You can count the number of truly worthwhile Google Cardboard games on one hand. Cardboard is the easiest way to experience modern virtual reality for the first time. But it's not built with interacting in mind and the tech is limited, partly because it works with so many different devices.
Samsung's Gear VR is different. Finally freed from its Innovator Edition (AKA public beta) branding, the mobile VR headset is finally a viable option for the millions of people with a compatible Samsung phone. It can't stack up against a PC-powered Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but compared to Cardboard, it has more power to tap, better interactivity options, and significantly more interest from developers.
The best of them are already wowing players with immersive experiences that work within the limitations of mobile VR. I caught up with two of them, Land's End creator ustwo games and Smash Hit maker Mediocre, to talk about being on the breaking wave of consumer VR—and not trying to do too much too early.
Moments that can only happen in VR
The Gear VR has dozens of games and immersive experiences available already, but Land's End and Smash Hit have held my attention above all—and they're totally distinct. Land's End is all about exploring a mysterious, minimal world filled with puzzles solved solely with your gaze. It's serene and calming. Smash Hit, on the other hand, is a wonderfully violent affair, as you're catapulted through endless hallways while you throw balls to destroy glass sculptures. Both are brilliant.
Given the differences in tone and style, it's fitting then that they came to be in very different ways. Land's End is an original creation built exclusively for the Gear VR, and seemingly pulled from a creative urge to utilise this fascinating new hardware. Smash Hit, on the other hand, was already a touch-centric mobile game—but it's not a port.
According to Dennis Gustafsson, co-founder at Mediocre, they had a version of Smash Hit running on the earliest Oculus Rift development kit before the iOS and Android game was even released. They held onto it until a proper consumer headset neared, and jumped at the chance to bring it to Gear VR—and it's totally free, no less. "I think Gear VR is the first device that can provide a real VR experience," he says. "Cardboard is a fun introduction, but the technology just isn't there yet and it's not very suitable for gaming."
For ustwo games, makers of the immensely charming mobile puzzler Monument Valley, developing for the Gear VR meant tapping into a new part of their creative energy and designing something very different from what they had in the past.
"We have found that designing for VR is very different to making traditional games, a sentiment that's echoed when filmmakers talk about VR," asserts Peter Pashley, head of development at ustwo games. "We don't see VR as just a different viewing method, but actually something that requires entirely new genres of interactive entertainment. It's hugely exciting to contemplate what those could be, and to be part of the discovery."
Monument Valley is perfect for touch, and banking on its success might have been the smart business move for ustwo—but a traversal-based puzzle experience like that would have surely been overly complicated in VR. Instead, the studio opted to take some core tenets of that game and translate them into something new and better suited for a wearable experience.
"We've always felt that the best VR moments are those that could only happen in VR, so we aimed to create something designed from the ground up for VR without trying to 'port' existing mechanics across," he explains. "However, there are a lot of deeper lessons from Monument Valley that still apply to the design of Land's End—things like pacing and the role of puzzle elements in the user's experience. We see them as means to help the player enjoy the world rather than the main event [themselves]."
Amaze with gaze
Much of what makes Land's End such a smart fit for the Gear VR is its complete reliance on player gaze. You explore the world on a fixed path simply by pointing your eyes in the direction of the next spot in the environment. Solving puzzles, meanwhile, is often as simple as connecting dots in the correct order by staring at them. Land's End is a paragon of simplicity in game design, and that's crucial for virtual reality—particularly for the Gear VR, which has a touchpad on the viewer itself but doesn't ship with a standalone controller.
"We tried to avoid doing things that would pull the player out of their immersion," says Pashley. "Probably the best example is our decision not to use the Gear VR's touchpad—it gave the player more control, but every time they touched the hunk of plastic strapped to their face, it reminded them about the real world."
Ustwo was eager to make a game about exploration, which might have benefitted from the significantly higher processing power of the PC-based Oculus Rift or HTC Vive. But they saw it another way: the Gear VR's wireless design actually made it the perfect platform for such a game, as there are no concerns about getting tangled up in the cords of a tethered headset. And in their opinion, visual power isn't paramount anyway.
"The Gear VR does have technical limitations, but we wanted to show that it was possible to take people to an immersive new world that they could believe in and explore, even on mobile hardware," he adds. "The key is the understanding that immersion does not derive from graphical fidelity; it derives from engagement with a consistent and interesting world. Even on PC, we don't have the capability to totally fool the eyes, so we have to engage with the imagination instead."
By contrast, Mediocre's game requires a small bit of consistent physical input: you must tap anywhere on the touchpad to toss the balls at the little glass panes and triangles that whiz by your face. Yet the intuitive simplicity of your gaze is still the more significant part of the input equation. Your eyes naturally explore the stunning terrain as you pulse ahead through each new room, and Smash Hit simply complements that natural urge with the instinctive taps.
In fact, Mediocre's work to adapt Smash Hit to VR was focused on streamlining the game to better fit the wearable experience—taking complexity out and altering some obstacles, all in the name of a more immersive and enthralling sensation. Smash Hit is still plenty intense and exciting in VR, but crucially, it's never overwhelming. That's because it's not a straight port of a game designed for other hardware. "In general, we had to simplify the game quite a bit since it is harder to aim with your head than with (multiple) fingers," says Gustavsson.
Just because a game works on smartphones doesn't mean it'll hold up on VR. Quite the contrary, in fact. The Gear VR hosts prominent examples of games that weren't modified enough to the extent that they feel right when you're playing inside a headset. Temple Run VR is a frustrating one: although there's a real thrill to being chased by a pursuing monster and overcoming obstacles, the fumbly Gear VR touchpad makes shifting lanes, jumping, and sliding an awkward experience.
More recently, Into the Dead—another mobile hit: an endless first-person runner amidst zombies—stumbled into the Oculus Store for the headset. It's only playable with a dedicated gamepad, the movement isn't controlled by your gaze, and it's priced at a head-scratching $9 when the mobile game is free. Again, Smash Hit is free for Gear VR, while Land's End is $8.
Into the Dead is nicely atmospheric and rather straightforward in core design, so it should be perfect in VR. However, without proper tweaking for the platform, it landed with a thud. Developer PikPok says they're working on an update to remove the gamepad requirement from Into the Dead, so perhaps a more immersive experience is still ahead
So far, Land's End and Smash Hit are two of the best examples of Gear VR gaming: both are powerful showcases for the technology but neither overcomplicates the experience. That's crucial for mobile VR right now, as it shows that a smartphone-powered headset can suck you into a proper virtual gaming experience even if the interactions aren't especially complex or varied.
Earlier this week, a GDC survey found that 16% of game developers are working on VR games for 2016, up from just 7% in early 2015. Mediocre says it's still focused on smartphone and tablet game development for now, but that it will keep a close eye on the retail launches of both the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Ustwo games, on the other hand, believes that mobile VR is the way forward for its own virtual reality ambitions, citing the low barrier to entry and the ability to quickly design potentially innovative, smaller-scale experiences.
"The best experiences are about people's entire user experience, about how it makes them feel. It's easier to focus on that, and iterate quickly enough to get it right, on mobile than on console [or PC]," Pashley suggests. "One thing all VR developers say is never to trust your instincts: your initial assumptions about what will work are usually wrong, and you have to keep trying until you get it right. I think the 'killer apps' for VR (not just games) will come from the mobile VR market, where developers can experiment more quickly and with a larger audience."
Land's End certainly exists as one of those early killer apps for virtual reality. It's sure to influence the next generation of head-turning, awe-inspiring mobile VR experiences, and given the game's success at sucking in players for its subtle puzzle adventure, we wouldn't be surprised to see games for more advanced VR hardware take some notes as well.
"It's exciting to be involved with the first stages of any technology, but particularly so with VR," Pashley admits. "At some point in the future, it will be a medium that is important to everyone, so it's thrilling to have been able to help shape its language."