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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)