The Evolution Of Virtual Reality Games | 2016 to 2020

 

It’s been four years since consumer headsets like the vibe, rift and PlayStation VR released and in those four years we've seen developers really start to get to grips with VR game development. Over the past six months, especially on pc it feels like we've moved on to a new generation of VR gaming. I’m going to break things down into four categories to see how far things have come:-

  •  Graphics
  •  Interaction
  •  Playtime
  •  Movement 

Graphics:-

VR games are always going to be a step down in graphical fidelity over their non-VR counterparts and this is simply down to the amount of power that’s required to run them. You've got to render the image twice one per eye and you've got to run at higher refresh rates to avoid making people nauseous. This means that the majority of developers’ especially smaller indie developers choose to go with some lower poly art style and less power hungry baked in lighting. That doesn't mean VR games have to look shit some games still look great like “I expect you to die” or “Arizona sunshine”. But watching someone play them on a flat screen isn't going to impress anyone and make them want to jump out and buy a headset. There were some early outliers with “the climb”, a launch title with the oculus rift having some of the best visuals today.

"Batman arkham VR" was another great launch title for the PlayStation VR which has some incredible looking character models and environments. It also got one of the best endings of any video game I’ve ever played. These were the games that were funded by oculus and Sony and over the years the best looking games have generally always been exclusives. Games like” lone echo”, “Arktica.1” on the rift and games like “astro bot” and “far point” on the PlayStation VR

Another way we've seen some great looking games to come to virtual reality has been through ports or existing games getting a VR mode added. “Resident evil 7” and “wiper omega” collection has VR support on the PlayStation VR you've got “hellblade senua sacrifice” and “subnautica” which have VR support on pc. You’ve also got games like “project cars 2” which have full VR support along with many flight simulators. One of the best looking VR games I’ve seen is the “vanishing of ethan carter” on pc. This game uses photogrammetry how some of the most photo realistic environments you're gonna find in any game if you're playing VR on pc. You also have the benefit of mods with games like “alien isolation” and “grand theft auto 5” which are fully playable in virtual reality and look great.

There are a few examples of great looking VR games that aren’t exclusives, ports or mods “transference” published by ubisoft has some of the best lighting and visuals of any VR game. “Seeking dawn” is another example of a VR game made by smaller studio with some stunning scenery “westworld awakening” released last year and looks fantastic but when it comes to visuals we've seen a couple of standout games released over the last few months. “asgard's wrath” an oculus exclusive released at the end of last year and at the time it was the best looking VR game today. Then “half-life alyx” happened and it set a new benchmark in what was capable visually with the current hardware we have right now.

Visuals are obviously subjective and some people rank them higher than others. Personally I like a game to look good, I struggle to really get into a VR game that's got basic visuals unless the gameplay is really good like “Superhot VR” for example. With the PlayStation 5 on the horizon and hopefully Sony’s continued support for virtual reality I think when we look back in another four years’ time we will see some games that simply blow us away visually. 

Interaction:-

This is how you're able to actually interact with the virtual world and all the items that are in it. One thing that valve commented on when developing “half-life alyx” it was when they play-tested the game people were spent far more time in each area than expected. They examined everything and they tried to pick everything up. There’s something built inside us that when we go into virtual reality we turn into toddlers picking shit up and throwing it everywhere. So how it feels to pick something up and how the item interacts with other items is very important. One of the launch titles that did this well was “job simulator” which had you positioned in workstations performing tasks. Almost everything you see around you can be picked up letting you go crazy but most VR games up until recently would have lots of static objects which couldn't be picked up. Your hands would simply go through environments breaking immersion and leaving you disappointed.

There were some exceptions like “lone echo”, which used physics to have objects collide together and grabbing the environment was an essential part of how you move around the world which I’ll come back to more later. But recently we're seeing more and more developers use physics to impact how you interact with things in the world. “Blade and sorcery” was one of the first to really make a name for itself with a full physics combat system and more recently “bombworks” has pushed things even further with everything being a physics-based object you can manipulate including your own body. The “walking dead saints and sinners” and “half-life alyx” are two other stand-out games and all of these released within the last few months.

It’s becoming the standard for what people expect from VR games when a game releases that lets you put your hand through a wall or a desk people are disappointed. 

Playtime:-

One of the big criticisms of VR games is that they end up being too short. Back in the early days we had a lot of games that felt like tech demos and were over way too quickly. That’s definitely changing with time though and with a recent shift as virtual reality gains traction towards the end of the year we saw a lot of longer game like “asgard's wrath” which took me over 25 hours to play through and that doesn't include any of the side quests. “boneworks” which took me eight hours to play through the main story and i've put over 15 hours in the game in total with all the extra modes included in the game.

The “walking dead saints and sinners” which released at the beginning of the year took me about 12 hours to finish and we're going to be getting a new horde mode giving us more content to play. “Half-life alyx” released in march and which took me 15 hours to play through and with all the recent high quality custom levels we've been getting from the community I’ve now got over 20 hours in the  game and we're going to see more and more great mods and levels in the future.

This doesn't include multiplayer games like “pavlov” or “onward” or racing and flight games like “assetto corsa”, “dcs” or “elite dangerous”. Ports of games also have massive play time like “skyrim”, “borderlands 2”, “subnautica” and “the forest”. We’re still getting mostly smaller indie titles but it's getting better and better and as long as the game is priced right I don't personally mind a smaller shorter game as long as it's good. 

Movement:-

If there's one thing that puts people off virtual reality more than anything it's the fear of getting sick. In the early days most games use some form of teleportation movement. so you pick where you want to go and then you instantly move to the new location. It works, People don't get sick but personally I don't like it. Some people don't get motion sick at all I did personally at first but after repeated exposure I got over it and I believe that 99% of people can get over that as well. You’ve got to keep playing with smooth locomotion even if it's just for 10 minute sessions at a time.

Teleporting around isn't the only way to play and we've seen developers play with many different methods a psVR launch title “until dawn: rush of blood” is an on the rail shooter with you sat going down in a roller coaster shooting targets and enemies on the way. Despite the fact that you are still moving the developers did a good job to not make it too extreme with slow movement and minimal acceleration you play seated which also helps and overall few people complain of getting sick with this game.


“Budget cuts” was an early demo that turned into a full game that showcased an interesting teleport system. You've got a teleport gun that lets you fire an orb, you then get a window that lets you see where you're about to teleport to. You can then choose to cancel it or move to that location. Node based teleport has been used in several games like one which has predetermined locations you can choose from allowing you to move to new vantage points to get new cover and reposition to avoid fire or get a good angle on an enemy.


“Onward” was one of the first games to allow people to use free movement just like a traditional non-VR game. You use your thumb stick or touchpad to move yourself forwards backwards and strafe left and right. This type of movements become the standard for most VR games now with some like the “walking dead saints and sinners” only allowing this type of free movement. Some other methods include “lone echo” which sees you in a zero gravity environment to move around you simply grab the environment and push yourself off you then float until you hit something or you grab something else. 

We’ve also seen some arm swinging type movement found in games like “sprint vector” this is where you press a button and then you swing down your arm to move forward. You alternate between each arm like you're sprinting and you can move at some really fast speeds without getting any feeling of nausea or sickness. When it comes to movement we're still seeing developers experiment with different methods and it's possible we may even see some sort of hardware innovation that stops people from getting motion sick. Until then I think traditional stick movement will be the preferred choice for most.

A game called “silicon rising” which when launched had no base teleport movement. After many messages asking for smooth locomotion the developer reworked the AI, redid the levels and updated the game with free movement and it's completely transformed it. So depending on the movement options developers choose can make or break a game for some people. I think VR gaming both with hardware and software has really come a long way over the last four years and i expect we'll see similar advances in another four years. Virtual reality may never completely replace traditional gaming but many people like myself struggle to enjoy non-VR games because the way VR changes them, feels such a natural evolution for the medium that it's hard to go back.



 

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