Making the RPG Genre Work in VR

The latest of Richard Cobbett's RPG Scrollbars talks about the challenges the RPG genre is facing when operating within the constraints of VR systems. Considering that even InXile is pursuing this avenue with their The Mage's Tale, it's good that these things are being talked about, in case all this VR stuff proves to not be just a gimmick and is here to stay. An excerpt:

About a year ago, I bought myself a HTC Vive. Since then, it’s gathered a fair bit of dust. I swear, it’s not that I’m a VR skeptic, so much as someone without a whole lot of space to play with who prefers being able to go to the toilet at night without tripping over what I’m going to call ‘a Maplin’ of expensive cabling. Of late though, I’ve been feeling the urge to go back in, largely I must say inspired by stuff I can’t actually play, like the intro to I Expect You To Die (Vive version is coming, I can’t be arsed with Revive) and watching the new Psychonauts and Arkham VR experiences from the PSVR.

So, I did. And I had some fun playing around with some new stuff.

My RPG based dreams though feel further away than ever.

Honestly, at the moment they seem to sit squarely with Fallout 4 VR, which is problematic because I don’t actually like Fallout 4 as a game and really wish Bethesda was upgrading Skyrim instead, minus the giant spiders obviously. I don’t want to be too down on the Steam games that are trying to be RPGs, not least because a) most of them are indie efforts, b) most are experiments, and c) making an RPG is a veritable crap-ton of work even when you’re not trying to invent a whole new experience from the ground up. Something like, say, Vanishing Realms deserves its positive reviews for what it accomplishes, and it’s unfair to expect that to be some glorious AAA experience. It’s pretty cool, and easy to get lost in while it lasts.

The catch for me is more that the solutions to problems are only feeling more tenuous and jarring rather than starting to feel natural. If you’ve not played a ‘room scale’ game, the solution to the fact that most of us don’t have a dungeon sized playfield to walk around is to allow more or less free movement within whatever space you do have, with getting from A to B done by pointing your controller at a patch of ground away from it and hitting a button to teleport there. It can be a bit stomach churning if done in overly quick-succession, but a definite improvement on moving with the controller (producing a motion sickness effect due to your eyes telling you you’re moving while your body doesn’t), or every game having to find some excuse to strap you into a chair or stand still for the duration. In practice, recent stats show that a full quarter of SteamVR users are stuck using a standing only set up, with just about everyone else stuck with a tiny amount of space squeezed between bookcases and sofas and whatever.

But while it works, in the sense that it’s a familiar interaction method that everyone uses, it’s still a complete stop-gap measure that takes you out of most experiences every time you tap the button. Something like Google Earth VR, fine. If you’re specifically playing a wizard, fine. Anything else and it’s a magic power that goes so far beyond the bounds of suspension of disbelief as to be crazy, like playing a Call of Duty game where your guy just happens to be able to fly. And rather than the industry go ‘we’re working on something better’, the current path is just to keep doing it until it finally somehow seems normal. That’s a hell of a lie to swallow when in most cases the solution nobody wants to accept is ‘just don’t make games that expect players to walk around huge playfields because the technology isn’t up to that’.