VR Isn’t Ready

Recently I’ve heard a lot of hubabaloo about VR, especially with regards to games. This wave of hype has been going on for while, but it has personally intensified for me because one of my professors this semester is running a VR startup. I’m also working on a VR-compatible game, so VR talk has become more relevant to me.

Array of current VR headsets

Array of current VR headsets



First off, I believe VR is still 10 years away from its prime-time. The tech is just not advanced to a viable level right now, and some fundamental issues of user experience have yet to be solved.

For example, my professor gave an example of why VR is such an immersive mode of interaction: the first time people put on the headset and jump into a virtual world, they reach out and try to touch objects. He trumpeted this as being evidence of a kinetic experience (i.e. it pushed them to “feel” things beyond what they immediately see). While is this kind of true, I see it far more as evidence of a fundamental shortcoming. The moment a user tries to interact with the world and fails, they are jerked out of the fantasy and immersion is broken. This is true in all games; if a user believes they can interact with the world in a certain way but the world doesn’t respond correctly, the user is made painfully and immediately aware that they are in a game, a simulation.

Control VR isn't enough.

Control VR isn’t enough.

This brings me to the first huge issue: the input problem. VR output is relatively advanced, what with Oculus and Gear VR and Morpheus. But we’ve seen little to no development effort targeted at ways for the user to interact with the world. Sure we have Control VR and such projects, but I think these haven’t caught on because they are so complicated to setup. Oculus made huge strides by turning the HMD into a relatively streamlined plug-and-play experience with a minimal mess of cables. We have yet to see how Oculus’s custom controllers affect the space, but I have a feeling they aren’t doing enough to bridge the haptic gap. We won’t see VR takeoff until users are no longer frustrated by the effort to give input to the game by these unintuitive means. As long as users are constantly reminded they are in a simulation, VR is no better than a big TV and a comfy couch.

Speaking of big TVs: the output tech isn’t good enough. The 1080p of the DK2 is nowhere near high enough to be immersive. Trust me: I’ve gotten to try out a DK2 extensively in the past few months at zero personal cost. My opinion is informed and unbiased. Trying to pick out details in the world is like peering through a blurry screen door. As long as I’m tempted to pop off the headset and peek at the monitor to figure out what I’m looking at, VR isn’t going to take off. Even the 2160×1200 of the consumer Oculus won’t be enough. When we get 3K or 4K resolutions in our HMDs, VR will be a viable alternative to monitor gaming. Of course, this tech is likely 5-10 years away for our average consumer.

These never caught on.

These never caught on.

This all isn’t to say that current VR efforts are for naught. These early adopter experiments are definitely useful for figuring out design paradigms and refining the tech, However, it would be foolish to operate under the assumption that VR is posed to take the gaming world by storm. VR is not the new mobile. VR is the new Kinect. And like the Wii and Kinect, VR is not a catch-all interaction mode; most gaming will always favor a static, laid-back experience. You can’t force people to give up lazy couch-potato gaming.

Of course, outside of gaming it may not be a niche interaction mode. In applications where immersion is not the goal and users expect to have to train in the operation of unnatural, intuitive controls, VR may very well thrive. Medicine, industrial operation, design, and engineering are obvious applications. It might even be useful for education purposes. But temper your expectations for gaming.

A Solution for Difficulty Curves and Power Creep

Most games portray you as a hero of some sort. A common trope is for the hero to be either inexperienced at the beginning of the game, or lack his equipment. This gives a reason for why the hero does not just plow right up to the main baddie and kill him at the beginning. In any case, a lot of games suffer from a strangely shaped difficulty curve. The game starts out fairly easy as the player learns the ropes, then the enemies get harder. Finally, you max out your stats and the game begins to get easier again.

Granted, the best games suffer from this less, but a lot of games have trouble with this type of power creep. Spore is a prime example of a ridiculously easy endgame (the space stage was essentially a sandbox). Some developers solve this by making enemies more powerful as the player progresses. This can work in games where, for instance, the enemy starts to realize just how much of a threat you are. In open-world games like Skyrim, though, this makes little sense.

Yahtzee, of Zero Punctuation, mentioned in one of his Extra Punctuation an inkling of an idea for a game that is designed with this problem in mind. I have taken the liberty of gripping the nebulous concept by the horns and fleshing it out.

The game is based around the power suit you wear. It is a magnificent piece of High Technology. Unfortunately, this means that nobody is quite sure how it works. The machining of the piece is much too fine to replicate, in any case, which means any replacement parts have to come from other pieces of High Technology, which are few and far between.

At the start of the game you escape from the main fortress of the Bad Guys with some sort of Valuable Item (perhaps information). You raid the armory and steal the suit before plunging yourself deep into the wilderness around the citadel. You spend the game running from a cadre of pursuers, trying to make your way to the border. At every encounter with an enemy, it is up to you to protect your suit as much. Each blow is physically simulated and, depending on where you place armor, where the hit was, how hard it was, etc. a component on your suit has the potential of breaking. Parts also wear down over time.

The most critical part of the game is deciding how to keep your suit in working order. Some systems are critical, like the pneumatics that let you move (damage to arm parts may impair aiming speed, damage to legs may reduce speed or jump height, etc), and some are dispensable, like weapons. If a critical system receives a hit and becomes in critical danger of breaking down, you have to stop and either fix it with any spare parts you find, or scrap a non-critical system on your suit to get the essential parts.

This meta-game with the suit solves the problem of power creep. You are at maximum power at the beginning, but enemies are also at the greatest density. Slogging through the wilderness and fighting enemies wears your suit down, so by the end you are barely limping along. As time goes on, you have to choose which weapon or system to scrap for parts. This means that you get a sample of all abilities at the beginning, and can keep the ones that best suit your play style. One of Bioshock’s biggest problems was that there was no incentive to try new plasmids. I’m sure the majority of players just improved the starting set, because buying new powers was too much of a liability.

I like the idea of having the game being mostly free-world. You can choose the best path through the different types of terrain to avoid encounters. Cold environments, wet environments, and sandy environments all have different types of wear and tear on the suit. Roads are easy to traverse (meaning less food consumption and lower likelihood of suit failure) but are more likely to find troops on them. Towns and other population centers are more likely to hold supplies (food and maintenance items are critical for survival) and spare parts, but the citizens will raise the alarm if they see you, and there are likely to be troops in towns.

The catch is that any alarms you raise will alert the search parties to your general presence and means a higher chance of encountering troops. Same goes for any military engagements in which an enemy scout or survivor escapes. The game is part stealth (avoiding conflict), part tactics(managing the suit, choosing your world route), part combat (winning conflicts you get into). At the end, instead of a boss fight, you have a final battle at the border of the kingdom as the search parties converge on your position and a friendly militia comes down from the other side of the border to help you across.

The Future of the Source Engine

Valve’s Source and GoldenSource engines and Epic’s Unreal engines have had a long, acrimonious feud. Both Golden Source and the Unreal Engine debuted in 1998 in Half Life and Unreal, respectively. Both were considered revolutionary games at the time. Unreal blew technical and graphical expectations out of the water. Half Life left a legacy as one of the most influential games in the FPS genre.

Unreal Engine screenshot Unreal Engine screenshot
i2Zan0DmFkTfy Golden Source screenshot

Fast forward 6 years. Valve, in the meantime, has released Team Fortress Classic and Counterstrike, both extremely revolutionary games. The Unreal and Unreal 2 engines (the latter was released 2 years prior) had become extremely popular platforms for game developers, mostly because of the engines’ notable modularity and room for modification.

In 2004, Valve debuts the Source engine with Half Life 2, a ground breaking game that completely demolishes competition and sets a long-lasting legacy in terms of story, gameplay, and graphics. For comparison, Unreal Tournament 2004 was published the same year.

Unreal Engine 2 screenshot Source screenshot

In another 7 years, Unreal Engine 3 has been released and games like Gears of War and Batman: Arkham City have been developed using it. Valve has just published their first widely supported game, Portal 2. The Source engine has been evolved over the years, and many graphical upgrades have been applied along with compatibility with major game consoles.

Batman: AC screenshot
screenshot-2

However, it becomes readily apparent that the visual styles of these two engines have diverged in the years since 1998. The Unreal line of engines have supported games like Bioshock and Mass Effect, but have also bourn the brunt of AAA games. Such games are known for their muted brown-grey color pallete, uninteresting story, and factory-made gameplay. Unreal Engine games are commonly criticized for having character models that look “plastic” (a result of game developers setting specular too high on materials), awkward character animations, and overuse of lens flares and bloom.

Games on the Source engine, on the other hand, consistently revolutionize some aspect of gaming. For example, Team Fortress 2, Portal, and Left 4 Dead are widely known for innovative gameplay. Unfortunately, Valve has lagged behind in terms of pushing the graphical frontier. Half Life 2 was smashingly good for its time, much in the same way that Halo stunned the gaming world back in 2001. However, every Source game since its debut has looked more and more aged.

Even worse, developers are driven away from using the Source engine due to a set of tools that have barely evolved since they were developed in 1998. Hammer, the level creation program, and Face Poser, the character animation blender, are unwieldy and unfinished; Source SDK tools are notorious for their bugs and frequent crashes.

Conversely, the Unreal toolset is streamlined and easy to jump into. This appeal has drawn more and more amateurs and professional developers alike. The editor allows you to pop right into the game to see changes, whereas the Source engine still requires maps to be compiled (which can take minutes) in order for the most recent revision to be played. Unreal’s deformable meshes dwarf the Source engine’s awkward displacement system.

However, I have a feeling that a couple of factors are going to come together and boost both engines out of the recent stigma they have incurred. The biggest factor is that at some point the AAA game industry is going to collapse. The other critical event is Half Life 3.

Yes! Do I know something you don’t? Have I heard a rumor lurking the Internet about this mysterious game? No. But I do know history. And that is more useful than all the forum threads in the universe.

Half Life was released in 1998. Half Life 2 was released in 2004. Episode 2 was released in 2007. Half Life 2 took 6 years to develop, despite being on a side burner for some of that time. By extrapolation, Half Life 3 should be nearing release in the next 2 years. However, circumstances are different.

The Source engine was developed FOR Half Life 2. Graphics were updated. But the toolset remained the same. In the time between HL2 and now, Valve has been exploring other genres. Team Fortress 2, Portal 2, and Left 4 Dead 2 all took a portion of the company’s resources. In addition, that last few years have been spent intensively on developing Dota 2 (which, by the way, was the cause of the free release of Alien Swarm). The second Counterstrike was contracted out. So Half Life 3 has been a side project, no doubt going through constant revisions and new directions.

However, unless Valve is going to release Day of Defeat 2 or Ricochet 2 (yeah right) in 2013, production on Half Life 3 is going to kick into high gear. There is one fact that drives me to believe even more heavily in this theory.

Since 2011, and probably even earlier, Valve has been pumping a huge amount of effort into redesigning their entire suite of development tools. It had become readily apparent to everyone at the company that the outdated tools were making it impossible to develop games efficiently.

“Oh yeah, we’re spending a tremendous amount of time on tools right now. So, our current tools are… very painful, so we probably are spending more time on tools development now than anything else and when we’re ready to ship those I think everybody’s life will get a lot better. Just way too hard to develop content right now, both for ourselves and for third-parties so we’re going to make enormously easier and simplify that process a lot.”
-Gabe Newell

Because both TF2 and Portal 2 have been supported continuously since their release, they have been the first to see the effects of this new tool development. Valve seems to have used these games as testing grounds, not only for their Free to Play business model and Steam Workshop concept, but also for new kinds of development tools. First, the Portal 2 Puzzle Maker changed the way that maps were made. In the same way that Python streamlines the programming process, the Puzzle Maker cuts out the tedious technical parts of making a level.

The second tool released was the Source Filmmaker. Although it doesn’t directly influence the way maps are made, its obviously been the subject of a lot of thought and development. The new ways of thinking about animation and time introduced by the SFM are probably indicative of the morphing paradigms in the tool development section at Valve.

Don’t think that Valve is going to be trampled by any of its competitors. Despite Unreal Engine’s public edge over the Source engine, especially with the recent UE4 reveal, the AAA game industry is sick, and no other publisher has a grip on the PC game market quite like Valve does. And although 90% of PC gamers pirate games, PC game sales are hardly smarting. In fact, the PC game market is hugely profitable, racking up $19 billion in 2011. This is just a few billion shy of the collective profits of the entire console market. Yet the next best thing to Steam is, laughably, EA’s wheezing digital content delivery system Origin.

Numbers Source

Anyways, here’s hoping for Half Life 3 and a shiny new set of developer tools!

%d bloggers like this: