Valve and HTC created a sort of church for virtual reality in Seattle last week.
While the companies have done a strong job making sure developers and the press have been able to try the hardware, questions remained about the Vive's game selection. It's hard to even care about the device's price when we've only played a few actual games on top of the expected tech demos and experiments.
Valve's developer showcase was meant to answer those questions. There were 12 demo stations, and the press was invited to try each game and speak to the developers. We were given a bit over six hours to jump from virtual world to world while grilling the developers on what it was like creating games for the Vive. In many ways this was the hardware's proper coming-out party, and Valve and HTC seemed content to let the developers speak freely about the experience of making games for the machine.
It was a strange scene. A low, droning hum played in the background. There were only around 15 members of the media there, and each demo station was helmed by one or two developers from each studio. The lighting was low around the futuristic honeycomb design of the walls. People spoke in low whispers around tables with battery-operated candles. The feeling was one of reverence, as if we were all expected to worship at the altar of this new technology. There was even a Vive Pre, complete with Lighthouse base stations and controllers, arranged beatifically at the front of the room.
It wasn't all stagecraft; there was a very good reason for this ambiance, outside of making us all feel like extras in an unreleased scene from Tron. Going in and out of virtual reality isn't the easiest thing, and there is often a strange feeling of disconnection after you've spent a few minutes exploring a virtual environment and figuring out how to play.
It was disconcerting to be asked to jump into a completely unexpected world, explore it for 15 minutes or so, conduct an interview about what I'd just experienced, and then move onto the next demo. It was like six hours of teleportation, and the room was designed to minimize the friction of the experience. Valve and HTC created, for the benefit of the developers and press, a loading program in physical reality.
This was a chance to see what the Vive could do in the hands of the developers working in the trenches. One advantage of the Vive became apparent very quickly: It ships with two controllers that deliver perfectly tracked motion controls in 3D space. Nearly every game took advantage of this fact, which created an array of demos and experiences that felt more real due to the ability to directly manipulate objects in the game, rather than with a standard controller.
These weren't just tech demos; each station contained a functional game that will hopefully be available near the Vive's launch or sometime during 2016.
The event was an unqualified success. This is some of what we played, with a focus on games we had never seen before.
"We're going for a Space Invaders / Galaga game," developer Dirk Van Welden told Polygon. "It's very arcade-y.
Space Pirate Trainer has a very simple concept: You're trying to defend your ship against laser gun-wielding drones. You can hold a gun in each hand, and can select between semi-automatic and fully automatic fire, as well as a railgun setting that requires you to aim carefully before letting loose with a single devastating blast.
You can also reach behind your head and swap one or both of your guns for a handheld shield that deflects enemy fire. Time slows down when an enemy laser bolt is close to your body, telling you that you need to both dodge and return fire. The basics can be understood in a few moments.
But it feels amazing to play in a way that's hard to describe. You have to aim your laser guns accurately, and the rare times you find yourself able to aim well using both arms to take down drones are a rush. You have to get past the fear of movement in order to do well; the best players learn to dive out of the way of incoming fire, or contort themselves to avoid being hit.
It's a game that would be completely boring on a standard two-dimensional screen, but becomes satisfying due to the necessity of accurate aiming and the feeling of being Han Solo. It's like being inside a futuristic firing range, and I found myself trying new ways to attack the enemy, including holding the shield across my chest like a platter and then bouncing my own shots off it, a move I called "The Waiter."
This is one of those games that seems obvious in retrospect, but shows off what the Vive can do well. The motion controls make aiming and firing feel as natural as it should when using lasers to blow drones out of the sky, and I was told the team is now working on drones that can protect you, boss battles and additional levels.
But the core mechanic already feels amazing, and Space Pirate Trainer was one of the most discussed demos of the show. It also made me feel as if I was in the following scene in Star Trek: The Next Generation.
Space Pirate Trainer is coming this year, and the team is working as hard as possible to get it out in a timely manner.
You can't fly a spaceship in real life. You probably can't set up a few hundred drones to shoot down with your laser guns. But you can play minigolf, which makes this a bit of an odd choice for virtual reality. Why simulate something you can already do?
"We wanted something that was accessible and more familiar while kind of taking it to the next level," Justin Liebregts, CTO and co-founder of Futuretown, told Polygon. "Not everyone wants to throw knives at robots. I like it, but we wanted something that was for everybody. All ages appropriate, that everyone can get into."
The other problem is that most of us haven't thrown knives at robots, so we don't know how that's supposed to feel. I'm willing to bet a majority of people reading this article have held a putter, so you'll immediately have a sense of whether Cloudlands: VR Minigolf nails the feeling of playing minigolf, or falls into the motion-sensing uncanny valley. It's the difference between someone making a robot that's supposed to be a stranger and a robot that's supposed to be your mother. You're going to recognize a fake much earlier when it's something that you're familiar with.
"Getting the physics right, with the controller and hitting the ball, that was the most difficult," Liebregts explained. "Before we started we played real minigolf, saw how that felt; went back; did some prototypes, worked with the default physics settings in Unity, got frustrated; did a lot of custom physics coding and velocity adjustments; went back to playing more real minigolf; still wasn't there yet; went back and polished it a ton."
The most banal realities were tricky to simulate in the game. "We spent a month at least just on tuning the feel of hitting the ball and rolling along surfaces with the proper drag and everything," he said.
The good news is the little bit of the finished product we played was enjoyable and "real." The putter adjusted length depending on your stance; the head of the putter was always on the ground, so when you bent down lower, the length of the pole simply adjusted itself in real time. Likewise you could lean through the physical objects on the course if you needed to adjust your stance or get a better view of where you had to aim your shot. So the laws of physics were enjoyably bent in the game, but the act of hitting the ball felt natural. I always blamed myself for my bad shots, not the technology.
While you can take advantage of the room-scale nature of the game and walk around a bit, a simple button press allowed you to virtually teleport to the location of the ball, which solves the issue of how to get around the large areas of each hole; it felt natural, too.
Cloudlands is played completely by motions and a button press that is understood instantly; this is something that anyone can pick up and at least try, no matter their knowledge of games or controllers. It felt like the promise of the Nintendo Wii taken all the way to its logical conclusion.
You'll be able to pass the Vive around for hotseat multiplayer, and you will also be able to play against friends online. Cloudlands should be released around the launch of the Vive.
Having a gun pointed at you in virtual reality is uncomfortable.
Budget Cuts is a stylized, Portal-esque game of sneaking and assassination, played out in a very lighthearted manner. If that's even possible.
You get around each level by firing a ball that turns into a portal and then warping to that portal, while also walking around a bit in the room-scale environment. So you fire your portal gun to get around, and you have to sneak past the robot sentries to find your job application. That's the game. But you also have throwing knives and can "kill" the robots. One hit anywhere on their body does it, and they go down spraying arterial "oil."
Did they go with robots to make the act of killing someone a bit easier to take? "We actually had a lot of internal discussions about that," said Joachim Holmér, founder of developer Neat Corporation. "We ended up doing robots not only because it's less violent, but it also opens up more gameplay possibilities." You can have dumb robots and it doesn't feel silly, but a super dumb person is harder to believe. Or you can have smart robots, and the difficulty goes way up.
The joy is in the physical nature of the game. You can crouch on the floor and snake your arm through a vent to fire your portal gun inside and gain entry. If you jump back behind a wall while a robot is aiming their gun, you can avoid getting shot. Your motions matter, and the more comfortable you are contorting yourself into weird positions, the better you'll do.
Sarah playing Budget Cuts. Closely inspecting the floor (or peering through a vent at robots in her reality) pic.twitter.com/L71TUmcfhs— ColinNorthway (@ColinNorthway) January 30, 2016
Budget Cuts, to put it bluntly, is the future. The act of sneaking around, of taking quick action when spotted and then getting into a kill position with a knife, or making that perfect throw ... it's a rush that I might never have experienced in a game before.
The press and developers gathered near the bar after the demos were over and talked about what they had played, and Budget Cuts all but dominated the chat. We shared stories, talked about what we had done and discussed what had happened as if they were memories. It felt like the bar after a scuba diving trip: We were talking about our experience inside the game, and the adventures felt real to our brains.
Budget Cuts, based on this demo, is one of the best games you've never heard of. It's going to blow up among VR fans once it's released for the Vive, and I wouldn't be surprised if it sold quite a few pieces of hardware on its own. While having even a stylized robot point a gun at you is scary, my initial reaction of jumping backward and taking cover was correct. Your body translates your basic survival instincts into motions that will help you win the game, which is a very odd thing to type.
While having a larger room can be helpful, the game is designed to work as long as you have at least 1 meter of space around you (the team described it as "closet-scale" VR). Budget Cuts took me from being unsure about the mechanics to feeling like a literal, knife-throwing ninja — in about eight minutes. I spent the rest of my demo in a state of surprisingly violent bliss.
Here's the premise: You grab building materials, snap them together and try to create new objects to fulfill certain challenge requirements. It's all done with the Vive's motion controllers, and it makes sense without much instruction. The game itself teaches you how to play.
Andy Moore is a programmer and a designer working on Fantastic Contraption with Northway Games. Ease of use was always important, he said. Moore described going to shows like PAX and having to explain games hundreds of times a day.
"I got sick of saying the same thing over and over again, and it's my goal to design a game where I don't have to say anything to get you through the entire experience," he explained. "Not just you," he continued, gesturing at me to indicate the world of the press and gamers, "but grandma. Grandma isn't going to get in there and get confused about what one is L2 and which one is R2. There's one verb: Grab. Just grab. If you know 'grab,' you figure out the rest of the game."
There are certain aspects of Fantastic Contraption that they did describe to me, just because my demo time was limited to around 15 minutes. But Moore claims they could have left me alone for an hour and I would have learned every aspect of the experience myself.
That sort of design in VR takes time. Lots and lots of time.
Moore talked about designing something as "simple" as a volume control for the game. In a normal PC game, you hit the escape button, go to a menu and use a slider to decrease or increase the volume. It's not quite as easy in VR, where having a text-based menu pop up in your face is a bit startling. If the goal is to make everything fantastical, if not outright magical, how do you let someone adjust the volume?
"So what makes sense in a VR world?" Moore began. "We should have a physical speaker on the space with a volume knob on it, and then you don't need a tutorial. You don't need to tell anyone to hit the escape key or a special command key. You just put the speaker in the space and let people figure it out. Coming to that conclusion — to letting people come to things naturally — is the biggest lesson we learned."
It actually goes a bit further. There's a helmet inside the game for the menus, and you access the menus by putting the helmet over your virtual head to be transported to a third reality. They created a virtual reality helmet for your character inside virtual reality, and you put it on when you want to move to a new level or share your creation or just adjust settings. Take off the helmet, and you're back in the game. It's much more intuitive, and magical, than just hitting the Esc key.
"It's been such a wild ride trying to figure this out," Moore said. "We started with Fantastic Contraption, a 2D puzzle game, so we had a blueprint, we had a formula, we knew it was fun and we knew it worked. How do you translate that into VR?"
They're still working on it, but the sense of play and discovery you get from making these weird machines in VR, using your hands in a natural way without having to "learn" the controls, is something that could have been achieved no other way.
This is what happens when the Vive is paired with a developer who understands how to design for it. You don't have to explain the buttons to anyone, nor do you have to rely on shared gaming vocabulary about everything from menus to movement. Fantastic Contraption works the way you'd expect it to if it somehow existed in the real world, and the result is an imaginative game that rewards creativity. I can't wait to play more.
Hover Junkers gives you a flying hovercraft in a wasteland and a few weapons, then asks you to find and destroy everyone else. You fly with one hand and shoot with the other, and duck and take cover with your body behind the defensive structures you can build on your ship. You have to be aware of doing multiple things at once, while also moving your body, if you hope to do well.
The team at StressLevelZero wanted to design a game that required virtual reality. You have to physically aim your guns well, and there are specific motions you must perform to reload. You have to move your body to take cover. There are no canned animations; it's all up to you.
They released a detailed video about why the game is only coming to VR. It's fascinating.
Hitting a button to crouch behind a crate and blind-fire over it can be exciting, but the physical act of hearing a bullet fly by your actual ear before ducking down to take cover and putting your gun over the lip of the crate to return fire is a rush. Having full control of your hands and body also allows for some fun meta-gaming to take place with other players.
Developer Alex Knoll told one story about the social aspects of Hover Junkers, as well as betrayal. His team "met" other players in the game and, well ...
That's already cool, but then they took it a step further. "When everyone's guard was down, my ship partner gestured to me with his hand below the view of the other players. I looked down at his hand to see him indicate that in a few seconds, he was going to attack them. Slowly moving my hands out of view, so as to not give away the surprise, we switched to our weapons out of view and in sync we betrayed their temporary trust and destroyed them."
That's the sort of thing that's possible when you have full control over your body in a social environment in VR.
"The amount of information you can deliver through the performance of your in-game body even with only having a tracked head and hands (with some hand gestures) is astounding," Knoll continued. "There is so much room for social 'minigames' within the context of the game. The instinct to improvise in every encounter creates a unique experience in every engagement. Even with the simple rules in the game, you can have any individual encounter play out differently every time."
An Engadget writer saw this happen in real time when Knoll motioned not to shoot in the game, and then took his own life in front of the reporter.
"That 'soul' was palpable enough to get me to lower my gun and cry out in shock when I saw Knoll's avatar shoot herself," the writer said. "In most games, an avatar is just an empty husk going through the motions of predefined animations. But in Hover Junkers, they mimic a real player's movements. When Knoll pointed a gun at his head and motioned for me to stop, I saw through the game to the person behind it. It still looked like a video game, but it felt real. More real than any multiplayer game I'd ever played."
That, ladies and gentlemen, is how you mess with people in VR. I asked the team about that story after the event.
"You have to remind people of the power that VR has by throwing curveballs in your actions sometimes," Knoll responded. "In VR, the human presence is much more noticeable."
Welcome to the future. It can be a disturbing place.
We learned plenty. We spent an entire day playing games and talking to developers about the system, and there is more coverage coming throughout the week. This was a dense event with many demos and insights about creating VR games in general and developing for the Vive in particular, and it's worth taking the time to really dig into what we saw.
Valve also told members of the press that we could expect Vive Pre units to be sent out soon, so we can begin to demo some of these games in our own offices in much greater detail.
What was most interesting about the day's demos was the fact that nearly all of them used the Vive wands in interesting and even necessary ways. Since the Vive is going to come with motion controllers as a standard part of the system, everyone who buys a Vive will be using the same control interface. That means developers will all support it as the default control mechanism, which is a huge advantage over Oculus' strategy of launching with a standard console-style gamepad before adding the Touch controllers later this year.
That makes all the difference. The games I played at the event all benefited greatly from the use of motion controls, offering experiences and emotions that would be hard, if not impossible, to replicate on a standard screen or even in VR with a standard controller.
In a war of VR platforms, the Vive is more or less shipping as a complete holodeck. The Rift will launch as a product that may feel, compared to these games, incomplete.