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VR vs. AAA Development

A strong argument can be made for virtual reality (VR) thriving on indie development. In fact, it already does; all you need to do is visit the Oculus VR Share page, if not the official forums, Reddit, or Steam Greenlight to find a wealth of both free and premium VR experiences for the Oculus Rift headset, and constant Kickstarter campaigns are always promising that there’s more to come. And this is all without a consumer version of the device even announced yet. That said, there’s an undeniable roof to how far this brilliant community can take the technology, perhaps not with innovation but instead sheer production value.

TheForest_1True, some indie titles such as The Forest are already leading the charge in visuals in VR, but think about what a big budget, mainstream AAA action title could do for the technology. VRFocus covered one aspect of this topic in last week’s VR vs concerning large publishers, but once those hurdles have been overcome, developers still actually have to make the titles. And as Sony reasoned as its Project Morpheus reveal event at the 2014 Game Developers Conference (GDC), that’s easier said than done.

At VRFocus we run a weekly piece named Make if a (Virtual) Reality in which we pick a franchise and imagine what VR could do for it. Yes, there’s a seemingly unending amount of AAA titles that VR would could enhance, but the truth of it is that retroactive development rarely works. AAA titles need thorough optimisation to work well in VR and that can require changing some of the very foundations of a title, from camera perspectives to even basic environmental design. Killzone: Shadowfall or Titanfall might seem like a perfect fit for the technology, but no doubt you’d find an ocean of issues if the developers were to simply flip a compatibility switch instead of working on the tech from the ground up.

As Sony explained at its VR initiation back at GDC, simple things that we’d never think to flag up become an issue with the technology. It could be the dimensions of a door frame or the height of the camera that need adjusting. It might be that the way you tell a story, be it with cutscenes or on-screen text that no longer gels with the experience.  VR’s inclusion might seem simple at first, but it really does require a careful examination of every aspect of a title for it to feel natural.

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Native development is always going to get the best possible results. We might well see a surge of retroactive compatibility. No doubt if Sony is planning to bring past titles to PS4 as it did with HD and 3D PS2 titles to PS3, it will want to stick Project Morpheus support in for good measure. Chances are that this won’t give the best results, as much as we’d like to say otherwise.

There are also a range of contemporary mechanics and trends that might not necessarily fit VR. We’ve all dreamed of reliving some of last generation’s most dramatic setpieces with the immersion that the technology offers. We’ve lost count of the amount of Call of Duty explosions and Uncharted spills that’d we’d like to revisit with a headset, but the truth of the matter is that the fixed camera positions and forced animations that these memorable moments utilize are VR’s worst nightmare. Simulator sickness is something we struggle with in even the most optimised of titles, and there’s nothing worse than a stuck camera to make our stomachs churn.

That’s why it’s key that Sony introduced Project Morpheus to us now and Oculus Rift releases in the early days of this generation. We’re not even 6 months into a likely 6 to 7 year console cycle just yet, and developers will need all of that time to learn how best to use VR as its install base grows. If this were introduced to PlayStation 4 in 3 or 4 year’s time then no doubt it would be destined to intrude on lots of experiences with rushed support and care-free implementation.  The extent of Oculus VR’s publishing right now grows to CCP Games’ EVE Valkyrie, but let’s hope with Facebook’s financial backing it can bring in some of the most talented developers to produce thoughtful VR experiences on PC.

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So, yes, indies are currently showing us how it’s done.  But when bigger teams with higher production values turn their attention towards the tech, we’re going to face a whole new range of issues. Right now it seems like the major players are well positioned to tackle the challenges head-on. Let’s hope that remains true in a year’s time.

‘VR vs’ is VRFocus’ weekly feature that takes an issue currently challenging the VR industry and discusses how to fix it. Looking at everything from the videogames in development to the strength of the technology, we highlight the problems and try to come up with the best solutions.