Last week, developer Mojang and Oculus celebrated the release of Minecraft for the Oculus Rift.
It's a significant event for both companies. For Minecraft, the cultural phenomenon that has sold 106,859,714 units since it was released in 2009, it's a whole new platform to dominate, and for Oculus, it's a much needed popular video game that can get more people interested in the Oculus Rift. You can tell it's an important step for Oculus because even John Carmack, the company's Chief Technology Officer, helped with the project.
Minecraft, which is currently available as a free update on the Oculus store if you already have a copy of Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition, is now one of the best games you can play on the Oculus Rift. But considering the sorry state of virtual reality gaming at the moment, this isn't exactly high praise.
Let's start with the good stuff, primarily that—no duh—Minecraft is a really good game. So good, in fact, that this statement holds up whether it's on the PC, consoles, smartphones, or VR. Whether I'm just trying to survive in adventure mode by building a shelter and gathering food, making whatever I want in creative mode, or jumping into random servers with other people, everything that makes Minecraft great works just as well in VR.
An unexpected benefit is that Minecraft'sartstyle—blocky, pixelated, and whimsical—suits VR particularly well. Given that the screens inside the Rift still have a noticeable screendoor effect (imagine putting your face very close to a monitor so you can notice the grid of individual pixels), beautiful, cutting edge graphics are kind of wasted on it. You're just not going to get as good of an image as you can on a traditional monitor, where you can see every little detail. With the Rift, even great graphics tend to look muddy and blurred.
Oculus games with abstract and intentionally retro art styles don't suffer as much. The shooter Sublevel Zero, for example, has a blocky, pixelated, neon look, which minimizes the screendoor effect. It blends in with the retro look. Minecraft in VR has the exact same effect. It still looks better on a normal screen, but aesthetically, it's a good fit for VR.
The other nice thing about Minecraft in VR is that it did a lot to make me feel comfortable. A lot of VR games have some kind of panic button that centers your vision or otherwise pauses or reorients the action when you start to feel nauseous. Minecraft's solution for this problem is the best I've seen yet. At any time, I could press up on the controller's directional pad to zoom out from the first-person perspective, and pull back to a theater mode.
From this position, I can watch the game on a virtual screen in front of me (while still wearing the Rift), so I can play the game normally, but moving to the left doesn't shift my entire perspective, which is the kind of motion that makes most people sick. If I pressed up on the direction pad again, I would zoom back into first-person mode. This is great because it allowed me to shift in and out of high and low intensity VR views, seamlessly. No pauses or sudden cuts.
That being said, it's still Minecraft, a game that's been out since 2009, and VR is not the best place to play it.
A smaller but still important option Minecraft VR gave me is how to pan from left to right. When wearing a VR headset, my neck puts a natural limit on how far up or down I can look. If you've played any first-person shooter, however, you know that playing it well usually requires whipping your perspective around in all directions. Minecraft is no different, and requires turning my perspective beyond my ability to turn my neck left or right.
Some VR games handle this by changing the perspective when you push left on the joystick, just like in a normal game. In virtual reality, though, the fact that the body doesn't move along with the perspective in such cases makes some players sick, which is why other games move the perspective in increments. Push left, and the perspective jumps 10 or 15 degrees in that direction, without continuous motion. This isn't as likely to make players sick, but it's also jarring and isn't as accurate of a way to move.
All this in order to say that Minecraft very wisely makes it easy to switch between both of these options. And really, all of these things—the simple art style, the ability to zoom out to theater mode, and the choice of how to turn—should be in more VR games if not all VR games until the hardware improves.
It's a great example for other VR developers and I hope they take notice.
That being said, it's still Minecraft, a game that's been out since 2009, and VR is not the best place to play it. Being "inside" Minecraft is certainly a novelty, and especially fun if I'm making or exploring spaces created with VR in mind—I can build my own roller coaster!—but Minecraft is a game I like to get lost in. It's a very chill experience where I set my own arbitrary goals I then chase for hours at a time. And that's not something I want to do in VR because, despite being as comfortable as a game like this can be in VR, it still gets very uncomfortable after an hour. My eyes start to feel strained, my face hurts because the headset is pressing on it, and I get tired of whipping my head around like an idiot.
You should definitely try it if you have an Oculus Rift. It's one of the best games on that platform and it's a free update!
But boy, if this is the best Oculus can do, I'm still very worried about its immediate future.
Correction: This article originally stated that Minecraft for Oculus Rift was free. Minecraft for the Oculus Rift costs $9.99, or can be downloaded as a free update by users who already own Minecraft: Windows 10 Edition.