Takeaways from VRDC

I have just spent the last week steeped in the latest game development trends. GDC is one of my favorite times of the year, when developers from around the world get together to discuss and celebrate the making of games. This year, there was a special virtual reality section of the conference, VRDC, host to dozens of studios showing their products for the incoming wave of head-mounted devices. Attending a number of talks and speaking with developers, I took away some valuable information concerning the immediate future of VR games.

Feedback is King

Or Queen, both are fine for this metaphor.

The creators of I Expect You to Die gave a talk at VRDC, and spoke a lot about creating presence in virtual reality. The VR experience breaks down when the player remembers they are in a physical space somewhere. To prevent this, a game needs to convince the player that their actions are occurring in the virtual world rather than the physical one. The answer is feedback; all the feedback.

Games are definitely no stranger to feedback, but acting in a fully virtual world requires more than ever before. If a player opens a lighter and sets it on something flammable, it should catch fire. If they put a lit cigar to their mouth, it should puff smoke. Throwing an object at wood should make a different sound than throwing it at metal. These examples from I Expect You to Die cement the player's sense of presence, immersing them for maximum engagement. As developers, we need to explore every way we can give information to the player.

This leads me to my favorite form of feedback, haptics. For decades, haptics in gaming has been limited to vibration motors in controllers, buzzing for a sense of force coming from the game. Recently, the Xbox One has put additional motors in each trigger, and Valve has put linear motors in the Steam Controller for precise directional feedback, but we've remained limited to buzzing in more and more intricate ways.

Breaking the mold, Tactical Haptics has been developing a grip-feedback controller for a number of years, and showed it this year attached to the HTC Vive. Using independently actuated grips, their controller can simulate tension on the skin of the player's hand. This allows for a sense of a held object resisting a change in momentum, more commonly known as a sense of weight. The controllers obviously can't manipulate mass, and put no extra stress on the muscles, but trick the player's brain into feeling weight through the interaction with the hand. I have been a fan of this technology for some time, but experiencing it with the Vive has convinced me of its viability.

Tactical Haptics' demo has the player shooting guns, firing arrows, and swinging laser swords, all while providing convincing feedback to each interaction. Some aspects, like gun recoil, simply provide a richer sense of immersion, but others like bow tension can give practical information to the player as well. After a dozen shots, I could feel how far back I was pulling the arrow without any visual indicator, and could accurately hit targets at multiple distances. This does wonders for presence and really fleshes out the virtual world. I desperately hope to see this technology make it into mainstream VR, mostly so I can finally have the lightsaber fight of my dreams.

VR Playgrounds

From a design perspective, the most interesting–and possibly dreadful–takeaway lies in the nature of games we can currently make in VR. Games have evolved so much in recent years as an expressive medium, and some developers are looking to push these experiences further with virtual reality. However, the most-discussed games at VRDC were more like sideshow attractions, providing an engaging and novel experience, but in quick bursts with little long-term fulfillment.

The games that did reach for lasting impact were more removed from the interactive mechanics of VR, simply pulling a camera along behind gamepad-driven character, or removing hand control entirely and relying just on head movement. Neither of these decisions are bad, but I feel like encouraging players to be comfortable with current affordances will slow the progress in room-tracking, hand-controlled experiences.

Pushing developers to make simpler experiences may be a step backwards, but I believe it's necessary to taking great strides forward. In the earliest days of games, the average player had no affordances–no understanding of the relationship between their actions and the results on the screen. Computer Space's four buttons led it to obscurity, while the single knob of PONG took off like wildfire. PONG's simplicity allowed players to build a relationship between turning a knob and translating a virtual paddle. This paved the way for games like Asteroids, with a nearly identical control scheme to Computer Space, but in a time players had the affordances necessary to play it intuitively.

I give this brief history lesson to say that 45 years after Computer Space, we are back where we started–at least in terms of affordances. The first time someone steps into room-scale VR, any amount of previous gaming experience goes out the window. Every interaction is novel, complex, and ironically unintuitive. People seem timid to try new things, out of expectation the game wasn't programmed for that case. This is where simple games shine. Take Job Simulator, Fantastic Contraption, and I Expect You to Die for example. All three games provide rich interactable environments, and derive much of their engagement from the novelty of the interactions. They teach their players that interacting in VR is natural, and encourage them to literally explore the space. This small concept builds simple affordances, and is profoundly important for the future of interacting in virtual reality.

Too Rewarding to Fail

By the end of GDC, I had to remember that VR hasn't even entered the public eye fully, and many people are still skeptical of its success. Among other factors, critics claim the price will drive the average consumer away from VR, leading to low demand and a decline in development. However, after spending a week putting on head-mounted displays and watching others experience this re-emerging field, I can't agree. It's just too damn fun. There may not be a VR headset in everyone's home by 2020, but the VR experience is here to stay. From Google Cardboard to burgeoning VR arcades, developers and investors are working hard to make the VR experience accessible to the public long before a dedicated headset becomes ubiquitous in the home. Just like with home consoles, the price will drop over time and the demand will grow. It's only a matter of time before the average consumer has been in VR at least once, and at that point there's no turning back.