With the release of HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, now is the time for VR games to shine. Though the headsets aren't perfect yet, the hardware kits have proved that VR isn't a mere passing fad. It just needs some amazing experiences – in the form of software – to really cement itself.
Independent game studio Insomniac is one of the companies already halfway there. There are plenty of studios with VR games in the mix but Insomniac seems to be one of the most determined to create good content. The studio has increased its upcoming VR games roster from the single title Edge Of Nowhere to a total of three with Feral Rites and The Unspoken.
During a special media event in Burbank, California, I was able to play two of the three games then sit down with the lead creators, along with Insomniac Games CEO Ted Price and head of studios at Oculus Jason Rubin, to chat about developing for Rift, the steadily growing plans for the VR space and ultimately, how Insomniac games will make us all believers in virtual reality.
The next wave of gaming is here
During the opening presentation, Rubin discussed how back in the early days of gaming when he first met Price, the media critiqued small things like cartridge packaging, and then CDs getting scratched. He went on to give other examples of how innovation in game development was scrutinised, yet how it managed to persevere.
"When we first met, the PlayStation had not launched. The world was cartridge based. The world looked at cartridges and they said, 'This is never going to work, they scratch, I don't like the shape of the box.'
"These are real complaints that many of you are too young to remember, but the media was talking about how CDs would never work [because] they were too big... It took a while, no one remembers this, but it took a while, especially with consumers to come along and jump on the ride."
Rubin began talks with Insomniac a few years ago where he was told about Edge Of Nowhere, which debuted afterwards as an the studio's first Oculus-exclusive game.
The third-person adventure title channels Lovecraftian horror, where it's unclear what is real and what is an illusion, as a man traverses the Arctic to find his fiancée in an expedition gone wrong.
The latest 30-minute demo was much more polished than my initial trial run and I was able to see how much time the team had spent making sure the mechanics were easy to grasp. Many VR games out now are short and oftentimes lack substance, but Edge felt like a real game.
It's still the early days of VR game development so discerning the appropriate amount of gameplay is something devs are still toying with. Brian Allgeier, creative director of Edge Of Nowhere, notes that he can race through the game in four hours but it could take about six hours maximum to complete.
That may sound too long for virtual reality – however I found that the VR aspect was more of an afterthought. It became an intuitive process looking around at my surroundings for the next way through a cave, or looking at my enemies to aim my shotgun. This complete immersion seems to be a quality Insomniac has carefully crafted into its other VR titles.
Unleashing inner beasts in VR
While Feral Rites wasn't playable, the concept remained intriguing. With the option to play as a male or female character, you return to an island to fight bad guys, explore temples and even adventure on side quests, all to find the person who killed your father.
Another third-person title, Feral Rites is played entirely without weapons. Instead, you'll be chaining together melee combat moves with the additional ability to transform into different beasts. According to Marcus Smith, creative director of the game, all the character progression is based on the items you can purchase and upgrade.
It's also more of a fighting game in VR – but you won't be using Oculus Touch controllers. Feral Rites is all about the Xbox One controller. Smith said there are certain things you are able to do more easily with the gamepad as opposed to using the Touch controllers.
"The adventure portion is you still explore the island so you need to be able to move about and do all sorts of things. It's more of a fighting game mentality where you need to know what your body looks like and see yourself. If it's a first-person Touch game, you can't really do that."
Casting spells and Oculus Touch – the perfect VR combo
However that doesn't mean Oculus Touch is completely out of the question for the studio. Aside from a few Steam crossover titles and Toybox, there haven't been many games that have truly showcased what Oculus's Touch controllers can do.
The Unspoken feels like the first legitimately exciting Oculus Touch game this year. It completely utilises the Oculus controllers, transforming you into a duelling magician very effectively.
Described by Insomniac as an "Urban magic fight club," Unspoken finds you in the loosely adapted city of Chicago, battling friends or strangers in various arenas, all the while casting different spells. With over 25 spell types – both offensive and defensive – it's like Harry Potter come to life. You'll also be teleporting, or hopping around from pillar to pillar, escaping and finding the perfect angle to rain down beautiful, deadly magic.
It was definitely the most popular demo of the day, and offered up intuitive, immersive matches that made me love every minute of the game. The flick of a wrist brings up a spell menu where after selecting one, you "cast" by performing quick movements like hitting symbols on an anvil to produce a powerful (but difficult to aim) spear, or running your hands through a series of golden orbs to create lethal crows that plummet down on your opponent. Chad Dezem, creative director for the The Unspoken, said a lot of brainstorming went into the hand gestures.
"We started with what we thought would be the most fun for casting spells. If we were magic users, what would we want? We worked backwards from there thinking, 'What would make the best gesture that's really fun to execute but also what makes a really cool experience for your opponent?'
"Because we think about things like, well it's cool to get swarmed by crows in VR and it feels neat to see this paper airplane coming towards you with the chance to block it. But you have to track it around the arena. We built it so it's like a challenge for your opponent. They can choose to counter and send back at you. There's a counter of everything.
"If someone sends a murder of crows at your opponent, they might choose to throw fireballs to take them out one by one, they might choose to put up a hand shield, draw a shield with the magic marker – there are a lot of different ways."
Developing for Oculus as VR grows
It sounds like the relationship between the two companies has been a strong one and there's nothing but optimism moving forward for both Oculus and Insomniac.
Dezem said that developing for Oculus, and in particular Touch, has been a pretty great experience, especially since the technology is still evolving.
"We're impressed by all the work that's gone into the software and the infrastructure and everything that Oculus has worked on so far. Things like deploying builds are kind of a dream. It's all just very nicely handled…
"It's been cool as the software and hardware is coming along, even having the ability to influence where it's headed in a way. The Touch is a very precise controller. There were a lot of things that were surprises to us when we got in and really started working on the register. Pointing [works] really well, hand tracking in space has a really good feel. It's just solid. The more we can get players to think about their hands and not the controller, the better off we are."
Rubin adds that though there have been issues with the Rift, it's up to VR games to really convince the public. However he remains adamant that the software will make and not break the industry.
"The reviews from consumers, the few that have it – and we admit that we've had some shipping problems – are fantastic. People who have played VR are ecstatic. From this point on, it's not the hardware – it will ship, it will sell, people will love it. From now on, it's the software."
If other studios follow Insomniac's lead and immerse you in rich stories that last longer than an hour's demo, or bring compelling gameplay, then I'm inclined to agree with Rubin – a well-made experience will turn the biggest VR skeptic into a believer.
Edge Of Nowhere launches 6 June, Feral Rites in the autumn and The Unspoken is coming out Christmas 2016.
How we test