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VR: A Means or an End?
by E McNeill on 05/17/14 09:20:00 pm   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.


I’m currently making a launch title for the Oculus Rift, which means that I’ve been hanging out a lot with the VR enthusiast community. I’ve also always tried to keep myself well-connected to the game dev community. They’re similar groups, and they often overlap, but recently I’ve started to notice a subtle culture clash.

It seems to me that, for hardcore VR enthusiasts, VR is a longstanding dream that they want to see fulfilled. They’re certain that VR will revolutionize everything, and they’ve been waiting for the revolution for so long that every new experience is something to be celebrated. It’s just so cool! Even if your average VR demo is a little shallow in these early days, it represents one more step toward the fulfillment of the dream. It’s finally happening!

Game devs, on the other hand, often feel burned by motion controls and other potential revolutions, and they’re wary of the viability of expensive and unproven hardware. They’re impressed by the technology, but wonder what they could actually do with it. They’re concerned about cost, about nausea, about the perception of isolation or discomfort. They aren’t quite willing to give VR the benefit of the doubt. Not yet.

This, obviously, is painting with a broad brush. Both groups are diverse, and lots of people are a part of both communities. But it’s striking how differently my conversations go at a VR meetup as opposed to, say, the Game Developers Conference. Among the game devs, I’m a wide-eyed idealist. Among the VR enthusiasts, I’m an overskeptical buzzkill. I’m happy to play both parts, but it’s weird.

I think the fundamental difference is whether you see VR as a means or an end. If you see VR as an end in itself, then you’re not going to focus as much on the content. You just need stuff to fill your time in virtual reality. If you see VR as a means toward another end (like good games), you’re not going to focus as much on the medium. It’s just one more tool in your toolbox, with unique challenges and obstacles, with no existing market and little proven potential.

As you’d expect of someone who’s making a VR-exclusive game, I think that most game devs are being a little shortsighted. Yes, VR is a young, unproven market. Yes, most VR games are underwhelming so far. But that represents an opportunity, not just a risk. VR may not be the future, but it’s almost certainly a future. The technology is undeniably promising, and there’s a lot of hunger right now for great VR experiences. Indies especially should see promise here.

Yet, having said that, I’m ultimately more on the “VR as a means” side of things. I’m a game designer first and foremost, and I only want to use VR if it can help me make a better game. I don’t harbor that dream of a VR revolution, and before the Oculus Rift made it a viable target for development, my interest in VR never went much beyond curiosity. I worry that many VR enthusiasts blind themselves with their optimism; they want VR to work so much that they’re willing to look beyond flaws that the rest of the world would never accept. That's a danger of wanting something too hard.

I’m hoping that my position in between these two communities will give me a better perspective, but it could just be that I’m wrong and one of these groups is more right. Still, one thing that gives me comfort is that Oculus, like me, shows skepticism as well as confidence. They’re not afraid to say that some cool technology or software is not up to par, and they exhibit a healthy balance between enthusiasm and realism. For now, I’m happy to follow their lead. Whether or not the VR revolution is coming, I’ll just keep making the best game I can, and I can’t imagine that I’ll end up disappointed.

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Joeri van der Velden
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I can certainly relate to your stance. I'm an early OR Kickstarter backer myself, and I see great promise in VR, but I won't fool myself that we'll turn the entire gaming industry upside down on short term. One of the issues is that there's no real go-to solution yet for VR input (which is why Oculus decided to focus on a seated-with-gamepad experience for the first generation). Though there are plenty of companies working on that, so I expect that problem to be solved in due time.

Another thing is that maybe it won't be games that break VR into the mainstream, but rather something like VR Cinema or a live VR broadcasting for sport events. There's definitely going to be a future for VR applications and I believe that people that specialize in it are going to be in a good position in a few years.

Kujel Selsuru
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Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I'm gald to see not all of those who are working on VR are blind VR fans.

I don't think VR will take off but neither am I rooting for it to fail. I feel the press has made VR seem bigger then it will be and in fact that may hurt VR far more then it may help it. Years ago I learned that if the press thinks something is cool it probably isn't that great but they do from time to time shine a light on gems so maybe I'm wrong and VR will take off but I still doubt it.

Jamie Mann
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People with a vested interest in something will always think it's the next big thing, pretty much by definition :)

The most recent example of this was the launch of 3D TVs, and to a lesser extent, the launch of Blu-ray media before that.

VR definitely has it's place, but it also has its limitations - the Wii may not have offered a full 3D HUD, but the Wiimote definitely highlighted many of these issues: it's easy enough to simulate something like bowling, but it's a lot harder to simulate something which involves physical contact, such as sword-fighting. And for most people, the appeal of physically interacting with a game died off very quickly and Wiis all over the world ended up stuck in a cupboard gathering dust, barring the occasional party, where physical interaction (and watching said interaction) becomes a strong positive rather than a negative.

As such, I honestly don't see VR taking off in any significant way - it's perfect for vehicle simulations, but weak for other scenarios - there's some potential for FPS gaming, but even then, I'd note that shooting games never did catch on too well on the Wii; a keyboard and mouse is still the only way to compete at the hardcore gaming level.

Still, I was at a gaming event a few weeks ago, and people were queuing around the block to have a go on the Oculus Rift. Though I'd also note that a few years earlier at the same event, people were doing exactly the same to have a go on the Wii U...

Sauli Kiviranta
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Motion controllers and whatnot have exactly same fundamental problem as VR. Too many developers take the existence of technology as sole gimmick to make the content good. This will never work. Any technological gadget be it VR or not will only penetrate to hearts of players if it offers content that is very closely coupled with the devices. So I am on the means side of table. Mouse and keyboard are superhuman interfaces and very widely adopted since they allow man to tell computer in low energy state its intentions.

What I am trying to convey is that any VR game has to offer dramatic advantage in the gameplay itself for the people using VR headset. The game mechanisms have to be revolving around increased field of view, for instance. If player A fights player B in Counter Strike XI, the one with best reactions will win. And whatever are the means to get there will be selected through digital natural selection. Games have to leverage in the mechanics the fact that you are within the game.

It is going to be tough job. Been there done that. But I see more and more games where the mechanics are right for VR. Many mental barriers have to be broken still.

Saying that VR devices will be beneficial in itself is like saying that standing outside on the field will be beneficial. The fact that we see with our two eyes does not make world interesting. We live through the experiences and observe them with our eyes. The events themself are the fun part, not sole fact that we can see or hear. What we see, what we hear, in what context.

Stephen Northcott
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I am tempted to quote BSG : "This has all happened before and will all happen again".

Some of us who are a bit longer in the tooth, and worked in VR back in the 90's, are acutely aware of the very serious pitfalls with VR that have still not been completely solved.

It is worth noting that VR has been chugging along in various forms since the late 80´s / early 90's, and is still actively used in R&D and military applications. Indeed for cockpit or driving based sims I think there is a lot of promise - there always has been. But there is a very real reason that professional racing and pilot training use screens, immersive "rooms" and expensive motion based systems.

Undoubtedly the tech. today has far more fidelity visually, and has a lot more oomph driving the visuals, and is smaller and cheaper. But has it crossed the threshold in all (or even any) of those areas to a significant enough degree to make this into an entertainment industry?

I will be buying an HMD of some flavour, if only to fly around in space ships and drive cars, occasionally.
But I still am not convinced that this iteration will not end the same way it did in the 90's.

The availability of newer tracking and screen technologies make all this very very promising.
Back in the day we only had bulky magnetic trackers, no gyros or anything, and horrible big bulky, heavy low res LCD panels. Our optics were pretty basic too.
There is no doubt today that we have much better solutions for these parts of the puzzle.

But lag, "VR sickness", the human condition (which does not do well with head sets), consumer level equipment cost / quality, and dealing with motion within and outside of the simulation are all still very real issues.
Some are certainly not as insurmountable as they were in the 90's though.

I ask one very serious question of anyone hoping to make a business in VR games. How many people do you know who own a steering wheel for racing games, a Playstation Eye, or a joystick for flight sims? The reason I ask that is because that is the rough market share you can expect to have. This is an exclusive peripheral market. As geeks (and I am one) it is very easy to overlook how many people will actually go and buy this gear even at $150 - $199. And how much money it costs to make a game, and if you can then realistically expect to recoup those expenses with that consumer base.

As a purely artistic endeavour, there has never been a better time to get into VR. Some of the up coming space sims, and the more esoteric bomb defusing style experiences are extremely exciting to me. But do I think millions of console players will be playing VR games in the next few years? No.

Of course I still hope I am wrong. I believed in VR in the 90's. I still believe in what we were doing then, and people are doing now. :)

Jacob Pederson
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Plenty of very small companies are able to survive making Racing Sim stuff only, so that gives me some hope for VR :) Heck, VR could end up BEING one of those niche racing sim products.

Michael Joseph
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re: VR sickness - do we know whether it can be overcome just by getting used to it? "Getting your VR legs" so to speak?

re: means vs ends, VR as hardware is obviously a means. VR experiences are the ends the best of which are made so by exploiting those possibilities that are uniquely available through VR hardware or which can only be fully realized through the hardware. Otherwise the hardware would not be the operative factor.

Stephen Northcott
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re: VR sickness : In my experience there are people that it simply effects all the time. Rather like some people simply can't get comfortable in glasses. But I do think that a degree of it for the majority of those affected reduces over time.

There are of course those with medical issues, such as problems with depth perception and different degrees of focus ability who are not able to get the best from VR.

Daniel Lau
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VR sickness is a very real thing. And as someone who has had to deal with it since the first Frankenstein 3D, it is an incredible overwhelming feeling that you need to experience first hand to really understand what its like. And to just tell a person they need to, " just work though it," is very naive. It will not reduce over time and the vast majority of players afflicted with this issue won't put in the time to find out. You just can't imagine what a bad feeling it is and how it greatly outweighs any sense of enjoyment that comes from the game/simulation. I'm not going to risk playing a game that could cause me to projectile vomit on my computer screen. Would you?

Aaron Eastburn
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I am an Oculus Rift backer as well. I have also been working at a company that has been starting to leverage it. All in all I have a feeling that it is still in it's infancy and many people are just trying to graft the previous platform onto this. I think it will be a little while before others truly understand how to use it. It seems like a lot of designers are still coping with how to handle interactions. We are still a long way from standard inputs for each VR setup. That will be one of the biggest hurdles for a while.

Jacob Pederson
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Whether VR is a means or an end is pretty much up to Game Dev's at this point :P. I'll be happy with either. As a kickstarter backer, I already felt I had my money's worth after playing around in Sixense Tuscany. So I definitely fall into the "end" camp in that respect. However, the more "means" people we can get involved, the more chance VR has for mainstream success. I don't want DK2 to be the last affordable headset for another 20 years . . . but then again I ordered 2 of em just in case it is :)

Peter Eisenmann
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I believe VR will stay a niche/geek thing. Main reason: You are too isolated when playing. Many people have a problem when their vision gets blocked. It's an evolutionary thing I guess. Also, you don't look too cool when wearing the gear. Or I should rather say for most people you don't.

Mike Griffin
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For a few years, people will be like "Okay, this genre sells a lot. Let's figure out a way to put it on VR" - and they'll do just that, as a means to ride the wave. But then we'll see new genres emerge, designs that are deeply wired into the medium from their conception onward, and that's going to be rather exciting.

That's a wide open playing field, and anyone -- small/mid/large studio -- can be the one to introduce that first consumer-friendly, medium-defining, uniquely VR game experience.

We'll see early leaders emerge in VR's social applications and undoubtedly for interactive VR viewing in movies and sports, so the game side will need its own legitimate (and irresistible) experiences.