According to Schwartz, when the VRDC advisory panel sat down to decide what panels to host at GDC 2017, disseminating practical information was the goal. “Everyone agreed that we need less speculation on ‘what’s possible’ and more postmortems and lessons learned from people who have actually shipped content/tech in VR,” said Schwartz. “People are still learning how VR works as a medium, including specifics of narrative, design, and mechanics that are keyed to the technology, and it’s definitely best to hear both the successes (and failures!) from people who went through the gauntlet.”

For VR developers who have worked with the technology for decades, hearing these conversations at GDC 2017 sometimes felt like watching the youngsters catching up with the adults. “This is the first grown-up conversation I’ve heard,” said Andrew Prell, following a Monday afternoon panel titled “Teleportation and locomotion from the trenches: What movement is right for you…” about the different ways VR developers can move players around virtual spaces without making the players ill.

In the late 1990s, Prell took the first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D, created a VR version of the game appropriately titled Wolfenstein VR and sold it as an arcade experience. For Prell, many of the questions VR developers were grappling with at GDC 2017 have long since been answered. “SIGGRAPH [an annual meeting of experts in computer graphics and interactive techniques] in the early ‘90s was like a VR meeting,” Prell said.

Grown-up conversations about VR, for Prell, are not about developers’ dreams as to what VR could or should be. They concern what developers did, what worked, what didn’t, and why. Viewed from that perspective, GDC 2017 played host to some of the most “grown-up” conversations about VR that the game industry has been privy to thus far.

They’re conversations that need to happen. As stated by Carrie Witt, lead artist at Owlchemy Labs, during the GDC 2017 panel simply titled “The Art of VR,” effective techniques for PC and console design don’t necessarily work for VR, and in some cases opposite wisdom from traditional positions may apply.

“For Job Simulator,” said Witt, “sometimes we had the problem of making objects that you interact with too close to real life, and a really good way of simplifying them for VR was looking at Fisher-Price toys.” The idea of deliberately abandoning realism would be anathema for core gamers looking for developers to tap into the power of the Unreal Engine, for example, and create the slickest and fastest graphics possible.

VR games like Raw Data that stress Unreal-level graphics might only be able to run at the lowest settings possible on some VR-ready PCs. Raw Data made $1M in one month, and thus demonstrated the market for “core” VR content, but it does not represent the way most VR developers are approaching their games.

“Believability is more important than fidelity,” Witt later told GamesBeat. Job Simulator may feature cartoon hands, but 1:1 hand tracking makes the hands feel believable anyway. And while Job Simulator as a whole may look like a cartoon the level of interactivity allows Job Simulator to fool the brain into thinking the game world is real, even if it is a cartoon. Again, VR developers know how to use psychology to their advantage in order to craft the compelling experiences that justify the value of VR to the consumer. It provides experiences that you cannot get anywhere else.

Above: VR developers face challenges that no developer has ever faced before. Every first step potentially sets a new standard.

Image Credit: Raph Koster

GDC 2017 did not paint an entirely-rosy picture of the VR industry. Nelson Rodriguez, the director of games industry marketing at Akamai, in a panel titled “Dear VR, where’s my money?” pointed out that some VR developers are being sheltered from the vagaries of the marketplace via support from platform holders.

“Subsidized game development,” said Rodriguez, “which seems to be in the several-hundred-million-dollar range right now. … There’s a subsidization model which, I think we’re still in that space. We’re still at that time, right?”

“I don’t think that’s a business model, I think that’s a funding model,” replied Mihir Shah, co-founder of Immersv, Inc., a mobile virtual reality advertising network. “That’s a way to get funded which is non-dilutive and it’s a great way to do it, but it’s not a business model. You can’t do that forever.”

Raph Koster, one of the foremost experts in the video game industry on MMO design, in a panel titled “Still logged in: What AR and VR can learn from MMOs” described the unique challenges that designers of VR social spaces will have to face. In a traditional MMO, for example, moderators can review chat logs in the face of harassment accusations. Virtual reality social spaces will likely have players communicating via voice chat, so this tried-and-true method of policing MMO populations won’t work.

How do the developers of VR worlds handle harassment complaints without impartial evidence to review? “If you don’t have tools like this,” said Koster, “you are literally going to spend your entire monthly profit on the first call [from a player with a complaint], standing there mediating between two people who are yelling at one another.” Should hand gestures be recorded for this purpose, so that moderators can investigate obscene gestures that one player might make towards another, and weigh the degree to which said gesture sparked a confrontation?

Developers expressed concerns over whether VR experiences are currently accessible enough for all sorts of players, and shared the results of research into what kinds of VR content are preferred by senior citizens. Educators hosted panels that laid out road maps for the best way to teach VR to students and provide a steady flow of new talent, without which the commercial VR industry may not survive.

Cynics might point to these challenges as further evidence that the odds are mounted against the success of VR, but that’s the wrong lesson to take away. One year ago, VR developers were all but holding their hands up and admitting ignorance. This year VR developers can afford to think about these more subtle challenges, because it seems as though VR is not going to be just a flash in the pan, and the developers working in the space can afford to think about the future in different ways than ever before.

At this point, especially after the 2017 Game Developers Conference, smart money might bet on VR being here to stay, and early adopters and investors should feel more confident than ever that their attention and money were not being wasted.