Since the Oculus Rift’s overwhelming success on Kickstarter, I’ve been unabashedly enthusiastic about VR. People play games for all kinds of reasons: one of my biggest is to escape the real world. For me, games are less of a social experience and more of a personal one— I use them to take time for myself and escape the pressures of reality, even if it’s only for a short while. The concept of VR then, is incredibly appealing to someone like me. The more I heard press rave about it as it began showing up at trade shows and conventions, the more eager I was to get my hands on it. Adding to this excitement was the announcement of more headsets and major partnerships. As time went on, Razer, Facebook, and eventually Sony and Valve announced that they were getting into VR development (or outright bought VR companies), giving me the confidence I needed to begin planning when I would be buying a VR headset as opposed to whether I would be purchasing one.
With that in mind, there were (and still are) quite a few barriers to be surpassed before the technology can reach the point of mainstream success: perhaps largest of all of these is price. VR is currently prohibitively expensive, with the Oculus and Vive (the only gaming-quality headsets on the market at the moment) priced at $600 and $800 USD respectively, not to mention the cost to build a VR-ready PC, which will currently set you back anywhere between $800 and $1200 (although that should be changing soon). Fortunately, just about all of the issues facing VR at the moment seem to be the kind that will be overcome in future iterations, as availability and price of VR-capable hardware components improve and more headsets get into consumers’ hands.
Leading up to this Spring’s launch of both the Vive and the Oculus, I was still entirely sold on VR, but had resigned myself to not being able to purchase one until they became more affordable (unless PSVR blew everyone’s mind, in which case I figured I could scrounge up the cash to get it a few months after launch). The day the Rift came out I watched a couple of livestreams, heard the general consensus that the software library was lacking, then carried on with my day, fairly unimpressed by what I’d seen. The games just didn’t seem to be there yet, and the entirely stationary way that Oculus’ current slate of games is played didn’t interest me. I figured that the following week’s Vive launch would be more of the same, as I hadn’t followed the hardware quite as closely as Oculus’ and didn’t have a great understanding of Roomscale VR (Valve’s technology that reads the size of your physical room and converts it into VR play space).
As it turns out, the Vive was everything that I’d hoped VR would be. As I quickly learned after tuning in to Giant Bomb’s launch day stream, watching people play with the Vive is a much more compelling demonstration of what VR is capable of, and after 10 minutes I was completely sold. The way Roomscale and the Vive controllers come together to turn actions normally performed with buttons and sticks into entirely natural motions effectively let you live out your matrix-inspired childhood dreams of being in the game. Obviously, viewers watching a 2D livestream only get an idea of what the actual experience of being in the headset is like, but I could imagine it and that was enough.
At this point, I was entirely convinced that I wanted the most expensive headset on the market. Of course, I was also convinced that I’d have to wait at least a year before getting one was even a remote possibility. I was okay with this, but also intensely curious about what the experience was like and more than a little bit bummed out that I’d have to wait so long.
Fortunately for me, I had an incredible stroke of good fortune a little over a month later; a stroke of incredibly good fortune led to my coming into a new job that payed roughly three times as much as the one I’d had for the last 4 years, and suddenly the idea of getting VR became a lot more feasible. It was still a serious purchasing decision and an admittedly ridiculous amount of money (especially here in Canada), but ultimately I decided that becoming an early VR adopter would be a lot of fun, and along with the social (demoing VR to friends and family is really enjoyable) and journalistic opportunities it would provide, was worth the $800 USD I’d have to pay. I knew what I was getting into as an early adopter— launch software is rarely amazing and those who choose to wait will save hundreds of dollars— but to me it was worth it to put money into a fledgling industry that I’m incredibly excited about and get serious hands-on time with a new technology that could very well revolutionize how we interact with software.
Having had it in my home for over a month now, I’ve been dying to talk about VR and my experiences with it for some time now, but I decided to put off writing anything critical until my personal excitement level had died down a little. Originally I was just going to write a generic “Impressions” piece, but figured that there’s already enough of that on the internet and there isn’t really anything I can add to that conversation. Instead, I decided to take a number of questions I’ve either seen asked online or been asked myself by friends and family over the last few weeks, and answer them to the best of my ability. There’s still a lot of (healthy, reasonable) skepticism about VR out there, so I’d like to help narrow down where it’s warranted and where it isn’t. If you have questions beyond what’s written, just leave a comment below and I’ll be happy to answer (I’m steering away from the technical nitty-gritty for now, but I know a lot of people are curious about some of that stuff too).
I’ve Heard Plenty of Hype, But I’m Skeptical. Is VR Really That Good?
Yes. Stepping into proper VR (meaning Cardboard and Gear VR don’t count) for the very first time was one of the most mind blowing experiences I’ve ever had, and a number of people I’ve had over to demo it— non-gamers included— have echoed these sentiments. It cannot be overstated that VR, when done properly, truly makes you feel as though you are somewhere (or someone) else. Even when these spaces are much larger than the room you’re playing in, your brain doesn’t care; even though you can see the individual pixels in front of your face if you really try to focus on it, the quality of the image and tracking as such that your brain begins to accept your artificial surroundings as, well…reality. This is what I mean when I say I’m sold on the concept of VR. Are console-priced headsets designed for gaming going to be the way of the future? Maybe, maybe not. What I’m sure of, though, is that you’d be hard pressed to find someone that’s tried VR and doesn’t think it’s going to be adopted by the masses in some form once the general public gains a better understanding of what it is and how it can be used. Seeing is believing to be sure, but what VR is capable of, even at these early stages, is nothing short of incredible.
Would You Recommend Buying VR Now? If So, Which Headset?
Probably not, no. Well, let me clarify that statement a bit— not until PSVR is on the market. Right now the costs are just so astronomically high that even though VR is really cool, it isn’t cool enough to justify the pricetag. If it’s comparable to the Rift/Vive then PSVR is priced pretty fairly, but I’d definitely wait for reviews before making that purchase.That said, if you’re completely aware of the reasons against buying VR but still want to support the industry as it grows and already have a gaming PC (this was my situation), then sure, go for it. You’ll get to have your mind (and the minds of friends and family) blown before anyone else you know, but you’ll be paying a pretty penny for it.
So, presuming you’re all the way committed to going down the crazy VR rabbit hole right now, which headset should you get? As stated above, too little is known about how PSVR is going to perform, so we’ll leave that out of the conversation for now and just stick to the Rift/Vive. Between those two, the Vive is easily the best choice right now. I’ve played plenty of Rift and Vive games, and I can easily say that of my top ten experiences in VR, nine were only possible on Vive. Roomscale makes VR, and the lack of anything comparable on the Oculus makes it difficult to recommend, even with the lower price tag. This might change in a few months when Oculus comes out with their Touch controllers, but it has yet to be seen whether they will work as well as the Vive’s controllers do in terms of letting you use your entire room (the short cord on the Rift headset indicates that the answer will be “no”), so for now the Vive is easily the better of the two.
Is the Software Library As Barren As I’ve Heard?
Kind of. It’s pretty safe to say that neither the Oculus nor the Vive have gotten any “killer apps” yet, but both have libraries that have grown tenfold since the original, admittedly lackluster launch lineup that had a lot of critics disappointed when the headsets launched. The quality and length of a lot of titles is still an issue (most feel like minigames rather than full-blown retail games), but at least one VR game comes out on Steam every day, not to mention older titles that are regularly adding VR support, and while some are utter garbage, a number are also quite good.
Beyond official support, mods have also given VR owners some fantastic AAA games to play with, and more are on the way. GTA V and Minecraft are the current standouts, with both games offering potentially endless hours of VR tomfoolery thanks to their Sandbox-y nature.
This isn’t to say that the library is incredible by any means, but it’s certainly getting there, and with the number of bigger titles due for release later this year and in early 2017, I’d expect to hear complaints about how many VR games there are taper off pretty soon.
What’s the Best VR Game You've Played?
This is kind of a cop-out because it isn’t technically a game, but Tilt Brush, Google’s 3D painting tool that comes bundled with the Vive, is probably my personal favorite of all the VR applications out right now. Despite being a particularly terrible artist in real life, there’s something about drawing in 3D space that’s really novel and satisfying. Having your designs, no matter how simple they might be, manifested in front of you as three-dimensional objects that can be examined from any angle is entertaining, and anybody that enjoys art, even if they aren’t particularly good at it (like myself), can get hours of fun out of this free tool. It’s the most fun I’ve ever had drawing, and the ability to do so in 3D doesn’t get old. Other honorable mentions include Valve’s own minigame collection The Lab, Oculus Studios’ painfully charming platformer Lucky’s Tale, and multiplayer FPS Hover Junkers among others, but the hours of fun I’ve had with Tilt Brush help it edge out the competition.
Okay, this is the one question I’ll admit I haven’t actually been asked. I’m going to tell you anyway, though, because this needs to be talked about. Multiplayer in VR is unlike any other social experience you’ve had in a game, and I cannot evangelize it enough. In games that implement it properly, multiplayer is just about indistinguishable from being in a room with real humans, and absolutely blew my mind. Sure, right now it’s mostly just heads and bodies that are represented, but with the built in mics on each headset and real time tracking of everyone’s movements, the experience is absolutely incredible. I don’t consider myself a multiplayer guy (with a few exceptions here and there), but the possibilities here are amazing. Provided that VR is adopted by the gaming industry and continues to grow, getting together with friends and sharing a VR space together could become a totally viable alternative to all other forms of online VoIP clients such as Skype or Discord— one that feels infinitely more (for lack of a better word) human than webcam or mic-only chatter ever could.
Does Having A Screen So Close To Your Eyes Hurt Them?
This is a question I’ve been asked quite a few times. It’s a logical one, of course- keeping a screen super close to your face seems like you’re just asking for trouble. I can only speak for myself obviously, but I have had zero discomfort from wearing my Vive, even after multi-hour play sessions. I did, however, have a friend who suffers from migraines fairly often get a headache after wearing the headset for about ninety minutes, so it seems comfort will largely depend on the individual. However, headache and motion sickness-prone individuals seem to be the only identifiable groups that currently have problems with VR, so the majority of people shouldn’t have anything to worry about.
Is Motion Sickness A Big Deal? There Sure Are Lots Of Warnings About It.
I’ve gotten sick a grand total of once since getting my headset. I’m not particularly sensitive to motion sickness, but just about every VR game I’ve played, even those that use traditional (and not officially recommended) analog movement controls, have been just fine with me. The one exception to this rule was Volo Airsport, a Kickstarter-funded wingsuiting game that I absolutely do not recommend anybody play in VR. I expected it to be awesome (because, you know, flying is neat) but found I could only handle 20 minutes before I had to quit. The off-putting angle of the camera, combined with the speed at which you fly, made playing in both first and third person an incredibly unpleasant experience. Fortunately the game is playable outside of VR, so I chose to experience the rest of it on my monitor instead.
The takeaway here is that games have to be incredibly poorly thought out before motion sickness should be an issue for the average person. Despite a lot of conversation about it arguing to the contrary from (understandably concerned) headset manufacturers, it seems like traditional movement controls can work in VR, even if they are an imperfect solution. Remaining physically still while your surroundings shift forward as though you’re moving definitely feels odd and can put you off balance the first few times you try it, but for some games it makes a lot more sense than the teleportation system most games are using.
Moving Around Is Stupid. I Want To Play Games Sitting Down.
A somewhat common misconception I’ve read online is that all VR games require that you stand and/or use motion controls. While this is certainly true of many of the Vive’s big exclusives, literally all Oculus games on the market are exclusively playable with a controller, and most are meant to be experienced sitting down. Since the overwhelming majority of these are also ported to Vive, I can tell you right now that both headsets have a healthy library of games that can be played “traditionally”, many of which are actually some of the best games out right now. Vehicular games in particular benefit from VR in a huge way, like stylish space combat title House of the Dying Sun, which takes my personal pick as one of the best games playable in VR right now, period.
That said, don’t knock the controls before you try them. The extra level of immersion provided by having your hands, as well as your head, represented ingame allows for all kinds of new experiences and satisfying takes on old ones. Having to actually aim down the sights of a handgun, or reach over to pick up an item off an ingame table instead of holding an interaction button adds to the feeling that you’re actually in a game as opposed to just observing it, and when implemented correctly these actions can have you completely convinced, at least for a moment, that what you’re seeing is real. This probably sounds like a lot of hyperbole, so like countless others before me, I’ll repeat what’s become the unofficial mantra of VR: You’ve just got to try it.
I'm Still Not Convinced.
And you don’t have to be. Hell, maybe you shouldn’t be. While I’ve yet to meet a VR skeptic that stayed that way after trying it, I don’t expect anybody to adopt it before that point either. Even if you are excited about VR, price is still a colossal barrier and until this fall’s PSVR launch, the percentage of people with hardware capable of running VR at all remains infinitesimally small. As someone who went all-out and spent the required cash, I actually find it pretty hard to recommend buying VR until it gets cheaper, at which point the software library will also have grown substantially and newer, better hardware may be on the way. It’s completely understandable why a large number of gamers seem outright dismissive of the tech at the moment, especially when coupled with some (incorrect) perceptions that VR is attempting to replace traditional games. It’s pretty safe to say that this will never happen— VR games are at their best when designed around doing things you can’t do in traditional games, instead of stubbornly trying to shoehorning VR into them— but some careless marketing on Valve and Oculus’ parts seems to have instilled this idea into the minds of some. I highly recommend keeping an open mind about this technology, and can pretty much guarantee that your first time with it will be nothing short of mindblowing, but until we get to the point where the masses have an affordable option, VR remains a playground for the enthusiastic and the wealthy.