Oculus Rift: can indie developers save virtual reality?

Twenty years ago virtual reality was the future. After decades of research and development in university labs throughout the world, consumer headsets began hitting the market, and a world of seamless immersive entertainment was imagined – even feared. For a few moments, entertainment cyberspace flickered into existence, inspiring movies and books, but very quickly it was gone.

Some blamed the limited technology. The VR headsets of the nineties had low resolution screens and clunky head tracking components, resulting in nauseous lag. But there was another problem: the lack of support from developers. This was the beginning of the polygonal era – the big players were busy leaping into bed with Sony and its PlayStation console, which promised affordable 3D graphics and a global audience. In comparison, virtual reality looked like science fiction facilitated by enormous, and expensive, head-mounted units and evangelised by companies no one had heard of. The industry was just heading into its era of big development cycles and conservative thinking. There was no competition.

Twenty years later, we have a digital marketplace in which a lone engineer from a military research lab can put a homemade VR solution on Kickstarter and receive $2.5m in funds. Oculus Rift, with its 1280×800 display resolution, sensitive motion tracking and 110-degree field of vision appeals to the same bunch of cyber-dreamers that the old VPL and Victormaxx headsets did, but now there’s a route to market that facilitates grass roots optimism. Virtual reality is back.

And this time, not only have the technology and distribution channels evolved, but the development scene has also changed dramatically. Digital distribution has allowed the indie sector to grow in importance and stature, and creative risk is leading more surely to reward. You can make a global impact with experimental games now – as Fez, Braid, New Star Soccer and Minecraft have all shown.

Hawken

Which is why, during an interview with Gamasutra last month, Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe said that it would be the indie developers, not the major publishers, who would decide the success of the device. While the big players will need to wait for a big market, indies can nip in and use the supplied UDK framework to bash out interesting experiments. “Ultimately, you really will want made-for-VR games,” he said. “The indies are going to be the ones who do that right away. Indies can get in with two, three, or four guys and say, ‘Let’s make a VR game. We don’t need thousands of units sold. We just want to make something fun.’ […] That’s going to be where you start to see the ‘holy grail’ experiences.”

But that raises a big question: are indie developers actually interested? Do the purveyors of highly subjective experiences like Spelunky or Dear Esther really want to explore the technical capabilities of emergent platforms? Notch has joined big swingers like John Carmack, Cliff Bleszinski and Gabe Newell in endorsing the tech, which is a start. Will others follow?

Clearly, the uptake is already beginning. Even though the consumer version of the Oculus Rift isn’t likely to be released until next year, indie devs such as Adhesive Games and Organic Humans, as well as one-time triple-A star Chris Riberts, are all preparing Rift compatibility in their latest titles. “After being involved in VR technology early on, when the Oculus appeared it was an instant attraction,” says Bill Wright, CTO at Meteor Entertainment, the publisher of hotly anticipated mech battle sim, Hawken. “Then, knowing the CEO of the new company for many years, it was easy to get in touch with them and talk about the possibilities of Hawken and Oculus. The process is straightforward with a focus on tweaking the game controls and view to best take advantage of the Oculus’ features. Indie developers are highly flexible and imaginative. They are the teams that come up with new genres and fresh approaches.  They will take the Oculus and do things we have not thought of before”.

Wright’s view is enthusiastically endorsed by James Iliff, virtual reality blogger and producer of USC’s fascinating Virtual Holodeck project. “Indie developers are definitely going to power the emerging medium of VR due to their constant flexibility and innovation – and this is only just beginning” he says. “In the next five years there will be numerous VR experiences that can’t necessarily be defined into categories that currently exist. One ‘game’ that stretches the definition of the medium is Dear Esther, which at first glance is a firstperson shooter, but due to the lack of shooting and prevalence of narrative it becomes a new medium entirely. Due to the nature of it being firstperson, I see experiences like this being explored much more in virtual reality”.

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