Category: VR

The Future of VR Gaming

In a previous article, we discussed the evolution of VR gaming and VR technology. In this piece, we will discuss their future.

Since they first hit the market in 2015, VR headsets have become (relatively) cheaper, and now come with a wide selection of games boasting high-quality graphics, immersive environments and highly-interactive game worlds. Headsets now boast higher resolutions, better motion detection and controls, and are also getting cheaper. 

Yet the industry faces multiple challenges that hinder virtual reality’s adoption among gamers and other users. This has not stopped tech giants like Meta, Apple and Google from backing the technology – and has spurred developers to solve the problems with current VR technology and enhance the VR experience.

What is Holding VR Gaming Back?

The VR industry remains niche, even in the gaming market, where it has seen actual gains. Despite improvements in the technology, user experience is cited as one of the biggest obstacles to VR adoption. VR sickness – the dizziness, disorientation and nausea experienced in VR – remains a problem that deters users from fully committing to VR and raises health concerns about VR gaming.

The pandemic wasn’t kind to VR gaming either – hardware shortages coincided with the release of the first great AAA VR game, Half Life: Alyx, and VR arcades went out of business due to lockdown restrictions. 

VR Gaming Remains a Niche Market

Experts rate that VR is most prevalent in gaming, where it has the greatest potential to immerse users in all-encompassing worlds.

Statistics show that VR is one of the fastest-growing segments in media, due in large part to VR gaming, and the Quest 2 powered strong headset sales in 2021. However, VR headset and game sales still constitute a minute fraction of the gaming market: they accounted for 0.4% of the $130bn revenue from gaming hardware and software in 2020. The VR gaming market size is expected to reach $42.5 bn in 2025, while the gaming market as a whole is expected to be worth $300 bn by then.

When optimistic projections are seen in context, it appears that VR may remain a niche market in the coming years – unless the efforts of those in the industry propel it to new heights. VR game sales figures also need to be seen in context: Beat Saber took three years to reach an estimated $180 million in revenue, while Red Dead Redemption 2 made $725 million in its first weekend of release.

Costly, but Not User-Friendly

Tech observers have not been kind to the nascent VR industry, continually citing the poor user experience, the high price, the problems with the gear, motion sickness, and the mixed success of VR arcades as proof that VR is failing to live up to its potential.

VR technology remains problematic, according to PC Gamer – handling and throwing objects still doesn’t feel right, headsets remain bulky and uncomfortable, and VR gear has few provisions for accessibility and the physically challenged. Although the most popular headset, Quest 2, costs only $300, Valve’s Index headset and ‘knuckle’ controllers together cost $1339, and the HTC Vive Pro costs $1399 (as of the time of writing this blog). Both Valve and HTC’s headsets need to be tethered to powerful PCs as well. Despite the high cost, these VR kits do not track full-body movements to enable natural walking or running in virtual environments. 

A Polygon article considers current VR hardware a ‘trainwreck for anyone but people who like to build their own PCs’. Virtual reality is evolving rapidly, and that can paradoxically stymie its adoption today. This is at the center of Polygon’s screed against VR: why spend money on a bulky, blurry headset today when just five years later, you may have access to HDR headsets with even higher resolutions?

Gaming Took Off During the Pandemic; VR Didn’t

VR gaming didn’t quite take off during the pandemic, even though gaming revenues soared during the lockdown. The greatest VR game yet, Half Life: Alyx, was released on March 23, 2020. Yet its release coincided with a shortage of headsets such as the Valve Index, the Oculus Quest and the Rift S. Due to VR’s dependence on dedicated hardware, Half Life: Alyx could not reach its full potential in sales, even when millions turned to gaming as a way to cope with lockdowns.

The pandemic almost put an end to VR arcades, where gamers could roam freely in enclosures, wearing headsets tethered to PCs slung on their backs, shooting zombies and other enemies using arcade guns. Such arcades were considered the future of virtual reality in gaming until the lockdown – and its attendant restrictions on public gatherings – put almost all of them out of business. One of them, however, has made a triumphant return: Sandbox VR, a Hong Kong-based gaming company that went bankrupt during COVID, has since re-emerged from ruin after a strong round of fund-raising and plans to open new arcades in London, Toronto and other cities in 2022.

Motion Sickness Puts Gamers off VR

In 2016, a Los Angeles writer played the VR game Tilt Brush for 25 hours straight, while representatives from the Guinness Book of World Records watched. He vomited once while playing, and after he stopped, the world looked ‘uncanny’ and distant objects felt unreal. He recovered in a day, but found the experience overwhelming. His record has since been broken.

VR headsets cannot track leg movements, and gamers hence use controllers to move forward in-game (while remaining still in the real world). This results in motion sickness and discourages users from spending prolonged periods in virtual reality.

A Healthline article lists nausea and vomiting, queasiness, cold sweats, dizziness, headache, and fatigue as the symptoms of VR sickness – and ties it directly to the strong sense of ‘presence’ created by the verisimilitude of VR gaming. This immersion fools your inner ear into thinking that you are moving – even as your muscles and joints report that you are still. The better the game is at creating a strong sense of presence, the more pronounced the symptoms can get.

A variety of cures are suggested, including fresh air, aromatherapy and ginger, and gamers who want to curb VR motion sickness symptoms while playing can try scopolamine patches, Dramamine or acupressure wrist bands. Symptoms subside a few hours after the VR session ends, though if they persist, you should see a doctor. A technology that all but requires medication is unlikely to attract new users. 

The Healthline article recommends using VR treadmills and other devices that accurately track leg movements in the real world to simulate movement in virtual reality – and hardware developers are hard at work creating consumer-grade versions of such devices.

How the Tech World is Tackling VR Problems

Given this litany of problems and grievances, it is no wonder that Wired has called for the VR industry to be judged on its performance, rather than optimistic projections and the aspirations of tech giants like Meta. 

Each VR problem has a potential solution that can help widen user adoption. 

The tech world continues to pour millions into VR development – companies are developing new technologies to improve the VR experience, and Facebook is the biggest player in the VR market, though Apple, Google and Microsoft are also in the fray.

Tech giants aren’t in this game for gaming alone: they are rushing to create the metaverse – a combination of virtual and augmented reality where users fully inhabit a simulated world created by technology, interacting with each other within its confines. The metaverse may not be ostensibly relevant to gaming, but will inevitably result in improved UX and VR technology designed for prolonged (and varied) use, and can include gaming within its broad scope.

In an illuminating video on the metaverse as it exists today, Wall Street Journal columnist Joanna Stern spends a day in virtual reality – she kicks things off with a game of Beat Saber, then visits AltSpaceVR for social interaction, and sleeps with the help of a meditation app. On waking up she uses a browser to read the news, works out using the Supernatural fitness app, and attends virtual meetings for hours, eventually getting a headache. Tech giants want to create such experiences (except perhaps the headache) on a far grander scale – the closest approximation to this is Steven Spielberg’s movie Ready Player One.

Ready Player One (Courtesy: Warner Bros)

Redefining VR for the Future

Many hardware developers are working to address the technical shortcomings of VR gear – headset makers are making lighter and sleeker headsets, while developers are designing new locomotion tracking gear so that movement in real life is mirrored in virtual space. A community of enthusiasts is also enriching VR with literally game-changing mods that either improve gameplay in a VR game, or enable VR modes in flat-screen games. Developers are also coming up with lightweight and inexpensive solutions for natural movement in virtual reality. Cloud VR gaming is in a nascent stage but holds great promise for the future of gaming in VR.

Sleeker and Lighter Headsets

VR headsets in the past have been bulky and awkward to wear, but Sony, Panasonic, HTC and Apple are designing sleeker, lighter headsets that boast higher resolutions. 

The PlayStation VR 2 headset is far sleeker than the PSVR, and offers 4k resolution. Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 headset weighs a mere 503 grams, while Apple is designing a headset that combines virtual reality and augmented reality and uses a special lens to keep the headset’s weight under 150 grams. While the Apple headset doesn’t have a release date, the PS VR 2 is expected to reach consumers by 2023. 

The PSVR (Left) and PSVR 2 (Right) (Courtesy: Sony)

The HTC Vive Flow is the sleekest pair of VR goggles on the market now, resembling foldable glasses. It interfaces with smartphones, weighs 189 grams and fits in a small case. It does not support VR gaming but is meant for ‘mindful productivity and wellness’. You can also view VR content and use a smartphone as a rudimentary controller. The Vive Flow clearly indicates how cool and lightweight VR headsets can become in the near future.

The HTC Vive Flow (Courtesy HTC)

Panasonic’s UHD headset looks like a pair of steampunk goggles – and is the first of its kind, enabling high-dynamic range visuals – although the company has not yet announced a consumer-grade version. 

The World’s First UHD HDR VR Goggles (Courtesy Panasonic)

Curbing Motion Sickness

Motion sickness in virtual reality can be alleviated to a great extent when actual movements in the real world drive movement in virtual reality. Solutions for achieving this sort of immersive, seamless navigation include VR treadmills and motion-capture sensors.

Omnidirectional treadmills are arguably the most robust solution: they prevent motion sickness and the possibility of crashing into a wall or your room’s furniture when you unintentionally move around in your room while immersed in a game. 

The Kat Walk C, made by Kat VR, is marketed as the first personal VR gaming treadmill and allows users to slide on a base while strapped to two cross-bars, and is designed to fit in small interiors. The base detects body movements, which are translated into seamless real-time locomotion in virtual reality. The treadmill decouples head-turning and leg movement – you can move in one direction while looking in another – and allows strafing, crouching, and peeking out from corners. VR motion controllers already enable some – but not all – of these movements, while an omni-directional treadmill like the Kat Walk C detects all such motion in real life and mirrors them in virtual reality.

The Kat Walk C, an omnidirectional treadmill (Courtesy KatVR)

The Kat Walk C (on sale as of the time of this writing) costs $1399 – users looking for a more affordable solution can try out the walk-in-place mo-cap sensors made by WalkOVR.

WalkOVR’s wearable tech converts in-place movement in real life into real-time omnidirectional locomotion in VR. These wearable sensors, known as OVR Nodes, are attached to your shins, ankles and chest and let you move in your virtual environment by walking or running in place, and change direction by moving your torso. Customers can choose from pared down options (with only a chest band or two knee bands) or the full set, which includes OVR Nodes for the chest, shins and knees. Like an omnidirectional treadmill, WalkOVR allows crouching and decouples head turning from leg movement, allowing you to walk in one direction while looking in the other. The full set of WalkOVR’s wearables costs $249, while a pared down set that includes only the leg bands costs $119.

WalkOVR’s wearable mo-cap sensors (Courtesy WalkOVR)

VR headsets generally allow you to move only in the direction you are facing – and both the Kat Walk C and Walk OVR’s technology solve this problem, allowing a wider range of movements and a more natural and immersive way to navigate virtual reality. Neither the treadmill nor the wearables are cheap – but their focus on gaming suggests that there does exist a market among gamers for this type of technology.  

Mods and Plugins Enrich PC VR

The PC VR community is a thriving space – mods improve the VR experience or enable VR mode for flat-screen games, and developers have come up with lightweight solutions for leg tracking to simulate movement in VR.

Natural Locomotion is a plugin that allows you to move forward and backward by swinging your arms. Its ‘feet mode’ can use a smartphone, Nintendo Switch Joy Cons or other devices that can double as motion sensors to simulate movement in VR using in-place walking and running.

Skyrim’s VR mods fix many of the issues with the vanilla game, and also add new gameplay elements from other successful VR titles. The VRIK mod gives you a full body in-game – your hand and arm gestures in real life are mirrored in the game world. The Higgs mod replicates the gravity gloves mechanic of Half Life: Alyx and lets you interact with multiple in-game objects – addressing PC Gamer’s criticism that handling and throwing objects in VR doesn’t feel right.

The recently released Planck mod uses collision-based mechanics to allow you to slap people in-game, grab onto them and drag them along, and adds accurate weapon tracking so that you are able to hit targets properly in VR, instead of flailing around.

Slapping Nazeem in Skyrim (Courtesy Bethesda and Youtube User Markfusion)

Cyberpunk 2077 now has a VR version. thanks to the efforts of mod author Luke Ross. The prolific creator has also made a free VR mode for GTA V, and supporting him on Patreon unlocks the early-access Read Dead Redemption 2 VR mod for patrons. Ross’s mods aren’t complete VR experiences – they require the use of a gamepad or controller for movement and combat – but they still allow gamers to experience non-VR game worlds using VR headsets.

With mods and plugins, the PC VR community could ensure a permanent niche for virtual reality gaming, and even help it go mainstream if bigger companies acquire community mods. 

Going Mainstream on the Cloud

VR cloud gaming, which could be the biggest driver of VR adoption, is still a developing technology. Cloud gaming is dependent on strong internet networks for smooth streaming – industry insider Amir Bozorgzadeh insists that 5G networks are necessary for headsets to become lighter, as 5G will shift the computing burden from the CPU and GPU to edge servers.

Timoni West, head of virtual reality and augmented reality at Unity (the makers of the industry-standard game engine of the same name) believes that photorealistic renders – which can help achieve total immersion in VR – are far beyond the capabilities of current VR headsets.

Cloud computing could enable VR headsets to achieve photorealism, and by removing the need for expensive GPUs or gaming PCs, the cloud could also address concerns about the high cost of VR headsets. Cloud gaming could thus drive VR adoption and help it reach the mainstream.

However, cloud VR gaming is still very much a work-in-progress, Nvidia CloudXR looks to be the only scalable solution, and was accessible only through an Nvidia developer account until it was made publicly available on the Google Cloud Marketplace. Plutosphere is a new cloud VR beta for the Oculus Quest series of headsets and has a host of requirements: it needs at least 50 Mbps bandwidth and a WiFi 6 router; the headset should be connected on the 5 GHz band and for best results, you should play in the room where your router is set up. 

The success of the standalone headset Oculus Quest 2 and the spread of 5G wireless networks suggest that lighter and cloud-powered headsets may become the norm. The Quest 2 already allows you to stream games from your PC using its Virtual Desktop App, and if such headsets start integrating with the cloud, VR gaming could reach an ever-widening user base.

Conclusion

VR gaming is a nascent field that has its fair share of problems, leading observers to wonder if it is just a fad. The need to invest both in hardware and games creates a high barrier to entry.

Yet tech giants are deeply committed to VR research and the metaverse. Their efforts will inevitably help VR reach a wider audience, lead to sleeker and lighter gear, and improve the gaming experience as a spillover effect. HTC’s Vive Flow, one of the most stylish headsets available today, is marketed as ‘your VR companion in the metaverse’. 

VR accessories such as omnidirectional treadmills and mo-cap sensor wearables can have a huge impact on the gaming experience by preventing motion sickness. Currently, these solutions are costly – but falling headset prices can lead to cheaper accessories too. 

The emergence of 5G networks and cloud gaming also point to lighter and standalone headsets with cloud-powered VR experiences that do away with expensive gaming hardware.

The future of VR gaming depends for the most part on the people in the field itself, and if their efforts are any indication, gaming in virtual worlds will only get better with time. 

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The Evolution of VR Gaming

Virtual reality headsets have become more accessible to consumers in the recent past – after decades of failed attempts to make the technology affordable – and VR gaming has grown in popularity with the advent of games such as Half Life: Alyx and Beat Saber. The concept of virtual reality – first popularised in seminal science fiction works such as Neuromancer and the film Tron – has inspired technologists to innovate in this field, and impelled tech giants like Facebook to funnel millions into VR development. In this blog, we will discuss the history of VR technology and the evolution of VR games. Scientists have strived for years to create affordable VR tech, and game developers today pull users into uniquely virtual and highly interactive game worlds, offering an experience quite unlike other forms of gaming. 

Statistics and projections about VR gaming are highly optimistic. They indicate a fast-growing market and project skyrocketing demand for devices that support virtual and augmented reality. But there are concerns that virtual reality and gaming in VR may not live up to their potential.

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality is a term with multiple connotations, but it fundamentally involves near-total immersion in a simulated environment with which users interact in the first person, experiencing a strong sense of presence.

This type of simulated reality was first visualised in the ground-breaking Disney film Tron (1982), where a computer programmer breaks into a simulated reality created by a malignant AI. He interacts with friendly programs to defeat the AI, and eventually escapes from his virtual prison. Tron was one of the first films to make extensive use of computer-generated imagery.

The concept of virtual reality as a simulacrum created by computers was first popularised in William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984). In his award-winning novel, Gibson coined the term cyberspace: a ‘consensual (shared) hallucination’ created by visual representations of computer data in a simulated environment. Today we use the term to describe the internet and the information highway.

These fictional works are important in the history of VR because, as a developer states, ‘VR has no context in the real world’. Designing for VR requires developers to draw inspiration both from science fiction and the real world, and they strive to create realistic and immersive VR experiences. Virtual reality has exercised a strong fascination on technologists, from VR developers and gamers to the founder of Facebook (now Meta), Mark Zuckerberg. Facebook acquired Oculus – the first company to make modern VR gear – for $2 billion in 2014, even before Oculus had sold a single headset.

But simulations and immersive realities have inspired people for decades, if not generations. Artists made panoramic paintings in the 19th century to immerse viewers in battlefields or wide-open vistas. By the twentieth century, inventors were tinkering with stereoscopes and dual-screen headsets well before creative works popularised the idea of computer-generated virtual worlds, as we will see in the next section.

The History of VR Technology

The physiological basis of virtual reality is stereopsis: our two eyes perceive objects from slightly dissimilar perspectives, leading to depth perception and a 3D view of the world. The English scientist Charles Wheatstone first described this phenomenon in 1838 and invented the first stereoscope. The stereoscope was first patented in 1939 and built on Wheatstone’s work: it projected two slightly skewed photographs to create a 3D image. A VR headset does the same for video and gaming.

In the 1960’s, the cinematographer Morton Heilig conceived two virtual reality devices. The first was the Sensorama, which immersed viewers in a multi-sensory experience created by an arcade-style machine. He also invented a head-mounted display called the Telesphere Mask, which bears a striking resemblance to today’s VR headsets and which used two TV screens to create a 3D view.

After Heilig, virtual reality was developed mostly by contractors in US defense programs. In 1966, Thomas Furness developed the first flight simulator, and in 1968, Ivan Sutherland made the Sword of Damocles, the first VR headset that worked with a computer rather than using TV screens.

By 1986, Furness had developed a simulator that created a virtual view based on data from the sensors on aircraft, helping pilots make sense of the information they received moment-by-moment. The data-driven ‘cyberspace’ imagined by Gibson had become a (virtual) reality.

A year later, the Visual Programming Lab (VPL) sold the first head-mounted display and its founder Jaron Lanier coined the term ‘virtual reality’ to characterise his company’s products. The VPL also made the DataGlove, which could convert hand gestures into virtual movements and the EyePhone HMD, which tracked head movements in a computer simulation.

The nineties saw a short-lived VR craze – Sega attempted to create a VR headset, but it never went past the prototype stage. Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was the only device meant for home gaming, but found few takers because of its price and limited graphics. The Virtuality Group made VR headsets and ‘pods’ (cushioned seats where players could sit or stand to play) to be used in arcades, and designed games for the new technology. Despite the primitive graphics, Virtuality Group’s games gave users their first – and brief – taste of VR gameplay before arcades gave way to home gaming.

About 15 years elapsed before virtual reality became commercially viable. In 2012, Palmer Luckey’s Oculus Rift prototype emerged as the first potential consumer-grade VR device, after raising $2.4 million in a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign. The Rift succeeded where others failed not only because of its design, but also because modern GPUs could finally support the high graphics requirements of a VR device.

2015 saw the release of two VR headsets: Google Cardboard and the Samsung Gear VR. Both interfaced with smartphones to create VR experiences. Despite initially making waves as a novel, inexpensive VR solution, Google’s Cardboard is now discontinued, and Samsung stopped support for VR and XR services, on both current and older Samsung Galaxy smartphones, in 2021.

Oculus Rift VR Development Kit 2
Oculus Rift Development Kit 1 (Courtesy iFixit)

The next year, the first modern consumer-grade VR headsets hit the market: the HTC Vive, the Oculus Rift and PlayStation VR. These headsets were relatively affordable and unlike Google’s Cardboard or the Samsung Gear VR, interfaced with a gaming PC (or a PS4 console) to enable high frame-rates and smooth VR gameplay. They premiered with a selection of games, as both Oculus and Sony released their headsets to developers before the hardware was launched.

In 2017, Virtuix shipped the Omni, an omnidirectional treadmill for virtual reality games and other applications. The Omni was the first of its kind – movement on the treadmill translated into motion in virtual reality – and was even used by Steven Spielberg as a reference for the VR treadmill used in Ready Player One (2018), a hit film set in a dystopian future where humans escape into a totally immersive virtual world. Omni is now working on an affordable VR treadmill. 

By 2020, consumers could choose from a wide variety of devices, and prices had dropped as well. Meta’s Oculus Quest 2 (2020) emerged as the best-selling Oculus headset yet. By 2021, it had outsold all previous Oculus headsets combined, and is now the most popular consumer headset in the market according to Steam’s hardware survey.

Sony confirmed in 2021 that it was working on the PlayStation VR2, for its PS5 platform, though it has not committed to a release date yet. 

From Blocky Graphics to Huge Game Worlds

The VR experiences of the 90’s were crude, the gear was expensive or restricted to arcades, and devices meant for home use never really took off: Nintendo’s Virtual Boy was very heavy, and had all-red graphics that caused eye strain. Virtuality’s games, restricted to arcades, featured primitive controls and blocky graphics. Present-day VR developers likely learned what not to do from the 90’s VR craze, more than anything else.

Today, they face a host of challenges, all of which have impacted the development – and evolution – of virtual gaming. Making a VR game is a risky endeavour.

VR gear is still expensive and bulky. Poor user experience is the biggest obstacle to adoption. Present-day headsets are either standalone (with limited processing power) or tethered (with all the power of a console or PC), meaning developers have to optimise games for different headsets and platforms.

The biggest problem though is VR sickness: the headaches, dizziness and vertigo experienced during and after gaming in virtual reality discourage users from longer sessions. 

These challenges have impelled developers to innovate ceaselessly. Gamers now have access to a wide range of titles, from AAA studios like Capcom and Bethesda, and indie developers such as Ready at Dawn and Owlchemy Labs.

While independent studios have led the way in VR game development, Valve has made the platform’s greatest game yet, Half Life: Alyx. VR developers strive to increase immersion in the game world – allowing players to look all around their environment, perform various actions using gestures, and interact with objects in the world – even as they try to minimise motion sickness and VR fatigue.  

The first modern VR games were released in 2016, when the first consumer-grade VR headsets reached customers.

1. The Indie Formula: Simple Graphics, Novel Gameplay

Indie game studios were the first to experiment with virtual reality and have dominated the virtual gaming scene since. The best VR games of 2016, such as Superhot VR, Job Simulator, Arizona Sunshine, Hover Junkers and others were all released by indie developers. These games had simple, often stylized, graphics and limited movement options (to prevent motion sickness). Their most compelling aspect was gameplay.

Superhot VR is a shooter in which time moves only when you move – essentially enabling bullet time in VR. The game allows you to use motion controllers to shoot, stab, punch, and shatter enemies – who will move the moment you move your arms.

superhot vr
Superhot VR (Courtesy Superhot Presents)

In Job Simulator you can choose four professions: office worker, mechanic, store clerk, or chef. You can move around, but not beyond, your workstation. You can pick up and throw almost every object in this space – and also use them to fulfill your tasks in outlandish ways. You can make coffee, and then throw the full mug at your boss. Much of the game’s humour derives from its interactivity (switching on a computer requires crouching and plugging it to a socket under your desk) and the absurd ways in which you can perform your ‘job’.

job simulator
Job Simulator (Courtesy Owlchemy Labs LLC)

A notable exception to this trend was Batman Arkham VR, a game from a AAA studio which featured realistic graphics and allowed you to play as the caped crusader. Gameplay was limited to solving puzzles and crimes by interacting with the game world and movement was limited to teleporting. Despite its mixed reception, it won the best VR game award at the Game Critics Awards 2016. 

Batman: Arkham VR (Courtesy Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment Inc.)

2. AAA Games in Virtual Reality: Awe and Horror

If 2016 was the year of indie developers, 2017 was the year when AAA gaming studios joined the fray – with mixed results.

Skyrim VR, Fallout 4 VR, Resident Evil 7 and Doom VFR were all released in 2017. Bethesda ported Skyrim, while id Software recreated Doom (2016) for virtual reality, as Doom VFR. Capcom designed Resident Evil 7 to offer a compelling gameplay experience both on flat screens and in virtual reality.

As a virtual reality, the world of Skyrim inspired awe, but the clunky VR mechanics and combat soon broke the spell. The game’s graphics were also significantly downgraded, blurring far-off objects and targets and its 2D menus also broke immersion. The VR port nevertheless enjoys a high rating, largely because it allows players to inhabit one of gaming’s most expansive worlds.

Resident Evil 7 is probably the strongest AAA VR game besides Half Life: Alyx. The game’s graphics are optimized for VR and movement is smooth and seamless. The total immersion in first-person view makes for a terrifying experience. Capcom also solved the problem of high VR gear prices, simply by releasing a flat-screen version, thereby creating a separate revenue stream. Reviewers praised the high-detail visuals in VR and the varied customisation options, and deemed it as proof that VR was not just a gimmick. Horror has always been a popular VR genre, and until Half Life: Alyx, Resident Evil 7 represented the best of both horror and AAA games in VR.

Resident Evil 7 VR (Courtesy Capcom)

3. Lone Echo : The First VR Esport – in Virtual Zero-G

Even in 2017, the best VR game was made by an indie developer, Ready at Dawn. Dubbed best VR game of 2017 at the Game Critics Awards, Lone Echo boasts one of the most novel movement systems to date in virtual reality. The game is set in zero gravity, in a space station. Players move around by pushing themselves off surfaces in-game, floating in a zero-g space while standing relatively still in the real world. But hand and arm gestures in real life translate into movements in VR. Players explore the game world and solve puzzles using gestures, as they go about making repairs in the space station. The multiplayer mode, Lone Echo Arena, quickly became the first VR esport ever.

lone echo vr
Lone Echo VR (Courtesy Ready at Dawn Studios, LLC)

4. Beat Saber: The First Killer VR App

By 2018, VR gamers finally had access to cheaper VR gear. They could also choose between realistic games from AAA studios or quirky, offbeat indie titles. One of the latter – Beat Saber, became the first killer VR app.

Beat Saber is a rhythm game in which the player slashes coloured blocks using two lightsabers, in time with EDM beats. Using motion controllers, the player swipes in the air vertically or horizontally to cut through objects flying toward them, and can duck to avoid obstructions. The game’s success is attributable to creative marketing, replayability, and the use of free music. New songs are released continually, all of them composed by the dev team. As a result, players return for more, and in its early days, the free music allowed streamers to feature the game without encountering copyright takedowns.

Beat Saber allows you to feel like a sword-wielding warrior — while working up a sweat. It can also be played only seated, totally eliminating any motion sickness concerns.

Beat Saber’s financial success overshadowed many good VR titles released in 2018, such as Tetris Effect and Astro Bot: Rescue mission. Tetris Effect is a mind-bending experience in VR, where each level transports you to a new, detailed world. Astro Bot: Rescue Mission is one of the few VR platformers that works in third-person view: you control Astro Bot’s movements using Sony’s DualShock4 controller. The game was widely praised for its gorgeous visuals and its sense of fun. It won the best VR/AR game of the year award in 2018’s Game Awards, and was dubbed PlayStation VR’s killer app.

beat saber vr
Beat Saber (Courtesy Beat Games s.r.o)

5. Asgard’s Wrath: The Most Ambitious VR Game

The next great milestone in VR gaming is Asgard’s Wrath (2019), a gorgeous, photorealistic RPG game that has been hailed as the most ambitious VR game yet. You play as the new Norse God of Animals, and inhabit various player characters on heroic quests. Asgard’s Wrath has awe-inspiring visuals, tons of side-quests, and a fully-evolved combat system. It boasts a campaign lasting more than fifty hours – unprecedented for a VR game. Its beautiful interfaces give you control without breaking immersion. You use a complete player avatar instead of a pair of disembodied hands, and your movements in real life are mirrored in-game. Motion controls also allow you to pick up and eat food, clink beer tankards with NPC’s, place items in your inventory by moving your arm to your chest, toss food to your followers, and even fist-bump or high-five your companions. 

Virtual reality gaming had come a very long way since the days of Job Simulator and Superhot VR. Games such as Lone Echo, Asgard’s Wrath and Resident Evil 7 set the stage for what is widely regarded as VR’s greatest game, and second killer app: Half Life: Alyx.

Asgards Wrath
Asgard's Wrath (Courtesy Facebook Technologies, LLC)

6. The Watershed Moment in VR Gaming - Half Life: Alyx

Half Life: Alyx (2020) is considered a killer VR app for a variety of reasons: not only did it have novel mechanics unique to VR, but it also drove headset sales and led to speculation that VR games were finally emerging from their niche.

half life alyx vr
Half Life: Alyx VR(Courtesy Valve Corporation)

The game’s mechanics take interaction in virtual reality to new levels: to fire a gun, you have to eject a magazine, grab ammunition from your shoulder, fit it into your weapon and cock it before firing – using both buttons and gestures. The game replicates the series’ unique physics in VR, allowing you to use your gravity gloves (manipulated using controllers) to pull and push objects. Gunfights involve actually ducking for cover. To collect ammo, you pick up crates and fling them down to break them open. You deactivate trip mines by carefully passing a multi-tool item through hoops. You can draw on windows. You can throw bricks to stun zombies. Half Life: Alyx affords endless opportunities for interacting with the virtual world it creates.

The game was successful enough to double sales of the Valve Index and led to speculations about VR becoming mainstream. Two years after release, it is the second-best selling VR game.

The State of VR Gaming Today

Half: Life Alyx represents the pinnacle of VR game development. It’s not only a great game – it’s also an inspiration for developers.

Gamers now have access to multiple AAA titles and a host of indie games. New AAA releases include No Man’s Sky VR and Borderlands 2 VR. Successful indie games have received sequels as well: Vacation Simulator (sequel to Job Simulator) and Lone Echo 2 (2021).

In 2021, Armature Studio released Resident Evil 4 VR, completely reimagining Capcom’s 17-year-old classic for virtual reality. Released as an Oculus Quest 2 exclusive, the game made full use of the standalone headset’s capabilities. Like Half Life: Alyx, Resident Evil 4 VR has complex gestures for loading, aiming, and firing guns. You can open doors, solve puzzles, and save your progress using hand gestures. Reviewers also praised the Quest 2’s comfort factor and spatial sound, and hailed the game as the platform’s first killer app.

The evolution of VR gaming indicates that developers will continue to make their worlds even more immersive, interactive, and fun, drawing inspiration from the great games released in the five years since headsets became commercially available to consumers. Beat Saber’s success has already inspired various clones. Asgard’s Wrath points to bigger and better game worlds, and complex game mechanics. Lone Echo’s zero-g game arena could lead to more VR-based esports. The success of Half Life: Alyx will result in ever-more interactive worlds, with intuitive, gesture-based mechanics. Headsets are likely to get lighter and faster, and the success of the Oculus Quest 2 suggests that standalone headsets may become a standard for VR games.

Developers still face an uphill battle when designing for VR – but now they know what works. And gamers can look forward to total immersion in new worlds – a cherished dream since Tron.

In the next part of this series, we will discuss the future of VR gaming. Despite optimistic growth projections, concerns persist. VR is still considered a niche market by analysts and the mainstream press is not very enthusiastic about its prospects. This has not stopped technologists from developing new omni-directional treadmills, haptic suits and gloves, and more, even as enthusiasts work on mods and plugins to improve the VR experience.

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Featured image credits: Freepik (Virtual reality photo created by freepik – www.freepik.com)

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