First impression in a room full of people playing virtual reality games: these people look goofy, and the games they're playing look dull. Then you put on the headset. With the headset on, wow, some of them are so impressive! This is how it is with VR, and let's not pretend otherwise. These games do not show well unless you're playing them. Any apathy you have is completely reasonable, and if you're a bystander you may be wondering if VR is just more manufactured hype like 3D TVs a few years ago.
The difference between watching a VR game on a monitor or in a trailer and actually playing it is often astounding. If you watch a trailer for a VR game or watch a live VR session as its graphics are output to a TV for spectators, you might as well be looking at a postcard for the Grand Canyon and not quite understanding how incredible it is to be there.
At a PlayStation VR event yesterday, I experienced the disparity myself. I was in a room full of people in goggles all looking like Stevie Wonder as they swayed and bobbed their heads while playing VR games that just didn't look all that cool in the monitors around them. Those monitors were supposed to be showing the rest of us what the VR gamers were seeing, but a monitor can't really do that.
I asked someone there to point me to a good VR demo, and they recommended I try the VR version of the old Atari tank combat game Battlezone. Another reporter was busy playing, so I watched an output of his VR feed on a monitor. It didn't look that good. It looked like what you see in this trailer here:
Update: The video has since been made private.
I was talking to one of the developers, being polite, expressing my curiosity. He was assuring me that usually Rebellion turns their games up to 11 but that in VR you need to turn them down to seven to avoid sensory overload. The problem is that then the games look like sevens on the TV. The journalist ahead of me finished his session, I put the headset on and — holy shit — it does indeed look like an 11 when you're inside it.
The problem is that I can't show you VR. I can't show you how much more impressive it is to have the real world blotted out of your vision and to have an entire hangar full of Tron-looking tanks around you. If you watch the trailer, you can sort of tell that the player is sitting in a large cockpit, but that's not the same as seeing a sprawling set of displays extending what seem like a couple of metres beyond you.
I can only use words to convey how neat it is to drive out into combat and look up through the glass canopy of my virtual tank and see enemies fighters flying above me. Forget the Grand Canyon metaphor. For those of you who haven't tried VR, it'd be like trying to describe what it look like to be behind the wheel of a car if the only thing you'd ever seen were videos of cars. Trust me, I'd say. It's cooler when you're inside one.
RIGS in action, as seen in a December PlayStation hype video.
I was even more impressed with a three-on-three VR sports game called RIGS, which, apologies if I haven't bored you with that description already. I'm not big on sports games myself, but I am big on this one, now that I've virtually stood some 4m off the virtual ground while wearing a heavily-armed virtual mech suit.
You're in a three-dimensional arena, shooting members of the other team and collecting orbs to charge yourself up, and then you run up one of the ramps in the centre of the arena and slam dunk yourself through a huge horizontal hoop.
Please trust me that slam dunking yourself while wearing a towering mech suit looks cool in VR. It just doesn't look that cool in trailers.
Here at the 2016 Game Developers Conference, VR is a hot topic. Heck, it's probably the hot topic. VR panels have extremely long lines. The conference has had to move VR-centric talks to larger rooms to accommodate the massive crowds.
Clearly there's money behind all this. Sony is betting on VR. Facebook, via Oculus, is betting on VR. Valve and HTC are betting on VR. Samsung, AMD and plenty of others are getting in on the game too. And, yeah, it's entirely possible that this is the 3D TV all over again, or maybe is the Wii and Kinect all over again. Maybe this is some imperfect tech that is exciting in small doses but can't sustain long, satisfying games.
When I'm talking about VR with people who work at game companies, they are surprised when I tell them that VR stories do badly on our site. People don't click.
Any reporter I talk to, though, knows the score. VR = traffic death. Readers don't care.
Well, readers, I don't blame you. No matter how wildly VR trailers zoom the camera into a VR headset, no matter how hard they try to recreate the experience in 2D, in the end you're just seeing a regular old game trailer. You're seeing a bunch of games that look set to seven. Hopefully all these wealthy companies will make it easier for more people to try VR goggles later this year, and more people will be able to find out which games play at 11.