The Big Future of VR May Be Smaller Than We Thought
by Greg Sullivan
Since MechWarrior 2 on PC was released in 1995, I’ve been obsessed with simulation gaming. I bought a Saitek X36 HOTAS (Hands On Throttle and Stick) for my Pentium computer and even got a set of rudder pedals. I found a little program called Game Commander that lets you issue voice commands to your AI squad-mates, and it worked pretty well. No clumsy keyboard and mouse for me; now I could pilot a giant mech using my hands and feet in a 3D world while barking commands like “All units attack my target”. The verisimilitude was amazing, even on a 15” CRT running at 1024x768 with janky 3d graphics.
This was the start of virtual reality for me. I lost myself in the world of that game and many others like it. Any program or bit of kit I could get my hands on to bring me further into these other realities was a must have.
So, naturally, when the Oculus Rift was announced, I knew I would have to have one. I ordered it instantly. I waited like an impatient child for it to arrive, and, when it finally got to my studio, I skipped a half day of work to install it. I got it dialed in, and I leapt into all the prime candidates for VR: Elite Dangerous, Flight Simulator X (thanks to Fly Inside), Eve Valkyrie, and their kin. Big dynamic simulations. I was in heaven!
I’m a pilot in the real world, and I’ve done some aerobatics. Never once has my stomach so much as hinted at discomfort. I ride rollercoasters like a champ. I don’t get seasick. So imagine my surprise when I felt a bit of unease in Elite Dangerous, queasy in Eve Valkyrie, and downright nauseous in Adrift.
NO! This can’t be! I’ve literally spent 20 years waiting to step into these virtual worlds, and now I don’t have the stomach for it? The Fates are cruel, and I can no longer find the point of living.
It’s not actually that bad. The discomfort is not deal breaking. I still play and enjoy these games, but not for as long as I’d like and not as often as I thought I would.
Instead, I find myself playing a game that I already own on my Xbox, that I’ve already completed, that does not require VR to be entertaining. That game is Defense Grid 2 by Hidden Path Entertainment, a tower defense game with cheesy dialogue that was plenty entertaining played on the TV in my living room.
In Defense Grid 2 you’re charged with preventing a parade of aliens from crossing a play field, stealing your ‘cores’, and then escaping. You do this by placing towers along their path that are equipped with a variety of guns and other weapons. Simple concept. Fun. Nothing earth shattering. But in VR this game comes to life! The field of play is presented to you in miniature. It appears to be maybe 5’ across. You can lean over the level, or off to the side, and you get an entirely different perspective on the battle. What felt static and dead in the 2D version of the game I played on my Xbox, feels alive and vibrant in my Rift. You can play it sitting down, but I never do. I stand and move as I play so I can check all my angles and explore various strategies.
Another gem that I find myself spending far too much time in is Pinball FX VR by Zen Studios. It’s pinball. Just pinball. It’s amazing! This too is a game I’ve played in standard 2D. Played on a screen, it’s a good time. Good looking, entertaining. Fun. In VR, it’s a revelation! You find yourself leaning to keep the ball in view or getting down low to plan your skill shots. On the Xbox I can’t get an even decent score. In VR, I was able to break into the top 20 on the global leader board.
Mythos of the World Axis by Ats Kurvet is a small experiment in VR that offers a glimpse at just one little level. In it, you view the world from the perspective of a massive titan who controls a human from far above. The experience is powerful and captivating.
So why is the small so much more compelling than I thought it would be? It comes down to how these games take advantage of one of VR’s unsung super features: the absolutely perfect point of view controls. Properly controlling the user camera in 3d games has been a struggle since the very start of 3d gaming. VR solves the problem by introducing six new axes of control that the user manages with great ease. The player doesn’t have to think about how to move the camera or how to get the right perspective. In these miniature experiences, the user just does exactly what they’d do in the real world.
Were Defense Grid presented in real world scale with the user viewing the playfield from some floating platform, there would be nearly no change in perspective as they moved their head. It might, in theory, look more impressive and massive, but the view of the world would be little different than it appears on 2D screens.
When Pinball FX is played in 2D, the camera is either static or moving programmatically, neither of which shows off the amazing dimensionality of the tables. Were Mythos of the World Axis presented with a traditional third person camera, you would lose much of the interesting and impressive scale. By presenting their experiences in miniature, like playsets atop a table, the developers of these games and those like them make wonderful use of the perspective provided by VR and give us a point of view that’s unlike anything we’ve seen before.
Several of the projects I have underway will play in this miniature, table top-style space. It’s an exciting and robust use of VR as it exists today with a lot of interesting possibilities to explore.
There are a lot of amazing projects in development for VR right now. Despite what I spent 20 years thinking I’d want to do in VR, it’s the projects that are smallest in scale that are holding the largest part of my attention.
Greg Sullivan is a screenwriter and virtual reality producer with Studio Transcendent who has an unhealthy addiction to gadgets and technology.