Nausea is a big problem when designing a driving game for VR. UK developer Slightly Mad Studios has got that – and much more – right with its sequel.
Has VR ever made you nauseous? It has for Andy Tudor. "When I first got the Oculus Rift I was very queasy after about ten minutes," says the creative director of Project Cars 2 – the much-anticipated follow up to 2015's hardcore driving sim. It's been a significant teething problem for the technology's first wave, that sense of nausea you feel when your eyes tell you you're moving but your body is adamant that you're not.
But Tudor and his colleagues at Slightly Mad Studios were undeterred. They saw an irresistible opportunity with the mainstreaming of VR to produce a more immersive sim racing experience, and they persevered. First, they released the full version of Project Cars on the Oculus Store. "Not a stripped-down version," says Tudor. "We were confident that people could sit with it for hours at a time and have a good experience." Next, they set about building a sequel that could very well silence anyone's concerns about VR gaming after its release on September 22.
Concern one: that nausea thing. I've learned the hard way about my own low threshold for VR, so the prospect of moving from TV to headset with Project Cars 2 at Slightly Mads' London offices provoked images of spoiled carpets and profuse apologies. What I found instead was that being inside a car – really inside it – was far too engrossing for even the thought of sickness to emerge. Perhaps it's the alchemy of VR's particular implementation in this game, the stripping away of HUD elements and camera movement effects. Perhaps, as game director Stephen Viljoen asserts, it's the advantage of "being grounded in a cockpit," where you're used to moving forwards while sitting still. However it does it, Project Cars 2 is the anti-nausea VR game.
'Project Cars 2' is getting serious about VR Slightly Mad Studios
Its predecessor had the same quality. "Andy and I were present at the Oculus launch event in San Francisco," says Viljoen, "We were one of the key launch titles. There was one journalist who came by, saw our game and said, 'Oh, I can't even think to try this right now, I'm so nauseous, I've just tried another title'.
Just the same, Viljoen and Tudor eased him into the driving seat: "We were like, 'That's fine, you don't have to drive. You can just get in and put the headset on, and just see what it looks like.'" After a few stationary seconds listening to the rain hit the roof and watching it trickle down the windows, he was ready to drive. After two laps, so the story goes, he told Viljoen, "I'm actually feeling much better."
What Slightly Mad Studios learned while building Project Cars' for VR is that everyone's perception of size is slightly different. Perception of scale and space is a complex interaction of monocular and binocular cues between the eyes and brain, and it varies from person to person depending on their vision. In the world of VR, it also depends on which headset you're using. That led to the inclusion of a "world scale" slider in the first Project Cars, which returns in the sequel.
But it also validated the team's singularly slavish devotion to building vehicles, inside and out. "Especially now that we are on the forefront of virtual reality for racing simulations," says Viljoen, "everything needs to be accurately modelled. The player can look anywhere in the cockpit, [so] we need to make sure that it doesn't just look right, but that the scale is right. And the relative scale, like the buttons, the cockpit details."
All of the vehicles in 'Project Cars 2' are painstakingly detailed, like this Acura NSX Slightly Mad Studios
These are the things racing game developers say, of course. You'd expect passion about the dimensions of air conditioning controls from the people who make Project Cars 2. What's important is that this accurate scaling isn't just noticeable in VR – it feels vital. Vive, Rift and the rest have revealed how quickly the brain works to figure out when something feels "off," but as you sit behind the wheel of a McLaren P1, watching the lights change from red to green on a misty morning at the Bannochbrae road circuit, you accept your new surroundings completely.
It changes how you race. Lining up an opponent for an overtake, previously a rote procedure, becomes a terrifying exercise in spatial awareness. The opposing driver you're about to put a move on is the same size as you – you can see him very clearly through the window – and there's something quite transformative about that. There might just be room to squeeze through on the inside before the next braking point, your brain tells you, duped by Slightly Mad's very own Matrix.
That convincing quality was broadly true of its predecessor, but Project Cars 2's ramped-up fidelity in both looks and handling sell the illusion to an eerie degree. In short: the sheer believability of driving makes a powerful counterargument to the headset-averse.
Concern number two for the VR skeptic is in the depth of its experiences. There's a perception that the platform's current lineup is essentially tech demos that reveal all they have to offer after two evenings of curious controller-waggling. Project Cars 2 proves otherwise. Setting aside its enormous career mode and swathe of multiplayer options, there's the innate pleasure of driving an exotic car around a racetrack. If that pleasure got old, sims like Assetto Corsa – the crowdfunded Italian racing game which has set the high bar for detail in simulation – which don't focus on involved career modes (or much gamification at all, for that matter) wouldn't find enduring communities. If Project Cars 2 shipped with just one car and one track, you'd still spend more time with it in VR than anything else in your library.
VR might well be the future for sim racing. As a genre, it's always embraced new technology to aid immersion and authenticity, whether in force feedback racing wheels or hydraulic bucket seats. Headsets that effectively function as portals into a 1:1 replica of a racing car feel like the next step. What seems more obvious, though, is that sim racers like Project Cars 2 are the future for VR. One lap demonstrates its long-term potential for gaming better than anything I've played before, and it does so while taking exceptionally good care of your stomach.