Saturday, July 11, 2015

Vive impressions Part 2 : What can we do in VR that we can't elsewhere?

My first post a moment ago was about the experience of setting up the Valve / HTC Vive dev kit, and in short how blown away I was.  This post I'd like to ramble a little about how it has affected some of my VR design instincts and assumptions.

First up, there's a lot of conversation out there about how to adapt various game genres to VR... and I get that.  I've been working on VR prototypes nearly exclusively since a bit after the DK1's became available.  I've tried loads of little "danger rooms" to feel out the concepts of "what if I took genre X and adapted it to VR".  There are some major wins to be found in that logic, as it truly does profoundly affect a game to have this sense of scale and immersion layered into the batter.  That, and generally speaking, it's important to have these comfortable foundations and languages as we try out new things.

But the positionally tracked hand held controllers... man.  I can't emphasize this enough... this changes a lot.  A LOT.

There are experiences here just begging to be made that are hard to even classify as video games, simply because they're so based in physicality and agility.  If I made a VR raquetball - Tron multiplayer head to head game, and you're swinging around a virtual racquet... is that a 'video game', or an actual 'sport'?  Is virtual dodge ball where you're actually moving out of the way of a projectile a 'video game'?

I think the world of VR design is on a pretty exciting crash course with learning a whole new set of skills.  We have expectations of "cyber athletes" based on their responsiveness and tactics with a controller and interfaces full of shortcuts and macros... but if you're physically standing there, and your opponent is flinging fireballs at you, this ain't the same old same old.  It can be the best of both worlds.

From the first moment you're in the Vive setup program, and a dialogue box menu materializes over the controller in your hand, and you wave it around, it's unavoidable.  At least in VR, no longer will you be pressing A,A,B,A to execute some combination of sword slashes.  In VR at least, there's not going to be an artificial gameplay construct like a golf power swing meter.  Say goodbye to 'adding 5 points to your accuracy stats'.

When technology allows you to literally play Table Tennis with another player across the country, that's incredible.  When that same technology allows you to make Table Tennis with multiballs, force fields, poison traps, slow motion, super bounce balls, moving obstacles, an AI backup wingman, or just Yoshi bouncing around on the table while you play... and yet you're still physically swinging around a paddle with the expected simplistic controls and muscle memory... that's something entirely more than incredible.

What can we design with these controls that you truly could not possibly have experienced before?  That's the question we can explore now.


I don't care to fire up some heated "VR will fail because blah blah and blah" debate.  Will enough people want to dedicate an 8 foot x 8 foot (or whatever it ends up as) space to a VR corner?  I don't know.  Will AAA publishers make $80 million dollar titles for VR?  Shrug...  Zero fucks given beyond ecosystem health.  Will they be manufactured cheap enough and run on enough hardware to make Sony and Valve and Oculus billions of dollars... time will tell... and I'm indie anyway so frankly all I want out of it is a thriving ecosystem of players looking for awesome inspired unforeseen games that they're willing to pay more than $1 for.

But I know this.  When I hear people talk about how limiting VR is to design for... when I hear that you "can't make real games in VR"... when I hear that it's only truly for real estate and architects because you can't easily port Call of Duty to it...  when I hear "lack of design possibility" as a specific reason for why VR can't be a real thing... I know I'm hearing the opinion of either the creatively bankrupt, or at least profoundly unadaptable.

After (important word there) you have stood in the center of this virtual space, waved around these unbelievably responsive "hands" that can literally resemble or summon anything you can think to create with modern development tools, after you have felt the possibilities of clever haptic feedback that the controllers offer... and you still honestly have NO ideas for what you'd like to try with this technology.  You need to be selling carpet or something.  If nothing else, send me a few grand and I'll give you some ideas :)

Before you've had that experience, I get it, I do.  It's really hard for some to visualize this, or try to cram their square peg into a round hole.  But *after* exploring what these can do... that's an entirely different story.

My enthusiasm is honestly tempered with sadness right now knowing that my bandwidth as a small developer means that the lists of possible gameplay scenarios I want to prototype right now can't possibly happen in time to beat others to market.  But holy crap is that exciting at the same time!


I'll wrap this up...

This industry *needs* new frontiers like this.  We need more actual design outlets, more platforms, more untested creative canvas on which to sketch, paint, experiment, and play.  Hoping for VR to fail wholesale is counterproductive... it's like hoping a great expedition (that costs you nothing personally) ends up producing nothing, merely because you chose not to support it.

VR was already promising, but these control possibilities bring it to an entirely new level.  It absolutely breeds creativity, possibility, and inspiration... and I'm endlessly grateful for the people pioneering this attempt.  Even if it fails spectacularly in financial terms for the big players, they put their money where their mouth is, as every member of this industry owes them a giant collective handshake for this effort.

One final note:

"Where's the killer app?"  I guarantee you, there will be one.  These tools are landing in the hands of many devs now, and I simply can not imagine a scenario where inspired and unconventional things don't result from this.

Let's not forget that the "killer app" for the Nintendo Wii was 'Bowling'.

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