The Mistaken Medium: Failings in VR Game Design

Even for the most devout VR advocates, it’d be hard to argue that it’s found its stride. Prices for virtual reality equipment are dropping, and at last year’s E3 conference, companies like Microsoft completely axed the term from their press briefings. It left the VR-curious, like myself, let down that this exciting new frontier might never venture beyond its promising start.

After trying the Vive and Oculus Rift for myself at various opportunities, I became a defender of VR, even if a slightly hypocritical one that never put down my own money for equipment. Like so many others, the prohibitive cost kept me away. That is until recently, when I finally picked up a PSVR so I could evaluate virtual reality from the perspective of a consumer.

As the cheapest and most comfortable option of the big three VR platforms, the PSVR (alongside the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive) was prophesied to be a gateway for the VR-curious, and was expected to create a strong install base that ushered in an age of quality software support. But despite Sony’s best efforts, the VR landscape hasn’t progressed much further than where it was two years ago.

So why? There’s a handful of obstacles the device has working against it, the most troublesome of which is the chicken-and-egg dilemma of publishers not wanting to spend money developing for a platform without players, and players not wanting to spend money on expensive VR equipment without quality games.

Admittedly there’s still no cliched “killer app” for any virtual reality system, but there’s enough potential enjoyment to be found on the PlayStation Store to justify the device’s hefty pricetag. And after having tried a handful of PSVR titles, I noticed an important distinction between the games I enjoyed and the ones that felt contrived: design philosophy.

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The best virtual reality games are the ones that offer an experience not possible within the realm of traditional gaming, while also recognizing and respecting the fundamental restrictions of the VR medium. Despite how tantalizing it may sound to bring the player into an established, beloved game world, the limitations of the PSVR do more to inhibit an experience that is otherwise completely functional with a TV and a controller, and the device’s best titles understand this.

In the touted comedic experiment Accounting Plus, there’s little gameplay besides simply picking up a key item and performing the action that progresses the scene. Additionally, there isn’t much variety outside of potentially hearing new dialogue on a second or third playthrough, and as for the classic gaming metric of “hours to completion versus price,” it rates pretty poorly, lasting a mere 20-30 minutes and costing $11.99.

Even without using that laughably archaic standard of criticism, it’s inappropriate to evaluate virtual reality games through the same lens as regular games. Many who’ve enjoyed Accounting Plus, including myself, can testify that their purchases felt justified, despite the game’s short length. Similar VR titles like Job Simulator are incomparable to conventional video games, yet are still expected to carry a the same commendable qualities of story, gameplay and visuals.

In actuality, most of these game are small in scope, with comparatively limited potential. And while some might consider that a weakness of virtual reality, would players really prefer a 30-40 hour experience in virtual reality that costs $60? Or should these bite-sized chunks become the norm, given how much more physically taxing playing virtual reality can be? Truthfully no one knows since the rules for these games have yet to be completely written, but the most successful VR games tend to be noncommittal and risk-free.

Contrast those smaller, limited experiences with a blockbuster “VR-enchanced” games like Resident Evil VII. In the opening 15 minutes, I began noticing all of the compromises Capcom had to make to adapt the game to PSVR. Abrupt movements had to be segmented by fades to black to prevent motion sickness, which killed the tension in RE VII‘s more intense scenes. In the swamps outside the mansion, objects in the environment were constantly popping, and even inside the Baker estate, the visual clarity was all over the place. With a PSVR headset on, being stalked in the game’s earlier sections was undeniably scarier, but beyond that fleeting novelty, there were so many smaller aspects of the Resident Evil VII experience that when translated to virtual reality felt like trying to fit a square peg through a round hole.

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Somewhere in the middle of those pulls between VR “experience” and traditional game deisgn lies Doom VFR. There are interesting adjustments made to accommodate the new the PSVR, like teleporting, which replaces movement and Doom‘s iconic glory kills. But the frantic pace that made Doom such a success does not translate well to the VR platform. Even on the easiest difficulty, it’s way too fast-paced, and the brief moments where you feel like a badass demon killer are quickly brought down once you become overwhelmed by fireballs from lowly imps. Even with its major changes, Doom‘s core identity feels incompatible with the headset, as it was created with only a controller in mind.

Of course, these ill-advised design decisions are understandable given how young the VR medium is (so young, in fact, many have yet to recognize it as a new medium at all). Games media has continually tried to evaluate virtual reality by the incongruent standards we’ve been using, and maybe that’s emblematic VR’s larger issue. Devices like the Vive, Oculus and PSVR shouldn’t just be used to enhance our current gaming experience; they should be creating new ones. Design is just one of several major hurdles VR has yet to overcome, but as the medium (hopefully) matures, the most successful endeavors will be the ones that break through the established barriers of modern gaming and offer the proverbial system-seller that cements virtual reality as a permanent gaming fixture.

Sadly, that future may never come of VR doesn’t live to see its adolescence.

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