First-Person Shooters (FPS) and Virtual Reality (VR) seems to be a match in heaven. Ever since the concept of virtual reality had been related to video game, gamemakers immediately realized that VR is the definitive platform for first person games, and what else justify first-person gaming better than first-person shooters? In the case of VR, things go in a different way. As far as now, although a plethora of game developers have tried to bring the mass popularity of FPS to Virtual Reality or port already-successful titles to VR, none of them becomes as genre-defining for this genre on the platform of VR as Call of Duty, Halo, Goldeneye and Doom. In this article, I am going to analyze major problems of VR FPS implementation and potential resolutions.
Before Virtual Reality, there was stereoscopic 3D gaming; not much long before that, Nintendo Wii brought motion control to mainstream gaming; before that, game developers and hardware designers came up with peripherals like light guns back to 70s. All the aforementioned platforms were once considered to be a perfect fit for first-person shooters. And yet keyboard+mice and regular game controllers are still the predominant ways to play FPS games on PC and game consoles respectively. VR integrates 3D display and motion control and takes the technology side one step further on both: headsets offer High-resolution full stereoscopic 3D images with high framerate and depth-of-view; motion tracking has never been so accurate and intuitive as Oculus Touch or Vive Controllers. If stereoscopic 3D and motion control are proved to be not ideal enough to replace existing scheme of playing, how would VR change the game?
Both stereoscopic 3D and motion controls aim to enhance immersion of gaming, although in different ways. Stereoscopic 3D provides striking visuals coming to life with real depth into the view, while motion control transit player’s real-world actions into games; both of them are theoretically well-fitted for FPS because players always want to feel like the super soldier in the games. Nevertheless, the concept itself is where the games fail firstly. First-person shooters are not recreation of real life shooting experience at all; in fact, they are a genre of video game that are specifically designed to entertain. Games like ARMA and Operation Flashpoint are labelled as “military sims”, and they are indeed much more difficult than general first-person shooters. However, those “military sims” are still video games and its high difficulty is not from cruelty of war, but from pleasing hardcore gamers. If a VR FPS puts 1-to-1 precise simulation to its top priority, it is very likely to be neither a good shooting simulation or an enjoyable game to play.
First-person Shooters have two fundamental design pillars: aiming and movement. Both of them cause design problems in VR.
No matter what FPS, aiming is always a key component. An FPS may not about sharp-shooting, but it always requires some level of aiming precision: that is where the fun comes from. When players shoot the target accurately, the game gives them positive feedback; when the shoot is missed, they know that they need to adjust their aiming. In modern FPS, such reciprocal process is assisted by aiming cursor that shows where bullets land. The cursor is a 2D UI element that is painted on the screen, which is not suitable for stereoscopic 3D environment. As a result, in virtual reality, aiming cursor is usually absent. In Counter-Strike, where the powerful sniper-rifle AWP does not have the aim sight on normal perspective, forcing players to use scope to aim. In VR FPS games, every weapon works in the same way as AWP in Counter-Strike on normal perspective. Players simply cannot aim at the location they want, being forced to try few bullets first and adjust their aiming. The unresponsiveness leads to utter frustration. Moreover, players are not be able to effectively make adjustment of aiming after missing shoots, due to lack of information where the last bullet lands. If aiming does not function properly in VR FPS, then no matter how great the guns feel, how realistic the environment is or how engaging the story tells, the broken gameplay will keep players away.
To tackle the aiming problem in VR First-Person Shooters, different games offer different approaches. Doom VFR (2017) deemphasize on precision aiming via increasing the sizes of enemy hitboxes and damage area, the same method implemented -in Doom VFR’s non-VR brother Doom (2016). Such design choice fits Doom VFR well, but it will not be able to be widely applied. As I write in previous, FPS may not about sharpshooting, but definitely requires some aiming technique. SUPERHOT VR (2017) and Fallout 4 VR(2017) adapts bullet-time feature to offer players more chances to try and adjust, but like Doom VFR, those games inherited bullet-time feature from their non-VR counterparts and are designed to fit bullet-time functionality. Another solution can be found in games like Bravo Team (2018) and Arktika.1 (2017) by adding scopes on firearms. This solution is basically an enhancement of iron sight aiming in VR but adds some better feedback. However, the solution also suffers from the same drawback as normal iron sight aiming: players need to align their eyesight and the gun when they aim, and even by doing so, it may still be unreliable. The best solution so far can also be found in previous games, as well as games like Serious Sam VR and Robo Recall (2017): laser pointer. Laser pointer in VR FPS is aiming cursor’s replacement by indicating where each bullet lands in real time. Players are able to adjust their shoots before pull the trigger just like FPS in non-VR. Robo Recall also makes each bullet’s trajectory obviously visible to players, offering another layer of feedback to ease the difficulty. In fact, laser pointer needs to be a must for every VR FPS game on every firearm.
Movement is not only a problem for first-person shooting games in VR, but a challenge for designing VR games in general. Teleportation is the current industry standard for movement, although as far as I know, most players hate it. Since any asynchronized camera movement and body movement inside virtual reality may cause motion sickness, teleportation aims to lower the motion sickness as much as possible by reducing constant movement to individual leaps. For first-person shooters though, teleportation takes time to get used to and cause lose in direction very often. Usually teleportation in VR games assigns both the next location players will land and direction players will face to. While moving to a new location is fine for most users, instantly changing to a new direction causes many confusion and discomfort. Certainly, games like Doom VFR demonstrates teleportation with Doom’s signature glory kill (melee kill when enemy is dying) really well by empowering players like a superhero. Future VR FPS may want to take note from this, but I do not see it to be a potential industrial standard. Facing direction, in my opinion, is the problem of standard teleportation in VR. Based on which kind of control scheme VR systems are capable of, several different improvements can be made. For systems using room-scale tracking, direction of player facing should be the same with the vector of teleportation. Room-scale tracking offers freedom on changing direction and should be the only function that decide players’ facing direction. In case of sitting, using joystick to turn around with a fixed-small angle may ease the motion sickness. 20–30 degrees should be ideal for the control scheme. Honestly, none of the solution above is perfect. Consequently, motion sickness is a major restraint of genre, or even platform’s popularity. It is also the reason that many VR FPS games take the on-rail shooter genre and fix players’ position on one or multiple predetermined location. Although it maximizes fun of VR gun play, lack of mobility restricts those games’ scope: it is simply difficult to consider an on-rail shooter as triple-A quality release.
If not considering motion sickness by using traditional joystick control, VR first-person shooters can be extremely fun with its vivid shooting feedback and new strategy exclusive to VR FPS. Back in2011, Sony released Killzone 3 with both stereoscopic 3D and motion control support, enhancing the game’s experience. It was a technical marvel at its time, but VR First-person shooter beats it by a margin in terms of immersion. In virtual reality, players see themselves holding firearms and play with it instead of holding an awkward control and play with the sight cursor. In fact, although VR is not going to replace flat-screen for FPS, FPS genre on VR will not suffer the same fate as it on motion controllers or stereoscopic 3D gaming. VR is a holistic solution that redefines FPS with its platform, and we are going to see this genre thriving with the platform in the future.
Photo Credits:Tech Analysis: Killzone 3 E3 Demo – 2D VS 3D
Killzone 2 is still one of the technical benchmarks for Sony’s PS3.