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The VR Frontier

When the Oculus Rift first launched its Kickstarter campaign, it set off a wave of hype that still hasn’t died down. VR is an easy sell. It’s so easy to imagine how cool it could be! “Step into the game” was Oculus’s Kickstarter tagline, and it reflects a common first reaction. Imagine Call of Duty, but you’re actually on the battlefield! Imagine walking around the province of Skyrim! And imagine what it will be like once we have haptic gloves! How awesome will that be?

New technologies are exciting because they open the door to new experiences. The new experience that’s easiest to sell is “the same thing you’ve always liked, but better”. And that’s great! If the PS4’s advantage over the PS3 is that it allows you to play the same kind of games you’ve always enjoyed, but improved in every way, there’s no shame in that.

For other platforms, there’s a bigger difference. When the Wii launched, or the iPhone opened up its App Store, they paved the way for new types of experiences. In both cases, developers tried to bring traditionally popular types of games (platformers, first-person shooters, etc.) to the new devices, essentially promising “the same thing but better” (or at least “almost as good”). In both cases, those games were a poor fit, and usually failed. The games that succeeded, on the other hand, were the ones that were uniquely tailored for the new platform. These platforms rewarded games that took advantage of their unique strengths.

The question is: which kind of platform is VR? Is it “the same thing but better”, or something qualitatively different? Is success a matter of adapting our favorite games and finally stepping into the worlds of Skyrim or CoD? Or do we need to set aside those old favorites and try to create totally new types of experiences?

I genuinely don’t know the answer to that. We’ve certainly run into plenty of problems when attempting to adapt traditional games to VR (input, locomotion, performance, etc.), but perhaps those issues can be overcome. Or perhaps VR will succeed by adapting some limited set of genres, like space shooters and racing games.

But truthfully, I’m hoping that VR turns out to be the other kind of platform: the kind that requires us to invent new genres and modes of interaction. Sure, I’d like to walk around Skyrim as much as the next guy, but what really excites me is the unexplored territory of a totally new medium. I can’t get excited when I see something like Lucky’s Tale, a VR adaptation of a 3D platformer. Sure, it’s in virtual reality, but isn’t it pretty much the same thing I’ve already played so many times before? With a whole new medium in front of us, is this really the best we can do? (To be fair, I haven’t played Lucky’s Tale myself, and some players say there really is a qualitative difference. And I don’t think my own game went far enough when it came to taking advantage of VR, so I can’t really talk trash. But you get my point.)

You don’t need new technology to innovate, of course. The indie game revolution was started by developers who realized that there was plenty of unexplored territory within the existing technological boundaries of the medium. But when those boundaries expand (e.g. when VR launches), there will be a brand new frontier to explore, and I expect it will be fertile ground for experimentation.

So here’s what I’m asking of developers: don’t go into VR with the intention of making a “genre game”. Take the classics as inspiration, but don’t look at VR development as a process of adapting tried-and-true mechanics to a new screen. Instead, think about what would work best in this new medium. Think about what fits the platform most naturally. And don’t be afraid to try something totally new.

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