VR For The People

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This is what we’ve been waiting for. The promise of VR has been hovering around us for the last few years, teasing us with the possibility of a paradigm shift in the way we play games. But while most of our attention has been focused on Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, it turns out it’s actually PlayStation VR that may hold the key to unlocking virtual reality’s potential and breaking it into the mainstream.

As Sony’s device finds a foothold in the world, we tested it extensively, played every launch game and sat down with key developers to see just how much of an impact Sony’s newest hardware could really have. The first step, though, was learning what it takes to make a VR game in the first place, as developers are challenged to work on a platform that’s really like nothing else they’ve had to handle before.

“Battlezone is the game I’ve probably spent the most preproduction time on in my career,” senior producer James Valls tells us as we discuss one of PSVR’s more robust releases. “The team realised very early on that many things that we took for granted from our extensive experience working on a variety of games – these things weren’t really applicable to VR. So we had to spend a lot of time re-learning the basics and tailoring the experience for VR.” One of the lesser-appreciated elements of using PlayStation VR is that it can enhance your experience of games you already own.

By using the headset with non-VR titles, you can play in Cinema mode, creating a virtual cinema-scope screen in the headset. Playing titles through Cinema mode is like getting to play them on a gigantic TV. This mode also works for watching Blu-rays and streaming services like Netflix. It’s an extraordinarily immersive experience, although the resolution of the screens on the headset can make things look a little grainy. It’s worth trying out regardless. Once those lessons have been learned though, applying them across the devices appears to be a relatively straightforward undertaking.

“Obviously the high-end PC is more powerful than the closed ecosystem of the PlayStation 4, but that said, the PS4 is a very capable piece of hardware,” according to nDreams’ vice president of development Tom Gillo. “It was an engineering task – we had to do some optimisation – but overall for The Assembly we stabilised a build with Unreal about six weeks out from launch.”
Andrew Willans, lead game designer on EVE: Valkyrie had a similar experience as CCP Games looked to bridge the divide between devices.

“Surprisingly, from a game design perspective, it was reasonably easy, because we had to have parity across all platforms,” he explains, EVE: Valkyrie being the first VR title to offer a cross-platform experience through the Joint Strike mode. “If you’re making a competitive multiplayer shooter, it’s got to be the same game.” Alongside this the other key priority has been optimisation of performance. Unlike with other console games, a little drop in frame-rate in a VR game can result in a pretty horrible experience for the player.

“Ensuring a stable frame-rate at 60fps is a given for PSVR, so that wasn’t a technical consideration that was up for compromise, we knew we had to deliver that without question,” says Dax Ginn, Rocksteady’s brand marketing producer, as we discuss Batman: Arkham VR. “For us, Batman: Arkham VR needed to feel like a ‘next-gen’ game so we overhauled our facial-scanning processes in order to give us much more realistic character features and facial animation.

Making a full transition to Unreal Engine 4 also enabled us to increase the quality of our lighting and effects, which makes a huge difference to the visual quality of the game. We also set benchmarks in terms of gameplay interaction. It was important to us that this was not just a passive experience and that we were offering gamers genuine gameplay interactions.”

The very important question this brings up though is whether or not the PS4 and PlayStation VR are actually capable of delivering the kind of highend VR experiences that Oculus Rift and HTC Vive have shown are possible on highend PCs. As the cheapest device on the market, there’s an expectation that PSVR is the lesser cousin of this first gen of VR hardware. “There’s never really been an issue,” insists Willans.

“We’ve maybe needed to look at player numbers, AI numbers, just to make sure that we’re hitting the right FPS. It’s something that, to be honest, we would do from a gameplay perspective anyway. You quickly learn that when you put in a co-op mode and you’re going to fight against the AI, there’s a limit and you don’t want to go over that limit anyway, because you would get absolutely swamped.” “One way that I’ve seen it described online is the difference between the PS2 and the original Xbox,” nDreams communications manager George Kelion tells us. “Between PlayStation VR and HTC Vive, sure there’s a difference, but not so big a difference to be a generational leap, which is a lot of what the community was expecting. And it certainly has no impact on the kind of experiences you can deliver.

All of these generation one headsets are ultimately the same generation.” And working on PS4 has some innate advantages according to Gillo. “I would say that because with PlayStation you have that fixed target, in lots of ways as a developer that’s a nice thing to have because it’s a closed ecosystem and it’s static. We started out on The Assembly with the PC version of it, but comparatively the amount of testing we would have had to do and the comparative amount of work we would have to do, it’s certainly harder on the PC.”

So it seems that PlayStation VR has its strengths and weaknesses like any other piece of hardware, so what’s really going to set it apart from the other devices out there (besides it price point) is going to be its games. We would recommend taking a look at the full launch lineup of PSVR and just trying to work out how many different genres or types of game it has to offer; it’s one of the most diverse and rich launches we can remember, offering something for so many different types of gamers. But it does have the look of a scattergun approach to gamemaking, so the question that rises is: what works best in VR and what doesn’t?

“The design team had to create gameplay systems from scratch after quickly realising that a lot of the mechanics that we have used for our previous Batman games did not translate into VR,” Ginn admits to us. “Our early experimentation with combat and realistic navigation proved very quickly to result in a pretty uncomfortable experience for the gamer. “With these learnings at hand, we committed ourselves to focusing on the strengths of VR as a technology and we aimed to create games that make players feel like the World’s Greatest Detective.” “I think the boundaries are being torn down quite quickly,” is Willans assessment. “I didn’t expect first-person shooters, free-standing, to deliver for a long time. In my head as a gamer, I was really passionate and really wanted this to happen, but will it happen? I don’t know.

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