I’ve put a lot of time into PlayStation VR, HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift (and compared them to one another), and I’ve learned that I don’t want these headsets to try to re-create the kinds of experiences I play on a TV. Instead, I have the most fun when I play a VR game that emulates real-world social meeting spots.
PSVR will debut October 13 for $500 (my impressions), and its launch includes games like Batman: Arkham VR, Driveclub VR, and Rigs: Mechanized Combat League. That’s wonderful for anyone who wants to pretend that they’re the Dark Knight, a race car driver, or a future-sport athlete, but nothing in that launch lineup puts you in a shared online space with other PSVR owners. Those games are coming, but Sony needs more of them to show off the true magic of its latest gaming product because they are the future of VR.
VR needs social
The trouble with a lot of traditional-style VR games is that they feel rudimentary compared to their screen-based counterparts. Take the slow-moving tank shooter BattleZone. It makes you feel like you’re really in a digital combat vehicle, but the action is slow because a head-mounted display like PSVR can nauseate some people if the in-game locomotion is too erratic. I enjoy the novelty of looking around inside the cockpit, but if I want the thrill of a competitive game or a shooter, I’m going to have more fun if I switch to Overwatch or Rocket League on my PC or console.
Developers have had decades to refine every aspect of running, jumping, and driving in video games, but when it comes to social interactions, Vive and Rift have the advantage. Games like RecRoom VR, Pool Nation VR, and Tabletop Simulator are special for reasons that would never translate to a monitor.
These games work by giving you a space to explore. They connect you with your other friends with VR headsets via online multiplayer, and they provide you with low-tech physics-based objects to interact with. RecRoom puts you in space that’s like your local YMCA or community recreational center. As you enter the hub area, it fills with other real players who all have hands and full voice chat. Inside this large locker-room area, you find table tennis, a basketball hoop, and other fun things to play with. All of these elements combine to create an irresistible recipe for amazing social interactions.
You can see some of my RecRoom gameplay in the video below:
Simulating real-world spaces
You’d think that the most important aspect of a game like RecRoom is the connected multiplayer elements, but I’m not sure that’s always the case. Without a doubt it is mesmerizing to go into a world with other avatars that move and talk like real people. It makes everything feel more alive and it heightens your own fun. But I don’t want to overlook the simple magic of a VR game emulating a simple physical space even when you’re alone.
Ping-Pong VR is evidence that VR can do something spectacular simply by simulating a familiar object that would typically cost a lot of money or take up too much space in the real world. I love table tennis. Long before I made my living writing about VR headsets, I worked at a FedEx facility that had Ping-Pong in the breakroom. My entire crew obsessed over table tennis. But I haven’t worked at FedEx in more than a decade, and I’ve only played table tennis a handful of times ever since.
The problem? I’m not going to dedicate a room in my house or even my garage to a table tennis. Even if I did, I’m hardly ever going to use the damn thing because I do not have time to invite people over.
VR solves those problems. I don’t need to make any room in my house or time on schedule to play table tennis, I can just start a simulation whenever the urge strikes me. The physics are close enough to reality that I feel like I’m playing the real thing. I can even hold the paddle with my pen-style grip, and I always have an opponent in the A.I.
For me, having my own virtual world to do things that I love without having to make my life revolve around them is the killer feature of the VR headsets.
PlayStation VR’s best hopes
The HTC Vive already has games that do social spaces really well. At the Oculus Connect keynote presentation Thursday, the Rift company showed off that it is working on a ton of social features. Facebook chief executive officer Mark Zuckerberg even demoed them himself. He hopped into a room with other Rift wearers and they interacted with one another using their voices, gestures, and even facial expressions.
It’s time to see what Sony is going to do with this kind of VR experience. And the truth is that it won’t really have much in this genre at launch. That doesn’t mean, however, that nothing is on the way.
Developers Cherry Pop Games and Perilous Orbit are planning to launch its SportsBar VR games for the Sony headset “this fall.” The game enables up to four people to hop into a pub brimming with analog games like darts, air hockey, billiards, and skeeball. Cherry Pop has already released the similar Pool Nation VR game for Vive, and it clearly sees an opportunity to bring that to PSVR.
But Sony is working on its own multiplayer VR game, although we’ve only seen it in a prototype form. At the Game Developer’s Conference in March, Sony showed off what it called a “social demo” for its head-mounted display. It had four people walking around a low-polygon playground. Together they played instruments, tossed around beach balls, and built with blocks.
I know that for a lot of people — especially anyone who grew up playing 100-hour adventure games with deep narratives and dozens of systems — that these kinds of VR experiences can look simple or basic. The truth is that these simulations are still complex but not in the same way. They provide you with the chance to play around with body language, cooperative play, and human interactions in a way that isn’t possible even in something like Second Life or World of Warcraft. And that’s the undiscovered territory that sets VR apart as something new and different and worth exploring.