Virtual reality was a big deal at this year’s E3 video game expo in Los Angeles. Oculus was there showing off the latest build of its Rift headset, Sony revealed a new multiplayer shooter demo for the Project Morpheus, and Microsoft announced a partnership with Valve, seeking to make Windows 10 the software platform for the HTC Vive as well as all other PC-based VR devices. It also brought the “mixed reality” device Hololens along for the ride. There was much excitement.
But what do the mainstream games publishers really think about this new era of immersive technology? The spectre hanging over the whole industry right now is that, behind all the hype, very few VR or AR headsets have actually been sold to the public. The only commercially available mainstream products right now are Android phone extensions like the Samsung Gear VR and Zeiss VR One; Google ditched its Glasses project this year. The first big player to get a launch is likely to be the brilliant HTC Vive this winter, but it’s going to require an ultra high-end PC, limiting its user base – at least at first – to enthusiasts.
And then, of course, there’s the whole problem of, well, what are people going to want from a VR application? At the well-attened South West VR conference this year, many of the talks and discussions were based around this question. Is it going to be about epic narrative games in vast virtual environments or will people want short, contained experiences with very little movement? Or some combination of both? Or neither?
Opinion is hugely divided – and the interesting discussions are going on away from the glare of the E3 press briefing. Andrew Wilson, CEO of Electronic Arts chose to speak about VR, not at E3 at all, but at the more offbeat and artsy SXSW festival, where he talked about the company’s interest in VR as a new paradigm in entertainment, but provided no details. Then, on the Sunday before E3, the Guardian was invited into a short interview slow with Nintendo America chief Reggie Fils-Aime and Activision Publishing CEO Eric Hirchberg – two of the most powerful men in mainstream gaming. We were ostensibly there to talk about the Skylanders deal between the two companies, but at the end of the session, we snuck in an extra question: what do you think about virtual reality?
The responses were a fascinating mix of evasion and corporate messaging. “Can I get out of this one?” asked Hirschberg, laughing. “I think there’s certainly a lot of energy, industry-wide, going into these things, and sometimes that popcorn pops and sometimes it doesn’t. At the end of the day, it’ll come down to the applications. We’re certainly looking at it carefully – we’re a platform agnostic company, we want to be wherever gamers are. We’ll see how it goes.”
Fils-Aime was similarly circumspect. “Is it fun?” he asked. “I think that this industry is going to continue to progress by being entertaining and creating experiences that are fun. I’ve tried a lot of the different experiences – some were fun, some less so. But at the point that it’s consistently fun, it will be a real innovation. That’s my perspective.”
Not much commitment there. By contrast, later that afternoon, in a behind-closed-doors briefing, Ubisoft revealed that it is working on a number of virtual reality projects, with its Red Storm studio set to release something in the near future. David Votypka, head of Red Storm, spoke teasingly about how the company wants to marry virtual reality gaming with social connectivity: “I’m talking about games that are specifically designed to have mechanics based around social cues, social dynamics and social interactions between players. These projects are just the beginning.”
Speaking to the Guardian a couple of days later, Ubisoft CEO, Yves Guillemot, admitted that there is uncertainty surrounding VR, but insisted that the company is on board with the tech.
“We don’t know yet whether it will be an enormous consumer success,” he says. “What I like about it is that it’s accessible, you can control it just by moving your head; that’s an interesting step. What’s also good is that you don’t have to work on $50m projects with VR, you can work on $1-2m projects and that gives us a chance to test different ideas. We’re at the beginning, but our demos have been convincing.”
Interestingly, the company is already thinking of how to apply VR tech to its major game brands. “It won’t be like the games we see today,” says Guillemot. “It will be more like the World of Far Cry or the World of Assassin’s Creed, where you go and complete specific challenges that are more adapted to VR. But yes we will try to use the worlds we have created, because we think that’s a very important asset.”
One of the demos Ubisoft showed at E3 was a VR version of the moment in Far Cry 3 when crazed antagonist Vaas explains his definition of insanity to bound and gagged lead character, Jason Brody. Viewed through Brody’s eyes it’s a weirdly intimidating experience, capturing the emotional essence of immersive theatre productions, and the scenario – you’re tied to a chair – provides a plausible limiter to the player’s movements – which is going to be a key element in VR because you don’t want people running into walls or furniture. So is this the future of VR gaming? Very intense, controlled cinematic moments with little interaction? Could this be a mass market proposition?
Ultimately, though, the key barriers could be more psychological than experiential. What few people were talking about at E3 is the uncanny physical experience of both wearing a VR helmet (the way it isolates you from your environment, but also just the way it messes up your hair) and of viewing others wearing it. There’s a sort of techno-fear, instigated perhaps by a dozen sci-fi movie visions of an oppressive, highly mechanised VR future.
David Braben, founder of Frontier Developments, has seen how VR can augment a gaming experience: Elite Dangerous works amazingly well on the Oculus Rift, giving you an immersive view of your ship’s cockpit. But he’s concerned about the future shock of head mounted displays (HMDs): “The move to VR is interesting, but very rapid,” he says. “I’m just worried that it’s going to happen too quickly, because I’m not sure we’re ready to see our own kids wearing HMDs, completely disengaged from the world. I love VR, it’s great, but there could be a backlash.”
Guillemot recognises the possibility of this kind of instinctive hardware revulsion, but he thinks its like any new technological advance: the right kind of experience will make users of us all. “If we produce experiences that are emotional and intense there will be a market,” he says. “It doesn’t matter that you have to wear something on your head, if it’s good people will do it. People will have to go through that period of discovery, but it can become mass market.”
For now, all we really have from the traditional games industry are some Project Morpheus demos put out by the likes of Capcom and Rebellion and a lot of interesting indie projects (and experimental support from bigger brands such as Elite, Dying Light and Eurotruck Simulator) on Oculus. HTC Vive and Microsoft Hololens are tech demos and promises. If there is excitement, it is yet to transform into commitment.