Warren Spector says virtual reality will be a fad, "at best a minor part of gaming's future". Far be it from me to question the director of Deus Ex on, well, anything. But I'm not sure it matters whether VR is a fad. Motion controls were a fad, yet that fad drove the sales of 100 million Wii consoles.
If virtual reality is a fad, it's still going to be an amazing, wonderful fad. I suspect millions of head-mounted displays will be bought next year by people eager to check out the Oculus Rift, Sony's Morpheus, HTC's Vive, and Samsung's Gear VR. The technology easily passes the low, gee-whiz, early-adopter bar of "I would like to buy this and show it off to my neighbours." I've been trying on these headsets for more than two years, and I'm keen to have one at home.
And, yes, it's certainly true that you will do more than play games in virtual reality. Games are only a minor part of the time we spend with our televisions, phones, tablets and computers, too! We still play games on them. Every screen in our lives is used to play games, and also to do other stuff. Virtual reality will be no different.
What kind of games will we play? That's a good question with no good answer. Right now, the most interesting challenge for video game designers in virtual reality is, I think, navigation. (It's the one that VR designers often either struggle to answer or say/pretend that they have a secret answer they are unwilling to share.)
HTC's Vive masks VR's navigation problem by letting you walk around your living room in virtual space. But at the end of nearly every Vive demo, when I tried it at the Game Developers Conference in March, a vista would appear on the horizon, or the walls around me would fall to show me the scale of the virtual universe. Every time, I would think: How am I going to get over there?
I played more than a dozen virtual reality demos and prototypes at E3 last week. In at least one, I was immobile: As a hockey goalie in VR Sports Challenge for Oculus, I clicked the left bumper on a gamepad to attempt to save a shot on my left side; I clicked the right bumper for the opposite. In others, like the promising puzzle game Superhypercube for Morpheus, I was a disembodied presence.
But most of the time, I had a body and it moved. Here are some of the creative ways that designers allowed me to get around in VR:
In the passenger seat of a car. On rails, in the London Heist: The Getaway demo for Sony's Project Morpheus.
In a mech. In RIGS: Mechanised Combat League for Morpheus.
In a tank. In the reboot of Atari's Battlezone by the Sniper Elite studio Rebellion.
In a submersible. In Time Machine, a dinosaur exploration mystery from Minority Media.
On a physical bicycle that was a virtual horse. In VirZoom's demo.
On a flying carpet. In Bazaar, a prototype for the Gear VR. (It was on rails, but you had to move your head to turn.)
In a wheelchair pushed by a computer-controlled character. In Starbreeze's Walking Dead demo, which used the company's proprietary headset to give players a wider field of view than is possible with the Rift or Morpheus.
On a rope line. In Back to Dinosaur Island 2, a prototype for Crytek's Robinson: The Journey, I used the triggers on a gamepad to simulate the clenching of my virtual hands, and the left stick to control the speed of a rope as it ascended the face of a cliff.
On wings. In Ubisoft's Eagle Flight demo, I controlled a fast-moving raptor — in first person — by moving my head to look in the direction I wanted to fly, and tilting it to one side or the other to make sharp turns.
On a gurney. The Assembly, an adventure game for virtual reality by the British developer nDreams, begins on rails. The player is given the first-person perspective of Madeline Stone, a behavioural psychologist, who is strapped to a gurney and carted into a mysterious compound beneath the Nevada desert. I found the experience entirely comfortable.
On foot. The next two levels of The Assembly, however, allowed me to move either Stone or Hal Pierson, an Assembly scientist in a laboratory, with the left thumbstick. I didn't feel like I was going to throw up, but moving too fast or turning too quickly made me sweaty and a little queasy. (On one or two occasions I have felt the same way when playing a first-person game on a television or computer screen, most recently during Alien: Isolation.)
One way to mitigate this unpleasant sensation is to slow the player's movement with a spacesuit (Adr1ft) or an underwater suit (Narcosis), making the avatar's motion feel more like that of a vehicle than a body.
Another surprisingly effective option is to abandon the first-person viewpoint. At least two Oculus games — Lucky's Tale and Edge of Nowhere — use a third-person perspective. The player can still look around to see the scale and depth of the world, but disconnecting your avatar from your eyes somehow makes movement less unsettling. The most comfortable methods I have used to find my own way through VR spaces are in vehicles (whether cars, planes, or mechs), in bodysuits that made my avatars float and drift like vehicles, and in third person.
Removing navigation from VR — as the Walking Dead and London Heist: The Getaway demos did — can make the experience extremely comfortable. Using your gaze to create movement in an otherwise on-rails experience is also very effective, and at its best (in Ubisoft's Eagle Flight demo), you forget that your forward movement is on autopilot. Eye-tracking technology, of the kind used in Fove's prototype headset, is almost certain to improve gaze-directed navigation, which already works very well.
Players want to interact with virtual spaces, and they want to explore them — not just look at them or hurtle through them. It's hard to imagine that players will be satisfied in the long run with VR games that always put them on rails, or in a cockpit (like the fantastic EVE: Valkyrie), or motionless in a chair (like Epic's Couch Knights demo).
The slow-moving rope lines that the player uses to ascend a cliff in Crytek's Back to Dinosaur Island 2 may have been the most inventive solution for this dilemma, giving the player a first-person viewpoint and limited control of movement within the space. Still, at the end of the demo, I stood atop a cliff, looking at dinosaurs on a plain in front of me and wondered: What now?