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gaming VR First Thoughts

  • Posted in gaming

I got myself an Oculus Quest 2 a couple weeks ago on a recommendation, and I have some thoughts! If you haven’t done VR before (like me, before I had my first thoughts) you might be wondering what you might notice besides the obvious. So, here are my observations, in no particular order.

Haptic feedback is really important

Haptic feedback is really important. Even though it’s just vibration, the difference between feeling something and feeling nothing when you touch things is worlds. The vibration does a decent job of simulating the feeling of resistance and letting you “feel out” the world, which is very important in games where the alternative is getting your prop stuck in a shelf.

You can actually stream games and it works

When I first saw that the recommended way to play PC games was over local wifi, I thought “no way. There’s no way you can get a high-quality video stream at that resolution with those latency requirements over wifi. I’m going to get a good USB cable and stream directly at 300 mbps and it’ll be excellent.” Turns out, no! With my (fairly normal) router, Virtual Desktop can stream a steady game at 1832x1920@60fps x2 over ~70 mbps with an imperceptible loss in quality. (Those numbers mean it’s good.) The connection is actually way more reliable than using the USB connection, and the Virtual Desktop app has a unified game launcher for both Rift and Steam which works great. If you look closely at dark areas you can see some artifacts, but in general I think this is a case where the video compression is extremely effective.

Facebook delenda est

I’m not going to write a whole essay about this here, but just after a few days of messing around with the device it was startling how vile Facebook’s integration with the system is. Facebook requires you to have an account to use the device at all. Facebook has a walled-garden store that permanently ties your purchases to your Facebook account (so you’re not able to delete Facebook without losing your property), and using the Oculus to play games that aren’t from Facebook requires you to sign up for a developer account in order to access the Android-standard developer options and transfer files.

Speaking of transferring files, there are a handful of ways to share Oculus content natively, and they’re all Facebook. As part of Zuckerberg’s ongoing campaign to monopolize and control all human interaction, if you want to share a screenshot from your Oculus, you can post it on Facebook, Facebook groups or Facebook messenger. If you have some technical skill, you can squeeze images and videos out of the device, but even that requires the at-will developer account mentioned above. It’s pretty disgusting.

It’s not all bad, though! This won’t just be me tearing into Facebook, I promise. People have done that well already. Okay, something fun


Analogue triggers

That’s right, your favourite bit from the dreamcast controller is back and it’s actually used really effectively here! According to wikipedia triggers are usually analogue, but I’m struggling to think of a game that made good use of that. Aside from Super Mario Sunshine, which made
 use of it.

Here’s a clip of me messing in The Lab, since that game has a robot hand that sorta shows you actuation pressure.

    ![Analogue trigger actuation in VR](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UDWQCTWMrrY)

This turns out to be really cool in VR, because it lets you manipulate your virtual hands in a natural, continuous way, instead of jerky, unnatural movements. Since the “grip” trigger is commonly used for gripping and squeezing, this gives you a very natural way of conveying degrees of force in a virtual environment.

Taking the headset on and off is a pain

Putting on the headset and slipping on the controllers, even when you’re sitting down, is a whole process. That means switching between tasks is way harder than with a PC, handheld, or console.

This seems like a no-brainer, but during the Oculus setup process alone the wizard made me switch from headset to computer to headset to phone to headset, multiple times, for really very unnecessary things. It requires you to pair the headset with a mobile app to manage basic device settings, which it really shouldn’t need to do at all. Having the phone (and Facebook account) as a required step to manage the device is downright dangerous, especially since the app didn’t work at all on the first phone I tried.

There aren't many horses

My mom came over the other day for a visit and she wanted to try VR. She loves horses and wanted to try a horse game, so I spent a few days browsing around for something with a horse in it. The only thing I was able to come up with was Skyrim VR, which has a mere eight horses, none of which you can pet.

All that to say, there’s really not a huge selection of quality games right now. It’s a relatively new platform, and even out of the limited library available a lot of the early games were made before people understood how to design games for VR. There’s your Half-Life: Alyx, Superhot, and HAX (with some other semi-game experiences, like Accounting+ and Job Simulator), but there isn’t an enormous library outside that, from what I’ve seen so far.

Motion sickness is a real issue

Remember those early games that were made before people understood how to design games for VR, from a few sentences ago? Turns out one of the things you need to design for is motion sickness. Putting a first-person VR perspective character who controls with traditional analog-stick-to-run-around movement feels bad.

There are a couple ways games get around this. Some games (SuperHot, Job Simulator) don’t have the player move at all outside of their play space, which they move around in by physically walking around. This is the most comfortable possible, if the design allows for it. In games where the player does need to move around on a larger scale than a few meters, you can teleport the player. Most games have this option (“blink movement”), and it’s pretty comfortable. Probably the most interesting design I’ve seen is the translocator in Budget Cuts, which gives you this delightful portal overlay that lets you preview your jump location and comfortably jump through it in one continuous camera motion. Here’s a little clip of that:

    ![The Portal Locomotion of Budget Cuts](https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1BJ-lnDKRo4)

There’s also a very nice write-up of this system written by one of the designers here. You also sometimes see a variation of teleport movement (Accounting+, Alcove) where you teleport to predefined spots on the map, rather than moving around at will. This is a nice way of making sure the player can always comfortably reach the relevant objects.

Finally, some games have continuous movement where your character moves around based on stick controls, but the game adds a vignette during movement, which helps with comfort.

There are some non-motion comfort issues too. I played Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin (2018) and
 oh, it’s bad. The story and gameplay are great psychonauts content, but the core gameplay loop is possessing people and doing things from their perspective (which is accomplished with a trippy, psychonauts-y spiral effect), after which you need to immediately re-orient yourself by spinning around in real life. The object selection mechanic uses, instead of the normal laser pointer, the headset orientation. Whatever object is most squarely centred in your viewport is the selected object, which means a lot of precision neck movement. It’s a fairly short game and it still took me multiple play sessions, just so I could stop when I felt ill. Design has improved a lot since then, but design really matters.

Non-VR games don't work well

Speaking of motion sickness, remember Skyrim VR, from horses? That is the usual pretty-much-just-a-direct-port-of-SE Skyrim port, but with a few UI elements tweaked for VR. It is miserable. Gameplay has you moving around quite quickly and athletically without requiring any real-world movement, which just isn’t comfortable at all. Again, design matters.

Two kinds of depth

VR (well, 3D in general) introduces an odd new polygon occlusion problem. In traditional 3D graphics projection onto a 2D canvas, depth is represented by size, occlusion, and visual cues. (z-buffers.) With stereoscopic 3D, though, you can represent the depth of an object directly, independent of its size and position.

The long and short of it is, things that should be behind 3D objects can be rendered anyway, “blocking” them. If you open your menu, for instance, it will appear “in front” of the game, so you can always see the whole menu, but it renders at a fixed depth. At large sizes it appears to “cut through” the 3D environment, and for small elements it can confuse your depth perception entirely.

This is just an odd design consideration I had really never thought of before, but it’s really very odd to experience.

Valve made a good hardware bet finally

Valve has been really excited about hardware for the last few years and made several bets that didn’t turn out that well. SteamOS, the Steam Controller, and Steam Machines (click that, it’s incredible) were all such commercial flops that just a few years later they’re off the market. Steam’s investment in VR tech, though, looks like it’s turning out great. The steam in-game VR overlay works great, and the way it lets custom overlays like Desktop+ work in arbitrary games is just wonderful. I still wouldn’t want to get an Index at the current price, but software-wise Steam seems to be way ahead of anyone else.

Give me the half-life lore please

i finished alyx and it hurts. i’m dying. valve i said nice things about you. please. i had my first few seconds in ten years and then it was over and i need another hit