Unity Boss: If you're doing VR right now, you're probably doing it wrong

There's been a definite sea change across the world of gaming when it comes to the prospect of virtual reality over the last six months or so. While debate once raged amongst gamers and developers alike regarding the potential future of strapping a pair of blacked out goggles to your face and wandering around the house stumbling into furniture, now there's a general acceptance that, like it or not, VR is going to happen. The long and short of it is, the industry has simply invested way too much in the tech behind it to let it fail.

Nevertheless, that doesn't mean the doubters have been entirely silenced. Instead of questioning the feasibility of VR, critics have now moved on to the matter of whether what we currently understand as virtual reality is what will actually be delivered when it takes off. There’s also the issue of whether 2016 will indeed be the year when it all happens - spurred on by the commercial launch of the first hardware - or if the true kicking off point might still be half a decade or so off in the future.

It's a debate perhaps vocalised best by David Helgason, founder of Unity – the game engine that seems to power pretty much every game hitting the market at the moment. Speaking back in November on stage at the Slush conference in Helsinki, Helgason commented that, though Unity is fully behind VR – and indeed will support every platform you can think of and more besides – he's in no way convinced that any of the games currently in development for VR headsets actually have the format nailed. “If you're doing VR right now,” said Helgason of the development community, “you're probably doing it wrong.”

“When we look at past technology switches, what developers initially create and what eventually works is almost always quite different,” offers Helgason when I ask him to shed a little more light on his view. “In order to be successful you need to lean all the way in, spend the time it takes to let yourself innovate on form and function, and be ready to try a number of things before it clicks. Regardless, I believe – as do a lot of the people I respect the most – that the opportunity is huge, so I think it’s warranted to really go for it… as long as you’re aware of the risks, such as which platforms are going to be successful and when, and what types of products will have success on them.”

For the developers that do “go for it”, as Helgason puts it, the big question that then arises is, if the typical VR game of today may ultimately turn out to have been only a work in progress, what does a good, ‘proper’ VR game look like?

“I honestly don’t know yet,” says Helgason, candidly. “I’ve seen a number of projects and game mechanics that excite me, but if any killer apps have been invented, I may not have seen them, or maybe I saw them and didn’t understand. I’m watching this space extremely closely, and every week I see new ideas come out.”

The prospect of being in that first wave of developers attempting to fill in VR's blanks then is quite a daunting one, though the buzz that surrounds the tech is a long way off dissolving. For Mike Bithell, the man behind the celebrated Thomas Was Alone and recent hit Volume, a good VR game will be about more than simply transferring console games across to the virtual reality space, but rather making use of what he believes VR's killer feature will be: simply making the player feel like he or she is actually in the world they're playing in.

“It's a pioneering field, so for sure we're all going to make a bunch of mistakes, explore some dead ends, and hopefully discover some paths we're not currently imagining,” says Bithell, who is currently working on his first VR projects, including a free PlayStation VR expansion pack for Volume called Coda. “For me, as a game developer, I'm excited about how the player inhabiting a VR space feels and plays. The sense of presence, of transportation, is completely different to any screen based gaming yet,” he continues. “When I close my eyes, I can remember locations from our game in the same way I remember rooms in my home.. It's a real place, I've been there. That's the aspect of VR as a platform that excites me.”

Of course, the flipside to pinning down just what works in VR is that you have to consider what doesn't. For the last few years, developers working on games designed to run on the Oculus Rift or Sony's VR tech have often spoken off the record about trying out established IP or games that have already been a hit on console or PC. The costs associated with developing a VR game from scratch make it especially tempting to simply port over big blockbuster Xbox or PlayStation games for a relatively low investment.

As Helgason's speech indicated, however, there's now a general acceptance amongst those in the know that, if you're asking players to fork out hundreds for a VR headset, they're not going to want to play the same games they've already completed during the last 12 months, or even new titles that ape those games' approach. For gamers investing in VR, they want games that make the best of the technology behind it and prove that they spent their money wisely.

“The platform certainly demands a great deal of invention and imagination, simply 'porting' a game over and hoping for the best won't work,” notes Bithell of his own experience to date. “We've had to work hard to make an existing game feel right in a VR environment. I think a lot of existing games or passive entertainment distinctions are going to struggle to hold up to VR.”

Indeed, one of the big challenges VR games are going to face early on has much in common with the transfer over from cartridge to CD-ROMs in the early 1990s. As any Sega Mega CD owner will tell you, far too many titles simply bedded FMV into traditional gameplay, and saw that as killer app enough. The novelty quickly wore off. Helgason believes that VR devs face a similar challenge, claiming that “a ton of people outside of the gaming community only know VR as a place to watch immersive video. That’s what we have to change, since there’s so many other interesting things to use VR for.” Interesting things, for example, such as basing experiences in detailed real-world locations, enabling players to travel the globe and see some of the wonders of the world without ever leaving their living room.

Could taking on an adventure in a fully functioning VR London, New York or Paris, for instance, deliver globe-trotting satisfaction without the need to actually travel? Will the next decade see millions genuinely feel like they've visited Mount Everest, the Grand Canyon or the Great Barrier Reef simply because they've taken on a title in their Oculus? Could such an approach actually help such save such wonders from being trampled over by tourists in the process?

“Do I think games will be set in overseas countries? Yes. Do I think gamification will be required to make virtual reality tourism interesting? God, I hope not,” offers Bithell. “Humans dig adventure and new experiences without earning points and badges still, I think. If not, there are larger problems to solve before we put too much effort into this whole VR thing.”

The long and short of it is, though the folks powering the games industry may feel like the question of VR’s success has been answered, the process of doing so seems to have uncovered far more questions than any of us might have imagined. It's the games in this first wave of VR releases that are going to have to tackle such quandaries and, as anyone who picked up an iPhone shortly after the launch of the App Store will tell you, it takes some time before software fully gets to grips with new technology, even if the supposed advantages seem clear from the outside looking in.

It seems logical to suggest, however, that this focus on being able to deliver a sense of reality far more affecting than on any of the current breed of hardware will see real-world ‘experiential’ software feature quite heavily in early releases, with bespoke games built from the ground up faring far better than goggled-up ports of first-person games we're already familiar with on existing platforms.

If you're hoping to play the latest Call of Duty or Grand Theft Auto on your Oculus later this year, you may well be disappointed. The games industry is coming to accept that the games that power VR need to be as new as the hardware itself. In fact the days when such traditional games had ownership of the ‘interactive entertainment’ label might well be over. “Every experience had in VR is interactive,” concludes Bithell, “so arguably on the game spectrum. I think we're going to have to invent a few new words.”

Keith Andrew
Hello. I’m Keith Andrew. I drink a lot of coffee and tap out a lot of words on my laptop. Based in the UK, for the last eight years I’ve been covering the gaming and tech scene for a variety of different publications online and in print, with a focus on the mobile scene.