I’m in a Formula-1 car, low to the asphalt, other cars revving by; when someone drifts by there’s a golden retriever behind the wheel. I careen my head to the side and look into my own side-view mirror, and there’s me, a cute puppy with my tongue happily lolling out of my mouth, blasted by the wind in my face.
All the time, I’m pedalling the bike underneath to move forward. VirZoom sees this not as a exercise program—though the potential is there—but as a simple way to solve the problem of VR locomotion. Pushing a stick forward doesn’t make sense anymore when you feel a part of this digital space. Walking around presents the obvious hazards. But strangely, the bike’s natural mechanics translate well to just about any forward-movement, be it a car or a tank or Pegasus. And when that winged horse took off and I looked behind me and down, I forgot I was sitting on a ten-speed and felt a mile high.
During a talk on Immersive Cinema, Rob Bredow from Industrial Light and Magic described some of LucasFilm’s experiments in virtual film-making, including the Force Awakens Immersive 360 Experience that debuted on Facebook last fall and Star Wars: Jakku Spy, a series of short films that hinted at locations and stories to be revealed in the new film. And what they soon realized was that the audio used in a film does not yield authentic enough results to match the expectations of a viewer in VR.
“The great thing about VR is being there,” Bredow said. But in a traditional cinema, you’re not really there; you’re watching someone who is. Kevin Bolen, an audio engineer at Skywalker Sound, explained how they first took a clip of the Millennium Falcon from the film and spliced it into a new VR scene, one where the iconic ship lands right next to you. He played the audio clip and, hearing the familiar sound, the audience broke into applause. But then he explained it didn’t feel right once inside the headset. Only after adding additional layers and noise—taken from rocket take-offs and assorted mechanical noise—did the moment feel authentic and true. He then played us this new, virtual sound. The room shook.
“We have an established vocabulary for using sound as it applies to storytelling,” Bolen explained, “but we need to learn to use the existing vocabulary in new ways to tell new stories.”
Right now, the social experience of VR means waiting in a line, watching others move around unbeknownst to your watching them, until finally you encase your own head in plastic and glass and become blind to your own onlookers.
For my money, playing against someone in person still trumps the isolating environment of a solitary helmet. One of my more memorable moments came when I walked up to a kiosk at the ID@Xbox station, picked up a controller, and played a simple arena battler game against another human being who happened to be standing next to me. Streams of attendees passed us by, show noise drowned out the on-screen effects, and neither of us knew what we were doing. This was an un-immersive, bare-bones, inelegant interaction. Yet the presence of another person obliterated these failures and elevated the game into something better than most of the glitzy VR demos on the floor.
VR proponents use that word a lot: “presence.” But that very thing is a major obstacle to virtual reality becoming the truly revolutionary product its acolytes foresee.
The baby-face of VR, Oculus CEO and Time Magazine cover boy Palmer Luckey, had a few words for doubters at the end of his talk during “Flashing Backward,” an event celebrating GDC’s 30th anniversary and commemorating the last three decades of game creation. “I think you’re going to be proven wrong,” the 23-year-old said, saying those in the audience skeptical of VR will soon “eat [their] words.”
Last year, VR was a fledgling unknown, not yet ready for primetime. This year, VR is everywhere on the showfloor and consumer-grade products are on store shelves. Crow will be eaten, somewhere, by someone. Only time will tell whether such a meal occurs in virtual reality or our mundane normal one.
“We’re kind of obsessed with god rays and lens flares,” Heather Kelley, co-founder of Kokoromi game collective, tells me after I step out of Super Hypercube. The game—a simple variation on pushing shapes through gaps in walls, seen in everything from WiiWare’s ThruSpace to Fox’s Hole in the Wall—actually began its life at the Gamma art/game show in Montreal from 2008. It was a 3D game back then, using those red/cyan glasses from the ‘50s. Once VR rose again, Kelley saw it as the game’s ideal platform.
Slip the PS VR headset on, and you understand why. What is a neat elementary challenge on a traditional monitor becomes an intuitive flight through some VCR cosmos. The trick here is you need to duck and look around the shape floating in front of you in order to see the incoming hole. Kelley and the team took inspiration from “space artists” like James Turrell and 1980s technology. Light shines through ever-present smoke, like skeins left by bullets shot through water. The game itself is eight years old, but Sony’s PlayStation VR makes it feel like the future.
Other games are being reborn in VR. The cult classic wire-frame shooter Rez, first seen on Dreamcast in 2001, will soon become Rez ?, or Rez Infinite. Creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi has sought to give players the feeling of synesthesia, one sense giving rise to another through stimulation, in Rez and each of his subsequent projects, Lumines and Child of Eden. But the limitations of traditional console platforms hindered his team’s pursuit.
During the Rez postmortem, Mizuguchi said “it was so frustrating” designing for a square monitor when they envisioned Rez to exist in 360 degrees. Mizuguchi wanted to recreate more than just a shinier version of a fifteen-year old thing. The re-emergence of VR allows him to finally create the ultimate ideal of his original vision. Lucky visitors to the Media Ambition Tokyo exhibit in Japan can experience Rez Infinite while wearing the one-of-a-kind Synesthesia Suit, outfitted with 26 vibrating sensors and glowing LEDs. The event takes place through March 21st on the 52nd floor of the Mori Tower. Too bad the view of the Tokyo skyline will be obscured by all of those virtual invaders.
This past week, Sony announced their VR headset will launch in October for $399. While still pricy (with the necessary PlayStation 4 console and PS Camera, the overall cost still escalates beyond $700), this will be the most consumer-friendly buy-in of a major VR platform. But what they gain in accessibility, they lose in timing; Oculus Rift launches later this month and Valve’s HTC Vive will release in April, while Samsung’s Gear VR has been out since before the last holiday. But both Oculus and Vive require a powerful PC and will demand the player wrangle a potentially complicated landscape of options; Sony’s is the one closest to a console’s “plug-and-play” mentality.
Whether players gravitate to one platform over the other often depends on these two factors—price and accessibility—but also the presence of compelling, exclusive experiences. With so much uncertainty, most developers seem to be building VR games for all platforms, hedging their bets. Sony’s been here before—their Blu-Ray won, their Betamax lost (don’t even mention the sad story of the Minidisc)—but Oculus has Facebook in their corner and Steam is PC’s default gaming store. The real test for all parties involved will be if long-term engagement survives the initial whiz-bang novelty.
The only prediction I feel safe making: We’ll be seeing even more virtual reality at GDC 2017.
Since 2003, Jon Irwin has been paid to write about film, techno, ice cream, wine, golf, drag-racing, French children and videogames. His first book, Super Mario Bros. 2, was published last year by Boss Fight Books. Follow along: @WinWinIrwin.