This year's hit hardware at GDC – the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset – will change gaming for the better.
Thousands of programmers, artists and designers flock to the Game Developer's Conference every year to discuss the state of the games industry. A significant part of that discussion revolves around gaming technology, and the GDC show floor is filled with companies showcasing their latest game-changing hardware.
Any one of these companies could change the future of games in a big way if their hardware is successful. Nintendo did it with the Wii back in 2006, an example that's cited over and over again by every tech company on the GDC show floor. So far we've seen a ton of interesting new technology with the potential to change how video games are made – from Nvidia's GRID game streaming service to the screencasting tech built into the Playstation 4 – but one piece of gaming tech stands out: the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.
This isn't the first time we've seen the Oculus Rift – Palmer Luckey and the rest of the Oculus VR team brought a prototype model of the VR headset to CES in January. But now they're shipping developer kits to backers who contributed $275+ to the Oculus Rift Kickstarter, and Oculus VR is here at GDC to court new game developers. They're operating a booth on the show floor where attendees can wait – often for over an hour – to try the headset on and run riot though a virtual battlefield in the first-person mech game Hawken.
Oculus VR is also pushing developers to change how games are made in order to accommodate the unique strengths--and weaknesses--of virtual reality. During GDC I sat in on an Oculus Rift developer presentation that ran through some of the surprising weaknesses of contemporary game design, problems that only become apparent when you actually immerse yourself in the game. If VR headsets become commonplace enough to warrant developer's time and attention in making VR games--and I'm betting they will--these are just a few of the ways that games will have to change to accommodate our glorious virtual reality future.
No more clunky menus or loading screens
Strapping a decent VR headset to your face makes you feel like you're inhabiting a different world, and nothing takes you out of that world faster than a complicated inventory menu or a long loading screen. If VR gaming takes off, we're going to see more games that eliminate unnecessary user interface elements and even third-person cameras entirely, because VR works best when the cameras are placed squarely behind a virtual characters' eyes, simulating what it feels like to play as someone else.
Of course, even if the consumer version of the Oculus Rift proves popular enough to warrant big-budget publishers like Electronic Arts and Activision devoting significant resources to making VR-ready games--and that's a big if--there's no reason to expect that all future games will be developed with VR in mind. The folks at Oculus VR might disagree, but non-immersive games – city simulators, real-time strategy games and the like – aren't going anywhere.
Everything will be bigger
Wearing the Oculus Rift makes you feel like you're living in another world. Problem is, that world is rarely built to actual scale. It's an unfortunate side effect of first-person games that play fast and loose with realistic perspective, casting the player as a disembodied camera with a gun that floats roughly four feet off the ground. Play those games with a VR headset on and your natural sense of scale kicks in, telling you that you're only about four feet tall and thus the rest of the world – which has been built to fit your size – looks like a disconcerting virtual dollhouse.
In the future, games are going to have to adapt to VR headsets by taking real-world measurements into account, creating taller player characters with realistically-modeled bodies and increasing the size of the worlds they inhabit.
Games are going to become more realistic
The neat thing about current game controllers is that you can make amazing things happen by just tapping a button. That's part of the appeal, but it's going to cause problems in virtual reality games because superhuman abilities don't mesh well with a camera that moves like your head does naturally. Leaping tall buildings in a single button press while being able to look around the virtual world in a realistic way is amazing, but it's also a great recipe for acute motion sickness.
When I tested the Oculus Rift protoype this problem was alleviated by tying camera control to the right stick of my gamepad in addition to the headset, so that I could look around by either moving my head or using the controller. Problem is, in that demo I couldn't jump or interact with objects, both physical actions that will need to be carefully adapted to more limited physical controllers for future VR games.