Reality Bites For Cheap Rift As Gamers Seek Friends

Reality Bites For Cheap Rift As Gamers Seek Friends
July 25, 2017
Echo Arena, a new virtual reality 'e-sport', has been described as a futuristic version of Ultimate Frisbee


Expansion of multiplayer offering could be the answer to VR’s ‘chicken and egg’ puzzle Personal Technology Read next Leap gets jump on VR’s next challenge with funding Echo Arena, a new virtual reality 'e-sport', has been described as a futuristic version of Ultimate Frisbee


For the best part of a year now, pundits have blamed slow sales of virtual reality headsets on two things: high cost and low content. This month, Oculus cut the price of its Rift headset and Touch controller bundle to $399 — half as much as they cost at the beginning of the year.


The summer promotion was accompanied by a fresh push of new games, including a preview of a forthcoming title featuring Marvel superheroes such as Hulk and Daredevil. There are now more than 500 apps and games for the Rift, Oculus says, and it is giving developers budgets of more than $10m apiece to ensure high-quality new titles keep coming next year and in 2019. So is it finally time to buy a high-end PC VR headset?


The answer for the majority of regular folks is still no. Although the cost of a powerful enough PC and Oculus bundle is now below $1,000, that price still seems too much for something that even I, as an early fan of VR, find myself picking up and playing with pretty rarely. Fiddling with sensors and wires and clearing a big enough space to move around freely with a headset blocking my vision all feels like too much hassle unless you can justify devoting most of a room to VR (in which case, price probably is not your main concern).


For most people, VR is more like a trip to the cinema than watching TV — fun once in a while but unlikely to become a regular habit. That said, for certain kinds of dedicated gamers and early adopters, the Rift is certainly starting to look like a much more tempting proposition. The key change recently is not price or any particular piece of software but the emergence of simultaneous multiplayer gaming in VR.


I raved last year about Rec Room, a simple and fun multiplayer game that involves playing virtual paintball, tennis, dodge ball or golf. It revealed just how powerful VR can be as a social experience. The problem with multiplayer VR games has been that, all too often, there are not enough other people with headsets to play against.


Hanging around on an empty dodge ball court waiting for other players to show up is no more fun in VR than it is in the real world. Oculus’s “Summer of Rift” promotion might help to solve that chicken-and-egg problem by making the headset more affordable. At a press event this week, Oculus executive Jason Rubin said that sales “way exceeded our expectations”, although he still refused to say whether it had sold more than 1m Rifts yet.


Even if ownership of VR headsets, such as the Rift and HTC Vive, is still some way short of “critical mass”, it is starting to get to a meaningful enough scale for online multiplayer gaming — even if some of the software still needs improvement. Facebook’s social VR app, Spaces, still feels very much like a work in progress. There is only so much that a group of cartoony avatars hanging out in a virtual room together can really do once the novelty wears off.


Echo Arena is played in zero gravity, adding an additional challenge to competitors A more compelling social VR experience I tried this week is Echo Arena. This “e-sport” is best described as a sort of futuristic Ultimate Frisbee, as two teams of three people try to pass, tackle and score goals. Sci-fi fans might feel as though they are stepping inside Ender’s Game.


The added twist is Echo Arena is played in zero gravity. This takes some getting used to when your real-world feet are still firmly on the ground but the game’s designers did a good job at mitigating some of the potential disorientation. While it is huge fun, I found it pretty exhausting to play, even in short bursts. VR is already an intense experience and the competitive dimension amps that up even further.


After losing my first two matches, then winning my third, I was a sweaty mess. Once I took off my headset, I needed several minutes to steady my wobbly legs. I also encountered several hazards that are unique to playing sports in VR. During play, I often found myself entangled in the cord that connects the back of the Rift headset to its PC and even slammed my controllers against my desk a couple of times, as I flailed around trying to catch a spinning disc. It was a good job I was playing in a room by myself, because there was quite a lot of yelling, too.


Echo Arena perfectly illustrates the two sides of the social VR coin: it is entertaining for the person inside the headset but not very sociable to anybody who might be nearby in the real world. It also underlines the need for a lot of space and, in future, a wireless headset that would do away with today’s tripwire risk. The other requirement is time: just like real sports, Echo Arena is a deep and tactical game that will reward regular practice.


The macho nature of online video-gaming tends to make it rather unwelcoming to the newbie or the occasional player. Slowly but surely, the cost of VR is coming down and the quality of content is going up. Those other limiting factors, however, seem set to keep it to a small, if dedicated, niche for some time yet.

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