Following the launch of Half-Life: Alyx and subsequent spikes in virtual reality (VR) adoption rates (more on that later), there’s a real buzz around VR at the moment which is highly encouraging but tempered slightly by one key omission: the lack of AAA videogames in VR. As with most new technologies, game development to date in the VR industry has been almost exclusively the preserve of small, independent studios. The reasons for that are clear: small studios can operate off reduced budgets and so are more willing to experiment with new technologies and game design techniques.
These indie studios have done an incredible job, but it’s undeniable that as the VR space matures and grows the lack of large, highly polished AAA titles, particularly from key third party studios, is a notable weakness in the overall offering. Anyone who’s recently finished Half-Life: Alyx and then craves a similar experience will know that feeling only too well. However, I would argue that now is the perfect time for AAA studios to take the plunge. The key reasons being:
- Flatscreen AAA game design has largely stagnated and gamers are desperate for a proper ‘next generation’ experience when the new console generation begins.
- Core VR game design principles are now well established and have been successfully implemented in a large range of titles.
- The VR install base is now at a healthy, profitable level and is growing quickly.
- Unlike in the over-saturated AAA flatscreen space, there is not much competition in the AAA VR space – any new AAA game is a big event.
AAA flatscreen games have lost their sense of wonder and excitement
I’ve been playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey during lockdown as I managed to snag it cheaply on Steam during a sale. It’s the first AAA flatscreen game I’ve played in a long time. Its a fun videogame and I’m enjoying it, but I find that it just washes over me and that it very much feels like a game I’ve played before. The incredible amount of polish and craftsmanship on display is impressive, but it can’t help but feel generic and similar to any number of other flatscreen open-world titles. There’s no moment of genuine excitement when I discover a new area, enemy, weapon or mission. There’s no sense of wonder as I’ve seen variations of what it has to offer many times before, just at a lower resolution and graphical fidelity. This is not an issue specific to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Look at any AAA flatscreen videogame released in the last three years and it’s hard to escape the thought that there really hasn’t been much progress – outside of improved visuals and scale – since the PS3/Xbox 360 days.
It’s a well-recognised problem in the AAA space that developers have been struggling with for many years: how do you make the latest iteration of a game feel new and exciting when the input method – a gamepad or mouse and keyboard – is essentially the same as it has been for two decades. How do they make a videogame feel truly next-gen outside of improved graphics? VR is the answer. Half-Life: Alyx demonstrated how powerfully new an established franchise can feel when it leverages the potential of VR. It absolutely felt like a Half-Life game, even down to having a very similar, linear structure to previous outings. However, by being in VR, and leveraging what VR does best (and notably by not taking any big risks with VR mechanics – most of Alyx’s mechanics have been seen before), it is elevated far beyond a typical sequel. The ability to actually stand in City 17 and manipulate objects in that environment with virtual hands while shooting and reloading a gun and using real-world objects like you would in real life instils a sense of presence and wonder into an existing template that is fresh, fun, immersive and feels truly next-gen.
Just imagine what Ubisoft could do with Splinter Cell or Assassin’s Creed in VR, or Rockstar with Grand Theft Auto or Activision with Call of Duty. As discussed further in this piece, the building blocks are already there. In many ways, it’s the simplest way for the big studios to breathe new life into their existing franchises.
Core VR game design principles have now been established
Crucially for AAA developers, many key VR mechanics have already been discovered and tested with a sizable player base and so they wouldn’t be starting with a blank piece of paper. Movement in VR can be implemented effectively via smooth locomotion or teleportation. There are well-established comfort settings for those who suffer from motion sickness. Climbing is huge fun in VR and numerous videogames have been built around that core mechanic. Gunplay in VR is realistic and intuitive and games like Boneworks, Pavlov VR and Hot Dogs, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades have shown how immersive it is to use a virtual gun just like you would a real life gun. Inventory systems, physics simulations, hand interactions, throwing and sword fighting have all been implemented in numerous videogames and so there is a blueprint for how to successfully incorporate these mechanics into a VR experience.
Hell, one really simple way for a AAA studio to effectively implement VR into their franchise would be to buy an existing VR engine and use that as the foundation for their game. Imagine a Call of Duty that is built off of the Boneworks physics engine and gunplay. That’s a mouth-watering prospect. The key point here is that we’re now several years into VR development and a lot of the significant design barriers to entry have been removed.
The install base is already sizeable and growing at a fast pace
As has been widely reported, the latest Steam survey pointed to some highly encouraging VR adoption figures during April 2020. Even with coronavirus supply shortages making it difficult to buy a headset – the Valve Index has been sold out for months and Oculus headsets have only just come back to the market – the launch of Half-Life: Alyx saw almost a million additional VR users connecting headsets to Steam VR over the previous month and overall the userbase has been growing rapidly month on month over the past year.
This huge spike in users now means that it’s estimated that 1.91% of Steam users actively use a VR headset which equates to roughly 2.7 million VR users on Steam (and it’s worth noting that a considerable amount of Oculus PC VR users don’t use Steam). Sony has sold over 5 million PlayStation VR headsets and while Oculus has never been forthcoming with sales numbers we know the Quest has been a big success – Mark Zuckerberg recently stated that “Quest is selling as fast as we can make them”. All of this is to say that across the various platforms there is a significant amount of existing users and crucially the install base is growing rapidly month-on-month. With the next generation of consoles around the corner and with Sony reportedly committing to a PlayStation VR 2, Oculus seemingly about to bring out a new headset and Valve fully supporting VR, not only is there a sizeable market already but it looks highly probable that it will be an exponentially bigger one in the coming years.
Any AAA VR release will be a BIG event
As of today, we’ve only really had one proper AAA title in VR – Half-Life: Alyx. Lone Echo, Asgard’s Wrath, Blood & Truth and Stormland come close, but in reality the scale of those projects and the teams that worked on them were relatively small compared to a flatscreen AAA project. I’m also not including AAA titles that have been adapted for VR – such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR and Fallout 4 VR– as while enjoyable they weren’t built from the ground up for VR and so don’t fully take advantage of what the technology has to offer.
As such, and as seen with the release of Half-Life: Alyx, a AAA release is a big event in both the VR space and in the broader gaming community as players react (sometimes not so positively) to seeing a beloved franchise in a new medium. The VR community were hyping Half-Life: Alyx for months before its release and the gaming community is still talking about it now, mainly due to how it’s unlike anything anyone’s seen before. With so many AAA games releasing in the flatscreen market – most have annual releases – gamers find it hard to keep up with and play each AAA release and they have in many ways lost that ‘big event’ release buzz.
Half-Life: Alyx has reportedly sold over 1 million units since its launch at the end of March, it was played by over 40,000 players concurrently on Steam just after launch and was also watched by 300,000 Twitch viewers on release day – by far the most viewed VR title ever and comparable, and in many cases surpassing, AAA flatscreen games. Furthermore, the amount of press coverage and articles written about Half-Life: Alyx has been huge. Sure, some of this has been down to the return of a gaming franchise that hasn’t had a release for over 10 years but much of it is due to the decision Valve made to make it in VR. There has been a big and enduring buzz around the game and it has felt like a real video game milestone event.
VR as part of the AAA space
This is all not to say that somehow AAA VR videogames should replace indie VR titles or that we should no longer have flatscreen AAA games. There is, of course, a place for both of them in the wider gaming ecosystem – I’ve enjoyed Assassins Creed Odyssey and find it relaxing, and we need indies to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible – but it’s undeniable that flatscreen AAA games have lost some of their wonder and excitement and a bump in resolution and fidelity will not be enough to provide that crucial next-gen experience. Whilst at one stage developing in VR was a daunting prospect, the core mechanics have now been worked out and there’s a healthy and rapidly growing user base that’s craving AAA content. It’s time for the big studios to get involved.
HP Reverb G2 Pre-Orders Start Listing In Europe, UK & New Zealand
HP Reverb G2 pre-orders are now rolling out to territories outside of the US.
Links for where to pre-order should either already be going live or coming soon to the UK, Germany, Austria, Belgium, Switzerland, Netherlands, Norway and New Zealand. You can access the headset’s Steam page for a link that will direct you to the relevant pre-order for your country, including the US.
HP Reverb G2 Pre-Orders Hit Europe And Beyond
However not all the HP Reverb G2 pre-orders seem to be working right now. The link for the UK, for example, takes you to a technology retailer named System Active, but the actual page for pre-orders doesn’t appear to be live yet. Other pages in countries like Germany are up and running, though, where the headset is listed for €583.90. In the US the device retails for $599. HP says pre-orders for other countries will be coming soon (poor Canada and Australia haven’t got any love yet).
The Reverb G2 was announced around the launch of Half-Life: Alyx earlier this year. HP partnered with both Microsoft and Valve on the kit, implementing the former’s Windows Mixed Reality inside-out tracking and the latter’s premium comfort and audio features. These features, paired with a 4K display, manual IPD adjustment and redesigned motion controllers make Reverb G2 a promising prospect for the enthusiast PC VR market. At $599, it’s $200 more expensive than Facebook’s Oculus Rift S (and the Oculus Quest, which can play PC VR using the USB-C cable that comes in the box), but $400 cheaper than Valve’s own Index headset.
The headset is due to ship this fall, though we don’t have an exact date for launch just yet. Expect it to run apps on SteamVR and Microsoft’s lesser-known Windows Mixed Reality platform.
Will you be laying down an HP Reverb G2 pre-order in your territory or are you still waiting? Let us know in the comments below!
Cas & Chary Present: 20 Quest Tips & Tricks
The Oculus Quest has been my daily driver for standalone VR ever since its release. I wanted to share my personal experiences and things that I do to get the most out of the headset. Here are 20 tips & tricks for new users (and maybe even a few for seasoned Questers).
Cas and Chary VR is a YouTube channel hosted by Netherland-based duo Casandra Vuong and Chary Keijzer who have been documenting their VR journeys since 2016. They share a curated selection of their content with extra insights for the Road to VR audience.
The Oculus Quest can be front heavy for many. It may sound like a no-brainer, but we see people wearing headsets like Quest sub-optimally all the time. Before you research any comfort accessories, let’s make sure you’ve got the right approach to fitting the headset.
This is how I do it: First, loosen the top velcro. Then make sure the back strap is low and cradles the base of your head. Ideally, the headset should be primarily supported by a good on the mound of the back of the head, with the headset’s weight supported by the top strap, so tighten the top strap once you fit that fit on the back of your head.
Only after you’ve done the above should you adjust the side straps while moving the headset up and down until the visuals look clear. If you rely too much on tightening the side straps for a ‘grip like’ fit between your face and the back of your head, you’re in for discomfort. Again, the top strap should be doing most of the lifting, while the side straps should only be as tight as necessary to keep the headset from moving out of place.
2. Comfort Mods & Accessories
If tip #1 doesn’t help, then you can buy comfort accessories or make one yourself. Here are two free DIY comfort comfort mod ideas:
- Counterweight: Tape something heavy together like a pair of AA batteries. Then use Velcro or anything else you have laying around to attach it to the back of the headset. A power bank can be a good choice too because it doubles as weight and extra battery for your headset.
- Use your hair (if it’s long): Tie your hair in a ponytail and put it through the hole of the headset. Your ponytail will act as a counterweight.
3. Measure and Set Your IPD
IPD is short for interpupillary distance; this is the distance between the centers of the pupils of your eyes. You can use the IPD slider at the bottom of the headset to move the lenses to match your IPD. If you don’t do this, your visuals will be blurry, and will likely make using the headset less comfortable.
You can use apps on your phone or online to measure your IPD but I prefer easily measuring it with a ruler in front of a mirror. Just align the end of the ruler to one eye, then close that eye and look out the other; the number directly underneath the second eye is your IPD. Ideally this is done with a milimeter ruler, but you can easily convert from inches to milimeters online.
If you wear glasses, your eye doctor will most likely have your exact IPD number. You can request it or go for another eye check.
You can also skip direct measurement and estimate it by just using the slider. Put on the headset and look at something sharp and well defined (like text). Close one eye and look at the text directly through the center of the lens. Move the slider back and forth until you find where the sharpest position is. This should put you in the ballpark of your IPD, but a direct measurement will be more reliable and accurate.
Use the included lanyards in the box and make sure to wear them every time you play to prevent throwing your controllers away when you are fully immersed in a game. You may think you’d never be foolish enough to really throw your controller when throwing something in the game, but natural reflexes and muscle memory can easily override conscious thought, especially when you’re deeply immersed. And you’d be far from the first… even I’ve thrown a controller before!
5. Optimal Tracking
The Oculus Quest tracking should work well out of the box, but if you’re having issues, here’s some things to consider.
Quest looks for clusters of small invisible infrared lights on the ring of the controllers to understand where they are. If you’re having trouble with controller tracking, make sure that your play space doesn’t have any clusters of small lights that might look like the tracking dots to the headset. That could include a mirror (which would reflect the controller’s own tracking lights), a chandelier, or holiday string lights.
The headset also tracks its own position by looking at the room around you. It needs to be able to make out features in the room, which means if it’s too bright or too dark tracking may not work well. As a rough gauge, Oculus says Quest can track well if a room is bright enough to comfortably read a book.
The easiest way to tell how well Quest can see the environment is to turn on the ‘pass-through’ view which shows you what the world looks like through the headset’s eyes. If you turn on the pass-through view and you can easily make out your room, the headset should have plenty of light. In rare cases it’s possible for it to be too bright, but generally that would take a bright sunny day (or a bright sunny way seen through a window). While a single overexposed (blown out) window in your room shouldn’t be an issue, the more visible area the headset can see, the better (so closing your blinds could help).
The tracking system also works better when there’s clear shapes in the room around you. So if you somehow find yourself playing in a room with no furniture, flat lighting, and white walls, you might see tracking issues. The same could happen if you’re a streamer planning to use a green-screen room.
6. Playing in the Dark
If for some reason you really want to be able to play Quest in a dark area, you can use an infrared illuminator to ‘light’ the area with infrared light (which the headset uses to track) while keeping the area dark in the visible spectrum.I haven’t tried this method myself yet, but it seems fun for outside play at night.
Ok, now you should also figure out your playspace. The recommended space of 2 x 2 meters is good enough for most games, but the bigger the area you have, the better.
If you have only a small area, get a floormat or cut up a yoga mat and put it at the center of your playspace. Tape something like a bottle cap on it so that you can feel where your ‘front’ position is. If you step too far you’ll feel yourself stepping off of the mat and know to move back to the center. We are using a Proximat, which is built with VR users in mind, but it’s a little more expensive.
8. Motion Sickness
Motion sickness is probably the number one cause that scares people away from VR, which is a shame as, from personal experience VR is generally very comfortable, but some games you’ll come across have intense motion that could make you dizzy. If you pay attention to these tips however, you’ll avoid risking motion sickness and you may even become less sensitive to it with practice.
Ease yourself into it. Pay attention to the ‘Comfort Level’ of apps and games as listed on their Oculus store page. Though it might be tempting, don’t start with games like rollercoaster simulators! Just like real-life rollercoasters can cause motion sickness, VR coasters can too. Start simpler and try those later.
Games which have no ‘virtual’ movement will be the most comfortable—the ones where you physically move around your playspace to navigate. Beat Saber, and Superhot VR are among many great Quest games with no virtual movement. There’s a free demo available on the store for both games so you can try before you buy!
Also, don’t push yourself. If you start to feel nauseous or uncomfortable, stop playing for a while. ‘Pushing through it’ doesn’t work; quitting while you’re ahead is always the best choice when it comes to motion sickness.
If you still feel off after taking a break, try drinking ginger tea and get back into the headset only after you feel better again.
9. Use Your Body to Play
So this is a tip that you might forget about once you are used to games that use artificial motion with your joystick. People tend to forget to use their real-life bodies when in VR even though their playspace is big enough for them to move around.
For example, sometimes you are standing near a virtual table, but not quite close enough to reach an item on it. Your first instinct might be just to use your joystick to get closer, but don’t forget that you can simply take a step forward in the real world to get closer. The same goes for ducking and crouching. It’s much more fun to crouch for real than with a button. Moving ‘for real’ helps prevent motion sickness too (and makes games more immersive).
10. Controller Grip
When you play a movement-intensive game like Beat Saber you might notice the battery covers of your controllers occasionally sliding off depending upon how you grip. Some people find that very annoying, so if you want to get rid of that, a little bit of tape can help. Or you can get one of the Mamut Grip accessories.
Oculus Quest has gotten many updates since launch. Significant updates, for example, added support for hand-tracking and Oculus Link. Improvements keep coming, so it’s worth it to check what’s changed every so often.
Check your software version by going to ‘Settings’ and then ‘About’; you may even have an update available that you haven’t gotten yet. Then you can scroll through the settings and check if there’s something that you would find handy. Also check the ‘Experimental’ section of the settings for a look at some early test features.
12. Oculus Store & Game Tips
The Oculus Store has sales every so often on games too. If you’re sure you are buying a Quest, then it might be worth it to check the offers even before you got your Quest.
If you’ve ever bought any games for Oculus PC, then it is also worth it to check the Oculus Cross-buy Apps list. These are games you only need to buy once and will be available on both PC and Quest.
It’s probably also good to know that the Oculus Store has an excellent refund policy. If you find a game isn’t for you, you can refund it if you played for less than two hours and make the request within 14 days. You can initiate your request through your purchase history page.
Index Shows First Signs of Catching Up on Backorders Since Coronavirus Disruption
Like other headsets, the Valve Index has been in high demand but limited supply due to the Coronavirus pandemic. While we’ve seen stock of Oculus Quest and Rift starting to return over the two months or so, Index has been backordered globally. Though the headset is still backordered, today we spotted the first indication that Valve is starting to catch up.
Updated – July 6th, 2020
We checked stock availability for all Index packages across all 31 regions where sold. While previous checks over the last several months consistently showed a shipping estimate of “8 weeks or more,” our latest check shows an estimate of “3 to 5 weeks” for new orders of the headset-only package.
“We are continuing to make every effort possible to keep up with the ongoing demand and deliver units in a timely fashion, while navigating the challenges of shipping during the pandemic. We appreciate everyone’s patience, and we’ll let you know when we have more specifics to share,” a Valve spokesperson recently told Road to VR.
Index had been backordered by eight weeks or more in all regions since a small supply of new stock was gobbled up just before Half-Life: Alyx launched in late March. Today is the first time we’ve seen the shipping estimates on the headset package shift to something other than “8 or more weeks.”
Despite the backorder, it’s been possible to register your interest in any of the Index packages (except for the base stations). To reserve a spot in line, check out the Index store page and click the order button.
Valve is then sending out notifications by email when stock is available, giving customers one week to pull the trigger. Even so, when offered the option to buy, no specific estimate for delivery is provided leaving, customers wondering how long they’ll be waiting.
Like other headsets, the Chinese-manufactured Index has seen a double-whammy due to the Coronavirus pandemic: supply decreasing due to manufacturing disruptions and demand increasing due to shelter-in-place orders in many parts of the globe.
Oculus had been in the same boat; in the last two months however we’ve seen a surge of new Quest stock, showing that manufacturing of the headset has picked up significant steam. When the same might happen for Index isn’t clear, but we’ve got our eye on the situation.
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Cas & Chary Present: 20 Quest Tips & Tricks
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