For nearly two years, I have been trying a wide range of video games in a virtual reality setting. Our lab. in Montreal has some permanent space dedicated to the HTC Vive, so I was also able to test out games with a wide range of people. I must have tried several dozen different games so far.
Gaming in virtual-reality is a disappointment. I am surprised that Sony sold millions of virtual-reality headsets. To my knowledge, there are no big studio betting on virtual reality. It is mostly owned by independent developers making small bets.
To be clear, I am not disappointed at virtual reality per se. However, it seems clear that two years ago, I greatly underestimated how much work we collectively need to do to get “virtual reality right”.
What works? A few games are quite good. I have two favorite games.
One of them is Superhot VR. In Superhot, you are an assassin moving from one minimalist sandbox to another, killing people best you can (with a knife, your fist, a bottle, a gun, …). It would be quite bland if not for the trick that time flows only as fast as you move. As long as you remain immobile, time remains still. The game is a “port” to virtual reality of a conventional game, but virtual reality makes it shine.
My other favorite game is Beat Saber. As the name suggests, you use (light) sabers to cut coloured boxes coming at you (not unlike a Star Wars Jedi) at the rhythm of some music. It is probably my favorite virtual-reality game so far.
Both of them are so good that they provide an unforgettable experience. However, they are both modest games.
What might we say about virtual-reality gaming?
1- Both of these games are highly immersive. Once you are in the game, you feel as if you were teleported elsewhere and you forget where your body is. Yet they are not, in any way, realistic. That is, you are teleported in an artificial world that looks nothing like our everyday world.
A few years ago, many people assumed that photorealism was required for immersion. That is entirely false.
2- As a related, but distinct point, neither of these games was particularly expensive to build, or technically challenging. I could probably write cheap clones of these games in a few months, and I am not a video-game programmer. That is, of course, a consequence of the fact that there are seemingly no major investments.
3- These games require “six degrees of freedom” and handheld commands. That is, they work because you can really move in the environment (forward, backward) while looking in all directions, and using your hands freely.
However, they only require you to move within a small space. This last step is important since your actual body is still limited to a relatively small space.
Many games allow you to travel vast distances through various tricks such as teleports, or by moving from within a vehicle. For example, you can point to a far location and click a button to appear there. Even though teleports “work” technically, they are disappointing. I almost invariably get frustrated at such games.
Other games offer only restricted degrees of freedom. Some games only require you to look around, without having to move. I find these games disappointing as well.
4-My impression is that simply carrying over existing video games is almost always going to be a futile exercise.
What might come around the corner?
1- Multiplayer virtual-reality gaming might be great. There are games like Rec Room that offer decent experiences already, with a lot of frustration thrown in. However, we will need better hardware with features like eye tracking. It is almost here.
2- I still haven’t seen any “long-form” game. That is, playing for hours in a deep and involved game is not possible, right now. What is worse: I cannot even imagine what such a game might look like.