VRTO 2019: VR & the Road to Now…& Then – feat Blake J. Harris, Blair Renaud, Keram Malicki-Sanchez
In this uncompromising chat set at the VRTO 2019 Virtual Reality & Augmented Reality conference in Toronto, author Blake J. Harris discusses his insights from time spent with with Palmer Luckey during the time Oculus was acquired by Facebook, the future of consoles and concerns around privacy. Indie game developer Blair Renaud dukes it out with VR investor Tipatat Chennavasin about how to price VR games on the Oculus Quest, and everyone gets into the fray to discuss what will ultimately make VR successful in the eyes of the public and the people who invested money and time to get it there.
2017 was far closer to the “Year of VR” that everyone promised a year earlier – new head-mounted displays from Microsoft’s spec (Acer, Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard, Samsung), peripheral updates – HTC Vive Tracker, and major permanent price cuts across all platforms meant higher adoption. Games and apps improved beyond being mere demo-grade downstream shovel-ware as the early developers matured into major players. 2018 will advance all of these elements substantially, and as arcades evolve and Spielberg enters the fray with the spring release of Ready Player One, mainstream awareness will start to trickle in.
Among the offerings that came out in 2017, here are those experiences we found most succinct and worth of your time.
Cat Sorter VR
from Pawmigo Games
Despite the goofy premise, this game about taking apart cats and putting them back together again as a worker on an assembly line in some feline equivalent to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory captured the public imagination – and mainstream media attention – in ways that few other VR releases did this year. Helping elevate Cat Sorter VR from a novelty game are the cats themselves, which feature mutations like extra eyes or scorpion tales, making the whole process all the more addictive. This fusion of cute and creepy were enough to garner the Aesthetic Award at IndieCade 2017.
Though it’s technically still in Early Access, everyone we know has been playing Gorn nonstop this year. Created by the team responsible for indie PC hit BroForce, this gladiatorial combat game provides a sense of gleeful, cartoonish violence that’s so over-the-top it’s somehow almost innocent. Gore plus porn – get it?
Instead of destructible environments and explosions, the theme this time around is spiked clubs and fisticuffs – not to mention ludicrously huge blood droplets spattering everywhere each time a swing connects with a face.
Bigscreen is a recently socialized virtual desktop app for Vive and Oculus Rift that lets you echo your desktop in virtual space. You can play games, scribble, throw a LAN party – we have yet to figure out how to not spill Mountain Dew in our lap while doing so – and most obviously, watch movies with others in a virtual theater. Spatialized voice chat ensures you can echolocate your buddies in the metaverse.
You can also manipulate screens with controllers or even Leap Motion‘s IR-based input method. They recently hosted an online viewing party of Top Gun in 3D. Now VR starts to demonstrate how it is unlike any other medium.
VR’s strength is its use of space to create experience, and what science fiction fan wouldn’t want to visit location as iconic as the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise? Star Trek Bridge Crew gives players the chance to not only explore the bridge but also team up with friends online “to boldly go where no man has gone before.”
Lone Echo draws on hard science fiction, both classic (Arthur C. Clarke) and modern (The Expanse), setting players to work investigating weird goings-on aboard a space station orbiting Saturn. Apart from its puzzles and evocative renditions of believable technology as well as the awe-inspiring feeling of space, the game excels at locomotion, giving players an experience of zero gravity without the attendant expense of training at NASA or chartering a reduced-gravity aircraft.
If that all sounds too esoteric and thought-provoking, there’s also the included Echo Arena spin-off, a multi-player zero gravity sports game a bit like Ultimate Frisbee.
An interactive fairy tale from Funomena (best known for such acclaimed works as Journey and Flower), our favorite VR game of the year is so perfect because of its use of space to both tell a story and offer up gaming elements in a space-based diorama filled with wonderful nature pastiches. Its puzzles are fairly easy, but are fun and addictive enough to keep us pulling at spiderwebs not to progress in the game, but just because we enjoyed the sensation so much. Delightful art and a score by Austin Wintory made Luna a memorable and joyous experience.
This is no mere update but a sea change, catching up to Steam and Windows MR to allow you to build your own crib the way you like it. The Rift 2.0 Core update adds so many features it becomes an experience all unto itself. Allowing you to bring your own Medium creations into your animated, customized home base adds to the joy. Socialized features and virtual desktops via the new Dash interface make it harder than ever to leave once you’re in. The first steps towards the universe envisioned in Ready Player One.
Oculus Rift | FREE from the Oculus Store (Beta Opt-In Required)
from VRChat Inc.
VRChat is STILL technically in Early Access – and even while AltSpace died and cried and then Palmer Luckey considered buying it with cash and then Microsoft actually did and while High Fidelity looks amazing but no one is there and it takes FOREVER to load and while Project Sansar looks even BETTER than that and has cryptocurrency but no one uses it yet – VRChat crept up and grabbed society by the jugular, and now grandmas and kids and drunk uncles all can’t get enough of it. Amazing to see a sleeper pop like this and restore hope for us all.
Although VR implementation for Google Earth actually arrived in 2016, this year has seen major updates to the project, including faster load times and – more significantly – direct integration with Google Street View. A terrific travelers’ pre-visit tool and surprisingly emotional.
With every week that goes by in VR time, we see the positive return from the many conversations, panels, talks, experiments, game jams and cash infusions that have piled up over the past five years. As VR game devs mature and audiences teach them what is working and what is not, the resultant fare is beginning to find its bearings and even show traces of a soul.
At OGR, we try to look at titles that depart from the overabundant roller coaster sim or rail shooter, and it is getting easier every week to find innovative story and world-rich new works. This week’s offerings have been particularly compelling, and here are five we especially liked for all audiences:
Top Five Oculus Games – Oct. 14th-20th, 2017
From the team whose members created such luminary titles as Journey, Flower, Boom Blox and The Sims 2, Luna developer Funomena describes this winsome virtual reality experience as an interactive fable about learning by the light of unexpected mistakes.
We had an opportunity to try the demo out at IndieCade 2017, and what we saw was quite breathtaking. Luna is not a hard game, nor is it fundamentally innovative, but it does something many games fail to accomplish: a unified and aesthetically delightful tone that understands how to use spatialized media to its fullest. The simple spiderweb puzzles left us pulling strands to and fro just because it was such a cool feeling, puzzles be damned.
The reveal of a new element returning to life after each puzzle is solved, the endearing interactive animations elicited by waving one’s hands over the critters, the beautiful score by Austin Wintory all come together to make Luna one of the must-have VR experiences of the year.
Though Call of the Starseed had some minor quibbles, its inventory system was one of the first great demonstrations of how to manage things in embodied narrative space. The game was one of the better looking launch titles and promised a brighter future than most of the shovelware that was being dropped on Steam and other storefronts at the time, like so many Atari E.T. cartridges in a sandpit.
It is telling that the sequel, part two of The Gallery series from Cloudhead, then, comes with only moderate fanfare by comparison, because it is better in every way: graphically, functionally and thematically. The game also uses a similar technique for recounting exposition as Fullbright‘s Tacoma: via holographic recordings. Also, it isn’t epic in length; at under four hours, you can work your way through it in a dedicated night of play. Some people prefer shorter games, and if you are one of them, don’t miss this.
SkyWorld brings the oft-overlooked strategy genre to VR with a mixture of turn-based and real-time action. While the mechanics tend to be on the “accessible” side – think the Clash of Clans games rather than Starcraft II or Command and Conquer – the beautifully animated little battlefields make up for any lack of complexity. If you’ve ever wanted to see a dragon lay waste to a tiny snowglobe-like village in VR, this is the game for you.
The highly acclaimed first-person adventure and its poignant tale of artificial intelligence makes its way to VR, and between the glowing laser puzzles, beautifully decayed buildings and philosophical tone, it’s a perfect fit. The original game’s developers rebuilt The Talos Principle VR from the ground up, so it’s totally optimized for VR and also includes the extensive Road to Gehenna DLC.
DreamTank is VR at its most meditative – no shooting, no action, no puzzles. Instead, selecting one of 10 ambient compositions sets the program in motion, procedurally generating vast alien worlds driven by the sonic evocations. Find one you like, and choose to stay awhile, or let the world continue to evolve around you.
Previously released as a standard PC title, this “walking simulator” has been rebuilt for VR (and if you buy it on Steam, you get the standard version included for free). Like the best walking simulators, Reaching for Petals tells a heartfelt story that we don’t want to spoil here, but the chance to walk through its sun-dappled forests alone in VR is worth the low price of admission.
Just released in Early Access, Until None Remain: Battle Royale VR is a brutal, fast-paced multi-player deathmatch. As if other players and their range of weaponry weren’t dangerous enough, each 15-minute session features poisonous gas forcing all participants into an ever-shrinking play space, so there’s no chance of hiding off in the corner and playing sniper.