The Reality of VR: Game Devs Speak Up at GDC

One of the things I tried to get my arms around at GDC this year was what exactly is the opportunity with VR – as the mobile game industry begins to consolidate, could VR be the next big wave?

Matthew Falcus posted a nice overview in Gamastura today — Making the Most of the VR Opportunity — that provides a great overview.  I wanted to add some of my notes from GDC which I thought were interesting context as well, especially from day one of the Virtual and Augmented Reality Roundtable session.

Indie VR Developers by the Numbers

  • The room was to capacity with about 80 participants
  • 8 people had shipped a game, 60% of the participants were actively developing something
  • 2 had been working since the late 90s in Augmented Reality/Virtual Reality – seeing a lot of the same issues that people were tackling then now resurfacing today
  • 95% of the participants were male
  • About 95% were developing in Unity because it’s easy and can integrate things right away.  One or two were using proprietary code, mostly because they started a while ago and just stuck with it

You Are Going to Get Sick

A lot of folks were sharing their experiences – for example you are going to make yourself sick when you are prototyping and can’t work the rest of the day – but the bottom line was that every user is different and there is no magic bullet to solve sickness – yet.  That said here are some of the things that participants mentioned seemed to make it better for users:

  • Made the game explicitly have the character put on goggles
  • Having a focal point in front of the user helps keep their balance
  • Make steps/staircase feel like a ramp instead of bouncing up and down them
  • Team Fortress 2 developers ended up creating a “meathook” solution where it’s all about your head orientation – your feet are just dangling
  • Bring content to the user instead of user moving to the content (Oculus Rift’s Crescent Bay demo did this)
  • Teleport to locations vs. the manual walking, moving

If you are developing a game then, how do you get around if allowing a user to walk around and explore the environment makes some people sick?  It’s a different narrative and thought process.

Is the Tech There Yet?

Generally, the answer is sort of.  There were several new devices debuted that week and discussions about trying to develop to the lowest common form (John Carmack of Oculus suggested developers look at graphics like they were building for the Game Cube) because no one knows which platform will take off.

This discussion veered into issues about the lack of tactile feedback and the disconnect between not being able to use your hands or see yourself within VR.  One participant said the current state of AR/VR now is analogous to what 3D was in the 80s, “We are at a point of finding the cheats for AR and VR and then systems will do the math to help us achieve the solution.”

The biggest disconnect for many though, is that it feels like the technology is driving the discussion, where instead it should be the experience we are trying to achieve in AR/VR should be driving the technology.  As one participant reacting to the discussion about the need for haptic feedback suits noted, “how long do you expect them to wear it?  An hour is probably a LOT for mainstream users.”

The Reality: VR Might Not be About Games at All

I’ve tried both the simple (Google Cardboard) and latest  (Oculus Crescent Bay) VR headsets and the experiences are intriguing, but not something I’m yearning to go back to over and over again.  One of the most interesting debates really is what IS the experience that is going to be the defining one for VR?   As Holden Link from Turbo Button noted during the VR for Indies Panel, games might not end up being the killer app.  “The killer app for VR is probably Netflix – being in a giant theater.”


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