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Indies and the Oculus Rift
by E McNeill on 09/20/13 04:22:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Oculus and IndieCade just wrapped up the VR Jam, a 3-week game competition for the Oculus Rift. I've been watching the hype for the Oculus Rift build up for a while now, and since I had a devkit and some free time, I decided to enter the competition with a cyberpunk hacking game called Ciess. I'm proud to report that yesterday Ciess won the grand prize in the open call division!

Three weeks of crunch hardly makes me an expert on Virtual Reality, but the experience did allow me an interesting glimpse into the process of making VR games. In particular, it showed me how indie-friendly the Rift can be. I was working solo, and I didn't have much experience with VR or 3D games, yet I felt like the constraints of the hardware were constantly working to my advantage. After that, I can't help but think that the Oculus Rift presents an excellent opportunity for indies.

There are a lot of different things that led me to that conclusion, but there's one general theme among them: the major advantages of the Rift are extremely easy for indies to exploit, while the major disadvantages are easier for smaller teams to circumvent. Some specifics:

1. The Oculus Rift is naturally immersive.

A 3D display with a high field-of-view is great for immersion, but there's also a simpler effect at play: the Rift shuts out any external visual stimuli. You can't look away to check your phone or talk to someone passing by. Instead, you're locked into the game, no matter where you look. Some people will see that sensory isolation as a bad thing, but for most games, it's a pure positive. Best of all, it doesn't require any extra development effort to achieve this effect; it's simply a physical feature of the hardware.

2. Stereoscopic 3D is awesome.

Trust me, it's a better feature for games than for movies. It's extremely noticeable when a game object is close to you, and the feeling of proximity and embodiment is just cool. It isn't difficult to achieve this effect, either. It just requires keeping some action close to the player, whether that's particles or projectiles or inventory management.

3. It's the future.

The hype for the Oculus Rift has been growing steadily since its announcement, and it doesn't show any signs of slowing down. Even with my tiny jam game, I had no trouble finding players who were eager to try out a new Rift experience (shoutout to /r/oculus!). It feels like one of the old console transitions, when the difference in technology felt enormous. The big difference is that, for the first time, the modern indie scene can be a major part of that transition. And, since there's so much new territory to explore, an indie has the chance to make a huge impression in the new VR landscape.

4. HD graphics don't matter.

The resolution of an Oculus Rift development kit is extremely low. Even though the consumer version is going to have a vastly improved resolution, it's still not going to offer the crispness and detail that are associated with modern HD graphics. Luckily, that doesn't ruin the magic of the VR experience. Instead, it just means that developers don't (yet) have to worry about extreme graphical detail, which makes things a little easier for those of us without a big art budget. Ciess, for example, was built with an extremely basic look, yet players complimented it all the same.

5. Realistic human physics are hard.

So far, I've been disappointed with all the Rift games that cast me in the role of a human. I think this is because the brain knows what first-person reality is supposed to feel like, and so any deviation from reality (such as the lack of physical cues for motion) is immediately noticeable. Even slow-paced experiences like the Tuscany demo have left me feeling nauseous, and most players are used to much more intense movement in their games. Obviously, this isn't an advantage, but it's a disadvantage that disproportionately affects the games that depend on realism. My impression is that AAA teams tend to aim for realism much more often than indies, who instead tend to favor style and abstraction. In my case, I intended Ciess to be totally divorced from reality, which allowed me the freedom to implement whatever physics and control schemes I wanted. The result was almost zero nausea, and a more unique experience to boot.

6. The big questions can be solved by clever design.

There's a lot that still hasn't been figured out for VR, and most of these questions won't be answered by extra content or more advanced technology. Nobody is really sure about the proper use of head-look, how to show user interfaces, how much player motion is desirable, etc. Figuring out how to make a good VR game is going to take a lot of innovation. Indies, with the ability to experiment and iterate cheaply, are in a good position to make it happen.

7. Oculus is explicitly pro-indie.

The mere fact that Oculus set up the VR Jam (in partnership with IndieCade, no less!) is proof enough for me. But you can also look at their public statements over the past few months, in which they've said again and again that they expect indies to deliver some of the best early VR experiences. Not to mention the nigh-effortless Unity integration! So far, they've been great.

With all that said, VR is not going to be a gold rush. The initial install base is going to be small compared to that of consoles or mobile devices, and making a game in 3D is not going to be easy for those who, like me, were used to working in two dimensions. Still, after building a game for the Rift, I'm absolutely sold on its potential, and considering all the advantages that indies have in VR, I feel like I'd be crazy not to continue.

- @E_McNeill

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Michael Isaacs
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As a Game Dev / Indie Dev my self who purchased a OR Devkit, and have been playing around with ideas and trying to work on a game for it. I have a few questions for when my game gets complete that maybe you have already thought about.

How are you going to Market and Sell a game made for the OR? My main point being the simple problem with the Kinetic like Microsoft has. Not every one is going to own a Kinetic, so Dev's dont want to waste time working on features for it, as it could be wasted resources. If you make the game JUST for the OR like I was planning on then ONLY those who get the OR or have the Devkit's can purchase it.

Is this one of those, don't really see a market on it but use it as more of a Demo / Resume builder then a profitable thing to sell? Ya, I could include the ability for Mouse look and other things but it destroys the immersion and beauty of the game if you go back to the norm.

How do you plan on taking on this Issue, if you ever plan to market a Rift only game?

E McNeill
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It would be the same hope as any launch title: a smaller install base, but a higher rate of sales. If you can make something excellent for the early days of the Rift, you might get a large percentage of Rift owners to buy it. The math might not work out for bigger companies, but a small team probably wouldn't need hundreds of thousands of sales to be profitable.

Allan Rowntree
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Great work! I also entered the VR Jam with "LGM - Pizza Delivery Rocketeer" and had great fun doing it.

It's early days for VR 2.0 or should that be 1.9 and there are major shifts in the computing devices people use now. With mobile devices taking over from PC's/Laptops and consoles. So I think Oculus's focus on mobile is a good thing. Given the rate of development in the mobile space the power to run 60+ FPS HD games is nearly here.

Like you say it's a new space, so indies should go get some, as the AAA guys only have to plug in the Rift SDK add a two camera rig and rework their 2D HUD and they have converted their game ready for the VR age. The lack of numbers and big brand names behind it allow the little guys a brief window of opportunity.

For me even with a SD Dev Kit, using the Rift is like being there as opposed to looking at a picture.

Come on indies let's build VR Cyberspace before the big guys take over!

Note, Please try VR in the Rift before you knock it.

Jeff Murray
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VR sickness is going to hold back VR more than any technical, gameplay or price problem. There are far more people who get sick with VR than people who don't, so unless it gets addressed I think we'll end up with another Virtual Boy.

After the official launch, I see initial sales being good but a few months in, once everybody realizes the whole thing is a recipe for sickness and that it's unusable for so many, sales are going to be nowhere.

Until the sickness gets sorted out, I think it's a bad investment if you're hoping to make money - not really much more than a fun toy.

Merc Hoffner
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Lots of the causes of VR sickness are the very reasons why people are excited about Oculus rift, because they've gone a long way to alleviate those problems.

The key issue with existing VR is the latency in the display controller and motion sensors create a disconnect that some people have trouble with - AFAIK Oculus addresses both of these problems in hardware by using customized display controllers and motion tracking hardware to reduce that right down - a prime part of why so many users report such a great experience. The ultra wide viewing angle probably reduces that claustrophobic effect from the tunnel vision, and I hear it's one of the lighter VR display, reducing head strain. Also, the custom warped rendering and algorithms for accurate motion prediction on the software end are supposed to alleviate the geometric distortion when you try displaying flat stereo views, and improve observed latency again.

Really, apart from resolution and dynamic range (which should improve as they get better displays for the production version), the key sick-inducing factor remaining is the non-correlation between the focal depth (which is obviously fixed) and the stereoscopic convergence (which should now be pretty good).

E McNeill
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Good points, Merc. There's also the issue of motion; when the visual and vestibular systems disagree, there can be trouble. But even now, with the fairly primitive dev kit Rift, the biggest issues can be controlled (and alleviated) by the game rather than the Rift.

Nausea is obviously a huge concern, but my experiences with the dev kit have convinced me that the Oculus Rift can deliver an experience good enough to finally get people to buy in to VR. I'm not sure if it will just be the enthusiasts at first or if average folks will be intrigued as well, but I'd be stunned if the Rift just flopped. Oculus is talking a big game about the improvements of the consumer version relative to the dev kit too, so hopefully most of the remaining technical problems will be totally worked out by then.

Harry Fields
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But at the end of the day, as you mentioned, the focal depth being 4 inches or whatever it is from my forehead.... That's rough for long-term immersive gaming. The human eye does not handle looking at things 6 inches away for even moderate amounts of time very well. As a novelty, I like it... but then I liked the 3DS... in extreme moderation. It's a major improvement over VR of the 90s... but will it sell? That's the multi-million dollar question.

Allan Rowntree
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But I know people who have watched me play a fast action video game and they get "motion sickness" just from watching the screen cameras viewpoint shift and change.

Just like motion sickness in real life, certain games and apps, like roller coasters and big dippers some people will avoid.

Maybe we need a VR rating system, that would indicate the amount and severity of the motion involved in the game?

Harry Fields
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For some reason, I want a Tron OR title. It seems like that would be the perfect world for OR.

Ian Fisch
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Misleading title. Most of these 7 reasons apply to big studios just as much as indies.

E McNeill
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I was hoping to make a subtle point: these advantages are easy for indies to exploit, whereas most advances in game hardware (like a usual console transition) are better for large teams that have the resources to exploit them. The Rift's strengths de-emphasize detailed art and advanced tech in favor of clever design and creative experimentation. I think that marks it as an unusually good opportunity for indies.

Ross Wilson
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A: I love Oculus and own a dev's simply life changing....
B: Just came across this indie game which is integrating Oculus

if you really wanna experience gaming, try out this new mmo's being dev'd out of atlanta and is integrating VR, specifically oculus rift into it...seems pretty awesome: