My Week with PSVR

Full disclosure, I’ve had a PSVR devkit for some time now, so this isn’t my first experience with the device. However, this certainly is my first taste of most PSVR launch content. I figured I’d post my impressions after a week with my PSVR launch bundle.

Best Optics In the Business

PSVR does not use fresnel lenses, thus you don’t see any god rays and glare on high contrast screens. Vive and Rift both suffer from these problems, which makes PSVR look a lot better than the competition. Many cite the lower resolution of the PSVR display as a problem, but I don’t think numbers tell the whole story. The screen door effect is not very noticeable, and I suspect there’s some way PSVR is packing those pixels together that make the slightly lower resolution a non-issue. PSVR looks great.

Fully Integrated With Sony’s Ecosystem

The great thing about the platform is they are combining a mature online store and gaming social network with VR. In many cases PSVR is ahead of the competition in community features. When you first don the PSVR headset, you’ll see the standard PlayStation 4 interface hovering in front of you as a giant virtual screen. Thus, all current PSN features are available to you in VR already. You can even click the Share button and stream VR gameplay live. There’s also a pop up menu to manage your friends list, invites, etc. inside any VR experience. The only weird thing is when you get an achievement you hear the sound, but don’t see any overlay telling you what you did.

Tracking Issues

PSVR uses colored LED lights for optical tracking–essentially the same solution Sony created for their PS3 Move controllers in 2010. In fact, the launch bundle comes with what seem to be new, deadstock Move controllers as its hand tracking solution.

Tracking is iffy. It seems that lamps, bright lights, and sunlight streaking through windows can throw PSVR’s tracking off. I find that it works much better at night with the room lights visible to the PS4 Eye camera turned off. I also replaced my original PlayStation 4 Eye camera with the V2 version in the launch bundle to no avail.

Even more annoying is calibration. Holding the PSVR up in precise positions so that the lights are visible to the camera can be quite a pain. Not only that, but many games require their own calibration involving standing in a place where your head fits inside a camera overlay representing the best position to play in.

The hand controllers are jittery even under the best circumstances. Some games seem to have smoother tracking than others–probably via filtering Move input data. Still, given the price of the bundle, Move is an acceptable solution. Just not ideal.

One advantage to this approach is PSVR can also track the DualShock 4 via that previously annoying light bar on the back. Having a positionally tracked controller adds an element of immersion to non-hand tracked games previously unseen.

The Content

Despite PSVR using a PS4 which pales in power compared to, say, a juiced up Oculus-ready PC, the PSVR launch experiences are second to none. Sony is an old pro at getting together strong titles to launch a new platform. They have made some great choices here.

Worlds

The amount of free content you get with the Launch Bundle is staggering. In addition to the new VR version of Playroom and a disc filled with free demos, you also get Worlds–Sony London’s brilliant showcase of VR mini games and experiences. The Deep is a perfect beginner’s VR introduction–a lush, underwater experience that rivals anything I’ve seen on Rift or Vive. London Heist is my favorite, combining storytelling and hand-tracked action in what is often compared to a VR Guy Ritchie film.

Arkham VR

This is the single coolest VR experience I’ve ever had. It’s really more like a narrative experience with some light gameplay elements. Some are complaining that this barely qualifies as a game and is way too short for $20, but I disagree. This is the gold standard in VR storytelling–a truly unique experience that a lot of developers can learn from. It combines puzzle solving, story, interactive props, and immersive environments into a VR experience that makes you really feel like the Caped Crusader. This is the game I use to showcase PSVR and nobody has left disappointed.

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Battlezone

Battlezone is my other favorite launch title right now, if I can find other people online (a definite problem given the small, but growing PSVR user base). This is a VR update to Atari’s coin-op classic in the form of a co-op multiplayer vehicle shooter. Guide a team of futuristic tank pilots over a randomly generated hexagonal map as you journey on a quest to destroy the enemy base. This game requires great teamwork and voice communication, which makes it all the more immersive. The positionally tracked DualShock 4 adds to the immersion in the cockpit as well.

Rigs

Guerilla does everything wrong (including uninterruptible tutorials) in VR here, defying all conventions. I have no problems with it, but this makes almost everyone I know violently ill. Apparently I am immune to VR sickness. Rigs is probably unplayable by the vast majority of players even with all the comfort modes turned on. If you want to test your so-called “VR Legs”, then try this game. If you can manage to play this without puking, you’re in for a great competitive online experience–that is, if you can find other players easily.

Wayward Sky

This game started out last year as a Gear VR launch title called Ikarus, which was pulled from the store shortly after its release. Uber’s small mobile VR demo has now reappeared on PSVR as the expanded and enhanced Wayward Sky–an innovative take on point-and-click adventure games in VR. The first stage is essentially a remixed and remastered version of the short Gear VR demo that came out last year. Once you complete this stage, the game opens up with a lot more levels and an all new story line. This is another gentle introduction to VR as it doesn’t involve a lot of movement or complicated mechanics. It’s largely point and click puzzle solving affair, with a few areas that require you to use your hands to manipulate objects.

In Conclusion

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My dream VR platform would be PSVR’s optics, Vive’s tracking, and Oculus’ controllers. Until that singularity happens, we’re stuck with all of these different systems. PSVR is incredibly compelling, and the platform I recommend to most people. It’s cheap and surprisingly good. Most of my current favorite VR games are on PSVR right now. I personally don’t find its limitations a problem–but it will be interesting to see how the average gaming public responds. Initial sales are promising, and there is way more high profile VR content on the horizon. Dare I say Sony has won this first round?

The Basics of Hand Tracked VR Input Design

Ever since my revelation at Oculus Connect I’ve been working on a project using hand tracking and VR. For now, it’s using my recently acquired Vive devkit. However, I’ve been researching design techniques for PSVR and Oculus Touch to keep the experience portable across many different hand tracking input schemes. Hand tracking has presented a few new problems to solve, similar to my initial adventures in head tracking interfaces.

The Vive's hand controller

Look Ma, No Hands!

The first problem I came across when designing an application that works on both Vive and Oculus Touch is the representation of your hands in VR. With Oculus Touch, most applications feature a pair of “ghost hands” that mimic the current pose of your hands and fingers. Since Oculus’ controllers can track your thumb and first two fingers, and presumably the rest are gripped around the handle, these ghost hands tend to accurately represent what your hands are doing in real life.

Oculus Touch controller

This metaphor breaks down with Vive as it doesn’t track your hands, but the position of the rod-like controllers you are holding. Vive games I’ve tried that show your hands end up feeling like waving around hands on a stick–there’s a definite disconnect between the visual of your hands in VR and where your brain thinks they are in real life. PSVR has this problem as well, as the Move controllers used with the current devkit are similar to Vive’s controllers.

You can alleviate this somewhat. Because there is a natural way most users tend to grip Move and Vive controllers, you can model and position the “hand on a stick” in the most likely way the controllers are gripped. This can make static hands in VR more convincing.

In any case, you have a few problems when you grab an object.

For Oculus, the act of grabbing is somewhat natural–you can clench your first two fingers and thumb into a “grab” type motion to pick something up. In the case of Bullet Train, this is how you pick up guns. The translucent representation of your hands means you can still see your hand pose and the gripped object at the same time. There’s not much to think about other than where you attach the held object to the hand model.

It also helps that in Bullet Train the objects you can grab have obvious handles and holding points. You can pose the hand to match the most likely hand position on a grabbed object without breaking immersion.

With Vive and PSVR you have a problem if you are using the “hand on a stick” technique. When you “grab” a virtual object by pressing the trigger, how do you show the hand holding something? It seems like the best answer is, you don’t! Check this video of Uber Entertainment’s awesome Wayward Sky PSVR demo:

Notice anything? When you grab something, the hand disappears. All you can see is the held object floating around in front of you.

This is a great solution for holding arbitrary shaped items because you don’t have to create a potentially infinite amount of hand grip animations. Because the user isn’t really grabbing anything and is instead clicking a trigger on a controller, there is no “real” grip position for your hand anyway. You also don’t have the problem of parts of the hands intersecting with the held object.

This isn’t a new technique. In fact, one of the earliest Vive demos, Job Simulator, does the exact same thing. Your brain fills in the gaps and it feels so natural that I just never noticed it!

Virtual Objects, Real Boundaries

The next problem I encountered is what do you do when your hand passes through virtual objects, but the objects can’t? For instance, you can be holding an object, and physically move your real, tracked hand through a virtual wall. The held object, bound by the engine’s physics simulation, will hit the wall while your hand continues to drag it through. Chaos erupts!

You can turn off collisions while an object is held, but what fun is that? You want to be able to knock things over and otherwise interact with the world while holding stuff. Plus, what happens when you let go of an object while inside a collision volume?

What I ended up doing is making the object detach, or fall out of your virtual hand, as soon as it hits something else. You can tweak this by making collisions with smaller, non-static objects less likely to detach the held object since they will be pushed around by your hand.

For most VR developers these are the first two things you encounter when designing and experience for hand-tracking VR systems. It seems Oculus Touch makes a lot of these problems go away, but we’ve just scratched the surface of the issues needed to be solved when your real hands interact with a virtual world.

Why I’m All In On Mobile VR

Last month I released Caldera Defense, a Virtual Reality tower defense game on Gear VR. This is the second Gear VR title I’ve worked on, and the first I’ve built and published from the ground up. (Not including my Oculus Mobile VR Jam submission) Caldera Defense is a free early access demo–basically a proof of concept of the full game–and the reaction has been great. Thousands of people have downloaded, rated, and given us valuable feedback. We’re busy incorporating it into the first update.

Caldera Defense featured on the Gear VR store

Originally I planned to use this as a demo to fund an expanded PC and Morpheus launch version of the game with greatly improved graphics, hours of gameplay, and additional features such as multiplayer and second-screen options.

However, pitching even a modestly budgeted console and PC VR game experience to publishers, or even the platforms themselves, is a tough sell. I’m sure at E3 next month we will see all sorts of AAA VR announcements. Yet, many traditional funding avenues for games remain skeptical of the opportunity VR presents.

Since the Caldera project began last year, mobile VR has morphed into a unique opportunity. With over a million Google Cardboards in the wild and new versions of the Gear VR headset in retail stores worldwide, there will be millions of mobile VR users before there’s comparable numbers on Oculus desktop, Vive, and Morpheus.

Is it possible that mobile VR will be a viable business before it is on PC and consoles? Most of my colleagues are skeptical. I’m not.

The economics work out. Due to the mobile nature of the experience, games and apps for these platforms tend towards the bite-sized. This greatly reduces the risk of mobile VR since assets optimized for mobile are simpler and casual VR experiences require less content to be built overall.

I can make a dozen mobile VR minimum viable products for the same budget of one modestly scoped Morpheus experience. From these MVPs I can determine what types of content gains the most traction with VR users and move in that direction. I can even use this data to guide development of larger AAA VR experiences later.

By this time next year it will be possible to monetize these users significantly, whether through premium content or advertising. It may be more valuable to collect a lot of eyeballs in mobile VR than breaking even on a multi-million dollar AAA launch tile. As we’ve seen in the past, acquiring a huge audience of mobile players can lead to tremendous revenue streams.

Being on the Oculus desktop, Vive, or Sony’s Morpheus deck at launch is an enormous opportunity. In fact, I’m still searching for ways to produce the console and desktop version of Caldera Defense. However, if you lack the capital to produce at that scale, smaller mobile projects are much easier to bootstrap and the upside is huge.

A Weekend at Oculus Connect

I spent this past weekend at Oculus Connect and have just now had the time to process what I saw. For Oculus to go from a humble Kickstarter project a few years ago to a capacity filled conference rife with amazing demos and prototypes by countless developers is mind-boggling. I know I said VR in 2014 is like Mobile in 2002, but the pace of progress is staggering. The maturation path for VR is going to be MUCH quicker. Is it 2005 already?

...and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

…and all I got was this lousy t-shirt.

As I stated before, Gear VR is the most important wearable platform in the universe. I’ve been developing Gear VR games for a while and am thoroughly convinced this wireless, lightweight platform will have far more reach than VR tethered to your desktop.

The GearVR demo area.

The GearVR demo area.

The apps on display were great, but I even saw a few Gear VR demos from random developers in the hotel hallways that blew away what were officially shown in Samsung’s display area. Developer interest for Gear VR is very high. Once it’s commercially available, a flood of content is soon upon us.

Despite the intense interest in the platform, I spoke to a few desktop and console developers who dismissed Gear VR as a distraction and are ignoring it–which I think is really short-sighted.

It’s true that there may be a division in audiences. Gear VR may be the larger, casual audience while apps built around Oculus’ astounding Crescent Bay platform could be for a highly monetizable market of core enthusiasts. Either route is smart business. Depending on how long you can hold out for customer traction, that is.

Oh, and Crescent Bay…was a revolution. There’s probably not much more to be said about it that hasn’t already–but the ridiculous momentum behind Oculus’ path from the DK1 to Crescent Bay makes me question the competition. Oculus has hired all of the smartest people I know and have billions of dollars to spend on VR R&D–which is their main business, not a side project. Will competitors like Sony really commit enough resources to compete with the relentless pace of Oculus’ progress?

Towerfall: The Re-Return of Social Gaming

Social gaming was hot.  Then it ‘died’.  And now it’s hot?  The fact is, video games have always been social.  In the earliest era of computer games there weren’t enough CPU cycles (or CPUs at all!) for AI.  Players had to move everything themselves–Steve Russell’s Spacewar being the earliest example.  But just look classic coin-ops like Pong, Warlords, Sprint, etc.  Same-screen multiplayer was just how things were done.  Arcades in the ‘80s weren’t solely the domain of nerds–a broad spectrum of people showed up and played games together.  Imagine that!

Towerfall

Local multiplayer ruled well into the ‘90s.  Games like GoldenEye, Mario Party, and Bomberman ensured there was always something to do when you had people over your place.  Yet, once Internet multiplayer hit in the early ‘00s, console games became strangely anti-social.  Today when someone comes over my house and wants to play a game with me–well, it’s complicated.  There really aren’t many games people can play together on the market.

That’s why Towerfall Ascension is so interesting to me.  At first I thought it was yet another pixel-art indie game over promoted by Ouya due to a lack of content.  After playing it with others its significance dawned on me.  Finally there’s something to play with other people!  It had been so long since I’d had a local multiplayer experience that it took actually playing it for me to recognize this one fact:  the local multiplayer brawler may very well be where the MOBA was when DOTA was merely a Warcraft III mod.

At GDC I noticed the beginning of this trend.  There were a few Towerfall clones already in progress or on the market.  In fact, some similar games even shortly preceded Towerfall.  Not to mention Towerfall’s release on the PS4 and Steam has been highly successful.  I really think a new (old) genre is born.

 

Why Consoles Didn’t Die

Yeah I was wrong. But hey, so were a lot of people. The PS4 barrels ahead with the fastest selling console ever. Microsoft is making a lot of similar but highly qualified statements about the XBOX One which leads me to believe it’s lagging behind significantly. Still, the recent European price cut and upcoming tent pole releases may perk things up.

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Regardless, most console doom predictions haven’t come true. This is because Microsoft, and primarily Sony, changed their business models in response to the looming threat from mobile and tablets. If consoles kept going the direction they were in 2008, we would see a totally different story.

What changed?

No more loss leaders.

Consoles historically launched as high-end hardware sold at a loss–but still quite expensive. This peaked last generation with the ‘aspirational’ PS3 debuting at nearly $600 in 2006. The idea behind this business model was that they’d make it up in software sales and eventually cost reduce the hardware.

This time, Sony took a page out of Nintendo’s book and built lower cost hardware that can at least be sold close to breakeven at launch. The downside being that the tech specs are somewhat mundane. Price sensitivity wins over performance.

Dropping the gates.

The tightly gated ecosystem that dominated consoles for decades would have been absolutely disastrous if left to stand. Sony has largely obliterated their gate and gone for a more authoritarian version of Apple’s curated model. Surely the most significant evidence of mobile’s influence on console to date. Microsoft has also adopted this posture with their ID program. The indie revolution is heavily influencing games, and allowing this movement to continue on consoles is a smart move. Especially when fewer and fewer studios can execute at a AAA level.

Users didn’t move.

A lot of analysts mistook stagnant console numbers for lagging demand. It turns out, there really was just nothing else to buy. Despite hype about core games on mobile–that transition has yet to happen. Most titles console players would recognize as ‘core’ games have utterly failed to gain traction on tablets. Core gamers want core games exclusively on console or desktop while reserving mobile for a completely different experience.

Eventually we’ll see a major disruption in how and where games are consumed. It’s going to take longer than one console generation to transform core gamer habits. It also may be too early to tell. After all, we’re only a few months into this generation.

The fact is, the AAA economy isn’t sustainable. Massive layoffs, even while Sony is basking in post-hardware launch success, shows not all is well with the AAA end of the spectrum.

My Week with the XBOX One

A mere week after the outstanding launch of the PlayStation 4 comes Microsoft’s XBOX One with a similar success story. Hey–time for some bulletized observations:

Quick!  Where's the games??

Quick! Where’s the games??

The interface is hideous. I’m not a huge fan of Windows 8, but I do think Windows Mobile is pretty snazzy. Yet, Microsoft’s implementation of the “Metro” tile interface on XBOX One is bewildering. You’re constantly getting lost in a sea of scrolling tiles with no context. Especially considering the sheer number of panels on the screen at once, navigating with the controller is a pain. The XBOX One main shell seems designed to be used with a mouse or touch instead of a control pad.

Voice control is a neat trick, but not quite ready. I have to speak in hushed tones around my console because if I dare mention its name, I’m not sure what will happen. In my house, “XBOX” is a killing word.

TV Integration is probably awesome–if I watched TV. I don’t watch much TV, and I certainly don’t watch live TV. So, all of these DVR features on the XBOX One are lost on me. Still, the ability to hook in your TV’s HDMI feed and use the XBOX One as a DVR and cable box is pretty cool–especially when using voice control to search for content. It’s the dream of Google TV realized. I guess. This really isn’t a feature I care much about. I do love the universal IR blaster feature–shouting “XBOX On” to turn on all my equipment is a neat trick!

The actual box is ugly. It’s nowhere near as bad as the original XBOX, but can’t touch the beauty of the gleaming white original XBOX 360. That’s still among my favorite consumer electronics industrial designs. The XBOX One is huge and seems to resemble a 1980’s VCR.

The launch title lineup is strong. By far, Dead Rising 3 is my favorite next generation exclusive. Granted, I’m a huge fan of the series. I’m not a big racing game player, but friends of mine who are love the new Forza–especially with individual button feedback. Even the free2play Killer Instinct has defied expectations. Unlike the PlayStation 4, there aren’t many smaller indie digital exclusives–likely due to Microsoft’s recent reversal of their self-publishing policy. Regardless, the XBOX One currently has better games–the most important point!

Overall I’m quite pleased with the XBOX One. The hardware specs are a bit lower than the PS4 and it’s a little more expensive, but so far the games are strong and the platform shows a lot of promise for growth. Microsoft has also swerved a bit to avoid total disruption, but the verdict is still out. You can’t go wrong making either choice, but if you were to evaluate both the PS4 and XBOX One purely on games alone–I’d have to give the edge to XBOX.