Next week the annual Game Developers Conference kicks off in San Francisco. Long a bastion for game developers to gather to discuss their art and work to improve upon it, the show also typically does a good job of predicting what's to come in the game industry.
This year that prediction is anything but subtle.
With at least four major virtual reality headsets exhibiting and at least 60 games spread out between the bunch, it's clear that the game industry is officially heading into the age of virtual reality.
On Monday, the Game Developers Conference is home to a two-day Virtual Reality Developers Conference with talks ranging from the highly technical ("A real-time rendered future") to the unsettling ("Harassment in social VR spaces") to the intriguing ("Virtual journalism: VR with a cause").
But talks surrounding the development of games and experiences for virtual reality aren't just during those first two days. The big backers in virtual playspaces are also each hosting events, panels and booths to discuss the near future, launch their headgear or just give people a chance to check out what all the buzz is about.
Ubisoft says it will be hosting informal talks all week long to discuss and test the company's latest live VR and tech demos. Something Ubisoft president Yves Guillemot has said shows enormous potential.
Valve, which partnered with HTC to create the HTC Vive headset, is hosting a VR lounge during the last few days of the show. The company is basically giving its booth space to about 30 developers to let them show off the creations they made for the Vive, which starts shipping on April 5.
"By default, VR offers an entirely new range of possibilities for games, story telling, education, and more," said Valve's Doug Lombardi. "It is something everyone in technology has dreamed about for years. And we are finally at a point where the combination of computing and graphics allow us to create truly convincing VR solutions and experiences."
Oculus is hosting several days of events for the gathered press to show off its latest software in the lead up to the Rift headset's March 28 release date. They anticipate having more than 40 games at the event. At least one game, Minecraft for Gear VR, will be shown for the already-released, Samsung-phone-powered Gear VR headset as well.
"This month holds both GDC and the launch of high-end consumer VR with the release of the Rift on the 28th," said Jason Rubin, head of worldwide studios for Oculus. "Game developers have been waiting for decades for the opportunity to put gamers into the worlds they have created, and the excitement in the development community couldn't be more excited for this moment. As one of the largest gathering of developers in the business the show makes sense as a launching and sharing point for their titles, middleware, and ideas."
Rubin says he believes that VR marks both a new frontier for gaming and a way to enhance current games.
"VR is a new medium allowing developers to flex their mental muscles to create and explore new ways of thinking and developing games that immerse players in ways they have only previously imagined," he said. "But we will also see current games move to VR displays without changing their core gameplay because VR enhances their immersion and visual appeal. For both reasons, VR is fundamental to gaming's future."
Sony too is getting involved in the VR buzz with a press event during the show, but not part of it, which will apparently showcase some of the PlayStation VR's games. While Sony hasn't announced a release date for the PS4-supported VR headset, the company has said it will come out in the first half of the year. Next week's four-hour event will kick off with a presentation followed by hands-on demos, according to the invitation. No word on how many games will be there.
Epic Games is hosting VR games that use the company's latest iteration of the Unreal Engine at both their booth and at the GDC VR Lounge.
"I believe there's around 12 to 15 different Unreal Engine powered games and experience being shown at our booth on a variety of platforms, including both Oculus and Vive," said Ray Davis, Epic Games' Seattle Studio Manager and company VR evangelist. "We're also hosting the GDC VR Lounge which has another 12 Unreal Engine powered VR games to check out this year."
Meggan Scavio, general manager of Game Developer Conference events, sees all of the news, games and buzz building around virtual reality as a sign of how far along the tech has come.
"In many ways we are finally upon VR's commercial birth," she said. "Fans, developers, investors are all interested in understanding where we are today, where the industry is going and how fast it will get there."
Epic's Davis says that GDC is reflecting what's happening in the game industry at large right now.
"It's safe to say that the word has gotten out about the magic of VR at this point," he said. "Nearly every developer I talk to these days is either actively building VR content or at least dreaming up ideas of what they want to build when they finally get their hands on a VR headset.
"For many developer veterans VR breathes new life into the creative process and gives us a massive new sandbox to play in. It seems perfectly natural that VR is taking over GDC as it's still one of the best places to meet up with other creators, share stories of what's awesome and what didn't work so well, and of course to get hands on with all the new toys that companies are building for VR. I imagine that given the multiple consumer launches of VR headsets this year we're only going to see more and more growth of VR from here on out."
While VR had a huge increase at last year's E3, the technology's schedule to consumers was still very ephemeral. It's clear now, given the number of games, press gatherings and talks surrounding virtual reality, that this is the first big, broad push we will see for the technology.
But what about the future?
"VR represents a critical step in getting us that much closer to the dream of creating a completely immersive realities," Davis said. "It's the big leap forward we need to grant players the ability to truly step into their games and it will lead to us building some groundbreaking games.
"The closest comparison I can think of would be the introduction of the first GPUs that enabled the industry to adopt real-time 3D rendering - VR is going to have an even bigger impact and it's going to lead us to defining new genres that weren't possible before. As a lifelong gamer I'm giddy at the thought of playing some of my favorite games re-imagined for VR, or to lose myself for days at at time in VR's eventual equivalent to World of Warcraft."