VR the final frontier, these are the voyages of the backend development platform, GameSparks… No, ok, no more Star Trek references… maybe.
I may have arrived back from the Unity Vision Summit a little while ago, but i’ve only just finished processing everything I witnessed and I can now report that the future looks bright for virtual reality.
While the show was mainly centred around products using Unity, the engine still facilitated a huge amount of conversation around the current state of XR technology, which if you are like me, is what we’re calling VR and AR now, apparently.
The Unity Keynote set our sights firmly into the future – explaining consumer XR hardware sales are currently slow, and although the graph is trending up, it will still be a few years before we hit the inflection point where price, content, resolution and tracking see the mainstream gamer fully adopt the futuristic trend of VR and AR.
A huge amount of different projects were available to try out whilst wandering around the show floor, but after a while one commonality became clear to see. Almost all of the games on offer were made up of entirely single player experiences, with little to no social, collaborative or multiplayer elements at all.
Now, growing up I watched a lot of Star Trek. The smart Virtual Reality system known generically as the Holodeck played a pivotal role in many an episode, and yes, the Holodeck was used for characters to escape into their own fantasies. However, it was also a place for crew personnel to play with their friends. If you compare the mechanics and size of space required for group play in the Holodeck to that an average gamer would usually have to accommodate two people in the same VR area, let alone a whole crew, there could be some difficulties for local multiplayer in VR to reach warp speed.
And while single player games and experiences most certainly do have a place in the world, countless evidence has proven that all gaming experiences benefit from some form of intrinsic social layer. Now ‘Social’ features shouldn’t be assumed or confused with just ‘multiplayer’ elements like co-op play. It could be something as simple as a Leaderboard:
Leaderboards are older than video games themselves, they let players put their names at the very top of a list and declare to the world “I’m the best, what are you gonna do about it?!” Leaderboards trigger a part of the human brain that thrives on competition. If you ask a player, they might even deny that they are competing, but deep down, secretly, almost everyone is, or has been proud, of when they have placed on a leaderboard at some point in their life.
As a prime example, Space Pirate Trainer is currently one of the most successful VR games on the market. By layering in a simple leaderboard score, players are able to see their progression. Enabling players to feel themselves getting better with every round helps push them to develop a sense of achievement, to feel more engaged and invested in the overall gameplay experience.
A leaderboard may help gamers better enjoy the fantasy of VR, but it still sounds lightyears away from our original dream of Holodeck.
While this may only be an initial thought experiment for adding real-time multiplayer, it seems to me that less, in this situation, could be more. Imagine a VR game where you are in a room with nothing but a bouncy ball. If you’re on your own bouncing the ball could become mundane quite quickly. If a second player is added, with their hands and head visible in the VR world and tracked in real time, suddenly you have hundreds if not thousands of games available. You have another person to bounce the ball off, they may even prevent the ball from going behind them, play keepy ups, headers, see who can bounce the ball off a certain corner the most times… endless possibilities have now arised.
Even the simplest, seemingly mundane games that you play by yourself can become completely unique emergent experiences that you share with friends or internet strangers. Imagine storming the beach of Normandy with hundreds of other VR players, or stalking your next prey in a multiplayer VR Witcher game or even just the simple act of waving hello to a random person in a VR version of Journey. You are no longer confined to the actions given to you by the game developers, you are creating your own shared narrative with a large group of players, a unique experience all to yourself that you experienced like you were there.