Valve, the game makers behind the Steam online gaming store as well as massive gaming hits like Portal, Left 4 Dead and Half-Life, is still hard at work on creating virtual reality games for the HTC Vive, Dan O’Brien, Vive general manager for the Amercias, tells Glixel.
Early this year, Valve head Gabe Newell said the company was working on three new titles, all of them full-blown games. Nothing has changed, O’Brien says.
“I manage the relationship with Valve,” he says. “I meet with Valve weekly to talk about everything from what’s happening on new content launching to new product launches to new features and new functions. They are very committed; they are still committed to delivering on that promise.”
O’Brien declined to say what sort of games they were working on, if they were tied to existing properties or if any of them ended in the number three.
“I can’t comment,” he says.
Around us, there is a cacophony of noise: a high-fidelity mix of people laughing and shouting and the directed captures and music of gameplay. While the second floor of New York City’s VR World is closed off to the public for this Vive press event, it’s still busy, but not as busy as the turmoil of players swapping out headsets and trying experiences in the booths on the bottom floor.
Up here, I sit with O’Brien and Joel Breton, vice president of content for Global HTC Vive and head of Vive Studios, discussing the current state of their VR, which they consider to be the best on the market. We’re in chairs pressed up against a wide column, surrounded by open bays filled with people dropping into virtual reality experiences.
They’re trying a slew of familiar games, but also checking out stuff soon to be released, like hard plastic handles of a tennis racket and ping pong paddle, both strapped with a device that can pull them into virtual reality experiences. In another room, there’s a plastic gun that can be used, and seen, in a VR take on the old Nintendo classic Duck Hunt.
The masked players, intertwined cables jutting from their headsets and then floating up to a suspension system above them and finally to the computer, confront the variety of worlds with a range of experience. Some seem as if they’re feeling their way tentatively through a darkened pool, afraid that the next step will plunge them into the deep end. Other’s flail and blast away, completely heedless of how close they may be getting to a wall or other player. In the corners of every booth, every room, every demo station, two sets of little boxes face the playspace where people step, thrust and waggle. These base stations are one of the key differentiators between the HTC Vive and other flavors of virtual reality delivered via Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR and Microsoft. Inside each cube is an array of infrared LEDs including two mounted on spinning drums that shoot out a synced pulse. These boxes, set-up on opposite corners of a playspace, provide a fidelity of headset and controller tracking that none of the other systems can match.
And, O’Brien says, the company continues to improve them. The current effort is to figure out a way to safely expand their reach, so players could if they wanted to, create a space larger than 15-feet-by-15-feet within to play. The company also wants to improve ways to track the player.
The status quo is that the player’s headset and two controllers are tracked and that games sort of infer the rest. Vive changed that last month with the release of Vive trackers and a number of accessories that can make use of them. The idea is that these trackers can be strapped to a plastic gun, the handle of a tennis racket or even to your feet, and if the computer knows where it is strapped on you, or what it is strapped to, it can do a better job of replicating that inside a game or space. It’s all a move toward fully-body tracking, something Vive is keenly interested in.
“This isn’t a race to the bottom; it’s still a race to innovate,” O’Brien says. “And we’re going to continue to do that as we see opportunities to bring other products to the market.”
As it is, consumer virtual reality innovations are bumping right up against the edge of what is possible and mass-producible in tech right now.
While Vive is expanding its reach through upcoming releases of less powerful, but more affordable and easier to use headsets, the company still sees its “premium” VR experience through the HTC Vive as the chief focus. And they’re working on upgrading that system, though O’Brien declined to say if that means an entirely new headset, or through accessories. He did mention the possibility of a future add-on that could convert a wired Vive headset into a wireless one. The company is also working to make it easier for those new to VR and the Vive to set up the system and get used to using it.
From a software standpoint, Vive has had an exciting year, launching its internal studio last December and that studio’s first two games this month.
In Front Defense: Heroes, players can team-up to take on an opposing team in quick, first-person shooter matches. The game, which launches for $4.99 early this month, has players dropping into five-versus-five multiplayer matches. During my short time with an early version of the game, I found the graphics and tracking slightly off, but the game was surprisingly fun. Developers Fatahorn created a movement system that allows players to move around a bit in the playspace they create in their home, but then has you pointing and dropping a marker with a controller to where you want your soldier to go. The soldier automatically runs to the spot, unable to fire while moving, sort of like the run mechanic found in Gears of War games.
Super Puzzle Galaxy, a VR puzzler from 2 Bear Studio set for a release in mid-December, was so much fun that I lost track of time playing it. It wasn’t until I took off my headset that I realized I’d been hogging the game for so long that a line had formed. In the game, players shape terrain with a controller in hopes of releasing a ball and having it travel, powered only by physics, to the endpoint. Initially, it’s not that hard to do. But as things get increasingly more complex, the game’s difficulty skyrockets. The $9.99 game will release with 48 puzzles and the ability to both create your own and share them or play others’ creations.
Vive Studio head Breton also pointed out that a number of major publishers have been slowly bringing over some of their content to virtual reality. Most notably, recently are Bethesda’s VR versions of Fallout 3, Skyrim and Doom. But Rockstar, Ubisoft and Square Enix have also all moved games over to VR.
While Breton fully expects a slew of original triple-A VR titles to hit Vive in the coming years, he calls these VR adaptations a “nice interim step.”
And the system already has some exceptionally well-received games, like Waltz of the Wizard, which was released in the summer of 2016 and has 98 percent positive reviews among its more than 800 owners.
“We’ve already launched 15 titles in VR which we published, and we have 30 in development now across ten different categories,” he says.
And while Vive Studio’s chief focus is making games for the Vive, the company doesn’t see other platforms as competition right now. In fact, Breton says that Vive is currently looking at the PlayStation VR headset and will “likely publish some content there."
“We want to build a viable business in VR,” he says. “Exclusives are clearly not a good business model at this stage.”
As with Sony and PlayStation VR and Oculus and the Rift, Vive doesn’t think virtual reality is in any sort of trouble, in fact, they too see it entering a more sophisticated stage now.
“I didn’t see any [VR] depression because I saw us growing as a brand and a company,” O’Brien says. “We have new product offerings, new accessories, incredible content from partners and first party titles. I’m feeling very good about VR’s health.”