Chet Faliszek is a ten year veteran Valve developer who's worked on the Portal, Half Life and Left 4 Dead series. He was also a staunch critic of VR – until he had his moment inside a headset. And it was Valve's room-scale VR technology that convinced him.
"In the first demo that had room scale and had presence, it was about the third demo inside of that because it was a loop," he said, "I just realised I had stopped thinking about the thing on my face, I'd stopped thinking about the technology and I was just in the place."
"Room-scale." It sounds gimmicky but the result is the closest thing we've seen to moving and playing in a virtual space. It's as legit as VR comes.
"I was there, I was 100% there, my brain couldn't understand that I wasn't there. And I instantly just thought - I want to take people to places like this."
Faliszek doesn't like the word immersion which makes him a bit of an anomaly in the VR industry. From Samsung, from Mark Zuckerberg and everyone in between, it's the cop-out answer when explaining the power of virtual reality.
Instead he prefers to talk about presence, which in many people's minds HTC and Valve's Steam VR powered headset Vive and Lighthouse system does best.
Aperture Science, Valve
Why Valve didn't just make a VR game
Our moment came while inside Valve's Aperture Science demo – the Portal-ish VR demo for Vive that the world went nuts for about six months ago. Moving round a CG room, opening drawers, peering inside, playing robot repairer, all made me feel that I was really there, in the Aperture Science labs, not in HTC's swanky UK offices.
And that's what all these early VR developers are working towards: presence. It's no.1 on the game design to-do list.
Valve could have taken its tech and spent three years building a hit game, a Half-Life for the VR generation. Yet while that prospect is still tantalising for gaming fans, for Valve it was too much of a risk which is why Faliszek is working with outside developers.
"We've been working on the hardware side for a long time; over two and half years," Faliszek said. "A lot of how we approached VR was thinking: we could do one big piece ourselves or we could work with and help other developers. We had that headstart of knowledge. So we could either hide away in our castle and cut ourselves off from the world or we could go and make a point of sharing that.
"Because we don't think just one piece of software is going to launch this. It's going to be many pieces of software. To that end, we wanted to make sure we could help as many people as we could.
It's a noble goal and one that fits with the idea that Valve Corporation sees VR as the platform to promote and invest in. Not Steam VR, not Vive, not Oculus, not PlayStation VR. Virtual reality. Leave the exclusives to Rock Band.
And, let's face it, we might be seeing publishers like Ubisoft experimenting with its first PlayStation VR game, Eagle Flight, but most of the games industry will continue to work on titles for PCs and consoles for the foreseeable future. It won't be an instant switch.
"Steam has taught us that thinking of things as competition always makes poor decisions in the short term," said Faliszek. "Thinking longer term always works. We created OpenVR with that idea. We wanted to make sure that developers could have access to the biggest number of community members as possible. Anybody purchasing a headset doesn't want to have to think - what can I get on this? Exclusives are anti- consumers having a good time and anti- developers having a good time."
Speaking at SLUSH in Helsinki recently, Faliszek said that VR game development is in such early days that it's "at Pong level". So what does he see happening to game design as talented writers and developers try their hand at VR for the first time?
There's no abstraction anymore. That's a really big thing to get your head around.
First, gamers - especially those with Valve's Lighthouse positional tracking setup - will slow the hell down. "Often when you're in a 2D game, people will eat up content very quickly," he said. "They do that because it's really easy to move and there's no risk to moving fast. So you blow through that. In virtual reality, you end up moving slower, especially if you're standing because if you're standing, you feel vulnerable. You're in that place in the game. Much like you wouldn't go running through your offices at 40mph, you don't want to do that in virtual reality either."
Slowing players down does two things, it allows developers to make their games deeper and denser as people won't rush through and miss detailed sound or visual elements. The benefit for gamers goes back to presence.
"You can also just escape. You can go really deep, where you are just in that moment, in that world. I think that's something developers have lost. People have such sensory overload now, of being on multiple screens, never being in a place fully anymore. Virtual reality brings you back to that where you are fully in a place and fully engrossed in what you're doing."
The Gallery: Six Elements, Cloudhead Games
Building games for room scale VR
At Wareable, the Vive is regarded as the best overall VR experience our editors have tried. No small achievement. The quality of the demos - and we have only played demos - is superb, the picture looks as hi res as you'll get anywhere but it's the room scale, positional tracking via Valve's Lighthouse system which really does the trick. And by that we mean tricking our brains.
Two wireless infrared cameras sit at two corners of the room you are in and track the 37 sensors on the Vive headset itself as well as the 70 sensors in total across the two Steam VR controllers, with trigger buttons and pressure sensitive pads. With Lighthouse, Steam VR knows where you are in the room, within a 15 x 15 feet area, precisely how you move, tilt and turn your head and what your hands are doing. There will still be games built for the Vive, designed to be played seated. The difference is that Valve's technology adds an extra dimension over simply standing and playing with Oculus Touch controllers.
It's no surprise then that Valve's OpenVR platform is attracting high calibre developers. Everyone from Bossa Studios (Surgeon Simulator) to Fireproof Games (The Room) is getting involved. That's as well as the likes of Northway Games who say they would have regretted not riding the VR wave to see where their building game Fantastic Contraption, which started life as a Flash game in 2008, takes them.
One game that is getting its fair share of - deserved - hype is Cloudhead Games' The Gallery: Call of the Starseed. Developed for Oculus Rift and its Touch controllers as well as Vive, the fantasy adventure game sees us guided through a dangerous quest by a recluse and investigate an ancient device called The Machine. It uses positional audio for the soundtrack and the team has developed its own Blink system to help with spatial awareness.
That's because it also takes full advantage of Lighthouse with players juggling glass bottles (that you then have to stamp or avoid) as well as bringing objects and notes closer to your eyes to 'see' them in dimly lit caves. Gameplay requires users to look in, over and under nooks and crannies in the environment which fits into the theory that VR can slow players down and make for less of a shallow, switch-brain-off session.
"We've been building something that takes advantage of room-scale VR in a pretty unique way," Denny Unger, Cloudhead Games' CEO and creative director, told us. "We genuinely hope that it's a great "first time" experience for people looking for a deeper VR journey. Something they'll be excited to share with friends."
In Unger's case, his vision preceded the tech but by months, not years. "We had a slightly crazy and stubborn vision, that consumer VR was something you could do while standing and interacting naturally with your hands.
"So very early on in early 2013, we began developing a Myst-like, first-person, standing VR experience with hand interactions - The Gallery: Six Elements. The hardware was crude, and missing some key parts but we forged ahead assuming, somewhat blindly, that those bits would be there eventually.
When Valve and HTC invited us down to reveal, and give early access to, what they had been brewing it was an answer to all of our anxieties. It was the perfect fit for our project and an affirmation that we were on the right track."
Job Simulator, Owlchemy Labs
Valve has opened up Steam to movies and music but it is also clear that VR is an opportunity to bring in more diverse groups, both developers and audiences, partly due to the slower rollout compared to a traditional platform. That could mean empathy evoking experiences like Nonny de la Pena's Project Syria which Faliszek says has affected him personally more than any game.
Or it could be a title like Job Simulator, now just announced for PlayStation VR too, a supremely silly title in which you try your hand at, sometimes menial jobs, from office work to cooking in a kitchen. Despite being developed for cutting edge headsets, its controls are so straightforward, your parents and grandparents could play it. It's more casual than some VR titles but it's by no means simply a Wii successor either.
"Job Simulator's design is the result of playing to the strengths of today's high end VR setups," said Alex Schwartz, CEO and founder of Owlchemy Labs. "We ended up building a game all about detailed, realistic physics interactions using your hands. It seems like it would be a complicated or technical process to play it, but the magic of VR is that it's the most accessible form of interaction that's been built to date.
"We've had players who have never touched a video game in their lives and were instantly able to get into the kitchen scene in our Gourmet Chef job and start throwing around eggs, smashing wine bottles, and creating faux meals with no instruction."
Faliszek agrees, pointing out that now creating an elegant UI still involves making an abstraction of how you want to interact with something. "In virtual reality, we finally remove that abstraction of input," he said. "It's actually one to one. You're actually just reaching in there and manipulating something. You're moving the object with your hand. There's not that abstraction anymore. That's just a really big thing to get your head around, of how much that matters."
Waiting for the headset
As for the HTC Vive itself, the latest reports are that a limited number will be available to buy before the end of 2015, a deadline that's now looking mighty close. There were rumours about a 8 December launch in the UK and Germany but that has now been and gone. HTC said that more headsets will be released in Q1 of 2016 and it may well stick to its aim of beating Sony and, in particular, Oculus to launch.
Still, true to the vision of Valve supporting VR as the platform, even the Aperture Science demo won't be exclusive to the Vive. As for predictions on the VR games we will be playing in 2016 and beyond, Faliszek is quite bullish on two fronts: it won't be all ported over classics and we'll be playing for longer than 15 minutes at a time.
"We had this moment where everyone thought you just ported stuff over," he said, "But if you look at Steam and the rise of the independent developers, I think it's a myth that people only play the blockbusters and the familiar.
"There is also this perception that you end up having these light, little things that don't have depth to them. The depth, the wanting to go back to some place or some experience is important. People are misunderstanding that, thinking that these are just short, 15 minutes and you're out, experiences. As content comes on board which is these longer form pieces, you will lose yourself."
Until all the major headsets launch, the best chance of experiencing what Valve has managed to do is by trying out the HTC Vive as it tours the world at shows and expos. "Much like I had my moment where I realised this is what I wanted to work on, I think people will realise this is how they want to consume some of their content. No amount of us talking about it or writing about it will convince people. People just need to have that moment."
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