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.