If you think VR is the sole future of games, think again

Reducing the future of games to VR is a disservice to the art

Google cardboard: +1M units shipped

When one has a vested interest to think, analytically and critically, about the future of games — as I do — the world out there seems quite single-minded: VR is the future.

People are excited about virtual reality for a reason: It presents the pinnacle for aspirations video game makers have always had, i.e. transporting the player into another place with the near-fidelity of the real world. VR peripherals are finally coming of age, with mass market solutions, with near-affordable prices.

Samsung Gear VR for the manufacturer’s smartphones is out.

If we think about the broad spectrum of games, VR is not necessarily the end-all-be-all answer for the future. Parallel to VR finding its feet, mobile gaming is booming (even if consolidating, from a developer perspective) and a board gaming renaissance has been going on for a good few years already. If we look at the huge successes on these markets, ranging from Candy Crush Saga to Cards against Humanity, they have very little in common with some of the defining characteristics of VR, such as presence and fidelity. Yet, we call them all games, and in their own way, both ‘Candy Crush’ and ‘Cards’ can be immersive, for instance.

This speaks for the general holding power, or magic, of games: once a player becomes engaged with a set of rules and the pleasurable constraints they create, it might turn out that all this was accomplished with pieces of paper. It is the particular pull of video games to speak to the senses in amplifying this magical leap of faith, usually with the help of the latest consumer technology.

This is why the only things my Google Alerts are notifying me about the future of games, day in day out, is stories about VR. We are on the brink of VR reaching the mass consumer market.

Yet, this leaves me wanting. Honestly, is VR all we can come up with when speculating about the future of games?

My point here is to provoke discussion on for what kind of games is VR the probable future, and perhaps more interestingly, for what kinds of games it perhaps is not.

Please note that the timeline I am talking about here is around 2 to 5 years: How will fun and games change? What will Santa bring, come 2017, 2018, or even 2021?

What will be VR’s Candy Crush?

Once VR truly finds mass market, there will no doubt be versions of popular casual, and e.g., board games for it, but will there be any added value for players in that? This reminds me of a friend who used to joke that he wish he could arrange a game of Carcassonne with four Xbox consoles around the same table (the game was out on Microsoft’s Live service for the platform at the time).

Carcassonne for iOS.

If we try to learn from the past, successful ports of popular concepts onto a new platform, or paradigm, need to showcase an understanding of the native qualities of said platform and contexts of use.

Creating a VR version of Carcassonne where one sits around the table manipulating figurines and board pieces probably is not representative of that. Yet, if one strays too far from that, one risks losing the essence of Carcassonne, which I believe is in the very ‘2D’ of its nature, in constructing castles, roads, and fields in the frame of conflicting goals, randomness, and decision-making related to all that.

Yet, there are believers out there:

With Cards against Humanity, I don’t even want to go into discussing it in the context of VR — I highly doubt that trying to reproduce wordplay with a slightly obscene twist via means of VR is going to be any good; improvised verbal interaction just does not seem to be at the core of the virtual reality experience. Then again, my thinking might just be too constrained. Please prove me wrong. In this particular case, perhaps AR, augmented reality, is the answer?

Then there are games like Subterfuge on mobile, which leverage the human fascination with intrigue but in the make-believe setting of a strategy game, instead everyday relationship where intrigue tends to breed only anxiety, not fun. The huge success of Game of War on mobile is largely based on the community it has created around it’s compulsive competitiveness, rather than on, say, exceptional art direction or user interface design. How will the magic of games such as these transport to VR?

The list goes on: popular card games like Coup are essentially about bluffing, and they have their counterpart in parlour games, similar to Werewolf. Perhaps something similar to these would have a lifespan within a larger whole: as role-play in a VR MMO. However, the essence of Coup is in its simple and elegant design; in it’s confined scope that enables persuasion and roleplay, not in the concrete, 3D-asset-laden world-building that mostly is being sold to us with VR hype.

Perhaps AR, if we assume it is inherently more accessible and mobile, will be more suitable for a number of genres. In the end, all depends on excellent execution, something that is hard anywhere, anytime. It is conceivable that an online VR version of Coup with emphasis on setting the scene and the traits of the character types could work. Perhaps the designers would come up with a new game mechanic that takes use of virtual space. All this sounds more fitting to a cooperative game like Pandemic, though?

How does VR cope with the touch UI paradigm?

Another plausible development we see regarding a number of products is that the VR part, to the extent that it can be thought of as something separate, will become a user interface gimmick. In this case, the added value of any Minority Report type of interface to play, say Candy Crush, is questionable, yet with e.g. real-time strategy games such solutions might actually enhance the experience — but will they, to an extent, that justifies strapping on the thing? Is manipulating a 2D plane, from a static position within virtual reality, enough? Is motion through a virtual space an inherent, native quality of VR that will separate the winning products from the losing ones?

In their nature, these are typical questions during the early stages of a new platform or a paradigm. They might very well be the incremental enhancement players want, in a lead-up to bigger and better virtual things, as expectations start to grow.

How will VR cope with the renaissance of text?

A huge trend taking mobile apps by storm these days is messaging, and as a particular case, messaging in the context of apps as personae, such as the virtual concierge of Facebook’s M or health coach of Lark.

What can VR do with text input and output? Ok, maybe that’s beside the point — maybe it shouldn’t, but my point is that if it does not, it confines itself more and more into sets of experiences which have a very particular place and time, rather than being the omnipresent way to access things, as has been argued. Again, we come across VR’s less sensory-totalitarian friend: surely it is AR which is more applicable for the text-driven future?

Nevertheless, there are startups in the mobile space that are building something of a mix of 3D (VR?) and chat applications. Let’s see if they can crack the formula of instant accessibility to the point of ‘no UI’ (text) combined with the attraction of three-dimensionality.

VR and AR are, and will be many things

Now, each time we mention AR or VR, we are lumping together not only various competing technological solutions but also competing approaches to creating and designing interactive content. Many of the latter are being discovered as we speak. In any case, we should definitely avoid sweeping statements about either. What will be accomplished by VR or AR is unknown, but I have no doubt there will be amazing things. In many cases, the distinction between VR and AR will become blurry and possibly disappear with time.

Then again, one of my motives for writing this piece has been to challenge the somewhat deterministic rhetoric of how VR will take over games in particular. A more careful look into what motivates people to play, how, and in which kinds of contexts, paints a more nuanced picture of the game landscape — and the ways we interact with and in them, now and in the future. For VR enthusiasts, my questions above should function as design challenges: what is the VR equivalent of such experiences and how do we create it?

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