Virtual Reality Is for the Player, Not the Audience

Should new gaming technology prioritize the viewer or the player?

I’m one of those people who is genuinely excited for virtual reality gaming, but then I get genuinely excited for any weird new control scheme in gaming, be it a Wiimote, touch screen, analog sticks, pressure sensitive buttons, or any of the other cool and debatably-useful-but-definitely-underutilized controller gimmicks we’ve seen in the past decade of gaming. I even liked 3D gaming, and I wrote a couple articles several years ago about the unique issues facing 3D games. After finally being able to play some VR games at PAX Prime this year, I think that it’s worth comparing and contrasting this new gimmick/hook with that latter gimmick/hook. 3D and VR make for interesting contrasts because they seem to have the exact opposite problem from one another when it comes to selling themselves to a wide audience.

As I have written before, 3D was more for the audience than the player. The games that used it most were the ones that misused it the most. Shooters and action games with a player-controlled camera were never going to work well in 3D. Players always move the camera too quickly for their eyes to process the 3D image on the screen. As we spin and shoot, the world looks flat because we don’t give our brain the extra second that it needs to process the added depth. The best 3D games had static cameras, but even then, the extra dimension often didn't add anything to the gameplay experience. It was a cool aesthetic touch (yes, it was cool, shut up) but it didn't help players play.

In retrospect, it's no surprise that 3D never caught on in a significant way. At worst it was an impediment to playing, and at best, it faded into the background. Why pay extra for a feature thatI won’t even notice?

Virtual reality now suffers from the opposite problem. It's a technology hook that exists purely for the player and ignores the audience of a game. Watching someone play a VR game is not pleasurable, and I say that as someone who regularly gets pleasure out of watching people play games. This isn’t even about how one looks when playing a VR game (I actually don’t mind the goofy visor and wild movements). This is about translating the player’s VR experience to an audience's viewing experience.

What the player sees as a 3D world around them doesn't translate well to a 2D screen. The depth and scale of the VR experience looks flatter and smaller when that extra dimension is removed. It also doesn't help that the camera is attached to the player's head, resulting in a lot of subtle, but constant, bobbing and swaying. This is confusing for a viewer because we don’t know what to focus on. The player has a wide enough field of view to turn their head to the right while their eyes look left, and this feels natural because our eyes always move faster than our heads. Viewers don't know what a player is looking at, so watching a VR game means constantly resetting your focal point and any reference objects, as if you're watching a bad found-footage movie. People are worried about getting motion sick playing VR, but I’d be worried about getting sick watching VR.

Then there’s the ever-present problem of "presence" that has been talked about by way smarter people than me. It’s one thing to see an image on a screen, but another thing completely to see that image around you, enveloping you, to be in that image. This is something that makes even bad VR games interesting experiences -- at least for now -- and it’s a quality that can never really be translated for a viewer.

So now that I’ve experienced both 3D gaming and VR gaming, I wonder which approach is better. The benefits of 3D were obvious to any viewer, but had little impact for a player. The benefits of VR are obvious to a player, but have little value for a viewer. The former made an immediate case for itself, then failed to live up to its promise. The latter has a harder initial sell, but becomes valuable after you try it. One tech is for the viewer, the other is for the player.

The immediate assumption is probably that VR will succeed where 3D failed because games should always prioritize the player, right? Yet the constant controversy over a 60 frames-per-second framerate and a 1080p resolution seem -- to me -- to strike a similar contrast.

There's arguable player benefit for a higher framerate and resolution: Put more detail on the screen and make the action move smoother and I'll be able to gather more information at a glance. Yet it's rare for most modern games to even try to aim for this 1080/60 benchmark, preferring instead to stick with lower settings in favor of putting more effects on screen at once This is a gaming trend that clearly prioritizes presentation over gameplay, the viewer over the player. While some players may complain about this, the blockbuster industry has clearly embraced a focus on spectacle over experience.

(Personally, I don't mind. I can barely tell the difference between 720p and 1080p anyways, even when images are placed side-by-side, but I think this all makes for an interesting discussion.).

Which is to say: Who knows what'll happen? I tried VR and liked it, and I tried 3D and liked it. I like weird tech shit, and I am in no way indicative of the larger gaming public. I'm very interested to see how this whole VR craze pans out, especially in light of how far the 3D craze has fizzled out. In retrospect, we think we can easily point out why 3D didn't catch on, but other gaming trends complicate those factors. Gaming doesn't always prioritize the player, so where does that leave virtual reality? Should new technology aim for the viewer or the player?

The correct answer is probably both, but so far that hasn't happened yet.

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