You Can take the Coffee Table, But Leave the Couch
I'm the VR guy to a lot of my friends. I have a habit about getting probably too excited when talk starts going that direction. I’ll always chime in to discussions with something like “oh that reminds me of such-and-such demo,” or “oh you should really check out so-and-so's talk about that.” It probably drives people crazy. But I can't help it.
I am really, truly excited to see what comes out of this whole thing. I've been waiting for VR at home for a long time, ever since my first trip to Disney Quest as a little kid. But here's the thing, as I get more and more excited, and especially as the people around me and within the industry start getting excited, I’m getting a little nervous. Part of it is the natural inclination to deflect hype with skepticism, but another hits close to home the more personal level.
Growing up, I always had VR in the back of my mind as this dream scenario, but that's not what my gaming experience was defined by. No, most of my gaming growing up was sitting on the couch with my brothers, staring at the same TV. Rivalries in multiplayer games like Super Smash Brothers, Tony Hawk, and Tekken led to bruised egos, real-life fights and more bruises (in a brotherly kind of way, don’t worry).
Being the third in birth order, I didn't even play that much. Most my time was spent watching, which I did more-or-less happily. There are still plenty of classic games that I'm not sure I've ever beaten myself, but I'm sure I’ve watched my brothers do it. I still consider those among my favorite games because I got to experience them all the same, watching every second of play and offering unsolicited advice when I wanted.
And then there were those rare occasions, those brilliant games like Sonic the Hedgehog or Jet Force Gemini, the ones that supported “little brother mode”: co-op play that let me be helpful (or at least not harmful) to what would otherwise be a single player game. In Sonic, I got to play as Tails and collect things, fight enemies, help Sonic get to places he couldn't otherwise, and never getting in the way. In jet force Gemini, I got to play as Floyd, a helpful little robot helicopter with unlimited pistol fire that hung around over the hero’s shoulder.
I'm not sure I can overstate how meaningful those gaming experiences were. Those games created such fun moments of my childhood. They brought me my brothers closer together, even if tiny fists flew at times. Even now, when we’re all back at our parents’ house, the moments where we bond the most and learn the most about each others’ lives happen on that couch, playing Super Smash Bros again, or watching our little brother play some single player game on PS4. These memories aren’t really about the games, but more about the atmosphere they created. The couch and the experience of the game were shared, whether or not the controllers were.
Now that I'm old and live on my own in a studio apartment with a gaming PC and no couch, I'm starting to miss those experiences pretty desperately. Sure, if I want a multiplayer game, I can play online with almost any of my friends, but it's not the same as having the person next to you to chastise for screen-peeking. And sure, if I want to watch somebody play a one-player game, I can ask them to stream, and if they don't want to, I can watch hundreds of thousands of other people do it on Twitch, but it's not the same as being an annoying backseat gamer sinking into the couch and refusing to get up to grab more snacks.
Luckily, it doesn't seem like I'm the only one who's feeling a little isolated. It seems like a lot of indie developers right now have come back around to targeting the couch. Cool little local-multiplayer games are popping up all over the place, and every one I get to play feels like a breath of fresh air. There’s such a vacuum in the space that wonderfully strange games like Push Me Pull You and Mount Your Friends are getting recognition that they might not otherwise. This is really exciting; it seems like the couch is making a comeback.
However, this is where it comes back to my hesitations about virtual-reality. While the industry seems to be embracing the togetherness of the living room again, virtual reality inherently asks for something different. Putting on a headset to go into a virtual world separates you from the real one—I mean, that's the whole point. As a VR fanboy, this is what I've always wanted, but I'm only just realizing the dark side to it.
But there is hope in the dark! Designers much smarter than myself I have been looking at this problem critically for longer than I have. One overt example is the VR version of the indie hit Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. One player looks at a complicated timebomb in virtual reality, and another flips through a paper manual to describe how to defuse it. The designers embraced the high-tech blindfold aspect of the virtual reality headset and turned it into I really fun game mechanic that involves the outside person as an essential part the experience.
Going forward, especially while VR is such an expensive investment for a household, embracing the outside players is going to be paramount. Katie Goode, at her talk on the social VR experience at GDC last week, stressed the importance of designing VR games with spectators in mind, whether that's just making the spectating experience more pleasant. Instead of just seeing through the lenses of the headset on a separate monitor, we can provide a viewing platform with extra information that's just for those on the outside spectators in order to create a more pleasant viewing experience. It also allows that form of passive co-op, backseat gaming. This is taken full advantage of in the design of Unseen Diplomacy, a location-based VR experience at the National Videgame Arcade in the UK. Games like Double Destruction use asymmetrical co-op play to ask smart phone users and HMD users to work together toward the same goal. Also, from all the promotional materials that I've seen, Sony seems to be embracing VR on the couch by designing asymmetrical multiplayer experiences that ask you to pass the headset around so that everyone gets a turn.
In the end, I'm still insanely excited for the advent of VR in the home. I just think we need to be cognizant as a community of developers that people already feel isolated enough, and if we want to build a player base that will embrace VR, we have to embrace the people outside of the headset, too. As people empty out rooms in their homes to make space for room-scale experiences, I think we need to give them a reason to leave the couch in there.