For years, virtual reality was nothing but a twinkle in the eye of the goofiest of cyberpunk-tinged games industry futures. But now, with the advent of technology like the Oculus Rift, and the Samsung Gear VR, virtual reality is just a few steps away from your eyeballs at any moment. Of course, that means the temptation to make those headset-wearing VR dreams come true is stronger than ever, and here at Built to Play, we’d like to crush those dreams. Not every game is good for VR! In fact, most games aren’t! But some work really well- like, genre redefining well.
Virtual reality displays are- and have always been, to a certain extent- peripheral to the overall game experience. Generally speaking, games that are made for VR displays are incunabular in nature. They ape the current format of games rather than create something that requires VR to function properly. Even the upcoming Rift-enabled games, like EVE Valkyrie and Star Citizen are permutations of existing space combat genre mechanics and tropes. In that sense, it’s not hard to think of VR as a peripheral not unlike the Guitar Hero guitar controller. It may enhance a game designed around it, even to the point that playing without the peripheral is detrimental to the experience, but it is still theoretically possible to play the game without the peripheral. There’s not mechanic necessity to EVE Valkyrie’s existence on the Rift, it could theoretically be played with a more standard display, not unlike how you could always play Guitar Hero with any other controller.
Even thinking back to the Virtual Boy, arguably the first genuine consumer-level VR enabled console, its library viewed the VR goggles that the system sold on as theoretically peripheral. Mario Clash was a game that benefitted from a 3D perspective, but it was by no means necessary, and the same could be said for almost every single title in the Virtual Boy collection (the ones that aren’t enhanced just lack that brief period where the Virtual Boy seems like a good idea, and skip straight to the brain-splitting headache).
So what games do actually require VR displays? Well, the thing is, we aren’t really sure yet. If we knew that, VR would already be a sure sell, rather than an interesting but unproven idea. There are plenty of games that are better suited to VR than others though, and interestingly enough, a lot of the thinking in that realm dovetails with the trial-and-error discoveries of early 3D games. For example, a traditional platformer? With precise jumping and a quickly moving camera? Maybe not the place to introduce a potentially vomit-inducing display. On the other hand entirely though, a real time strategy game, with its slow camera, zoomed out view, and overall lack of precision movement is also a bad place for VR. Not for any mechanical reason mind you, it just doesn’t enhance the experience in any way. 3D didn’t really improve the mechanics of RTSes in a meaningful way for the player, and VR wouldn’t necessarily do anything for it either.
Then what games are enhanced? EVE Valkyrie and Star Citizen seem to suggest that the space combat simulation genre needs VR, and it’s hard to argue. Try to think of a popular space sim (or even a flight sim) from the last few years without mentioning the sudden VR-based refresh of the genre. Mechanically speaking, the improved display does help too. It allows more of the key information often left in strange places on screen in older games to be presented more organically, but once again, it’s peripheral at best. These games were feasible on older technology.
In a more Guitar Hero-type example, first person adventure games would do great with VR. Not fast paced, mobile games like Call of Duty or Portal though. Slower, more exploration-oriented games like Gone Home and Thirty Flights of Loving trade on the kind of immersion that a VR headset may provide. Of course, those games are perfectly playable (and enjoyable) on current, non VR-enabled displays. Their peripheral nature doesn’t preclude them from being the kind of experience that would sell people on VR though. If immersion is their purpose, the enhanced immersion of a VR headset would make that version of the game inherently superior.
Of course, that all relies on VR working properly, which brings us to the other problem with theoretical VR killer apps. No matter how clever or innovative an idea they may be, even if a game manages to turn the display innovation of VR into a mechanical innovation, it’s still built on technology that doesn’t work for everyone. The thing that made motion control so appealing was that, short of not having an arm, it was pretty much guaranteed to work. How well it worked sort of depended on your living room set-up, but otherwise, it was foolproof. VR, on the other hand, causes many people to become physically uncomfortable while using it. Now, that probably has a lot to do with people not being used to VR yet, and the technology still being in its very early stages, but the fact remains that right now, VR’s total reach is limited. That’s obviously bound to change with time, but with VR starting to hit at the consumer level, we likely won’t be seeing the kinds of games that it needs to justify itself as a worthwhile peripheral. For now it’s a novelty, and consumers may end up treating it like that when it hits stores.
It is clear games will come though. VR’s novelty hasn’t worn off on developers, many of whom are pledging all kinds of support for the hardware. Even Harmonix is planning something for Samsung's Gear VR headset. But, the kind of games that work best on VR, those slow-paced, immersion-based games, aren’t really the kinds of games people are looking for on their phones. It’s interesting that Samsung is marketing the Gear VR at their Note 4 users, considering their recent focus on wearables emphasizes portability- something a VR headset definitely goes against.
But, between Samsung and Facebook, the kind of money behind Oculus effectively means they can keep throwing different applications of VR at the consumer market until something sticks. Hopefully, whatever it is doesn’t involve strapping phones to our faces because seriously? That’s what we’re doing now?