2016 could be VR's year but the biggest question mark over its early success isn't the ever elusive - and constantly changing - release dates of the big headsets like the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive. It's what we will be able to do in virtual reality when they arrive.
Ubisoft is the biggest games publisher to announce a title for VR so far. Developed by Ubisoft Montreal, Eagle Flight is one of the new batch of PlayStation VR games Sony recently announced at its PlayStation Experience event.
But Ubisoft isn't betting all its hopes for this new dawn in VR on one game and one platform. For a start, the single player Eagle Flight game is being developed for PC as well as PS4. We asked David Votypka, senior creative director of Ubisoft-owned Red Storm studio, which leads the direction Ubisoft's VR efforts are heading in and what to expect beyond the first early demos.
The end of motion sickness
Discovering what developers can do with VR begins with what they can't do. For a long time, motion, or simulation sickness has been part of this equation. It's so much of a problem now as Votypka is very optimistic about the problem being solved by the manufacturers of the high-end VR headsets. This means certain boundaries around pace, immersion and controls can be expanded.
"Back in the DK1 days, motion was certainly the most significant issue," he said. "However things have improved in a short period of time. Improvements to VR headsets such as latency, low persistence of the pixels, screen quality, size and FOV contribute significantly to reducing user discomfort.
"In addition, developers are bringing solutions via their design decisions that either avoid or directly address the problem. From motionless seated experiences, to teleport-based locomotion systems, to the design techniques employed by Ubisoft Montreal in their Eagle Flight game. Hundreds of people have now played that game where you fly, at significant speeds, over and through Paris' city streets, and very few feel any discomfort at all. VR motion sickness is a problem that is being solved."
Thematic, non-gimmicky gameplay
Ubisoft is known for rich, rewarding series like Assassin's Creed and Far Cry. It's not about to throw away that reputation on a bunch of shallow, novelty VR games.
So the challenge for studios like Red Storm, best known for tactical FPS Tom Clancy'sRainbow Six and more recently Far Cry 3 and 4, is to create games that live up to the potential that virtual reality offers without getting stuck solely exploiting the fresh controls.
We need to build both the interest and belief of gamers that investing in this new medium will be worthwhile
"VR games can and must deliver unique mechanics and gameplay experiences that cannot be realised in the traditional video game format," said Votypka.
"We now have the ability and opportunity to build mechanics around a player's senses such as being able to move and rotate their head inside of the game world, and to be able to reach out and touch or grab objects in the environment. Building thematic, non-gimmicky gameplay mechanics around even just these two aspects can create magically compelling experiences that simply wouldn't translate if attempted in traditional game formats."
Ubisoft is well aware that speed is of the essence too. VR needs to keep up its momentum and that means gamers buying headsets and developers making games for them.
"As game developers we need to deliver these types of unique and compelling gaming experiences in 2016," he said, "in order to build both the interest and belief of gamers that investing their time and money into this new medium will be worthwhile. We strongly believe that we are doing that at Ubisoft with the VR games and prototypes we have in development."
Social VR is still up for grabs
One of the VR experiments that Ubisoft has shown off is the Definition of Insanity trailer for Far Cry 3 (co-developed by Red Storm and Ubisoft Montreal). It features a monologue by the game's antagonist Vaas and was remastered for VR. But even though familiar games would woo Ubisoft's customers, Red Storm isn't simply looking to repurpose the classics.
VR may actually be one of the most social mediums that people have ever experienced
"At Red Storm, social VR is the specific area we are focused on with our games," Votypka told us. "We have discovered that when we network the position of a player's head movements, how their head drives their torso position and alignment, and their voice, the result is a very convincing sense of social presence, or shared presence. This means truly feeling like you are in the environment with another human, instead of an avatar being driven by CG animation.
"We are building gameplay around supporting a social experience between a group of players, allowing them to have a great time playing the game systems, while experiencing many of the same social dynamics that they would if they were playing in the same room together around a table."
The question when it comes to social VR is how many headsets do you need in the room to make it work? Does each player need to be strapped in? Red Storm says no.
"A great example so far is the game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes (for Oculus Rift and Gear VR). One player wears the headset and sees a bomb in front of them they need to defuse, while one or more other players try to decipher a manual to instruct the VR player on how to defuse it. And much hilarity and social interaction tends to follow. So, VR will definitely be both a solo and a social experience, and may actually be one of the most social mediums that people have ever experienced."
The promise of pick up and play
The likes of Valve's Chet Faliszek might be promising gamers that they won't be forking out big bucks just to play four minute demos. But there's no harm in providing snackable VR experiences and games alongside meatier stories, especially as the hardware is still progressing.
"For the games we are developing at Ubisoft, our play time targets are generally less than 30 minutes for any given mission/level/match etc," said Votypka. "Of course players can choose to play multiple missions or matches in a row, but we want to ensure that our games aren't pushing players to be in the headset for too long of a stretch if they don't want to be."
Developing for hand tracking and controllers
Ubisoft is keeping all its options open when it comes to inputs as it is just too early to rule anything out, even the wackier ideas.
"So far, VR is primarily being used with either a gamepad controller, or hand tracking remotes," Votypka told us. "It seems that Oculus, Valve/HTC, and Sony will all deliver a hand tracking solution with their headsets in 2016, as well as gamepads in the case of Oculus and Sony. So these are the primary devices we are developing for.
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"There are others out there of course such as Leap Motion, Sixsense's STEM system, and the Myo armband to name a few, most of which we have at least tried out at Ubisoft. They are all intriguing in their own ways, and we value the innovators and entrepreneurs who are striving to create novel and natural input schemes for VR. We're look forward to seeing which third party devices begin to take hold in 2016."
The reality transfer
Like many others getting into VR, Red Storm's creative director says that all this work figuring out what VR gaming will look - and feel - like all boils down to presence and what that can offer the gamer.
"For the first time, we as developers have the ability to take some of the player's physical senses and immerse them into a virtual/digital environment; thereby creating that astonishing sense of presence, of feeling like you are actually there," he said. "The reality transfer from real world into game world has never been this powerful or this convincing before.
"VR's ability to make the player feel that they are present in the situation, and able to reach out and interact with the game world with their own hands will only amplify their gaming experience and the related sensations, which in many ways speaks directly to the core desires of a hardcore gamer. They will also be able to experience new types of games, genres and game mechanics, as well as play old genres in new ways that revitalise or reinvent the original experience."
Ubisoft isn't being particularly secretive about what it's up to in VR. So expect to hear more concrete news from Red Storm and Ubisoft's other studios in early 2016. With the Assassin's Creed style of Eagle Flight and the remade Far Cry 3 trailer, we wouldn't be surprised to see a mixture of remasters and future classics. Precisely what VR needs for its so-called breakthrough year.