Vir­tual re­al­ity is al­most ready for its sec­ond com­ing. We speak to the pi­o­neers of a new way to de­velop and con­sume videogames

Few de­vices have ever looked as likely to bring about rad­i­cal change in the videogame in­dus­try as the vir­tual re­al­ity head­set. Ocu­lus Rift – and surely a raft of im­i­ta­tors to fol­low – places you at the cen­tre of an im­mer­sive stereo­scopic world. In do­ing so, it over­turns many of the fun­da­men­tal as­sump­tions about how games are pro­duced, con­trolled and ex­pe­ri­enced. Ocu­lus’s own guide­lines de­tail hun­dreds of ways VR games need to work dif­fer­ently to con­ven­tional ones to avoid con­fus­ing the hu­man mind. That’s be­cause VR isn’t just a new way of see­ing a game, but a new fron­tier in game de­sign, which makes it hard to pre­dict what the fu­ture of videogames will look like.

But by speak­ing to those de­vel­op­ment stu­dios brave enough to chart the new fron­tier, we can get at least some idea. And for an ana­logue of the kind of change now hap­pen­ing, you could do worse than con­sider CD-ROMs. Their pop­u­lar­i­sa­tion in the early ’90s pro­vided games with a stor­age medium hun­dreds of times the ca­pac­ity of stan­dard floppy disks, and the in­dus­try lurched to make use of all the ex­tra space, pro­duc­ing re-re­leases of older games ( now with spo­ken di­a­logue), ter­ri­ble games with full-mo­tion video star­ring real ac­tors, umpteen ad­ven­ture games with higher-res tex­tures than pre­vi­ously pos­si­ble, and Myst.

Ocu­lus Rift has al­ready in­spired a raft of fright­en­ingly sim­i­lar projects, with de­vel­op­ers sim­ply at­tach­ing a VR cam­era view­point to tra­di­tional games, but these are just the start. In time, mass­mar­ket vir­tual re­al­ity head­sets might be re­spon­si­ble for a larger and far more ex­cit­ing ad­ven­ture game re­nais­sance than Kick­starter ever was.

“The most in­ter­est­ing thing in the Rift is the spa­tial per­cep­tion – the fact that you are in [a] space where there is depth,” Un­told Games’ Flavio Par­enti says. “So you can ac­tu­ally lo­cate the ob­jects around you and know how far they are from you.”

Par­enti is an Ital­ian ac­tor and writer work­ing with Un­told on Load­ing Hu­man, a VR ad­ven­ture game that blends Rift for the eyes with mo­tion con­trols for your in-game ac­tions. Un­told thinks be­ing able to place play­ers at the very cen­tre of its world marks a tremen­dous op­por­tu­nity for sto­ry­telling.

“I think that in a game like this, you are able to give the player ac­cess to much more de­tail than you would with an­other game,” Un­told de­vel­oper Elisa Di Lorenzo says. “Ad­ven­ture games have al­ways been slow paced. You’re go­ing to stay in an en­vi­ron­ment and you’re go­ing to ex­plore it, be­cause it’s a new en­vi­ron­ment and you can check ev­ery­thing.”

De­vel­op­ers have found that view­ing a game­world with the sen­sa­tion of hav­ing a phys­i­cal pres­ence within it en­cour­ages play­ers to reach out and tinker more with its de­tails. In Load­ing Hu­man, you can in­ter­act with ev­ery­thing you can see. You can pick up vinyl records, place them on a gramo­phone and they’ll play. You can pore through your char­ac­ter’s book­shelves or play a game of draughts. You need only let your gaze linger on an ob­ject to hear your char­ac­ter’s thoughts about that item. “With the im­mer­sion of the Ocu­lus [Rift], it be­comes so nat­u­ral that you don’t even feel like you just did some­thing with a but­ton,” Par­enti says. “It’s much more or­ganic.”

Meet­ing ex­pec­ta­tions, how­ever, be­comes al­limpor­tant. If you make play­ers feel like they’re a per­son in­hab­it­ing a real space, then they’ll ex­pect things to per­form as they would in the real world, and they be­come much less for­giv­ing when a game­world doesn’t work as re­al­ity does. “You need to try to do a one-to-one sim­u­la­tion, even with the di­men­sion of the ob­jects and the re­la­tion­ship be­tween you and the ob­jects,” Par­enti says. “It’s so in­tense that if there’s some­thing wrong, you feel it in a sec­ond.”

The nat­u­rally slower pace of an ad­ven­ture game is handy too, given the chal­lenges that arise from Rift’s cur­rent lim­i­ta­tions. “Nor­mally in games, I think the char­ac­ters move at about 30–40mph,” points out Par­enti. “It’s very fast paced. Of course, it’s a videogame, so you just watch it. But if you do that in vir­tual re­al­ity, you’re go­ing to puke. You’re mov­ing too fast as a hu­man be­ing.”

When the de­sire for re­al­ism and the need to not make your au­di­ence feel nau­seous are cou­pled with tech­ni­cal de­mands, such as Rift games need­ing to be ren­dered at a much higher fram­er­ate, vir­tual re­al­ity starts to lend it­self bet­ter to real­is­tic or mun­dane set­tings than it does to the ac­tion-packed fan­tasy worlds we’re used to. Us­ing Rift to play Quake would feel un­nat­u­ral not only be­cause it would be too far quick, but be­cause we in­stinc­tively want our door­ways to be sen­si­ble door­way sizes.

This is backed up by other in­die de­vel­op­ment projects that have been re­leased for Rift. As much as they mir­ror the fo­cus on ex­plo­ration and nar­ra­tive of old point-and-click ad­ven­ture games, they’re also fine ex­am­ples of the way old def­i­ni­tions no longer fit in VR worlds. These games aren’t con­trolled via point­ing and click­ing, and are far more mun­dane than the videogame ad­ven­tures we’re used to, but they point to an ex­cit­ing new fu­ture for sto­ry­telling.

One ex­am­ple is Pri­vate Eye (www.pri­va­teeyevr. com), made by Jake Slack for Ocu­lus’s own VR Jam, a game that takes in­spi­ra­tion from Al­fred Hitch­cock’s Rear Win­dow. Al­though a full ver­sion is in the works, the jam build is playable now. In it, you take on the role of a wheel­chair-bound de­tec­tive gaz­ing out of a win­dow over an al­lot­ment sur­rounded by other apart­ment build­ings. You look down at a notepad in your hand and spy through win­dows with your binoc­u­lars, hop­ing to find the clues you need to pre­vent an im­pend­ing mur­der.

In Anam­ne­sis (www.anam­ne­sis532.tum­blr.com), a class project by Alexa Kim and Scott Stephan at the Univer­sity Of South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, Rift be­comes a sec­ondary dis­play port rather than a head-mounted dis­play. You walk around a real­is­tic en­vi­ron­ment and lift the head­set to your eyes in or­der to view the ‘psy­chic residue’ left be­hind by other people as you ex­plore an apart­ment build­ing.

Each of these games rep­re­sents a clever way of ex­ploit­ing Rift’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties, but also of get­ting around its lim­i­ta­tions. Anam­ne­sis, for ex­am­ple, dodges the mo­tion sick­ness in­her­ent in the orig­i­nal Rift de­vkit by not re­quir­ing you to wear it at all times. De­spite a few in­di­ca­tors of progress, how­ever, there’s still a huge num­ber of chal­lenges for de­vel­op­ers to over­come.

“No one has re­ally found the best prac­tices for how to make a game in VR,” Sig­urður Gun­nars­son says. As a se­nior pro­gram­mer on EVE Valkyrie, he is well po­si­tioned to com­ment. The space­ship dog­fight­ing game is one of the few VR games cur­rently an­nounced from a ma­jor de­vel­oper, and its pro­to­type has been wow­ing play­ers at trade con­fer­ences such as E3 and CES for the past year.


Valkyrie is, Rift cre­ator Palmer Luckey demon­stra­tion of Rift’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties yet.

Space games found new life with the ad­vent of CD-ROMs, too – Wing Com­man­der III was the first in the se­ries to cast real ac­tors, such as Mark Hamill, in its cutscenes. But CCP has thrown out a lot of old as­sump­tions to avoid the trap of sim­ply bolt­ing a VR cam­era onto an ex­ist­ing genre. For ex­am­ple, since play­ers wear­ing a vir­tual re­al­ity head­set can no longer see their hands, the de­vel­oper is tak­ing great steps to sim­plify its con­trol scheme, which means Valkyrie has no throt­tle. In­stead its ships have per­ma­nent mo­men­tum, but a tem­po­rary boost and a brake but­ton. But even boost­ing and brak­ing in­tro­duce prob­lems. “One thing [to avoid] is sud­den changes to the ve­loc­ity of the player, so no dras­tic ac­cel­er­a­tion or brak­ing,” Gun­nars­son says, “be­cause when the brake hits, the gi­ant change in ve­loc­ity [means] the brain thinks it should feel the force of slow­ing down.”

It’s the same thing Par­enti pointed out: ‘ nor­mal’ game speeds feel freak­ishly fast when you’re us­ing Rift. Even in an ac­tion game like Valkyrie, which is built around five-minute dog­fights, there’s an em­pha­sis on ton­ing mo­tion down.

“From an aes­thetic point of view, we don’t have to give the hard sell any more that 3D ef­fects are hap­pen­ing,” says Andrew Robin­son, a 3D artist on EVE Valkyrie. “It’s a much more tac­tile en­vi­ron­ment, so we re­ally don’t have to push as much fak­ery

says, the best

around to make you feel as if things are go­ing on.” In vir­tual re­al­ity, a lit­tle goes a long way, and a lot makes you throw up.

Even with the re­duc­tion of so-called ‘sim­u­la­tor sick­ness’ – the hard­ware-orig­i­nated feel­ing of nau­sea – that the new Crys­tal Cove Rift pro­to­type brings, ex­pe­ri­ences such as spin­ning around in a space­ship could make you as queasy in a VR game as they might in real life. But a few vis­ual aids can help.

“Just hav­ing the cock­pit con­stantly around you, it grounds you in the scene,” Gun­nars­son says. “Even just be­ing able to look down and see your avatar, that you’re in this body, also helps a lot.”

That par­tic­u­lar lim­i­ta­tion of the hu­man brain bodes well for driv­ing and flight games us­ing Rift, where the fixed cock­pit pro­vides con­text and the nat­u­ral sit­ting po­si­tion of the player char­ac­ter isn’t at odds with your own pos­ture. But the small­est dis­con­nect be­tween you and that avatar can cause prob­lems. “One thing that we picked up from the early demos was that we used to have the hands [sit­ting] by your side,” Robin­son says. “People were sit­ting play­ing Valkyrie with their hands ob­vi­ously cen­tral, to­wards the Xbox con­troller. At some point, we moved the hands into the cen­tre to [make you] feel like they were wrapped around the Xbox con­troller it­self. It’s a tiny change, but it makes a world of dif­fer­ence.”

Even some­thing as sim­ple as the length of your neck, specif­i­cally the dif­fer­ence be­tween it and the length of your avatar’s coun­ter­part, can cause a dis­con­nect be­tween your brain’s per­cep­tion of your body and what you’re see­ing in the game. The fu­ture might see games in which you en­ter your height or di­men­sions dur­ing char­ac­ter cre­ation to make the avatar match your build as closely as pos­si­ble, and might con­se­quently fea­ture fewer burly space marines.

This need for an in­creased close­ness be­tween your real body and your body in vir­tual re­al­ity could also drive de­mand for new pe­riph­er­als that work along­side a Rift head­set. Un­told, for in­stance, is mak­ing use of Razer’s Hy­dra, which of­fers ad­vanced Move-style mo­tion con­trollers that can track your hand move­ments in 3D space. “In vir­tual re­al­ity, the game is around you, so you have to use yourself,” Par­enti says, speak­ing about Load­ing Hu­man. “You need to get rid of the ob­jects and use your hands. It’s the only way a vir­tual re­al­ity game can be en­joyed, from my point of view.”

CCP be­lieves the same. Why po­si­tion a model’s hands where the team thinks you’ll place them when it could just track your hands and mir­ror the move­ments in re­al­time? “People are also play­ing around with Kinect and re­cently the [up­dated Xbox One ver­sion], and that seems to be quite nicely used in VR to track the rest of your body,” Gun­nars­son says.

Robin­son won­ders if people might go even fur­ther. “I had a great con­ver­sa­tion one time with Palmer Luckey,” he says. “One of the first times he played EVE Valkyrie, he told me about how he’d quite like to build some of the cock­pit pan­els in his house around his desk, so that when he put his hand out to touch things in the game, he would touch things in real life. I can see people want­ing to put as many senses into the game as pos­si­ble.”

When asked to pick which genre he thinks best suits vir­tual re­al­ity, though, Luckey him­self is diplo­matic. “I think it would be too pre­ma­ture to say what the best gen­res are go­ing to be,” he ex­plains, “be­cause there are people that are mak­ing these new ex­pe­ri­ences. I don’t know if any­one knows what the best genre for VR will be.”

Gun­nars­son is blunt, how­ever: “The low-hang­ing fruit is ob­vi­ously sim­u­la­tion games where you sit in a cock­pit. That’s quite easy. You’re not walk­ing around with a lot of the prob­lems that can come with that.” Early in­di­ca­tors are he’s right, with a rash of driv­ing games, such as Euro Truck Sim­u­la­tor 2, al­ready retrofitting sup­port for Rift’s de­vel­op­ment kit with good re­sults.

ther­wise, the con­sen­sus is that Rift is the per­fect part­ner for hor­ror games. “I tried a few of the hor­ror games, and they are very im­mer­sive. It’s just the depth of ex­pe­ri­ence is so dif­fer­ent,” Gun­nars­son says. “If you meet an avatar, ei­ther an­other player or a monster, and it looks you in the eye, that’s such a strong con­nec­tion. They’re also go­ing to get people re­ally, re­ally, re­ally scared.”

There are dozens al­ready in de­vel­op­ment for the Rift de­vkit. Alone is a VR game in which you play a per­son play­ing a tra­di­tional hor­ror game on a tele­vi­sion that only ex­ists in the vir­tual world, and in which el­e­ments of that game be­gin to bleed into your vir­tual re­al­ity. It plays on the para­noia play­ers can feel about their sur­round­ings when their senses are con­sumed by a Rift head­set.

Door­ways, mean­while, is more a more tra­di­tional hor­ror ad­ven­ture set in dark tombs, Don’t Let Go fea­tures a scene in which you must watch taran­tu­las crawl up your body, Dread­halls is about ex­plor­ing a rogue­like dun­geon, and CDF Ghostship in­tro­duces sci­ence-fic­tion el­e­ments to evoke the same kind of dread as the Alien films. Many of these games still rely on jump scares and hor­ror clichés, but they’ve been re­freshed by clev­erly ex­ploit­ing the per­sonal close­ness play­ers feel when im­mersed in VR.

“[Rift]’s taken away some of those bar­ri­ers where you’re sit­ting far away from [a game]. You’re liv­ing it. That’s why psy­cho­log­i­cal hor­ror games are mov­ing into the area,” Robin­son says. “I wouldn’t like to play Slen­der in VR. That game scared me so bad as it was.” Vir­tual re­al­ity sup­port is, of course, al­ready on its way for Slen­der: The Ar­rival.

While Rift is un­doubt­edly a pow­er­ful tool for scar­ing play­ers, many of these games feel like the most ob­vi­ous first steps into a new medium. In that sense, they may prove to be Rift’s equiv­a­lent of the ‘in­ter­ac­tive movies’ of the past: for a brief mo­ment in­ter­est­ing, but soon em­bar­rass­ing in their sim­plic­ity. Ul­ti­mately, the per­fect par­al­lel be­tween vir­tual re­al­ity de­vel­op­ment and early CD-ROM de­vel­op­ment might lie with a sin­gle per­son: John Car­mack. CD-ROMs found their foot­ing within the videogame in­dus­try


when we found ways to make fun from the high­erdef­i­ni­tion worlds they en­abled. Quake’s tex­tured, polyg­o­nal en­vi­ron­ment and fast-paced FPS play were vi­tal parts of that process, help­ing to de­fine the next two decades of both en­gine pro­gram­ming and main­stream game de­sign.

Car­mack might help to do it again. The in­dus­try vet­eran has joined Ocu­lus as its chief tech­nol­ogy of­fi­cer, and is work­ing on game projects there. Luckey can’t yet dis­cuss those with us, but he talks about the com­pany’s ef­forts to make its hard­ware work as seam­lessly as pos­si­ble with var­i­ous game en­gines. He also re­veals that en­gine la­tency specif­i­cally “is one of the things Car­mack is work­ing on. He’s work­ing on many other things, but it’s one of the key things that we need to do. We don’t want de­vel­op­ers to worry about the tech­ni­cal de­tails of how ex­actly to im­ple­ment vir­tual re­al­ity. We want them to have the tech­ni­cal side taken care of as much as pos­si­ble, so that they can worry about the cre­ative and user ex­pe­ri­ence side.”

Whether it’s Car­mack de­vel­op­ing tools and even pos­si­bly be­ing the per­son to carry the FPS for­ward again, in­die de­vel­op­ers find­ing new ways to tell sto­ries and breathe life into hoary hor­ror clichés, or main­stream de­vel­op­ers defin­ing how vir­tual re­al­ity will be con­trolled for decades to come, it’s easy to see how game cre­ators are al­ready be­ing in­spired by the new tech­nol­ogy. Yet it’s all the un­knowns sur­round­ing VR that re­main the most ex­cit­ing thing about it. The new con­sole gen­er­a­tion was re­vealed to a muted re­sponse be­cause it was ex­actly what we thought it would be: more so­cial, more con­nected, and packed with more par­ti­cles and pix­els than ever. With vir­tual re­al­ity al­most ready to start leading the way, the fu­ture of videogames has be­come un­pre­dictable for the first time in a lit­tle un­der a decade.

Load­ing Hu­man is a VR game about liv­ing in­side a vir­tual world, one built to help its pro­tag­o­nist re­tain his mem­o­ries in spite of a de­gen­er­a­tive brain dis­ease. This meta­nar­ra­tive al­lows it to take in sci-fi lo­ca­tions as well as mun­dane liv­ing-room sets

Flavio Par­enti is a writer and ac­tor who has part­nered with Un­told to make Load­ing Hu­man

Load­ing Hu­man’s vir­tual world-within -a-world was built by Michelle, the pro­tag­o­nist’s part­ner. You must ex­plore her mem­o­ries to com­plete the miss­ing parts of your own mind

Load­ing Hu­man uses the Razer Hy­dra, a mo­tion con­troller that maps your hand move­ments di­rectly into 3D space

Pri­vate Eye cur­rently ex­ex­ists only as a short prproof of con­cept, bubut its de­vel­op­ers are cu­cur­rently turn­ing the ReRear Win­dow-style gagame of house­bound dede­tec­tive work into a fu­full re­lease that’s due to be fin­ished this year

At first, spec­u­la­tion abounded that Valkyrie was tied to Sony’s VR de­vice, but in Fe­bru­ary CCP signed a deal that made it an exclusive Rift ti­tle

Sig­urður Gun­nars­son, EVE Valkyrie’s se­nior pro­gram­mer

Cock­pits should prove the per­fect set­ting for vir­tual re­al­ity games, since sit­ting down in­side the game’s re­al­ity apes sit­ting at a com­puter

The point of the early Ocu­lus Rift Kick­starter was to get de­vk­its into the hands of game mak­ers around the world. It’s popped up every­where, in­clud­ing on the face of Metal Gear Solid cre­ator Hideo Ko­jima

Rift cre­ator Palmer Luckey

Rift’s im­mer­sive power makes it the per­fect home for easy jump scares. Don’t Let Go and Ghostship are the just tip of the genre ice­berg

John Car­mack joined Ocu­lus VR as its CTO in Au­gust 2013

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