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Virtual Reality is the future of gaming

Virtual reality (VR) gaming is on the rise. From the humble beginnings of a record-breaking crowdfunding campaign for the then-unknown Oculus Rift on Kickstarter way back in August 2012, to its $2 billion buyout by social media goliath Facebook two years later in 2014, there’s big money to be made in virtual reality.

Since then, multiple other companies have tossed their hat in the ring. While perhaps the most universally known, the Oculus Rift is just one of many VR headsets currently on the market. Other options include the modestly mid-range HTC Vive, as well as the eye-wateringly expensive Valve Index.

With multiple companies investing so much money into this relatively new form of technology, it begs the question as to why more gamers haven’t bought VR headsets?

Is it because of the investment needed to get started, or is it because of the current lack of AAA virtual reality games available? Truth be told, it’s probably both. But that’s likely to change as the technology becomes cheaper and video game studios have the foresight to take advantage of this new income stream.

VR gaming is an immersive and social experience

The immersion that VR gaming provides is incomparable to that of traditional video games and having your peripheral vision filled with graphics is quite a surreal experience the first time you put a headset on.

Add finger and hand tracking controllers to the mix and the line between ‘virtual’ and ‘reality’ becomes even more blurred. Picking up an in-game object with a one-to-one replication of your hands in the real world adds to this sense of immersion even more.

Gaming is just one part of VR’s appeal. Older forms of online entertainment like chat rooms have been given a massive revamp thanks to VR technology. The aptly named ‘VRChat’ allows users to join 3D worlds and talk with others in-game with a selection of full body avatars (users can even create their own in 3D software), with lip sync, eye tracking/blinking, and a complete range of motion.

When Facebook bought Oculus, many were pre-emptively annoyed with the buyout due to the mandatory login with Facebook to use all of the headset’s features (despite initially promising this wouldn’t be the case). Now it’s clear that one of Facebook’s intentions was to create a Facebook-esque experience in a VR environment, this was announced in August 2020 to be ‘Facebook Horizon’, which coincidentally looks like a more refined, albeit more commercial, and slightly less fun version of VRChat.

“We believe virtual reality will be heavily defined by social experiences that connect people in magical, new ways,” said Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe, “it is a transformative and disruptive technology, that enables the world to experience the impossible, and it’s only just the beginning”

Gaming PCs are on the rise

While Sony does offer a good selection of games for its PlayStation VR headset, its console-restricted limitations do put it at a disadvantage. The cutting-edge of VR has always been on the PC thanks to near-limitless opportunities to upgrade the hardware powering your headset.

In a recent report, data group IDC stated that computer sales are increasing and, in particular, that “gaming PCs and monitor sales [are] at all-time highs”. While this by no way means that traditional console sales are slowing down (it’s quite the opposite), it does suggest that more gamers are moving over to PC, in order to take advantage of its superior library of games and hardware.

As gaming PC sales go up, it’s likely that this will influence the sales of VR hardware too, in turn giving game studios more reason to invest their time and effort into creating VR-compatible games.

AAA virtual reality game studios don’t exist… yet

However, there is one AAA studio that delivered a AAA VR game. After a thirteen year hiatus, Valve dropped the critically acclaimed VR game ‘Half-Life: Alyx’ in 2020 and set the bar for virtual reality gaming higher than most had expected was possible.

Valve’s combination of boundary-pushing graphics, combined with an immersive world and intuitive gameplay features made many agree that their latest entry into the ‘Half-Life’ franchise offered a brief glimpse into the possibilities and future of VR gaming.

Valve is known for letting its fans tinker with their games and the mods that fans are able to create using the Source 2 VR engine opens up another world of possibilities for VR users. One of our favourites is the ‘MarioWalrus’ minigolf mod, and while not a touch on the original game, it allows players to go through an outdoor environment built from assets from the base game while playing 7 rounds of minigolf. Who doesn’t love minigolf?!

The indie studio that’s pushing the boundaries of VR

Stress Level Zero is an indie studio that released ‘Boneworks’ in 2019, a VR game which was supposedly pitched to Valve and rejected, but influenced the gameplay mechanics for ‘Half-Life: Alyx’ after they saw what worked within the virtual reality space.

While the visuals of ‘Boneworks’ pale in comparison to Half-Life, likely due to a huge difference in budget, it still stands on its own as a great game. Boneworks plays like a sandbox of VR ideas while pushing the limits of their engine’s physics simulation, which on the whole, delivers an awesome experience, if not a bit nausea-inducing.

As more game studios realise the potential of VR (especially with what ‘Boneworks’ has been able to accomplish inside of the Unity engine), it’s likely that many more indie studios will look to VR as a new way to attract a dedicated audience.

Conclusion

To conclude, we’re still in the early stages of virtual reality gaming. While VR is still at least half a decade away from becoming mainstream, have no doubt that as the technology and hardware matures and becomes more accessible, VR will become the new norm.

With that said, it’s likely that developers will start shoehorning VR modes into their non-VR games, even if it delivers a weak experience. Our best bet is that somewhere down the line, Rockstar will incorporate a VR mode into their next Grand Theft Auto title, in the same way that a first-person mode was added to the next-gen re-release of GTA 5.

Until that time arrives, unless you’re set on playing ‘Half-Life: Alyx’ and ‘Boneworks’, save your money and wait for more AAA titles to arrive on VR to warrant the currently huge investment.

John Norwood
John Norwood is best known as a technology journalist, currently at Ziddu where he focuses on tech startups, companies, and products.