Header illustration by Gareth Damian Martin
Although videogames have been around since the early fifties, the first known electronic shooter actually appeared in 1936. The Seeburg Ray-o-Lite, best described as a sort of proto–Duck Hunt (1984), was a light-gun game utilizing a photosensitive vacuum tube and a moving target painted to look like a duck in flight. Whenever the player pulled the trigger, a beam of light would issue from the rifle controller; if she managed to hit the sensor on the duck, it’d drop upside-down, and a new number would illuminate the scoreboard at the top of the machine.
A coin-operated affair intended for arcade use, housed in a varnished wooden cabinet, the Ray-o-Lite more closely resembled a jukebox than a Pac-Man machine—though it effectively marks the births of both the light gun and the first-person shooter. It’s a reminder of how far games have come in less than a century of innovation, and yet that, with each new technological evolution, there’s always a period of some crudeness: Wolfenstein 3D (1992) has to come before Halo 5 (2015), in other words. This takes time.
The things that make VR challenging are also what make it interesting
The next such shift is already be happening. Futurists and sci-fi fans have clamored for proper virtual-reality hardware for decades, and it’s here at long last. But the truth is that there’s still the question of how many other players might be willing to make the leap from something along the lines of Call of Duty: Black Ops III (2015) to the more primitive goods being offered on VR platforms right now. Musician Brian Eno once observed that innovation in art comes from some combination of limitations both technical and self-imposed. As he put it in 2013, “When something is new, you don’t know how to make it better. In fact, you don’t even consider that you could make it better. You just think, Jesus, this is amazing.” This is good to remember when surveying the current state of VR development.
Virtual reality has its issues; so did the Atari 2600. The things that make VR challenging are also what make it interesting, however. And it’s through these obstacles—as well as their inevitable solutions—that the nascent medium will ultimately give rise to great software, and to great art.
One of the biggest problems confronting VR involves movement. In a modern FPS, the player has no end of options for getting around the map; the ability to sprint, leap through the air with the help of a thruster pack, and clamber up onto higher ground make for strategic, varied takedowns. When you consider the matter of speed on top of this—2016’s Doom is one of the most fast-paced games I’ve ever played—it seems obvious that shooters will evolve with the medium. They’ll have to in order to avoid being plagued by motion sickness, which comes with the territory in VR. But if Eno’s axiom holds true in the world of games, engineers and designers ought to be able to use these challenges to their advantage.
A bridge between the world of console shooters and VR
Part of the answer may well be found in gaming’s past. From the Ray-o-Lite (1936) to the Wii Zapper (2007), shooting games have long made use of creative, and sometimes bizarre, light-gun peripherals to bring players closer to the tactile sensation of brandishing a firearm. During this year’s E3 conference in Los Angeles, Sony revealed their own forthcoming PSVR Aim Controller, built by Sony Interactive Entertainment in collaboration with Farpoint developer Impulse Gear. A title-specific adaptation of the tech behind Sony’s Move controller, the light gun promises “the most realistic and precise way to control [Farpoint].”
According to Impulse Gear’s Seth Luisi, “How you hold and where you point the controller are directly matched in the game. This allows you to do things in Farpoint that just are not possible in a standard FPS game. It also provides an unbelievable sense of presence in the virtual world.”
Unlike most shooters, which automate much of the aiming process (usually with a simple trigger pull), Farpoint requires players to line up their shots by aiming the in-game holographic sight at targets manually. This takes into account the positioning of both arms, head movements, and posture. Switching guns is achieved by reaching the aim controller over your shoulder and pulling it back down, as if grabbing a slung secondary weapon. Gameplay footage from E3 hints at a fairly leisurely pace, which should make the problem of locomotion in a virtual setting less pronounced than it might be in some hypothetical Call of Duty VR experience.
When I first saw a photograph of the Aim Controller, I was immediately struck by one crucial detail: the inclusion of an analog thumbstick, small and discreet. There’s even a second thumbstick on the Aim Controller’s stock, though it’s reportedly not enabled in Farpoint’s default control scheme. That there’s a joystick of any kind on the Aim Controller leads me to draw one major conclusion about the potential of PSVR: PlayStation’s Aim peripheral could very well serve as a bridge between the world of console shooters and VR.
I recently spoke with Davor Hunski, CCO at Croteam, about his thoughts on gun peripherals and how they might be used in FPS games developed specifically for virtual reality. Croteam is the Croatia-based studio behind 2001’s wildly irreverent shooter Serious Sam, which has retained its reputation over the years as a much smarter and more technically sophisticated game than it lets on. The studio’s latest entry in the series, Serious Sam VR: The Last Hope, will soon be available on Steam Early Access.
“Enemies are coming to you instead of you coming to them”
“We would really like to test them,” says Hunski, “because gun-shaped controllers are just perfect for shooter games like Serious Sam VR.” Currently, the Early Access version of Serious Sam VR requires two separate motion controllers, one in each hand. This suits three of the largest VR gaming platforms—the Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, and HTC Vive. “Controllers are probably the most important part of the VR kit,” Hunski tells me. “If the controller feels right, it adds so much to the player’s experience. For example, the great feeling of physically wielding two guns [in virtual reality] probably pushed us into making Serious Sam VR. I feel that the VR shooting genre will be very strong in upcoming years, so I expect to see more than a few new shooting peripherals on the market.”
Like Duck Hunt and the Ray-o-Lite before it, Serious Sam VR embraces the limitations inherent in its particular medium, at least as it’s presently understood, and comes up with inventive ways to design the game around them. It’s not “on rails” in the tradition of FPS games like Time Crisis (1995) and The House of the Dead (’96), where the game carts you around from checkpoint to checkpoint in the video-game equivalent of an autopilot mode and you’re otherwise unable to move. Players are able to walk as much as their room-scale play area allows in Serious Sam VR, but the game cleverly ditches the run-and-gun conventions of most shooters altogether.
“Enemies are coming to you instead of you coming to them,” Hunski explains. In the beginning of their experiments with virtual reality, he says, Croteam tested several “large-scale approaches” to combat and decided that they’re simply not ready yet. “We figured that, at this time, it’s much more important that the players don’t experience nausea.” This is a constant concern for game designers working in the medium. “After we experienced the discomfort caused by lag and [dropped frames], we decided that we have to be nausea-free,” says Hunski. “That required us to have very high frame rates and properly implemented so-called ‘time warp,’ or reprojection techniques, for situations when the frame rate drops below 90 frames per second.”
Something VR developers have already begun to master is the art of building intuitive control schemes. Owlchemy Labs’ Alex Schwartz, one of the creators behind the hit virtual-reality exclusive Job Simulator, thinks motion controls work best in VR because of the accuracy of the physics. “Our parents and grandparents have had no problem picking up and mastering the interaction methods in Job Simulator, mostly because VR affords a more natural mapping of input,” Schwartz says.
Hunksi and the Serious Sam team arrived at a similar conclusion. “We found that aiming at the 3D interface buttons—just like having a laser pointer at a presentation—works the best, so we use that most of the time,” he says. “For example, players choose between weapons by pointing at them in 3D. We explored and tried out motion gestures, but in the end we didn’t find them fast and reliable enough. In general, we tried to apply Croteam’s main design philosophy, which rests on mastering of the core gameplay and controls.” Getting the control scheme right was of the utmost importance for the team behind Serious Sam VR, who had two main goals: “never, ever allow the player to experience any movement-related discomfort,” and “for the interface to immediately feel pleasant, quick, and natural without any need for further explanation.”
The question, then, is whether or not the genre can survive this transition to a more stationary, shooting-gallery-like experience. In some ways, it’s a de-evolution. Leading the charge in the opposite direction—towards a truer sense of locomotion—is the Virtuix Omni. Billed as “a first-of-its-kind active virtual reality motion platform,” the Omni is essentially a 360-degree treadmill that enables users to walk and run naturalistically within a boundless virtual space. Enormously successful games like Fallout 4 (2015) and Grand Theft Auto V (2013) have already been used to demonstrate the platform’s utility, and, at least theoretically, it offers an elegant solution for letting players explore the virtual realm. The system also includes a waist harness that recognizes movements like jumping, strafing, and sitting, turning your entire body into a highly sophisticated joystick.
At $699, it isn’t exactly cheap, however, and that’s on top of the cost of a high-end gaming PC and VR rig such as the Oculus or Vive. The U.S. military has reportedly invested in Virtuix’s hardware in hopes of applying it to “war-fighting simulation,” which is either a surefire endorsement of its entertainment value or something altogether different.