The Oculus Rift is getting a lot of good press and industry involvement and that's great, it's probably the biggest and boldest step in how we approach not only games but interaction with a virtual world in the last decade. Beyond having a new device that does a wonderful job of throwing us in a Johnny Mnemonic vibe and immersing us in our game universes the biggest boon is not the device itself but ideological and methodological shift it creates.
Let's take a trip back in time. It's 2008. DICE just released Mirror's Edge and it's getting biased, but raving reviews. The major feature of the game.. the seamless immersion of the player in the environment and the feeling of physicality. The animations and the speed of our avatar felt awesome and natural from the first person perspective shown on our screens. It was a thrilling experience that comes up in conversation in gaming circles enough times to say it has left a mark on the industry. It was about six months after that i realized how horrible of a job it was for the designers to get that perfect illusion of physicality and immersion with the technology available back then. That realization came from a video showcasing a mod that allowed it to be played in third person. The actual 3D model of the avatar, Faith, had to move in absurd ways, waving her hands and legs in horrible caricatures of human movement in order to provide the required adjustments to perception on traditional displays to provide the experience of smoothly and seamlessly parkouring across an idyllic landscape. A game ahead of its time.
Enter the Oculus Rift. It's been widely documented from the pioneer game designers and gamers of the Rift that the immersion experience is so vivid that most of our perception is taken over into this virtual world. Most of the tricks, shortcuts and staples of the current school of game design go right out the window when designing for the Rift. And that's for a simple reason: You get motion sickness if your perception of the world does not correspond to what your body knows to be true. Ever almost trip on a stair you didn't expect to be there or had the scare of your life stepping in something you expected to be less deep? Almost the same thing, just that it happens almost every second in a badly designed game for the Rift that tries to emulate first person perception.
Some of the sticking points are related to the avatar's physical presence in the world, the visual representation of feet and members as well as 'real' motion speeds, the necessity of providing a proper scale of the world, having a consistent and more importantly non-'dipping' frame per second count to not break your illusion of movement, having imperceptible latency and last but least changing or even removing methods of control over the player or player's camera like in modern-day car sequences.
Fail at providing any of the above and the user of the Oculus Rift will encounter motion sickness in varying degrees, eventually leading to him having to take a break sooner than he'd like or in extreme cases even nausea and vomiting. Considering that the most current-gen designers had to worry about was the gamer not going down the right path on a map or not knowing how to properly use the inventory, having this huge very personal hurdle to tackle will need fine execution and delicate hands.
But that's the beauty of it.
Let's turn to the current modern day climate in the gaming industry. The staple of the use of the first person perspective is the First Person Shooter. Give any gamer that's worth his salt any FPS today and he'll intrinsically know how to play it. From the standard WSAD movement configuration, to the HUD, to the standard gameplay tropes like having to strafe, take cover or run backwards, it has all been optimized so much and standardized in recent years that these templates have become the 'proper' way to do a first person shooter.
But all of it comes at a price. Unrealistic portrayals of a first person perspective and its interaction with the world. When was the last time your gun muzzle in Call of Duty knocked down a lamp? When was the last time you saw any avatar in a game struggle with moving backwards or strafing? When was the last time that you played a game beginning to end without noticing any frame rate dip? When was the last time you saw a game that offered no HUD and instead offered in-game audio or visual cues to make up for it?
I'm decently sure most of you can't remember any of the cases outlined above, but almost all of them are necessary in order to provide a good experience in the Rift. It forces the expectations we have of a game to correspond to our real life senses and perceptions. All the games that we now call 'realistic' are shy whimpers compared to the roar of what it would take to provide a good illusion that will fool our brain that what we are perceiving is real and happening before our eyes.
And repeating myself from above, that's the beauty of it. Because all the lessons learned there can be freely applied and engineered into 'common' videogaming. Cutting all the crutches and dismantling all the shortcuts that are being taken now will lead to the next generation of video games to be more immersive and provide a better experience.
Fallowing the examples above, new gameplay can be had in stealth games once you have to really account for the character's actual body. While some games modelled walking and running to various sound levels and even stepping on different materials, i could imagine a game having a mechanic where you could point where you'd like to take each step carefully moving in a room not to wake someone while you swipe his prized possessions like Garret would do.
How about the ever-lasting frame rate war? With people wanting 'hundreds' of frames per second hoping to provide a better 'smoothness', when the real culprit is micro-stutters and tiny frame dips that marr the perception of the illusion of motion. Developers making for the Rift will have to have their game provide a constant, unwavering framerate of at least 60 FPS. Imagine the same on any regular game on a current non-enthusiast computer. Fidelity has reached a point where there isn't much more that can be done with it, it's time to focus on the subtler notion of immersion due to motion, and the Rift will be a great incentive to push this agenda forward.
How about having the next ARMA game take military simulation to the extreme with the total removal of any kind of HUD. Physically seeing the magazines on your body and hearing cues from your environment or your avatar in relation to what's happening. A game i'll be glad to plug, The Long Dark, will feature almost only perceptible cues to convey game mechanics to the player. Now considering there will be a lot of people who might even use a haptic feedback device with the Rift we might be able to judge amount of ammo in a magazine by shaking the device and having the intensity of the feedback give us an approximate, as a soldier does in real life.
As a blow to current FPS standards, one area that will necessitate major redesign for the Rift, and that can apply backwards on standard game design, is the player camera. Seeing The Flash in every enemy in Battlefield or Call of Duty will be a thing of the past for Rift games, since our perception of movement is used to relatively slow movements of the body. Even the fastest runners in the world cannot compete with game avatars that can sprint triple their speed in relation to a scaled environment; "cl_forwardspeed 400", a little pun here for old CS players. Strafing and backpedaling will also go out the window since we do not strafe or backpedal in real life, especially not while firing weapons or doing complex things with our hands. Having a realistic movement system, separated from head movement, oddly something similar to the one in the first Hitman, will be a welcomed breath of fresh air for the current standards in the gaming industry. And since these changes will be impossible to adjust from the Rift to normal game systems, inadvertently games designed for the Rift will feature the same, realistic, restrictions on whatever platforms they also launch on.
The Oculus Rift has the benefit of wide acceptance with over ten thousand development kits already sold, and an unspecified number of future retail sales. It will have a large effect on the industry, and that much cannot be denied, but it will be a long time before we see a growing VR videogame market, and even longer before we see the lessons that come from creating the illusion of reality affect nonVR games. Like everyone else i'll be terribly excited and awaiting the day when i'll be playing Mirror's Edge 2 on the Rift and feeling the pit in my stomach every time i misstep and parkour off a building, but i'll be happier when the medium that we know and love will be forced to improve and surpass the standards and templates for perception that it has defined for itself.
The future looks awesome.