Game Makers Embrace VR's Possibilities

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Game Makers Embrace VR's Possibilities
October 3, 2016

Phil Fish, an independent video game developer who made a hit game called Fez, quit the business in 2014 after burning out and becoming fed up with the gaming industry’s sometimes corrosive culture. Now he’s back, lured by the promise of a long-anticipated technology: virtual reality.
 
“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was 10 years old,” Fish, 31, said from his office in Austin, Tex. “I just got really excited about the realization of the dream of VR.”
 
Fish is part of a four-person collective called Kokoromi that next month is to release a virtual reality game called Superhypercube.
 
The object of the Tetris-like puzzle game, set in a red-tinged world of incandescent tubes and gleaming neon, is to rotate a cluster of blocks so that they fit perfectly through the corresponding hole in a rapidly approaching wall. All the while, players are suffused in 360 degrees of shimmering colors and must physically lean to peer around the blocks and align them in the 3-D space.
 
Fish’s enthusiasm for virtual reality is being echoed by others in the video game business — in some cases pushing retired game developers to return and inspiring others with its creative potential — even as many hurdles remain to virtual reality’s entry into the mainstream.
 
Paul Bettner, co-creator of the popular mobile game Words With Friends, has called virtual reality “the most important thing to happen to interactive entertainment in decades.” This year, he designed a virtual reality game called Lucky’s Tale.
 
The creators behind the blockbuster 1993 computer game Myst recently came out with a spiritual successor called Obduction, which was released for both virtual reality devices and standard computers.
 
What makes virtual reality so potent is not only how it envelops players in a 360-degree visual experience but also how it uses 3-D lenses, immersive audio and head-tracking technology to create a profound sense of physical presence that developers are just beginning to explore.

“We always wanted to build places and worlds, not just games, and VR just does that — it makes you feel like you’re in another place without even trying,” said Rand Miller, a co-designer of Myst and the designer of Obduction.

The interest in making virtual reality games follows the introduction of several virtual reality headsets over the last year. On Oct. 13, Sony plans to release PlayStation VR, a $399 virtual reality headset that can connect to the company’s popular PlayStation 4 console, which has sold more than 40 million units.
 
PlayStation VR is cheaper than other virtual reality goggles, like the $599 Oculus Rift and $799 HTC Vive, which also require expensive computers. That makes PlayStation VR one of the industry’s better chances at establishing a foothold with a mainstream audience. Superhypercube is one of the introductory games for the headset and will be available to download for $29.99.
 
Yet these developers are betting on an unproven technology. Some critics remain unconvinced that virtual reality devices will become mainstream consumer products, given the cost, the potential to induce nausea in some people and the sky-high expectations.
 
This month, Apple’s chief executive, Timothy D. Cook, said he believed that augmented reality — in which the digital world is overlaid on the physical one — had more consumer appeal than virtual reality, which he said would ultimately attract “lower commercial interest over time.”
 
Fish has come and gone from the video game industry more than once. All the while, he remained connected to Kokoromi, which he formed in 2006 with two other developers, Heather Kelley and Damien Di Fede, later joined by Cindy Poremba.
 
Together, they developed Superhypercube for a 3-D-themed creative event in 2008. At the time, the game was more of an interactive art installation than a commercial product. Since there were no virtual reality headsets then with the necessary capabilities, they made their own with a Nintendo Wii Remote controller, stereoscopic LED glasses and hot glue.
 
Although early versions of Superhypercube could be played at large parties and gaming events, there was no way to play it at home without building a do-it-yourself virtual reality headset. When the makers of the Oculus Rift virtual reality goggles raised more than $2.4 million on the crowdfunding site Kickstarter in 2012, the members of Kokoromi realized that virtual reality technology was finally catching up to them.
 
As other headsets were announced, it started to seem obvious that a newer, more polished version of Superhypercube could be made for a broad audience.
 
“We had years of prototyping and play-testing data, because we were foolish enough to make a VR game with hot glue and plastic 3-D glasses,” Poremba said. “It’s an advantage that very few other people had bringing games into VR.”
 
Although virtual reality’s commercial future is uncertain, Kokoromi remains more interested in the creative possibilities.
 
PlayStation VR “could sell 100,000 units or it could sell 10 million units; we don’t know,” Fish said. “But it’s superexciting. It’s the Wild West right now. Everything’s a discovery, everything has to be reinvented and reconsidered.”

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