What works, what doesn’t, and what’s a possible future for VR Gaming
A little backstory
Every VR enthusiast has tried VR Gaming at least once, whether by having a headset at home or in a tech event. I myself had access to almost any VR game that exists on Steam, and my personal experience with it is pretty similar to everyone else’s: every time I played, it would be for 30 minutes or less, and then I’ll move on to something else on my PC. I wondered why, especially that as a gamer I am able to play for hours without paying attention to time on regular PC games.
I started speculating on the reasons behind it. Maybe it was the graphics that were extremely outdated, maybe it was the gameplay and story that were very similar across all games. It was hard to pinpoint what was wrong as I’ve only had one side of the equation to analyze the experience from: the VR games. To gain a better understanding, I needed to take the games that I’ve played for hundreds of hours as normal games into the VR world and see how does VR affect them.
“Let there be technology”
Turning any game into a VR game isn’t the easiest journey one can embark on, but I happen to have my company’s proprietary technology that turns regular video feeds into VR ones. After some adaptation work, I had an Android app that did the same, but with games instead of video, leveraging Nvidia GTX technologies.
This allowed me to turn my Razer Phone 2 into a high end VR headset for any non-VR games. I could reach 2k@120fps resolution with a latency of around 15–16ms. The phone and the light VR headset I have weighed together around 500grams, which is along the lines of what traditional VR headsets weigh, even the newer ones.
Time for tests and results
I made sure I had all my games that I loved playing throughout the years, even back from the GameCube era. I’ve also added recent games to see how far I could push this. I’m grouping the games by genres, then state what was the overall as well as specific experience when it’s relevant, what could be done to make them perfect for VR, and finally give them a Non-VR to VR score out of 10.
I’ve played racing games on and off since I was a kid, Mario Kart, Need For Speed, Flatout 2, Forza, etc… I’m not an expert on them, but I did spend my fair share of time racing. So how did the VR experience perform?
They were an instant favorite for me. I don’t know why we don’t have more racing games in VR, they work SO well! From F-Zero GX (on emulator) to Forza Horizon 4, every single game was a blast to play, and I could play for hours without stopping.
When the game allowed to have a driver view, the immersion was even better, I can’t imagine how it would feel with a proper driving wheel, accelerator and gear shift! One of my favorite camera views was the front view, for some reason everything seemed to go faster, and it was the most intense of all the views. I noticed that I couldn’t play as long on that view though, still managed above the 30-minute mark, but the intensity does get too much, for me at least. Maybe I need to get used to it. Finally, the third person view of the car was surprisingly not as bad of an experience as I would’ve thought. It’s still my least favorite, but it allowed me to appreciate the details of the car, the reflections and overall a bigger “picture” about everything that’s happening in the game, which was nice in VR.
As for the negatives: I realized that when I’m driving in VR, it’s like when driving in real life, and when I’m not looking at the road, I WILL be crashing (who would’ve thought!), especially at the high speeds racing games play on. I started understanding why rally drivers move their heads very slightly most of the time. Also, most racing games don’t have precise camera movement around the car, but more of “side views” of the car, so for racing games to be perfect for VR, game studios need to “unlock” the camera, which is not much work to do.
Non-VR To VR Score: 9/10
Online First Person Shooters:
To put it simply: FPS games have a lot to offer from an immersion perspective, but also are the ones that are going to require the most amount of work to be great in VR.
Being in the middle of a gun fight on a regular computer screen is already thrilling enough, in VR, it’s just on another level. Especially on fast paced games or ones that offer a lot of movement abilities like Apex Legends. On games like Overwatch where so much is happening around, I sometimes had to remember to breathe, and also: epilepsy warning with all the abilities and colors. It does take some time to get used to, but it quickly becomes a favorite.
BUT, and there are many buts, the experience is not the most optimal one we could have today. First, the biggest needed adaptation to FPS games to make the experience in VR well adapted is to decouple the camera movement from the aiming. Yes, in all shooter games, your mouse movement is used to aim, but also to move the camera, and when the head movement is mapped to the camera, you end up aiming with your head. Needless to say it’s going to need a change, because aiming with one’s head is pretty clunky, counter intuitive, if not impossible. I myself ended up disabling all camera movements and just used the VR as an immersive screen with depth added to it, nothing happens when I move my head basically. This made the experience more enjoyable, I liked it more than playing on my screen, but I still felt something was missing. The only game that I’ve tried which offers decoupling the camera as a setting is Battlefield 1, and that was an almost perfect experience. Too bad the decoupling doesn’t always work (like when on a horse).
The second sub-optimal thing was that, because I was playing in VR, there was some obligatory latency introduced, even as low as 15ms, and I needed to adapt my aiming as well. All of this made it kinda unfair when playing online against “regular” people. I can’t even imagine when I’ll add custom VR controllers to the mix and the accuracy issues that will ensue. Don’t get me wrong, I still managed to get a win in Apex Legends, but the experience was definitely harder than racing, and has a learning curve. I think in the first iterations of this, game studios will need to make it so people playing in VR only play other people in VR. That’s just my personal opinion, maybe after some adaptations people will actually become better than regular mouse and screen players since their senses will be more “heightened” in VR.
Non-VR To VR Score: 6/10
Offline/Story/action FPS games:
Personally, these are my favorite kind of FPS games since Goldeneye 007, Halo, Metroid, Call of Duty 1, etc... Surprisingly, that applied to VR as well, and the experience was far better than online FPS game.
Without the stress of online and competitiveness, I re-enabled head movements. I would still use the mouse to aim and turn the camera in fights, but most of the time when moving around, I enjoy the freedom to look around and feel inside the whole experience without the constant fear of being killed by someone in the back like when playing online, I also had time to breathe between fights. This made games like Metro Exodus rise to a whole new level! Being able to play such an amazing game in Ultra settings with RTX High on, I can only say that I’m not coming back to regular VR games, or to offline FPS games on a screen. I was literally playing for 4 hours at a time in VR without wanting to stop. Sure I was taking a small break to drink or grab a snack every now and then to rest my eyes a little, but I would dive right back into it and forget how much time has passed, just like when I was playing regular games I enjoyed on PC.
Of course there is always a way to make them better, and decoupling the aiming from the camera will definitely make the experience more immersive, but it really didn’t bother me like for online FPS games. We can also think of having custom gyro aiming and additional tracking, but I’m not sure I’ll be playing that way for hours non-stop, and it’ll be more of an experience I would have fun with from time to time. From a business perspective, I’m not sure if it’s worth it, not if we want players to stick to the game for hours at a time, which is what drove the gaming industry to be as lucrative as today.
Non-VR To VR Score: 9/10
Top down perspective games:
I’ve spent countless hours on Age of Empires II and Age of Mythology, and they are still to this day among my favorite games, but I don’t know how much of a top down games expert I am. I never played Diablo, LoL or Startcraft. That being said, the VR experience I had was lackluster. It felt like I was watching my small world through a window, and the head movements didn’t have much to offer to the experience. I would still rather play those games on my computer screen over VR any day. It wasn’t horrible, but something just didn’t feel right, and I myself can’t see what’s there to do to make the experience better. Maybe someone can think of something and I would love to see that, but in this current state, not really.
Non-VR To VR Score: 4/10
Third person action/story/adventure/RPG games:
These are by far my favorite games. I played every Zelda game from Ocarina of Time to Twilight Princess, GTA from Vice City, Devil May Cry, Darksiders, etc... They are by far the ones that I spent the most number of hours playing. I was super skeptical with how they would turn out in VR though, and after the experience in VR, I still don’t know how I feel about them.
Let’s address the elephant in the room first: Being in VR and seeing your character in front of you is definitely not what one would expect to experience. VR “demands” first person view, or at least that was my assumption. But, to my surprise, I ended up having a very enjoyable experience out of it, and the reason for it is even more compelling.
It didn’t come within the first minutes playing the games in VR, but as time passed, I found myself “identifying” with the hero. I felt like I was the consciousness behind it, or maybe some kind of puppet master. I don’t know how to describe it, but it did feel natural after 10–15 minutes. I forgot about it and focused on the game, and I ended up playing for hours at a time as well, which is still more than the play time I had for traditional VR games.
I don’t know how to feel about the experience. A part of me wants to have those games in the first person view and I think they’ll be perfect on it, but the third person view was also enjoyable. Further testing will need to be done once I can talk some game developers into changing their third person games to first person, as it’ll give me more perspective to judge.
Non-VR To VR Score: 7.5/10
How about others who tried it?
As I’m a startup founder, I know how important it is to not fall in love with your product. Therefore, I made the app available as an early access to a small handful of people to see how they would use it. I also made them pay for it because paying customers won’t hesitate to complain if they don’t like something.
The end results were very similar:
- Racing games were instant favorites, I even had another entrepreneur friend, who’s not a gamer but who loves driving, try Forza Horizon 4. On the cockpit view, his driving was spot on, even better than people who play regularly. His feedback was that it felt real to him and he just had the same reflexes he has on a real car.
- Online Shooters: People also didn’t feel that the experience was right, and they also kept dying over and over because they didn’t have the right reflexes.
- Offline FPS: To my surprise, some people didn’t even notice the aiming with the head thing, they just locked their head when in a fight, and went on looking around when not. Some who played Metro Exodus before couldn’t believe they were playing it in VR, and they loved it.
- RTS: I didn’t ask people to try them and it seems they haven’t done it, as I haven’t gotten any feedback (good or bad) on it.
- 3rd person games: I have users who have been playing GTA V non-stop in VR for a couple of weeks now and they love it. Some playing World of Warcraft didn’t really like it, but that was expected for me because of it being an Online game and also the camera, aiming and the amount of skills one could use is a bit too much to keep track of in VR. I would say again that additional testing needs to be done to figure out how 3rd person games fit into the VR world.
What does this mean for the future of VR gaming then?
From my experience through this journey, VR gaming is definitely the future of gaming. Playing on our screens is going to be a thing of the past once we realize how awesome it is to be inside a world that’s carefully crafted from all angles (gameplay, graphics and story). But, for that to happen, two things need to change:
- Game Studios need to realize how little they have to do for their games to be perfectly suited for VR. It’s not the management of fingers tracking, movement or the endless VR gadgets that matter. We love gaming because of how it takes us inside epic adventures we can’t even dream of in the real world, with amazing stories, stunning graphics, and as long as the gameplay works then we are on board. I personally don’t see people running around their rooms using their controllers like swords or guns, crouching and jumping, for more than 20-30 minutes. They’ll need more than GFuel to keep them going! It’s amazing what a little outside of the box thinking and coming back to the roots can do.
- Gamers need to believe that VR gaming is possible and that the experience outclasses anything they have ever experienced before. They need to push for it to happen because it is alarming to see more and more studios and tech companies drop VR gaming every day.
I myself am going to be pushing on both those fronts. The milestones for XR Gaming over 2019 are:
- Start working on “Non-VR to VR” guidelines for gaming studios and run a couple pilots on them.
- Keep growing the user base on the app and let people know they can play their favorite games in VR today (it’s out on Android)
- Raise funds to put a team together to help make VR Gaming a thing. As much as I enjoy hiking and camping alone, it’s impossible to run a company as such, and 16+ hours work days aren’t sustainable.
- Become hardware-agnostic: No graphics card, phone or OS requirements. Make more and more users get on board to easily talk to game studios about following the “Non-VR to VR” guidelines.
If you want to follow the adventure, head to www.xrgaming.io , and if you want to get involved in one way or the other, feel free to reach out to me.
P.S: This is my own journey and opinion as a gamer into the VR gaming world. I am not saying that the current way to do it won’t work in the future, I’m just worried that VR gaming won’t live enough to see that future happen. Looking at the current number of players on VR ( https://vrlfg.net/ is a good website to get an idea), and seeing that it struggles to pass the 1500 players mark at any time on the most famous VR game by far (Beat Saber), it’s hard no to be worried.