I suppose I ought to begin by clarifying my position on the VR debate. I am, not to put too fine a point on it, unashamedly skeptical: it seems to me that purchasing hardware that is still in its youth for a substantial sum of cash makes little sense, and I certainly can’t see how rendering the world in 3 virtual dimensions would have any real bearing on my enjoyment of a game. So it came as something of a surprise, then, when I found myself last week walking through the doors of the nDreams studio, about to don the headset for the first time in my life.
What was I thinking? My opinions were half-baked and entirely insubstantial; I had even assumed – naively – that VR would be a little like the Kinect, only for your eyes. But I was geographically speaking the best guy for the job, as it turned out, so here goes. My thoughts on a day with nDreams, VR, and The Assembly.
What struck me with the most force when I first arrived (and continued to hit me fairly constantly after) was the relaxed attitude with which the team at nDreams handled their job. This came out in the wide open spaces of their studio, sure, but also in the staff that I met, all of whom were very friendly, and all of whom clearly believed that VR holds substantial potential as the future of the gaming industry. I was very much hoping for an informal environment, and was not disappointed;
I was especially fond of the VR hall of fame that lined one wall, tracking a brief history of the platform in all its slightly clunky glory. I was treated well, you’ll be pleased to hear, and I was even given a free lunch. But I can’t help but feel that I’m missing the point here: nDreams delivered perfectly in terms of public relations, but I wasn’t there to be fed. I was there to play.
It didn’t take long for us to settle into the reason that we were all there: we had come to preview the latest product of labour from nDreams, a VR game called The Assembly, but, more importantly for me, to also take a closer look at VR in the flesh. So I sat down, forced the headset unceremoniously on to my head, and waited patiently for the game to load.
Within 5 minutes, I felt awful.
When I first entered The Assembly, I was utterly awestruck: keep in mind that I’ve never experienced VR before, and then superimpose over that concept an image of a kid on Christmas morning, and you’ll get the picture. nDreams were using Xbox One controllers on PC, so I immediately jumped into FPS mode, swiveling this way and that as I explored the possibilities made available by a virtual world; this, I feel, may have been my biggest mistake because, as I was so new to the platform, I had not realized that such frenetic movement causes a whole lot of confusion in your inner ear, which manifests as a bad case of sea-sickness. This will always be one of my primary concerns with regards to VR: even if plenty of consumers do not experience what I did, I still don’t believe that a product with such negative potential should be sold until solutions are found to combat it. As it happens, though, this is a battle that nDreams are winning.
In order to fight off “simulation sickness,” the team at nDreams have created their own movement system, from scratch, called the “blink” controls. In practice, all this means is that your visual movement (i.e. the right analog stick/mouse) is limited to 90 degree intervals, whilst your traversal movement (the left stick/WASD) is reduced to high-speed jumps down corridors or across rooms, via the good old “point and click” mechanic. Instantaneous movement such as this – I was told that you travel in-game at speeds of up to 150m/s – means that your brain doesn’t have time to process that you’ve done any virtual moving at all, which keeps your inner ear as content as it can be. Pretty neat, huh?
The team certainly thought so, and for good reason, as it is a bit of a game changer in terms of overcoming the very messy obstacle mentioned above. My only slight concern is that this may not translate so well when it comes to more action-orientated titles, as many of the major publishers are keen to enter the VR fray. Still, top marks for a well executed, intuitive idea, well executed.
Speaking of major publishers: one of the things that I find the most interesting about VR as a genre of game is that it is being pioneered not by the behemoths of Bethesda or Square Enix, but by the independent, more portable companies, amongst which nDreams is garnering quite the reputation. When I spoke to the team at nDreams, it became clear that they felt that this needn’t necessarily be the case, suggesting that they would welcome the arrival of larger companies because of the interest and investment that they would bring to both platform and genre.
This is an admirable approach, and one that I’m sure will ultimately win out for VR in general; what concerns me slightly is that all the noise that the headset manufacturers at Sony or Oculus are making is causing a slight rush which may prove to be a shot in the foot for VR. If you build anticipation, you need a great product at the end of it. If VR is going to cause even a few of its consumers physical grief, then this anticipation might have started building too soon.
So. I am now a VR guru, who has entered the realm of the virtual and emerged wiser and less prejudiced. Where once there was cynicism, now there is optimism; where once I scoffed, now I nod in respect. Right? Wrong. My time at nDreams proved enlightening, sure, and I have to say that I had a lot of fun, gained a much better understanding of VR, and came away with a much more informed opinion. But that opinion has not changed.
I’m still cynical, and even though the day was entertaining and The Assembly turned out to be a solid example of what VR could be, there is still a niggling feeling in the back of my mind that is warning me away from the platform. My experience of the day was marred by feelings of exhaustion, discomfort, and confusion, and even if all of these things will fade the more I play I still worry that VR still has one more hurdle to overcome before it can truly appeal to a wider audience. What comforts me, however, is the fact that nDreams are so tirelessly fighting to right the wrongs of a platform and genre that they are genuinely dedicated to furthering; I expect to see more of the same from both the team in Farnborough and indeed the many other interested parties.
Provided the tide doesn’t wash VR away before it can get a solid grip on the gaming world, and under the condition that it doesn’t make me want to hurl the moment I settle down to play, I can see myself doing an about-turn and really coming to enjoy the world of virtual reality. And in that respect, I wish nDreams the best of luck.