At GDC today I had a brief opportunity to check out a few new VR demos for Sony's Project Morpheus headset and sit down with Shuhei Yoshida, Sony's President of Worldwide Studios, to talk about the state of the platform.
Visceral details on the Morpheus demos Sony has brought to GDC are already widely available, and developers may be especially interested in how Sony has integrated Move controllers into the design of The Heist: a brief VR scenario where the player, seated in a virtual interrogation chair, flashes back to the scene of a shootout.
The Heist lets players simulate ducking behind cover by crouching and manipulating virtual objects (including a pistol and clips of ammunition) using the PlayStation Move controllers, and Yoshida suggests it's an example of what Sony's first-party developers should be doing: building VR experiences that showcase what the platform can do to drum up interest in the platform.
“That’s what we do, right? I mean, we have first-party content, and I’m proud of what we do, but always our market share is…you know, fifteen percent, twenty percent [of the PlayStation software market]," said Yoshida. "With Morpheus, it’s going to be the same."
So how does Sony expect to fill the vacuum? By luring third-party developers to the platform, just like it's doing with the PlayStation 4.
“Some of the games made for Oculus and Gear VR are quite good, so we want them,” said Yoshida. “Third-party developers are very important to us, and I think they want us to be there [in the VR market] so they can monetize their content on a new platform.”
But Sony's recent attempts to lauch new peripheral-dependent PlayStation platforms has been less than stellar; accessories like the Wonderbook, the PlayStation Camera and the PlayStation Move have failed to gain traction with developers, and while Yoshida says he's happy with Move ("It was ahead of its time"), the way it allowed for augmented reality game design was less than ideal.
“We struggled to use the capabilities of Move to create a real 3D playspace, and convert that into good game design,” said Yoshida. Turns out, “designing games for regular TV using 3D input is really difficult.”
Developers struggled to make compelling Move games in part, says Yoshida, because it’s hard to make something that’s satisfying and robust to play when you’re sitting in front of a TV with a motion controller.
“Trying to make good games for Move was hard,” said Yoshida, adding that developers often had trouble making 3D motion-tracking games that didn’t confuse players. They struggled to match Nintendo's success with motion control games, in part because “the beauty of Wii was, anywhere you go, any direction you look, you can still play! It’s fail-safe, and great for everyone.”
But Move developers had to communicate to players how to stand to ensure the Move controllers could be tracked effectively, and Yoshida says some developers decided to dumb down their games so they only used the Wii-esque motion tracking, rather than the positional tracking capabilities afforded by the camera.
As Morpheus comes to fruition, Yoshida believes developers should take another look at the positional tracking technology that debuted in Move (and was later integrated into the DualShock 4); having a well-tracked virtual representation of a physical controller you're waving around in front of your VR-helmeted face can make your game feel more immersive and more comfortable to be immersed in for extended play sessions.
And despite the fact that all Morpheus demos have so far been short, controlled experiences, Sony is pushing for developers to try and build full-size games for the platform.
“We are confident people can use it for hours and be happy, if the game is designed well,” said Yoshida. When Sony starts shipping Morpheus developer kits out in spring, Yoshida encourages developers to “be a bit more aggressive in designing long-session games like RPGs or online shooters...big stuff like that.”
So what is Sony doing to help external developers bring their VR games to Morpheus, exactly?
“Our approach is pretty much the same to regular PS4 content,” said Yoshida. “We are extremely excited about what indies come up with, like No Man’s Sky, Octodad or Butt Sniffin’ Pugs," and so Sony is working to make it easy for developers to optimize Unity and Unreal games for Morpheus.
He also paints Sony’s relationship with Oculus and other big VR players as cooperative. “We’re working together to create larger markets for developers,” said Yoshida, with the goal of streamlining the process of bringing cross-platform VR games to Morpheus.
But there's a real danger facing Sony, Oculus and other VR heavyweights: pushing VR hardware and software out the door too soon increases the chances that someone will buy a sub-par headset or game, get nauseated and swear off VR entirely.
“That’s awful; it just takes 20 seconds to make people sick if you design your game badly,” said Yoshida. And while Sony has loosened its certification standards to get more games onto PlayStation platforms (something Sony's Adam Boyes talked about in-depth as part of a 2013 interview with Gamasutra), Yoshida acknowledges that things may have to move in the other direction as the VR market expands.
“We’ve been making it easier and easier to get games on PS4, especially for indies,” said Yoshida. “But for VR, we might have to do a bit more checking like we used to do, because we really don’t want people to get sick while playing Morpheus games.”
As an example, he points to the “Comfort Level” rating system that’s currently being used by Oculus developers. “We might need to do something like that, so that people know what to expect.”
But if you release your game for Oculus, there’s no telling what sort of PC hardware your players will run it on; Yoshida makes the point that yoking Morpheus to the PlayStation 4 ensures everyone who plays your game will have an identical experience.
“At least, if you have a conscientious developer, they can make sure their experience is comfortable before they release it,” said Yoshida.
On the flip side, being tied to a single console means Morpheus can’t evolve like the competition can. Yoshida is careful to portray this as a strength, pointing to the difference between PlayStation 3 launch titles and The Last Of Us as an example what developers can do with sustained development time on a single piece of hardware.
Also, Morpheus' ties to a console may prove appealing to people who aren't interested in VR headsets with a release cycle akin to PC hardware or smartphones.
“I just purchased Gear VR; the next day, Samsung announced a new one!” said Yoshida, rubbing his forehead in mock despair. “I spent $1,000!”