Sunday, August 7, 2016

Why am I so obsessed with VR?

I have been writing blog post after blog post about how disappointed I am in VR, and how much it sucks. I don't seem to get enough of it, and just let it be. You  might ask why.

The reason is pretty simple: This often happens when I'm really, really excited about something, anxiously waiting for it, or actively participating in it, and then it turns out to be a complete let-down, a complete disappointment. In other words, when my utter excitement turns into utter disappointment. It can be amazingly frustrating.

When plans for the Oculus Rift were first announced over three years ago, it really picked my curiosity. I was slightly skeptical at first because I didn't know back then how exactly the technology would work, and how it would be possible.

However, once I learned the technical details of how a VR headset works, and especially after I got to try the first Oculus Rift Development Kit, I got really excited about VR. The DK1 is, of course, extremely primitive compared to the final product (the resolution is very small, and the head-tracking is much more primitive, only tracking head orientation but not position) but it was still an excellent demonstration of the potential. A sneak peek at what VR will eventually be like.

I could just imagine how it would look like to play my all-time favorite games with a VR headset. It would be like being right there in the game. Not just the world of the game projected onto a flat screen, but I would literally be inside the game, with everything looking real and actually three-dimensional, with me able to look around freely, and examine everything up close, like it were a real object.

I could just imagine playing eg. Portal 2, Mirror's Edge and Skyrim with a VR headset, in stereo vision and head-tracking. It would be simply amazing. It would be like being in the world of the game, with everything surrounding me and looking actually three-dimensional, like the real world.

A year passed. Then another. Then another. It felt like the OR would never be released. I played new games, like Alien: Isolation, and could only imagine what it would be like to play them in VR. I semi-regularly followed the lists of games with planned VR support. While these lists were a bit worryingly short, they showed some promise. Half-Life 2 was there, Mirror's Edge was there, Alien Isolation was there, the upcoming Doom remake was there... all with existing, partial or planned support. I would have liked to see a lot more of my favorite games, but it wasn't a bad start.

I really planned to buy a VR headset almost immediately when they came out, although I was waiting to see what their launch prices would be. I think that at some point I read somewhere a rumor that the launch prices would possibly be in the 400-500€ range. That was a bit worrying for me because it would be a tad expensive, and I wasn't sure I could afford it. But since those would be just launch prices, perhaps they would come down soon after. I would also have to wait to see that games actually supported it before buying.

But disregarding that unconfirmed rumor, if we were to estimate my excitement about VR at this point, let's say it was 100%. I was really anxious to get my hands on it.

Then they launched. The launch price of the Oculus rift was 750€. The launch price of the HTC Vive was 900€.

This was the first let-down. Yes, sure, it's just a question of money, and that doesn't mean they aren't everything I expected them to be, but it was a let-down because it meant I wouldn't be buying either one any time soon. Probably not for years to come. Even if every single game in existence had VR support and it would be everything I dreamed of, that price... it's just pretty much out of my budget range. Maybe in a few years, if the price comes down a bit... But after anxiously waiting for over three years, the prospect of having to wait for a couple of years more wasn't really exhilarating.

Let's say my excitement level dropped to about 80%. The launch price was really a killer for me.

Then I started noticing a worrying trend in the whole VR scene. Remember those game lists with planned VR support? Well, game after game was being marked as "cancelled", and "abandoned". The new Doom? Forget about it. Mirror's Edge? Cancelled. Alien Isolation? Abandoned. And the list went on. Game after game, no VR support.

The launch title library for the Oculus Rift was rather pityable. The only existing game that was part of the launch was The Vanishing of Ethan Carter, and even that's just a walking simulator. It looks great, but it's not one of those games I was anxiously waiting to play in VR.

As for the launch lineup for the Vive... What launch lineup? There was like a couple of tech demos, and that's about it.

With all the cancellations of VR support in existing games, my excitement level started dropping like a lead balloon. Let's say it was at 60% at this point. I still had hope, though, because it was just a technology in its infancy.

Then I started reading articles and following discussions in VR forums. I had noticed that Valve was promoting the HTC Vive for "room scale VR". Moreover, they seemed to be promoting it only for that. There were entire promotional videos where no sit-down VR was showcased at all. (In fact, I don't remember a single promotional video from Valve where the Vive is being shown with a sit-down VR game. Every single one was a "room-scale VR" game.) I was interested in reading about this.

It turned out that according to Valve, VR "doesn't work" in traditional games, and that "room-scale VR" is, apparently, the only way to play VR games. With "doesn't work" what they mean is that many people get nausea in sit-down VR games that are controlled with keyboard+mouse or a gamepad.

I had always expected the nausea thing, from the very start. But I had also expected that one gets used to it. Searching for videos of people playing traditional first-person shooters with a VR headset confirmed this: You really can get used to it. Many of these people could play such games without any problems.

But slowly and surely, article after article, forum post after forum post, it became clear that the gaming industry seemed to have taken this as gospel. VR "doesn't work" in traditional games, because of the nausea problem, and thus they wouldn't be either adding VR support to any of their existing games, or even to any new games of the traditional genres.

This means that I would never, ever get to experience my all-time favorite games in VR, as I had been expecting for so long and with so much excitement. At least not from the original developers. (There are third-party drivers that allow a limited VR playing experience with some games, but compatibility is limited and sometimes glitchy. There's only so much that can be done from outside of the game.)

So what kind of games do "work" in VR, then? Apparently gallery shooters (where you just stand still, shooting around), and Myst-like games, where you stand still, looking around, and "teleport" from place to place. On the OR side you are limited almost exclusively to vehicle simulators, and some third-person perspective games (where the camera stays mostly still). Basically anything where you just stand still looking at something. In other words, basically anything where you don't move, except a few steps. Oh, the joy.

My excitement for VR started plummeting. It's like 1% now.

And it's amazingly frustrating. I had so much hope and so much excitement for VR, but I'm probably not going to ever experience it. The devices are way too expensive for a gimmick (at least for years to come), and game developers are refusing to add support. At this moment VR looks like a complete failure. As they say, it "doesn't work".

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