Any new platform of technology needs a reason for people to adopt it. There is seldom a single incredible app or game that tips everyone over the edge, but more a series of products that have mass market appeal and are noticeable enough that people will decide to take the plunge into the new device.
Last Week Sony announced that the PlayStation VR had reached 3 million sales. Not bad, but still a small percentage of the overall 80 million PS4 owners. The growth of VR is strong, and AR is going to be hot on its tail, the question is, where are our killer apps for these platforms?
Two important Factors
There are two factors in my mind that are affecting this situation. The first is Time. It takes time to create AAA games and applications, in some cases many years. This technology is still new enough that developers first need time to understand the format and then time to create high quality content. Maybe the next 12 months will see the release of a few of these longer development titles.
The second factor is the reason for this article and that is Design.
I have spent several years working and “playing” in the VR and AR spaces, but I have noticed a worrying trend specifically among the larger developers. Too many of them are trying to shoehorn existing genres, and in some cases existing content onto the VR platform often in the hope of making a quick dollar.
I understand that there is a risk with creating any new projects and that porting existing content may be a way of testing the waters and learning some of the lessons, but this trend is a symptom of a wider problem and I think it is inhibiting these new formats rather than helping them.
VR is very Different
VR is a very different platform and a different experience to traditional game formats and we need to embrace that if we want to succeed in this area. Traditional “run and gun” style games simply do not work and neither do many other popular game genres. Playing sport in VR, controlling a strategy game and even traditional role-playing formats all need, not just a major overhaul in design, but an entirely new approach from the ground up.
360 VR cinema is the same. 100 years of cinematography and editing techniques are almost entirely redundant when we create content where the viewer can be looking anywhere at any time. Once we place our audience into the actual narrative environment for both VR film and VR games we have to approach the entire process differently.
There are some incredible examples of what we can achieve with these formats. Acclaimed director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Carne y Arena 360 video experience continues to sell out tickets almost as fast as it puts them on sale. This is an experience that has been carefully crafted to utilise the potential of the technology. And there are various examples of games and applications that have taken clever approaches to these new formats.
Stop thinking about limitations
I think the issue is we are still talking about what VR CANNOT do, or how we must adopt existing content to fit the LIMITATIONS of the format. It feels like we have been given the ability to fly and we are discussing the difficulties with swimming.
One advantage of porting old formats to the new platforms is to figure out what works and what does not, in this way it is a legitimate exercise. But we have about 50 examples of FPS games not working on VR, so I think it might be time to move on. It is obviously not easy to simply design a killer app, but anyone who experiences VR or 360 content will understand pretty quickly which aspects of the experience work well and which do not. I have at least a dozen designs for VR content floating around inside my head that simply came from analysing the experiences I enjoyed and comparing them with those I did not.
Rapid movement and combat mechanics defined many of our traditional game styles on consoles and computers. Mobile platforms introduced the concept of quickly swiping our fingers or guiding objects with multiple taps. We adapted our control methods to better suit the device capabilities. VR places us into an environment that completely surrounds us and yet so many experiences only utilise a tiny portion of that space.
If rapid movement causes nausea in VR then don’t use it. If controlling 100 units in a strategic battle is impossible in VR then perhaps the user should be placed onto the battle field to command 5 characters instead of floating over it. God’s view games are obviously not the best use of VR…or are they? Creating a killer app is not going to be easy, and nor should it be. It should be the culmination of an understanding of how the tech can be utilised effectively with a design whose surface simplicity belies its underlying clever creation.
What we can do
If movement in VR is difficult, then maybe the audience should be static, OR the user could be carried or moved around. (Think wheelchair or sitting on the shoulder of a giant)
Movement is not the problem, the audience controlling that movement currently is. Putting the audience on “rails” allows the developer to exactly tune the experience to avoid issues
We have a 360 sphere to inhabit in VR, please use it, both for movement potential as well as drawing the audiences attention to anywhere around them. (Look up AND look down)
Experiences in vehicles work well as the audience is seated and controls movement of the vehicle. This also can reduce nausea as the fixed points of a cockpit can counter the nausea.
We can use arm gestures and movement combined with button input, combined with upper body movement. This is a massive amount of input data to work with.
Spatial audio is incredibly powerful at both supporting narrative and providing data to the audience, use it!
Scale is incredible in VR. When I can stand right in front of a Death Stalker or look out the window and see the USS Enterprise at what I perceive as 1:1 scale then every previous gaming experience I have ever had pales in comparison. VR s incredible in this manner. Use this to your advantage.
VR isolates us from the real world. A Headset and Headphones blocks out real world sensory input. We are placed into a virtual world like diving into water. Embrace that ability, surround your audiences with both visual and auditory information. Feed their senses and they will love being inside the world you created.
All of our previous formats of media have positioned the audience at a window where they could peer into another world and view the tiny portion of that world visible from the window. VR and 360 cinema allows all of us to step through the window and enter those worlds. By contrast AR allows us to reach through the window and pull objects and characters through into our world. We cannot hope to achieve this level of immersion if we persist with our current designs. Pushing my face up against the window is not the same as letting me step through it.
Stephan Schütze has been recording sounds for over twenty years. This journal logs his thoughts and experiences