Will 2015 Finally Be the Year We Get Virtual Reality?
A look at the future of video games.
This article originally appeared on VICE UK
In truth, 2015 is likely to be much like the year before it in terms of the way we play video games. You have a controller, a console, and a TV. And maybe some friends—be they in your home or at the other end of a broadband connection. And away you go. Don't expect anything particularly radical in the next 12 months.
... unless. So far as home tech goes, there might be a couple of interesting developments. Firstly, we might finally see the full-market release of Valve's Steam Machine(s), gaming computers built by various manufacturers but that run all games on the same Linux-based SteamOS, designed to fit beneath your TV like a PlayStation. Second, virtual reality—be that the Oculus VR-developed Rift, Sony's Project Morpheus, or Samsung's already available Gear VR—may finally find a place in the mainstream after several botched attempts.
"If you look at the PS4 and Xbox One, the only real technical differences between this and the previous generation are better processors, more RAM," games developer Brianna Wu, co-founder of Boston-based indie studio Giant Spacekat, tells me. "These are very iterative differences—which makes Oculus a really big deal. But there are still problems to solve. I watched a lot of people play with Oculus, as it existed at the time, at the Boston Festival of Indie Games [held in September 2014]. It was making people nauseous, and its interface needed more work. I do think that it is going to be more mainstream—but I don't think that 2015 will be its year."
Mike Bithell's forthcoming Volume, Gamescom 2014 trailer
Another indie developer, Mike Bithell, feels that the leap from playing in front of high-definition boxes—or even on our phones—to going full-VR really isn't that big of a deal.
"What a lot of people miss is that VR technology, today, is actually relatively cheap," he tells me. "It's basically some very good lenses, some very smart software, and high-resolution screens—which is like mobile technology. It's a very clever repackaging of technology that's already received a lot of investment, which has brought prices down ridiculously. Before, VR was bulky, and expensive to produce, but now it's basically a mobile phone with some nice glass, in terms of its manufacture. It can be made at scale. So I think it's got a chance. It needs a low price point, but I think VR has the chance to do what the Wii did, and bring this amazing, sci-fi tech to a mainstream audience. I'm excited about it."
As is Sam Watts of Brighton-based Tammeka Games, whose Radial-G: Racing Revolved is designed primarily for the Rift. "Of course, we're hopeful for a commercial release of the Oculus Rift CV1 [the consumer model] in 2015. Oculus have said we're months, not years, away from launch, so I'm sure we'll see something. With more than one VR headset in the works, there will likely be more than one coming to market in 2015. But we see Oculus's plan as akin to Apple's: get the most popular, best-known device out there so that everyone refers to a VR headset as an 'Oculus Rift,' like how an MP3 player is generally called an iPod, whatever the manufacturer."
Watts agrees with Thomas Was Alone developer Bithell when it comes to the technological advancement offered by these emerging VR headsets—it's really not so removed from what we already have. "The technology isn't too far-fetched or outlandish to not be accepted by the mainstream in homes," he says. "Have the people who are strongly against VR actually tried it? We find that when people try it, they are immediately hooked and want to try more demos and experiences. There are a small number of people who find it a bit too much, but there is a scale of comfort with all software and experiences. Like all new technology, there will always be the luddites who dismiss and show disdain; but this time around, the market is ready and the hardware is available for those who want it.
"We've seen well over 2,000 people play the demo of Radial-G: Racing Revolved, most of whom have never used or experienced VR or the Oculus Rift before, and we are still counting fewer than 30 who have had to stop and remove the headset within 30 seconds. All we can say—and this is what VR will need to do to become mainstream—is, 'Have a go, try it, and find out for yourself.' But this is the crux of the problem facing VR and hitting the mainstream: You have to try it to understand it. You can't watch a video of someone else using it, and you can't watch a dual-channel split-eyed view of a game running on Oculus Rift. You have to try it, so there will have to be a lot of demo pods in high-street shops for it to become a success with the everyday punter."
Tammeka's Radial G: Racing Revolved, designed for Oculus Rift
VR seems likely to be the only significant hardware development in 2015—it'll be "the home of the most spectacular new games and ideas," games journalist Jon Hicks tells me. But that's assuming it does happen in the next 12 months—Mind Candy's creative director, Michael Acton Smith, isn't so sure: "The new Oculus is completely mind-blowing, but while I'm bullish on the potential of VR to transform multiple industries, not least entertainment, it won't be until 2016 that it truly starts becoming a viable consumer success." As for the boxes you're fully familiar with, even those that have been around for a decade now, don't expect them to go anywhere in 2015.
"I think we'll see a more concerted focus on the newer consoles in 2015," says Bithell, who's currently developing the Robin Hood-themed stealth title Volume for PS4, Vita, PC, and Mac platforms, "but the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 will still be around. They'll stay under TVs for many years to come."
Wu agrees: "I'd bet every penny on those consoles being around for the whole of 2015. What we're seeing a lot of, right now, is developers being unwilling to fully bet on this new generation—they choose instead to split the difference, and then you get pretty much the same game on both 360 and the Xbox One. Take Forza Horizon 2: play it on the One and you get some prettier shading, some higher-resolution textures, and some particle differences, but it's just scaling. That's why I'd tell people that, if they were buying a new console right now and you already had a PS3 or 360, get a Wii U, because all the major games are still coming out for the older systems."
Nintendo's Wii U, loved by its owners (hello!) as it is, has had a hard time, underpowered compared to the PS4 and One, and more pertinently outsold by Sony's current console. With the One now digging in—sales of Microsoft's machine were greater than Sony's in the run up to Christmas—could Nintendo be at risk of falling behind completely in 2015, and in even more trouble should the Steam Machines genuinely impact on the console market? The way Bithell sees it, nobody should be all that concerned.
"I don't see them as being in direct competition with anyone," he says. "The Wii U is an amazing device for playing some absolutely fantastic games. So I don't think they're in the same race—for me, they're not competing with the PS4 and Xbox One. The Wii U is a lovely piece of hardware for a very specific type of game." Wu—whose projects for 2015 include an interactive fiction title "similar to Danganrompa, a story you play and have agency in"—isn't quite so confident, but doesn't see the Steam Machines as playing much of a part in any current competitor's (mis)fortunes:
"Nintendo are underdogs right now, but 2015 has games like Splatoon coming for the Wii U, which could be really great for them," she tells me. "As for the Steam Machines, I have to be honest—I think it's a suicide mission. When you look at the added cost of developing in Linux, it's completely impractical. The low cost of the games on Steam is also a problem—here we have to develop for a new operating system, at great expense, when the consumer is used to paying rock-bottom prices. I just I don't see a marketplace for the machine. I'd love to be wrong, but it does seem like a suicide mission." Bithell's more optimistic, and will be bringing Volume to Steam Machines "later down the line."
Monument Valley: Forgotten Shores trailer
One of the biggest mobile hits of 2014 was Monument Valley, made by London studio ustwo. But it received a great deal of angry user reviews, as its makers dared (!) to charge a whopping $2.25 (!!) for its extra Forgotten Shores levels in November. Which is less of a comment on the game's quality—it's wonderful, by the way—and more an indication of the mobile audience's growing expectation to have something for nothing, a result of the "free"-to-play model's success, as seen in games like Clash of Clans and Candy Crush Saga.
"We can't completely blame the consumers for their behavior," says ustwo's director of games, Neil McFarland. "The economics of app stores are strange but they're also fluid, which means developers have the opportunity to try new models, new ways of engaging with players and finding new ways to charge for games. The music industry has suffered at the hands of piracy and has changed because of streaming, and the same is true of cinema. Games now face similar challenges because of historically under-charging and, more recently, free-to-play models. All of this just means we are living in interesting economic times!"
So, will 2015 see more of these microtransaction-littered casual games for the mobile market? Obviously, yes, because the model works. But the likes of Monument Valley, Simogo's output (including The Sailor's Dream) and even the Square Enix-produced Hitman GO show that "premium" mobile games can sell in large numbers, encouraging greater creativity in the market.
"I live in hope that more ambitious projects will be undertaken," says McFarland. "Developers need to feel that they can count on mobile to deliver a realistic financial return on their game to truly commit to more ambitious titles, and I'm hoping to see growing confidence in 2015. I think we're all hoping we are making meaningful statements and see ourselves as serious creators in an incredibly exciting and important medium. The mobile game has many potentially unique properties; it's an incredibly stimulating and vibrant art form."
Mind Candy has form in the F2P area, having put out Moshi Monsters Village in May 2014, and their recent iPad hit World of Warriors also features a wealth of real-money purchases, available after you acquire the game for free. "Mobile gaming is a brutally competitive market," says Acton Smith, rightly enough, before outlining how World of Warriors will reach beyond touchscreen devices in 2015: "The franchise has a digital heart but will also expand offline as trading cards, books, toys, clothing, and so on. I think we'll see more mobile games grow into on—and offline franchises."
World of Warriors, game trailer
On the topic of franchises, there's no doubt that 2014 didn't see any new ones of note emerge for the PS4 or Xbox One. "We still haven't seen anything as novel or influential as Gears of War was for the last generation," says Hicks, "but 2015 could be the year that changes." We already know there will be another Assassin's Creed game in 2015, the Victorian London-set Victory, but could this production-line-like servicing of the biggest existing franchises actually be their undoing? Wu feels that Assassin's Creed's makers, Ubisoft, face an uncertain 2015.
"I'm really worried about Ubisoft. It was successful at making money in 2014, but I think they really damaged some of their biggest franchises. They brought Watch Dogs out, and most people acknowledged that it really didn't represent any innovation. Assassin's Creed in 2014 was a disaster. So I'm severely worried about Ubisoft for 2015. They really have to get their teams off these ridiculously tight production schedules, and get back to basics—which is shipping good games. Look at EA, too—they've damaged the Peggle brand with Peggle Blast. 2014 was when some of these big studios damaged their most important brands."
Wu, Bithell and Hicks can all see the middle ground between the major studios like Ubisoft and smaller set-ups shrinking in 2015. "The rise of independent developers will continue, and the definition of 'indie' will be put under increasing strain," says the latter, currently working on March's Rezzed event. "Indie teams will continue to edge into the space that bottom—and mid-tier publishers used to occupy ten years ago."
Bithell has seen his own production budget increase after the success of Thomas Was Alone, allowing him to pull together a bigger team for Volume. "You're going to get more teams of ten or 20 people making games that aren't like these massive, open-world Ubisoft affairs, but are very substantial, and good looking and they push the hardware," he says. "But I think people always want the big games, as well as the weird, esoteric ones that the bigger studios won't take a risk on."
No Man's Sky is already one of the most hyped indie titles of 2015.
"The axis of game development isn't indie versus triple-A any more," says Wu. "It's a 20-person team versus a several-hundred-person team. Look at No Man's Sky—the team is very small, compared to the size that shipped Call Of Duty. We'll continue to see a real bifurcation in the amount of risk studios are willing to take. I liked Call Of Duty: Advanced Warfare, but it's not a game that took any chances. So it's the smaller studios that will continue to embrace innovation, and bring bold mechanics to the forefront, and to experiment. Going forward, I think the message is clear: if you want enjoyable, proven gameplay experiences that you know will offer a certain baseline of fun, look to triple-A, to Far Cryand Grand Theft Auto. If you're looking for games to push the industry forward, look to indie developers. We're the ones taking the chances."
While there's plenty of excitement for new games and new gaming opportunities in 2015, one thing the industry has to get over is GamerGate.
"I was doing a radio interview in New Zealand," says Wu, who was among the most prominent targets of the hateful abuse associated, fairly or otherwise, with the GamerGate movement, "and it was clear that the woman interviewing me was not a gamer. In the questions she was asking me, it was very clear that the attacks on myself, and Zoe Quinn, had really reinforced every negative stereotype of gamers for her. And that really hurts me, because I passionately love video games, and want them to be treated with respect, as an art form. There's something very sad about that, so the actions of GamerGate have actually pushed the reputation of gamers back at least a decade. I think that's really unfortunate."
As Bithell sees it, GamerGate is a "growing pain," albeit a pretty significant one, something that was always going to happen as gaming becomes a true mainstream concern. "The vast majority of people are gamers now," he says. "We've got a gamer in the White House. It's happened, it's mainstream and that's only going to spread in 2015. It's part of culture. People who thought games were silly died, and the kids who loved games became adults. I think GamerGate is interesting because it's a reaction to something very positive, and very cool, but I don't think it's done any lasting damage."
We can but hope. Gaming in 2015 might well be mostly as it was in 2014, but we could sure do with less hate and more love as we look forward to a year that, among other titles, will bring us a new Zelda, Bloodborne, The Witcher III: Wild Hunt, Uncharted 4, Scalebound, Batman: Arkham Knight, Rime, No Man's Sky, Ori and the Blind Forest, Final Fantasy XV, Volume, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, Halo 5: Guardians, Persona 5, Splatoon, a new Star Fox, and... Well, there's a lot to be excited about.
Call them toys, call them culture, call them a distraction while you wait for the bus—whatever your take on video games, they're only going to be bigger than ever in 2015.
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