Just my 2 cents: The VR hype train
You guys may have just read Minimur’s cool articles here (http://wololo.net/2015/03/05/valve-announce-partnership-with-htc-to-create-a-vr-headset-vive/ and http://wololo.net/2015/03/09/minimur-wth-happened-this-week-gdc-special-virtual-reality-galore/) about the hype on VR. But actually it’s not that new.
Some here may be too young to remember it, but back in the 90s, everything was about 3D, VR and dinosaurs. To classic cartoon overhauls like Johnny Quest having VR segments, to 3D gaming and the advent of FPSes. Also, there were “consoles” like the R-Zone that tried to ride the VR hype train, but failed miserably. Even the then giant Nintendo failed with its Virtualboy.
So, being an old and cranky gamer that I am, you would figure that I hate VR. Let me tell you something, you are absolutely…. well, right. Or at least you were as I just recently had the chance to test the Occulus Rift DK2, and it’s awesome. I felt more immersed in some simple roller coaster demos with early 2000s graphics that you could do nothing but to look around than with any FPS game I have ever played. The possibilities are really infinite, it could be a great milestone in gaming.
But that got me wondering: Why did I hate it despite having never even used it? I mean, I always like to see things for myself before having an opinion, so why was it different with VR? Well, it’s because of what history taught me. VR is indeed a great milestone in gaming, or at least it should be, but that is not how it usually goes…
Throughout gaming history, we have seen true innovations, but until the 90s most of them were about game design with incremental technological steps to keep up with it. From non-linearity through character choosing to 3D gaming, these were the innovations that actually mattered and that made gaming greater than holywood. But nowadays most of the time companies tend to overdo some mindless gimmick that actually hurts game design instead of pushing it forward. Let me illustrate some examples:
Back in 1992, Sega launched the Mega CD (Sega CD), which was just basically a CD-ROM for the Genesis(Mega-Drive) with some coprecessors to boost sprite effects. Genesis (and SNES) had some awesome gems, and one would think that a Genesis on steroids with 700 MB storage for games instead of 4 MB, we would have some super awesome games for its time, right? Well, wrong. In an attempt to advertise that now they have FMV in video games, what we saw was a lot of crappy games that were cheesy (and sometimes like a bad soft-core ***) movies that you input some button combination that barely qualified as games in the first place. Eventually they got it kinda right with Sonic CD and Lunar Eternal Blue, but then it was too late, as there were another generation of consoles right on the corner that actually used CD-ROMs the right way, without making it a big deal.
Another example would be the Nintendo DS with it’s touchscreen. There were few awesome touchscreen games on it like Kirby Canvas Course, but most of them forcibly use the touchscreen just for the sake of it, like Starfox Command and Zelda Hourglass. At least these games were decent by themselves, just the control scheme that seems out of place, or simply have nothing to truly add to the game. I can’t think of a good reason to not having a D-PAD option besides for mindlessly forcing the gimmick.
There are some worse examples, specially on the motion-based controller gimmick (Wiimote and Kinect). For some unknown reason, companies thought that solely having motion controls are enough to make a decent game. Some even apologized for the quality of their products in face of that. The best example of this is Mario Power Tennis.
This game originally came out on the GameCube in 2004. The game is standard Mario magic. You get a sport and add fun items, quirks and awesome multiplayer. Very fun to play. But then they relaunched it on the Wii in 2009 using motion controls. Well, so far so good, wiimote seems to be made for games like that right? Well, wrong! Although the game is virtually the same as the GameCube one, there is one detail that makes all the difference: your character moves automatically on the court to chase the ball! Let that sink in for a moment…
Really? What kind of tennis game have the character automatically chase the ball? I mean, tennis games from the 80s on atari have the player controlling the character after the ball. It is basically what a tennis game is all about, to be able to catch the damn ball and return it to the opponent! So what game developers are basically saying is this: “As long as there is a gimmick that people think its fun, the game design may be as basic as before the 80s”. Actually it is worse than pong, since in pong you also have to chase the ball. On top of that, the wiimote itself without the plus addon can’t really be sensitive enough to make spins, strength precisely, so you can basically shake it in however you like that it will do the job. It’s a decades devolution on game design just to force a gimmick.
On the other hand, the motion control has been masterfully well made on the same system, with Zelda Skyward Sword and the Metroid Prime Trilogy. But even more important is that these games are awesome even without the gimmick.
The rule of thumb for gimmicky games should be this: “If I take off [gimmick X], is this still a good game?” Going back to Mario Tennis, would people think it is awesome on the GameCube if all you did was to press a button when your character automatically reached the ball? I really don’t think so. But then again, what is it that is SO MORE AWESOME to shake the wiimote regardless of direction than to press a simple button? Well, the truth is that it simply isn’t. Once the motion hype passes, the game that otherwise was awesome simply becomes hollow. It is so true that if motion controls are really so awesome, why there is not as much motion games no the Wii U? It is even compatible with the wiimote.
Well, because the new super hot useless gimmick is the screen on the controller. They tried to make the map on Mario Kart to be only on the controller, which is bad for 1 to 4 players. It is so stupid that even got patched right after (http://nintendoeverything.com/upcoming-mario-kart-8-update-edit-others-highlights-map-on-screen-improved-online-stability-and-more/). For many iterations, the map has been on screen, so why would they something like that? Once again, it’s a game design devolution to push some stupid gimmick. And what is worse, although motion control has some awesome uses, it is forgotten to give place for yet another underused gimmick.
So, what does this have to do with VR? Well, it’s the exact same thing. As I said before, I felt more immersed in a silly demo than in most FPS gems I have ever played, but that alone shouldn’t (and isn’t) enough to make a good videogame. And that is what worries me. I’m worried that developers and players jump too soon on the VR Hype Train and turn it into a forgotten gimmick with half-a**ed shovelware, just like happened with motion control.
If developers take VR seriously and make Skirim-like games that stand for themselves and using VR in the game design, man it will be awesome. It will be a whole new age in gaming where we can actually live the game. But what story taught us is that most games at first will probably devolve be a corridor that wave your hand and everything happens automatically, or maybe a new Fruit Ninja game using Occulus. So, as pumped as I am to see the next great milestone, let’s hope that developers do not lose the essence and the evolution of decades of game design, so VR can be much more than another forgotten gimmick.