Why virtual reality really is the next big thing in games

Properly done VR games like Eve: Valkyrie will suck players away from the real world.

eve valkyrie, virtual reality

CCP Games’ Eve: Valkyrie.

Virtual Reality Games:

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With Oculus Rift beginning shipments next week, virtual reality is about to become actual reality, which means that both the hype train – and the hater express – are shifting into overdrive.

There are bold pronouncements on the one hand, such as this one from Shopify founder Tobias Lütke:

And then there are the doubters that such comments inspire:

Having experienced VR on all the major platforms – Oculus, HTC Vive, PlayStation VR and Samsung’s mobile VR – I’m more inclined to agree with Lütke than the doubters, with a qualification.

Truly transformative virtual reality – the kind that will reshape society – is still a long ways away. Despite the huge advances made in VR technology over the past few years, it still faces major obstacles. Simple movement within virtual worlds and internet bandwidth limitations are likely to keep it in a niche for some time to come.

But within video games, virtual reality is more likely than not to be incredibly transformative – and sooner rather than later.

The game that cemented this notion for me is Eve: Valkyrie, the space-based shooter from Iceland’s CCP Games that’s coming to PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive this year. Set in the popular Eve multiplayer online universe, Valkyrie sets up players to have Star Wars-style dogfighting matches:

I spent about 10 minutes with the game on PlayStation VR recently and it was exhilarating.

The demo began with me situated in the cockpit of a fighter awaiting a Battlestar Galactica-type launch, where the craft is catapulted down a long tunnel.

As my ship was spit out into space, the enormity of the game’s virtual reality hit – you get a minute or so to glance around and take in outer space, with its resident planets and spacecraft all around you. It’s overwhelming and totally believable. When you experience it, you know what Lütke is talking about.

Before long, the enemy cruisers arrived and the battle was on. I approached the fight gingerly at first because of a bad VR experience I’d recently had. I’d tried Eagle Flight, an upcoming game from Ubisoft where you take on the role of a bird, and I’d experienced serious discomfort:

It wasn’t necessarily the nausea that’s usually associated with VR, but rather a general feeling of ill-ease resulting in the sweats and an elevated heart rate. It felt like riding a roller coaster too long, and it was something I didn’t want to continue or do again.

With Valkyrie, I kept things slow at first as a result, only going after easy-to-target enemy craft.

The longer I played, the more comfortable I got with the system and controls. I started climbing and diving in pursuit of enemies and got excited when I discovered the boosters that gave me extra speed. The cherry on top was figuring out how to roll my ship. I started getting flashy, feeling more than a little like Star Wars’ Luke Skywalker or Poe Damaron.

By the end of the demo, I had that feeling we’re probably all worried about when it comes to VR – I didn’t want to leave Eve’s world and I desperately wanted to keep playing.

The differences between the two experiences were pretty big, for me at least.

In Eagle Flight, you don’t need a handheld controller for basic movement – you simply look at where you want to go and the bird flies there. The bird also flies much faster, relatively speaking, than Valkyrie’s ship, which is even more evident when you zip through the ruined buildings of Paris. It’s easier to get a sense of speed when you pass objects close up.

Valkyrie also gives you a frame of reference by situating you in a cockpit, where your control panels and instruments provide some separation from the outside world. Eagle Flight, on the other hand, is fully first person, where you are the bird and therefore see and experience everything it does.

You feel any hit it takes, which makes you more queasy about collisions. In the ship, just as in an actual car, you feel a little more insulated.

These are all cumulative choices that will add up to good experiences versus bad ones.

It’s obviously too early to judge the two games since neither is released yet, but one felt natural and made me want to escape while the other put me off the idea of the technology altogether. It’s clear to me which one is good VR.

Good VR will indeed be transformative, a technology that will make us want to escape the real world, for all the good or ill that carries with it.

I suspect this kind of VR will be rare at first, but it will pave the way and set best practices for others to follow. In the highly competitive world of video games, where publishers and developers want to suck players in for as long as possible, it’s not going to take long before good VR is the rule and not the exception.

And that means players everywhere will have even more reason to vanish into their games for even longer stretches of time.

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