VR for the people – Does PSVR have the X factor VR needs?

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This is what we’ve been waiting for. The promise of VR has been hovering around us for the last few years, teasing us with the possibility of a paradigm shift in the way we play games. But while most of our attention has been focused on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, it turns out it’s actually PlayStation VR that may hold the key to unlocking virtual reality’s potential and breaking it into the mainstream. As Sony’s device finds a foothold in the world, we tested it extensively, played every launch game and sat down with key developers to see just how much of an impact Sony’s newest hardware could really have.

The first step, though, was learning what it takes to make a VR game in the first place, as developers are challenged to work on a platform that’s really like nothing else they’ve had to handle before. “Battlezone is the game I’ve probably spent the most pre-production time on in my career,” senior producer James Valls tells us as we discuss one of PSVR’s more robust releases. “The team realised very early on that many things that we took for granted from our extensive experience working on a variety of games – these things weren’t really applicable to VR. So we had to spend a lot of time re-learning the basics and tailoring the experience for VR.”

Once those lessons have been learned though, applying them across the devices appears to be a relatively straightforward undertaking. “Obviously the high-end PC is more powerful than the closed ecosystem of the PlayStation 4, but that said, the PS4 is a very capable piece of hardware,” according to nDreams’ vice president of development Tom Gillo. “It was an engineering task – we had to do some optimisation – but overall for The Assembly we stabilised a build with Unreal about six weeks out from launch.”

Andrew Willans, lead game designer on EVE: Valkyrie had a similar experience as CCP Games looked to bridge the divide between devices. “Surprisingly, from a game design perspective, it was reasonably easy, because we had to have parity across all platforms,” he explains, EVE: Valkyrie being the first VR title to offer a cross-platform experience through the Joint Strike mode. “If you’re making a competitive multiplayer shooter, it’s got to be the same game.”

Alongside this the other key priority has been optimisation of performance. Unlike with other console games, a little drop in frame-rate in a VR game can result in a pretty horrible experience for the player. “Ensuring a stable frame-rate at 60fps is a given for PSVR, so that wasn’t a technical consideration that was up for compromise, we knew we had to deliver that without question,”  says Dax Ginn, Rocksteady’s brand marketing producer, as we discuss Batman: Arkham VR. “For us, Batman: Arkham VR needed to feel like a ‘next-gen’ game so we overhauled our facial-scanning processes in order to give us much more realistic character features and facial animation. Making a full transition to Unreal Engine 4 also enabled us to increase the quality of our lighting and effects, which makes a huge difference to the visual quality of the game. We also set benchmarks in terms of gameplay interaction. It was important to us that this was not just a passive experience and that we were offering gamers genuine gameplay interactions.”

The very important question this brings up though is whether or not the PS4 and PlayStation VR are actually capable of delivering the kind of high-end VR experiences that Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have shown are possible on high-end PCs. As the cheapest device on the market, there’s an expectation that PSVR is the lesser cousin of this first gen of VR hardware.

“There’s never really been an issue,” insists Willans. “We’ve maybe needed to look at player numbers, AI numbers, just to make sure that we’re hitting the right FPS. It’s something that, to be honest, we would do from a gameplay perspective anyway. You quickly learn that when you put in a co-op mode and you’re going to fight against the AI, there’s a limit and you don’t want to go over that limit anyway, because you would get absolutely swamped.”

“One way that I’ve seen it described online is the difference between the PS2 and the original Xbox,” nDreams communications manager George Kelion tells us. “Between PlayStation VR and HTC Vive, sure there’s a difference, but not so big a difference to be a generational leap, which is a lot of what the community was expecting. And it certainly has no impact on the kind of experiences you can deliver. All of these generation one headsets are ultimately the same generation.”

And working on PS4 has some innate advantages according to Gillo. “I would say that because with PlayStation you have that fixed target, in lots of ways as a developer that’s a nice thing to have because it’s a closed ecosystem and it’s static. We started out on The Assembly with the PC version of it, but comparatively the amount of testing we would have had to do and the comparative amount of work we would have to do, it’s certainly harder on the PC.”

So it seems that PlayStation VR has its strengths and weaknesses like any other piece of hardware, so what’s really going to set it apart from the other devices out there (besides it price point) is going to be its games. We would recommend taking a look at the full launch lineup of PSVR and just trying to work out how many different genres or types of game it has to offer; it’s one of the most diverse and rich launches we can remember, offering something for so many different types of gamers. But it does have the look of a scattergun approach to game-making, so the question that rises is: what works best in VR and what doesn’t?

“The design team had to create gameplay systems from scratch after quickly realising that a lot of the mechanics that we have used for our previous Batman games did not translate into VR,” Ginn admits to us. “Our early experimentation with combat and realistic navigation proved very quickly to result in a pretty uncomfortable experience for the gamer.

“With these learnings at hand, we committed ourselves to focusing on the strengths of VR as a technology and we aimed to create games that make players feel like the World’s Greatest Detective.”

“I think the boundaries are being torn down quite quickly,” is Willans assessment. “I didn’t expect first-person shooters, free-standing, to deliver for a long time. In my head as a gamer, I was really passionate and really wanted this to happen, but will it happen? I don’t know.

“Then I played Onward (by Downpour Interactive). They’ve kind of mastered that movement within VR where you’re stood up and you use the Vive controllers to pick up your gun and you can actually put in a magazine. Everything feels very intuitive. It lacks the polish at the moment, it’s still in development and in an alpha state, but they’ve done wonders with the movement. It’s bizarre, because it’s almost like the roadie run from Gears Of War, where your shoulders leaning forward pushes you in the direction you want to go and you move with momentum. It feels very instinctive, and that kind of floored me, because I thought that we had got to this position a lot quicker than I thought we would have.”

What we have yet to see is what might be considered a triple-A title. Batman: Arkham VR has spun off from its main series and Rise Of The Tomb Raider offers a standalone experience in the form of Blood Ties, but how far away might fully fledged blockbuster games be from arriving on PSVR? “Only time will tell. However, at this early stage I don’t see any reason why VR won’t be able to support longer-duration games than we are currently seeing at launch,” says Ginn. Meanwhile, Valls wonders if triple-A might be too imprecise a term to apply to VR at the moment. “What do we mean by triple-A? Is it price? Is it genre? Is it having a campaign of ‘X’ hours? I think PSVR’s launch line up is one of the most varied of any new platform or console.”

Valls continues, “We weren’t worrying about definitions of ‘indie’ or ‘triple-A’ or anything. I think there will be room for all sorts of games in VR, maybe even experiences that are completely new.”

Which for Rise Of The Tomb Raider’s chief technology officer Gary Snethen brings up an interesting comparison. “As with smartphones and tablets, VR will open an entirely new space in the games market.”

We put this comparison to some of the other developers to see if they thought the current state of VR development was akin to game-makers mastering the intricacies of touchscreen devices and gradually moving away from forcing old genres onto a new piece of technology. “When I made a mobile game I wanted to recreate a digital pad, but without that tactile sensation there’s something that’s just never, ever working and that’s where we are in VR, hammering out what works and what doesn’t,” Willans tells us. “It is exactly like the early days of the smartphone where you’re trying to replicate what you think you know and you’re not actually embracing what the technology can deliver,” Gillo agrees. “Understandably, we’ve all been working on new hardware and learning on the job. Inevitably that first round of games is going to be good, but it will be version 2.0 and 3.0 that really come to understand the hardware, the control methodologies, and what works and what doesn’t.”

But even if these early titles will be comparatively tentative compared to what’s to come, the immersion of the VR experience means that almost everything still has some value to it that feels fresh and transportive. This is why we’re all getting so excited about VR right now; it’s a wholly new way of experiencing games and the ultimate quality of releases is almost second to that thrill. “The sense of immersion you get with a good VR experience is simply indescribable,” says Valls. “We have got to a point where we are able to create experiences that feel real to the player. This is something that was impossible not long ago.”

It’s difficult to overstate the importance of this element of VR, which does separate it from smartphones and touchscreen gaming significantly. Those devices didn’t change the way we perceived game worlds, just opened up more complex mechanics for a mobile platform. VR takes you to other worlds. The 360-degree engagement that these devices offer is unlike anything we’ve seen before, and PlayStation VR is as good as anything else available in this respect, not least because it can offer that important additional element of one-for-one motion control too through PlayStation Move controllers.

“In our minds, the core promise of VR hinges upon the idea of independent movement of each of the player’s hands,” Ginn tells us. “There were very few restrictions associated with designing for the Move controllers and we looked to capitalise on their functional potential wherever possible. One of the earliest feature implementations was the ability to pick up, hold and throw a batarang, and we were pretty amazed at how intuitive it felt using the triggers on the Move controllers.”

“I will say the other two high-end manufacturers have got the edge in terms of controller,” Gillo says. “There is no question that the Move controller is not as capable as the Touch or Vive controller. That is its limitation right now, but there are a lot of experiences that will be great with a DualShock 4.”

Considering the age of the tech though (PlayStation Move was released in 2010), the Move controllers do work rather well with VR, giving you the kind of tactile experience that helps to elevate VR scenarios to the next level. Picking up objects, wielding weapons and generally touching the virtual world is such an important tool to have in your belt for this new frontier of development.

Which brings us to the device itself. We’ve heard from our developers here that PlayStation VR isn’t quite as powerful as its competitors, but not by much. It’s still able to handle pretty much everything Oculus Rift and HTC Vive can, and thanks to the closed ecosystem of the PS4, developing for the device might actually be a little bit easier. But what about that headset? How does that hold up as a piece of consumer design? “Ergonomically, personally, it’s my favourite from a pure physical design perspective,” Gillo informs us. “Which we should expect really as Sony is up against two companies who aren’t really known for consumer hardware. Valve obviously partnered with HTC, but industrial design isn’t necessarily their powerhouse. With Sony industrial design is par for the course.”

VR for the people - Does PSVR have the X factor VR needs?

“I think that halo is more than likely to be replicated by other headsets,” adds Gillo’s colleague Kelion. “We don’t know anything about that, but it seems like a fairly obvious way to go. It looks cool as well. It looks really cool. Like it’s from Tron.” He’s absolutely right though; the design of the halo headband from which the HMD (head-mounted display) is suspended means that the weight of the device is distributed more evenly over your head and not strapped to the front of your face, weighing on your cheekbones and brow. It actually makes PSVR the most comfortable device to wear and makes extended playtimes far more practical.

It sets up PSVR nicely to take advantage of the things that make virtual reality generally so exciting. “As soon as you flip on that visor, you are involved in that world, you’re a part of it,” enthuses Willans. “So you’ll see a lot of things in Valkyrie, and in a lot of games that are successful in VR, its that the immersion starts from the minute you put that headset on.” For others, though, the real excitement is that VR is no longer an aim or promise, but reality. “From a commercial point of view, the fact that it’s all out there is pretty important,” says Gillo. “We’ve all been working for three years or more and to have all of the headsets out in the market is a really good thing. And long may that continue and may those numbers grow because that’s obviously super important for anyone who is creating content.”

“We’ve been testing these things for a while and it’s hard to get yourself back into the mindset of trying it for the first time,” admits Kelion. “I’ve given hundreds of people their first VR experience at various expos and what have you and every single time their jaw goes slack and they’re like, ‘Oh my God’. That’s where most people are.”

There’s also a sense from the developers we’ve spoken to that this is VR’s time to shine, not just because the tech is out, but because it’s entering into a media landscape that’s ready to embrace it. Ernest Cline’s novel Ready Player One was name-checked by many we spoke with as a reference to the VR experience and it was noted that a Hollywood adaptation from Steve Spielberg on the way is only likely to enhance interest. “Ready Player One is going to be a movie about an aspirational piece of tech that you can literally go out to the shop the next day and buy and take home,” Kelion points out. “That’s never happened before and I think that really will shift the needle.”

VR for the people - Does PSVR have the X factor VR needs?

So PlayStation VR is in a good spot. The timing is right for VR, it has some great games on it, the tech is nicely designed and its technical limitations are not genuine impediments to design, by all accounts. The other key is that the price point, while not cheap by any means, puts it within touching distance of a lot more of us than some of the competition. “I’m not saying it’s going to do a Wii in terms of sales, but everyone is going to have that friend with VR,” is Kelion’s assessment. “And it might be like that for the first year, that everyone has their mate who has VR, but I think it’s almost inevitable. The experience is such a jaw-dropping one. You can’t really put it into words.”

It all paints a rather enticing picture of what PlayStation VR makes possible for virtual reality and gaming going forward. “We truly are at the dawn of a new age in entertainment, and it’s only a matter of time before headsets will become wireless, resolution will increase and experiences will become even more realistic,” Valls tells us. “I’m also really looking forward to new technologies such as Ultrahaptics (using ultrasounds to give you a sense of touch in midair) that will enhance the VR experience even further.”

Willans has his sights set on something more practical in the near future. “The next mission as a designer is that we have all of these devices, how do we then create a game that tailors itself to your device, so when I’m playing on one platform it reacts and all my interactions are correct because I’m using Touch controllers or Move controllers? When I’m using a DualShock, my inputs are correct. Is there a way that we can create a game that can spot everything? A game that says if you want to be active in this world and a gamer in this world, we’re not saying you have to have these devices specifically.”

“It’s like when a new console launches, that first round of games has only just gone through that baptism of fire,” says Gillo. “When we then follow up with our second generation and third generation games, you’ll really start to see us milk that system. I’d be surprised if it isn’t the dominant platform for the next 12 to 18 months, just because of the price point.”

VR for the people - Does PSVR have the X factor VR needs?

“In real terms, the dream is massively multiplayer online games in VR and we’re not that far away from it,” suggests Kelion. “How it actually works in moment-to-moment gameplay, there are a lot of issues to be solved, but we’re not staring down the barrel of technological innovations that are preventing us from realising it.”

We don’t know about you, but the leap into this eighth generation of consoles was a little anti-climactic. We are enjoying a lot of the games, graphics look better than ever and the additional processing power seems to be going to great use, but we’ve not felt a real change in direction. Under such circumstances, we haven’t seen much real originality or innovation, but with VR, that feels as if it’s about to change.

“I’m not saying we’ve achieved everything you can do on a flat screen, but it’s much harder now to be wholly original and wholly innovative than it was 15 years ago,” Kelion agrees. “For an industry that needs a lot of novelty and a lot of innovation, VR is a massive shot in the arm.” And perhaps most importantly, he believes developers are ready and eager to take advantage of the moment. “In the last three years everyone has been thinking about today. And now we can all unclench a little and start to think about what the next three years look like.”