Eyeing the virtual frontier: the Oculus Rift games that reinvent play

We said last week that virtual reality’s future is bigger than videogames; Mark Zuckerberg clearly agrees. Facebook’s $2 billion acquisition of Oculus has taken everyone by surprise, and it follows on from a GDC at which news of Sony’s Project Morpheus, on top of Oculus’ own Crystal Cove tech, has made virtual reality the most tantalising new frontier in videogames. In this feature written and published in print before news of the Facebook acquisition, we speak to the pioneers in virtual reality game development on Oculus Rift.

New 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.

After news of Facebook’s $2 billion Oculus acquisition, the prospect of a massmarket VR headset is one step closer.

“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 all-important. 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.”

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

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, 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.

Private Eye currently exists only as a short proof of concept, but its developers are currently turning the Rear Window-style game of housebound detective work into a full release that’s due to be finished this year.

In Anamnesis, 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 says, the best 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.”

CCP demoed Eve Valkyrie on Sony’s Project Morpheus and Oculus Rift at GDC, and to dazzling effect.

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 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.”

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

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.”

“We’re working directly with a lot of engine creators, like Unity and Epic, to optimise the integration of Rift with their engine in a way that minimises the latency and the difficulty of doing a virtual reality game,” Rift creator Palmer Luckey says.

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.

Otherwise, 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.

Horror games, like CDF Ghostship, will have a rich future on VR and there a several games emerging already which play on Oculus’ unique sense of presence.

“[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 higher-definition 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.

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