Virtual Reality at PAX Australia 2016

Virtual reality first came to my attention when I watched Spy Kids 3 at the age of twelve. Since then, VR has made massive strides, and nowhere was it more evident than at PAX Australia 2016. It seemed like every second studio had a VR game in development, from relaxed puzzlers to arcade first person shooters.

After Avatar happened, 3D was the next big thing – until it wasn’t. Sure, most smart TVs come with inbuilt 3D now, but I don’t know a single person who has ever watched a 3D movie voluntarily.

VR hasn’t had that Avatar moment yet, mostly because VR games aren’t quite as accessible as films. That’s not to say the industry isn’t trying its darndest – the abundance of VR games on offer at PAX makes that clear. Still, unlike 3D, VR is actually pretty fun. Sharona and Andrew got the chance to talk to VR game developers, watch people try VR out, and even try it ourselves.

So what did we think?

Symphony of the Machine

The first VR game we tried at PAX 2016 was Symphony of the Machine, a puzzler Stirfire Studios describe as “serene, zen-like and peaceful.” Right up Sharona’s alley.

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A screenshot of a puzzle in Symphony of the Machine.

I was dubious, mostly because I get crazy motion sickness from playing in first person – and VR is first person taken to its extreme. But developer Vee Pendergrast assured me that the game was perfect for someone like me – he also has issues with motion sickness, which means that all of Stirfire’s VR is thoroughly safe for even the most motion sick among us.

Symphony of the Machine is a beautiful game, with simple mechanics – simple, but engaging. Essentially you pick up a mirror and angle it so a beam of light hits different glyphs which kickstart different weather events and grows your tree.

True to Vee’s word, I did not find myself suffering from even a little motion sickness.

“It’s really different from everything else. Symphony is a nice place to be.” While there is an aim to the game, there isn’t any pressure to complete puzzles in a certain time. Vee is right – the puzzles are fun but it’s also a lovely environment to be in, visually and aurally. There is a story, but the narrative is purposely vague.

“We tend towards non-violence and puzzles. We like to make smart games – with a real sense of joy.”

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A screenshot of a puzzle in Symphony of the Machine.

The team used HTC Vives in their development and in the demos. Thankfully, the Vives are accommodating of glasses, or I imagine the experience would have been quite different. The controls – streamlined handheld controllers with a single button – were fairly simple to work out, and elegant too.

Symphony of the Machine is a great way to experience VR for the first time – it’s easy to become immersed in the environment and forget that you’re actually in the middle of a crowded convention.

And while it seems quite different from the fast-paced, thrilling world of FPSes that VR promises, Vee sees Symphony of the Machine as appealing to all gamers. “Action game players will want to play it to chill out after playing an FPS, or if they just want to relax.”

Sharona playing Symphony of the Machine.

Sharona playing Symphony of the Machine at PAX Australia 2016.

Depth

We had high hopes for our next VR game, Depth, based on an existing action survival game where you play either a shark or diver, and survive or die.

The lines to try out the VR version of the game were there all weekend, which generally bodes well for a game – and it probably helped that it was an existing property.

The original game was available to play for those waiting in line, seemingly a consolation for the wait time. Depth was developed by a student-led team, originally a mod for Unreal Tournament 3 that would later be ported into a stand alone property. It was highly popular, but unfortunately, the VR game bore little resemblance to the FPS we played in line, save for the underwater setting.

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Depth at PAX Australia 2016.

Once the headset calibrates, the game opens with the player sitting in a small submersible you can pilot by pulling levers within the cockpit using the motion control peripherals. It’s not particularly fast-paced, but this gave me an opportunity to enjoy the detailed submersible cockpit and the view into the ocean trench.

Soon though, it became apparent that this was little more than a guided tour of a digital landscape. While following NPCs and listening to their dialogue, holding down the levers and making small steering corrections started to drag. Things got more exciting when the submersible stopped: I was asked to start a drill, push some buttons and one shark attack later, a fire had broken out. Finally things were getting exciting, just in time for…the demo to end abruptly.

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A screenshot from the original Depth game.

While this was an ambitious project for the team that started out as modders, it fell short for me. The detailed cockpit screamed to be used – I found myself desperately grabbing for the fire extinguisher as the fire in the cockpit raged, convinced that this was the crescendo that would sell me on the experience. But as the game faded to black and I removed the headset, I couldn’t help feeling a little let down. A solid concept, though a little more would have gone a long way.

Of course, this is was just a demo and the end product will likely have more actual interactivity. But sadly, the wait did not justify the game.

VR Arena

This was our first foray into the world of true virtual reality. Watching people in the line before us dragging their feet desperately against the ‘treadmill’ surface, fighting an unseen enemy with a level of panic and athleticism reserved for games of paintball, was truly a sight to behold. The true test of the setup would be in the experience, though, and Andrew volunteered to try it out.

Lines for demos were huge all weekend, with queues of over three hours at some point to try out what’s billed as the world’s first 6v6 virtual reality arcade. Director of The VR Arena, Matt Gange, says that the VIrtuix Omni treadmills are “weird and different at first, like the Xbox controller was at first,” but people get used to them quickly. On launch, VR Arena will have 12 Omni treadmills for groups of 8-12 players (mostly kids parties or bucks parties) to play a range of multiplayer games in the same science fiction world.

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After strapping on special shoes that work with the ‘treadmill’ surface, I was secured to a harness that kept me stable and upright. It was explained that in order to move forward I simply had to walk. Although it seemed unnatural at first, walking on the Omni treadmill soon became second nature. Just as in real life, the faster I moved my feet, the faster my character moved.

The treadmills, which cost “a bit over $5k,” are the safest way to use VR – there’s no chance you can trip over furniture when you’re strapped into the treadmill.

The game loaded around me, a neon nod to the world of TRON. The Vive peripherals responded perfectly: a shield in my left hand and in my right, a gun. With a simple button press the gun became a sword, adding to the frantic nature of the deathmatch style shooter. Sprinting around the deathmatch arena, I had to stop occasionally to get my bearings. I was playing VR Arena: The Game against two developers using PC controls, though it wasn’t evident who had the upper hand. I found myself becoming totally immersed. Running over powerups turned my pistol and shield combo into an assault rifle, adding firepower and altering the way I had to hold the peripherals.

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“We’ve found that LARPers really like it, because they get really into it – we’ve had really shy people play, and it just doesn’t work as well,” Matt says. The demo only lasted for two minutes, but sessions at the VR Arena run for up to an hour: this type of VR game will appeal best to the more active, more outgoing gamers among us.

The short demo was good and bad. Towards the end of my game, I felt the fatal flaw of VR sneaking up…motion sickness. If I had played for another couple of minutes, the developers might not have been too happy about the state of their treadmill. To be fair, I get seasick, so it was a reality I was expecting to face. Barring seasickness and motion sickness, this is well worth a try.

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Screenshot from VR Arena: The Game.

The verdict

Like any medium, your enjoyment of VR will be based on the quality of the game. Depth wasn’t particularly great because there were few opportunities to take charge of the situation, which is a failing for any game, but particularly a VR game, which offers players the chance to be truly immersed in a world.

When it’s done right, VR is incredibly fun. Slower games like Symphony of the Machine are well-suited to anyone who might suffer from motion sickness, or who just isn’t interested in the faster FPS type game, while for those more action inclined, something like VR Arena: The Game, with all the latest equipment, is probably the peak of gaming, at least for the near future.

However, VR is still expensive. An HTC Vive will set you back around $1400: not particularly cheap for a peripheral. And of course, the Omni treadmills come in at around $5,000 – that sort of equipment is, at least for now, to be better suited to an arcade rather than something you would have at home.

So the verdict is mixed. Both Andrew and Sharona were fairly skeptical of VR coming into PAX, but Symphony of the Machine and VR Arena: The Game were impressive. Neither of us have ordered a Vive yet, but it’s certainly not out of the question.

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