Hippies among us: How the Oculus Rift may lead to a new generation of non-violent games
The Oculus Rift should be arriving at the door of lucky developers and some early backers of the hardware's Kickstarter program this month, and I'm eagerly awaiting my own unit. While Doom 3 won't be available for the hardware's launch, Team Fortress 2 now supports the virtual reality headset.
Existing games will be hacked to work with the headset in large numbers once enthusiasts get their hands on the dev kit but, more importantly, new games and experiences will be created from the ground up to take advantage of the hardware. This is where things get good, because working virtual reality means that gaming may finally be more comfortable breaking away from the bounds of violence as entertainment.
This idea came up during a recent conversation with ex-Epic developer Cliff Bleszinski. He's a well-known figure in game development circles, and is also known for shooting off his mouth on any and all topics. As un-politically correct as it is to admit these days, we both share a love of ultra-violent games (shooting people in the face, as he points out, is fun), but the Rift opens the door to a whole new set of experiences. I asked Bleszinski if he thought the hardware will lead to more, and more interesting, non-violent games.
“Oh absolutely,” he said, cutting me off. “Of course there will be games where you shoot people in the face, because that’s always fun, but the experiences you can have with the Rift feel very different.”
It's hard to wrap your head around how different it is to play a game in a working, high-quality virtual reality headset. It's not an avatar you're controlling; it feels like you're in the game. Things that would be boring with a traditional screen hooked up to a mouse and keyboard become amazing. Think of a game where you simply explore a fantastic forest, filled with interesting sights and sounds. Imagine a game where you can fly around a city without a plane, with the sound of the air in your ears. We haven't begun to scratch the surface with what can be done with things like spatial puzzles.
“The problem is that it’s hard to go back… once you use the Rift, and you actually move your head around, the first time I flew up in a game made me feel like that damned flying dream I have all the time,” Bleszinski told the Report. “That, for me, is the grail. It comes back to the reason we play games: We play games to escape. They’re empowerment fantasies, fantasies of flight, fantasies of sex. Everything. Once you have that level of immersion it’s almost like a controllable dream.” This isn't idle talk, as he actually invested in the company, a fact I didn't know before we spoke.
“I wouldn’t put my own money into it if I didn’t believe in it,” he told me.
This won't be easy, and fans of VR hoping to simply port existing games to the device are in for what could be a nauseating surprise.
“Oculus bundles a Best Practices guide with the SDK, but even there, the company admits that it doesn’t know nearly everything there is to know about VR. For instance, during an Oculus panel at SXSWi last week, Words with Friends co-creator Paul Bettner pointed out that you can’t do film-like cuts in a virtual reality game,” Polygon reported. “'The world goes black and that’s really disorienting. So what do you do if you want to move the player around? You have to move the story to them,' he explained.”
You also begin to realize how weird the physics and proportions of games can be. John Carmack had to adjust the height of the marine in Doom 3. The Scout character in Team Fortress 2 runs at 40 miles per hour. These are things that don't seem weird until you put yourself in the game, and your brain rebels against the oddity of what's going on. Most games are designed with the idea that you'll be viewing them on a screen, not placing yourself inside them.
“The biggest problem moving forward is going to get proper games for it, games designed for it, you don’t just want to slap Halo on it. You want to actually go with a tailored experience,” Bleszinski said. “You want dedicated games built for it, and that almost makes it it’s own platform away from the consoles, away from the PCs, and away from the tablets.”
It's an interesting problem, but nearly every developer I've spoken to in the past six months can't wait to begin experimenting with game designs and ideas for experiences in virtual reality. This is wish fulfillment, and most people dream of things like flight, sex, and exploring undersea environments much more often than they dream about killing people. This is a whole new platform, and it presents a wonderful opportunity to invite designers to put down the virtual guns, and begin to think about what would make players smile.