An Overview of E3 2016’s VR

Nintendo sitting out virtual reality and discussing the current games as snacks almost sums up VR this year. Last year wasn’t my first time experiencing VR, but it was perhaps my best in a lot of ways. I saw and felt VR adding something to the game space in what felt like tasty snacks, but I expected something juicier at this point. Something more filling. While I had some positive experiences at the Upload VR party, if I had to describe my overall E3 2016 VR experience this year in three words, they’d be “barf inducing FPS.”

 

PlayStation VR

Let me be upfront and say that I have not had any experience with the Playstation VR since it was called Project Morpheus. However, Star Trek: Bridge Crew was one of the most talked about games on the showroom floor in terms of VR. Few people I spoke to tried it, but the two or three that did said the experience lived up to the hype in the trailer. Batman VR was spoken about in hushed whispers, mostly due to a beloved character being the center of a murder, but it was another supposedly good use of VR as an idea. Rather than many other games, players were experiencing a non-combat immersion experience, even if it was a unsettling. I’ve since heard that there were the same kind of warp points used as I’d described in Obduction that moves players to specific virtual areas instead of walking to them, which is pretty disappointing. On the one hand, no one wants to barf while playing a game, especially if they’re Batman, but warping around doesn’t break immersion, it shatters it. It says you are playing a video game, full stop, immersion be damned.

Speaking of vomit, by now, most people have heard that the Resident Evil VR demo was making people sick. The booth seemed to close earlier than others on the final day of E3, so maybe that was an indication of how much the game needs to be improved.

Overall though, I mostly heard these were certainly demos but of very short games, meant to last only a few hours. While the PS VR ticket entry is lower than that of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, no one should be paying that much for something that sounds like a discounted arcade-pod VR experience. This was kind of the theme of this year’s VR showing.

 

Ace Banana

Although described as a rogue-like, Ace Banana is just another VR shooter, and really highlights the average VR game, though it did have a few issues that tend to plague Chinese titles in development (mostly just with the language, rather than any potential copyright issues). Using the HTC Vive Wands, you pull back your Banana hero’s bow’s draw string, aim, and shoot at monkeys trying to kidnap and probably eat baby bananas. The enemies and ammo are randomized, but the level layout isn’t, so calling it a “rogue-like” doesn’t seem right. It’s certainly a shooter from the few rounds I played, though at least it’ll be multiplayer on both PS VR and PC (with my time being spent in the latter). You can mess up your friend’s sight or aim by hitting them with your various types of ammo (not just arrows, but fruit and hedghogs), but not kill them.

This was yet another warp around movement based game. Controls, like most VR, weren’t perfect. To note, I don’t remember a single game using the Vive Wands and being happy or satisfied. They constantly made shooting games feel more like living a life with weighted boxing gloves for hands. The game, however, felt light and fun, but like an arcade experience more than an at home experience. The game’s difficulty scales with players (harder bosses, more mobs), but your banana avatars don’t level. Protecting banana babies allows them to grow into different characters you can select later, but other that, there’s not a lot of other game progression. VR is the main push, and there developer said they saw little point seen in fleshing the title out, perhaps as it’s a $15-$25 game. That’s fine, but for such a high cost of entry, one would hope for more quality games that do something more than shoot. I’m really hoping TellTale is looking into VR, as we could sorely use more experience rather than more shooting.

 

Vuzix iWear

Vuzix-iWear-720-4

The Vuzix iWear “video headphones” may look slick has hell, but was another headset that’s asking nearly the same price as the big VR boys while feeling much, much cheaper. Granted, it supports 3D for some MMOs, but I have no idea how well it works. What I did experience was the original Super Mario Kart in high definition and basically a VR short movie that worked but felt cheap, as the picture was “obviously 3D”: grainy, slightly transparent stuff that looks cool when the technology is new but feels very cheesy once new tech’s out. It’s certainly more flexible than the dedicated VR headsets, working with nearly everything (phones, PCs, drones), and acts almost like a personal theater for your face, but I wasn’t impressed enough to want to purchase one.

I was told the headset works with Steam VR but sadly there was nothing being showcased, and the representatives I spoke to hadn’t tried any VR games for it, just 3D. Granted, one of the appeals of the headset is that it’s got plug and play that works for multiple devices, but again, it doesn’t feel like VR is in a position where it’s accessible to mass consumers and good games are certainly seeming few and far between. The GearVR I saw last year  was significantly cheaper and higher quality.

 

Pico VR

pico vr

Despite the fact that their headset has two types of controllers, can save games to be played without being attached to another device, and theoretically can work with Steam VR, I was constantly being told by Pico VR’s representatives that gamers were not the core audience of the device, especially not PC gamers. The price is about $550 in China, but there’s no global price set yet. Pico’s aiming to be something less expensive than the big VR dedicated headsets, but higher quality than the Gear VR, though, aside from the freedom, it didn’t feel like an improvement.

Keep in mind that E3 is a trade show mostly based on games, but not everyone there is a gamer. I’m also a teacher by trade, so both in Japan and the US, I deal with a lot of non-gamers. Asking non-gamers at E3 and offsite, the few people who did know what VR is all thought it was something meant for video games (or porn). Maybe I’m wrong though, so readers, feel free to ask your parents, non-gamer co-workers, or other “norms” to see what they think. On my end, my assumption is that if the gaming industry isn’t getting it right yet, the mass appeal won’t be there either.

When pressed for non-gamer content, the only response was that the Pico could also be used for videos and VR shopping, something even some of my gamer friends hadn’t heard of. It’s quite hard to understand who the target demographic for the device is when none of the demos shown were able to showcase what the company representatives were pushing.

Ignoring the interview for a moment, the unique tech advantage Pico has is that most of the tech is in the controller, rather than headset, to keep it lighter (though obviously the screens and head tracking are in the usual spot). The headset/controller works alone without needing to be plugged into a phone or PC (though those are options), so it could work as a kind of expensive mobile gaming device.

The headset itself was relatively comfortable, but the Chinese game I was shown, Cosmos Warfare, made it feel cheap, especially when I think I saw the Zelda: Skyward Sword logo on one of the ships. I’m guessing this may be why the game is free. I was told the system isn’t limited to Android (something another outlet previously reported), and that the headset was technically capable of handling games on Steam VR, but not using a better known game added to the feeling like the device is going to be almost as much as other headsets but limited to shovelware. I mean, if your VR demo has enemy ships disappearing once they got to your side, it completely disregards the ability to move your head in any direction, killing immersion.

 

I could be totally wrong about the device. Maybe there’s a big market for people who want glorified 3D glasses. However, at best, Pico may have been trying to sell bullets to archers. Maybe they’re awesome and devastatingly effective, but unless you have a gun to show that off with, your audience will think you’re selling them junk.

 

 

Oculus Rift Touch + Ripcoil

Perhaps aside from Time MachineRipcoil was perhaps one of the best experiences I had with VR at E3, mostly because of the controls. I had been ready to give up on motion controls for VR until I finally have the Touch in my hands. Though perhaps best described as noticeably better than Nintendo’s Wii Motion+ controller in terms of tracking, the Touch is significantly lighter weight than Nintendo’s product, which was already feeling lighter than Vive’s bulky wands. This is key because the lightness helps add to the immersion. You’re still using a controller, but in a very natural way. While I think Ripcoil may not be the best way to show off the tech as it was another bit-sized game, it showed off potential much better than most of the competition.

The premise is something like the Tron disc battle if it were a bit more like Pong than, well, a dismemberment by discs. Players throw a Frisbee like disc at their enemy or bounce it off walls trying to make a goal instead of, well, killing them. You can grip the disc by holding the trigger on both the Touch controllers at the right time, punch an incoming disc by already holding the trigger to return it slightly faster, and gently tilt yourself left or right to move. This last step is key, since you feel like you’re moving, easily, without doing so. I actually nearly fell over during my play, but I’m also pretty clumsy.

It sounds like a tech demo, and in some ways probably could be seen as such, but as a fan of air-hockey, this scratched an itch that few other games had been. It was both accessible and something I think even non-gamers could appreciate, which was something that I feel gave Nintendo an advantage on the Wii through Wii Sports. However, as Nintendo themselves found out, snack sized games may attract audiences, but failing to make proper use of the tech can burn your buyer.

 

If last year was about experiences in VR, this year was simply about games, and most of them simply didn’t cut it. VR needs to be something that feels worth the high entry fees. We’re getting more options, but most are closer to 3D glasses than VR competition. Games are coming out, but at this stage, we’re lucky if they don’t cause motion sickness. The best I personally experienced either used a traditional controller, like Time Machine, or focused on simple mechanics and solid use of technology. It’s a good start for someone who’s got experience in VR, but I worry we need to wait a bit longer before consumers buy into the hype.

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