The age of personal virtual reality is coming and the gaming industry is the first to truly embrace this new, immersive experience. At this year’s Electronics Entertainment Expo, the promise of virtual reality changed the potential gaming landscape. Some studios can’t wait to usher in the new era.
In a presentation on Monday, Hilmar Veigar Pétursson, the chief executive of CCP Games (the makers of massive multiplayer online roleplaying game Eve Online) made a bold statement about the future that raised a few eyebrows, declaring that his company’s mission is “to create virtual worlds more meaningful than real life.”
Playing in virtual worlds is an amazing advance for solo gaming - but a major setback for shared play. In the crush to dominate the field and embrace newer technologies, more and more of the human parts of gaming seem to fall by the wayside.
To make the virtual world more enticing than the real world has been an aim of video games creators for more than two decades. After all, game developers attempt to craft the best stories and the most compelling graphics to keep players engaged over time. But the move to invest big in virtual reality signals another major change is coming in how we play games.
The biggest player in this space (for now) is Oculus Rift, a technology company that specializes in creating inexpensive, personal virtual reality kits. The recipient of a $2 billion dollar acquisition/investment by Facebook in March 2014, the virtual reality company is poised to change the world of gaming forever. By making access as cheap as the price for two games or two controllers, Oculus Rift will open a whole new world for both game aficionados and developers to explore without paying thousands of dollars for the experience.
On its face, Oculus Rift seems like a dream come true. A full immersive experience in video game worlds would be amazing to live through. The idea of actually physically running through worlds like those found in Destiny or Halo or Myst is thrilling. More hands on games would be a little tougher – I can’t imagine how a person would play Grand Theft Auto inside a small space with a walkable, complex world strapped to her face. (As I learned from being in Nonny de la Pena’s award winning immersive journalism focused experiences around Syria, moving quickly is an easy way to crash into a wall.)
But I fear that the widespread acceptance of technologies like Oculus or Sony’s Morpheus virtual reality gear means that the cooperative, shareable experience of gaming is beginning to vanish. This trend has been going for some time - message boards and forums are full of gamers lamenting the end of cooperative or couch play, and the decline of local multiplayer options. One explanation for the shift is financial - it's just more profitable to have individual players each pay for their game system, online network subscription, and game than to have two people share one purchase. But the change isn’t solely financially motivated. Developers have explained that the increasingly sophisticated graphic specs in most popular games make multiplayer games - particularly split screen and dynamic environments - a challenge.
Virtual reality could eliminate the experience of playing with your real life friends entirely. VR means that, thanks to a small headset strapped to your face, the world around you - and the people in it - fade aways as the game takes over your senses. Even if you’re in the same room as another player, you won’t be able to glance over to check out their reactions, nor will you see or hear them.
This isn’t to say that virtual reality will be in any way bad for gaming - it would just be prudent for studios and developers to make sure one type of experience doesn’t get to define the form. And there are a few resons to be optimistic. Take Sony’s mysterious Morpheus VR project: while the headset is Sony's proprietary answer to Oculus Rift, due to hit the market in 2016, there was precious little revealed about the project at E3. However, one of their main selling points is that up to five players - one on a VR headset and four on controllers - could potentially all play together.
In addition, Oculus Rift and other developers are partnering with Microsoft on the Hololens, a new technology that uses a headset to provide an augmented reality experience, placing elements of games into the real world. Imagine walking into a forest, and being able to find virtual treasure chests on your hike because you preloaded Legend of Zelda into your Hololens. And the benefit of AR is that the design makes for a more collaborative experience than virtual reality.
While the Hololens isn't quite ready for primetime, it creates a different way of interacting with games, as the Hololens/Minecraft demo shows:
For an old-school couch player like myself, I want experiences that I can share with friends, in real time. I don’t want to always block out reality - I want to enhance it. A virtual world that is “more meaningful than real life” feels like a sad commentary on our increasingly-digitized existence. And while the VR revolution is imminent, I think I’m going to hold out.
After all, the rising popularity of Twitch, Youtube, and gaming blogs show half the fun of gaming is being able to share the experience. Virtual reality will enhance the overall world of games. But nothing else feels quite the same as the camaraderie that comes from leaning over and nudging someone during co-op mode. And while we may have left the days of widespread arcade play behind, we shouldn't let virtual reality dominate playable experiences in the future. We should embrace new technologies, but make sure older mainstays, like playing together, don't get left behind.