Thursday, July 21, 2016

Room-scale VR cripples games: Concrete examples

I wrote earlier why I think room-scale VR cripples games. I alluded to gameplay mechanics that become completely infeasible in room-scale VR, and need to either be heavily dumbed down, or can't be used at all.

I think that the new Doom (2016) demonstrates extremely well the type of game mechanics, and gameplay design, that's completely unsuitable for room-scale VR.

The new Doom is a real homage to the original Doom from 1993. While it's a heavily modern game, in terms of visuals, gameplay, monster design, difficulty balancing and so on, it still retains that hectic brainless pure shooting action and over the top violence that was so prevalent in first-person shooters of the mid-90's.

Although that's not completely correct: It's not completely brainless. In fact, it has quite some tactical depth to it. Most fights, especially against large hordes of monsters, are really difficult. But it's not fake difficulty just for the sake of it. Instead, you need to be tactical to overcome these fights.

Most importantly, you need to keep moving! If you just stay still in one place, or move slowly, that's a sure way of getting killed. You have to run. Constantly. Fast. You have to move from place to place, you have to jump from and to platforms. You have to climb platforms. You need to constantly dodge fireballs thrown at you at high speeds. You have to search for ammo and health, or else you'll quite quickly run out of them. You need to glory-kill monsters to get health and ammo. If there are too many enemies, you have to retreat and run away from them. In fact, many of the levels, where huge fights happen, are pretty much reminiscent of arena-style multiplayer levels. And you need to take full advantage of this level design, if you want to win the battle.

You really need to play the game in order to understand how hectic it can be, and how important tactical fighting is, how important moving fast is. If you don't move, you are pretty much dead. There is no way to win those fights while standing still.

Needless to say, all of this goes down the drain, if this were to be implemented in room-scale VR. All of it. The game would need to be designed for an effectively immobile player, who is just standing still like a buffoon, shooting around. Enemies would need to be dumbed down, and the difficulty level would need to be toned way, way down. The same game mechanics, and fight design, would simply not work. Instead, a completely crippled, simplistic version would need to be implemented, with basically nothing that makes the game so hectic and enjoyable.

This actually reminds me of how first-person shooters, and many third-person shooters, for the PlayStation Portable have clearly toned down difficulty and dumbed-down enemies, because the controls of the PSP are just horrendous for this kind of game. While the reason for needing do do this is different (with the PSP controls it's really, really hard to aim at anything quickly and accurately), the end result feels really similar: The game needs to be crippled because of a limitation of the control system.

Consider another, a bit older game: Mirror's Edge.

When this game was first published, it was quite unique and somewhat revolutionary. The level of immersion was almost unprecedented. A combination of somewhat abstract yet hyper-realistic graphics, parkour, and the camera simulating the head movements of the playable character as she runs, jumps over obstacles, slides under them and so on, gave a level of immersion that had seldom, if ever, seen before in a video game. While probably not the first parkour game from first-person perspective, it certainly took the genre to a completely new level, and was a trend-setter.

Yet, once again, try to imagine this in room-scale VR. Well, it's just impossible. The format just can't support this. As a sit-down VR experience it's perfectly possible (and there are third-party drivers that make it actually possible, given that the developers themselves have refused to add support), but not as room-scale VR. It's just a physical impossibility. It can't be done.

There exists at least one room-scale VR game that somewhat attempts approaching this, with a climbing mechanic, but it's essentially a highly crippled version of what a game like Mirror's Edge does, in terms of gameplay and game mechanics. It's slow and awkward. The speed, the thrills, the high jumps, the fast maneuvering around, over and under obstacles, the sliding... none of that is there. Because it's just not possible.

In all possible examples that one can think of, there's a common theme: Movement. The most quintessential game mechanic of video games, that has existed from the very beginning, and which importance and significance got only boosted when real-time 3D games became possible. If you can't move, you have a highly crippled game (with the exception of vehicle simulators, where it's the vehicle you are sitting in that moves, rather than you as a playable character).

And that's the problem with room-scale VR: It removes movement as a game mechanic. And by this I mean movement over even moderate distances. Sure, you can move like two or three meters within a highly confined area, assuming you have that kind of free space in your room, but that doesn't really make much of gameplay (especially since the movement is at a slow walking speed due to physical necessity.) Anything more than that, or any kind of faster or fancier movement (such as parkour) is just impossible. It just sucks all the fun out of the game. It makes it boring.

The only game genre I can think of that's ok with this limitation is golf. But other than that... meh.

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