At Lenovo’s Tech World conference in Beijing, the Chinese tech giant unveiled a new AR headset prototype that aims to appeal to business travelers on-the-go.
Officially called the Lenovo AR Concept Glasses, the headset features a relatively small and sleek profile, no doubt in part because the headset connects to a PC via cable, meaning it likely doesn’t hold an on-board SoC like Microsoft’s HoloLens. The news was first reported by German publication MIXED.
The concept AR glasses are said to let users simulate multiple monitors, with the added benefit of user privacy so that you can work in a public space, like on a train, without having to worry about someone looking over your shoulder.
Although it’s uncertain if Lenovo intend to actually produce the AR glasses, the company did say the virtual monitor use case is “just one of the many features coming soon on the new Lenovo AR glasses,” which could imply the company is looking to flesh out its capabilities in effort to launch the device to business-savvy travelers.
As it is now, the glasses appear to feature three sensors and what could be ‘bird bath’ style optics, much like the Nreal headset shown off at CES 2019 in January. This is however conjecture at this point, as the company hasn’t publicly specified any of the headset’s specs.
Most recently, Lenovo launched its ThinkReality A6 HMD back in May, an AR headset, that like HoloLens, is targeting business applications.
A few months late, the company announced a refresh of Lenovo Mirage AR, its consumer-focused AR headset. Originally launched in 2018 alongside its sole title, Star Wars: Jedi Challenges (2018), the headset is now said to arrive with 6DOF controllers and a new AR game, MARVEL Dimension of Heroes.
Halo Reach (2010), the final Halo game from the series’ original developer, Bungie, is coming to PC in December, and could wind up with a VR support through an unofficial mod. Zack “Nibre” Fannon, the creator of the Alien: Isolation VR mod, is experimenting with VR support for Halo Reach.
As a massively popular franchise, calls for a Halo VR game have been heard plenty over the years, but with the latest incarnation of the games stuck on Xbox, Halo has still not gotten the VR treatment (unless you count that tease which Microsoft never followed up on).
Zack “Nibre” Fannon, creator of the Alien: Isolation VR mod and self-described “Halo addict,” today posted clips on Twitter showing they were experimenting with adding some VR functionality to Halo Reach.
Apparently working with a version of the game from public beta tests earlier this year, the clips show they have managed to bring rotational and positional tracking from the Rift into Halo Reach. This is a minor (but essential) achievement compared with the complexity of getting the game to render with proper distortion and stereoscopy. If it were anyone else we might just say “neat,” and move along with our day, but Nibre’s work with Alien: Isolation shows they may have the skills to deliver a fully functional Halo Reach VR mod.
Prior to its 2014 launch, Alien: Isolation was briefly demoed with a VR mode running on the second Rift development kit (DK2). It proved to be a terrifying experience, though with only tens of thousands of Rift DK2s out in the wild, the developers of the game didn’t bother to implement the VR mode for the launch of the game. It turns out though that the game’s files shipped with the VR mode hidden, and some intrepid folks figured out how to activate it so they could play the game on the DK2.
But between the DK2 and the launch of the consumer Rift in 2016, the Oculus SDK (which interfaces with the game to make it work inside the headset) changed drastically, meaning that the hidden Alien: Isolation VR mode wasn’t compatible with the consumer Rift.
But that didn’t stop people from clamoring to play the game in VR. Their desire spawned multiple petitions to try to get publisher Sega to update the game with modern VR support. Despite one petition with more than 2,500 signatures, the game’s VR mode remained outdated and unplayable with the consumer Rift headset.
That’s when Nibre decided to take action into their own hands and released the so-called ‘MotherVR’ mod which not only enabled VR support but also improved upon the original implementation, bringing it in line with a more modern application of VR comfort design and even adding support for VR controllers.
As for Halo Reach in VR, Nibre hasn’t committed to creating a full blown mod just yet, but they are clearly experimenting. “Now that [Halo Reach] is finally coming to PC, it opens a lot of doors…,” they teased on Twitter.
Glue Collaboration, a Helsinki-based company developing remote collaboration tools for AR/VR, today announced that it has completed a new seed round of financing, raising a total of €3.5 million (~$3.85 million) to support continued growth of its business-focused social VR platform.
The investment was led by Maki.vc, an early-stage venture capital fund focusing on Nordic companies. Other investors included Reaktor Innovations, Bragiel Brothers and Foobar Technologies. Business Finland, the Finnish funding agency for technology and innovation, and OP Bank also provided funding for the development of Glue.
Maki.vc also previously invested in Glue back in March 2018, although the seed round’s sum wasn’t publicly disclosed.
Glue CEO Jussi Havu maintains the funding positions the company to “accelerate the commercial phase of our growth and help organizations do business in a more productive and sustainable way.”
Glue emphasizes its platform’s ability to reduce a company’s travel budget and consequently cut its carbon footprint; instead of lengthy flights and hotel stays, users would connect via Glue’s cloud-based VR/AR collaboration platform, which offers fully-customizable virtual environments, 3D spatialized-audio and toolkit including things such as post-it notes, whiteboards and freehand 3D drawing tools to let users quickly hash out ideas.
Stormland, the VR open-world adventure from Insomniac Games, is set to launch tomorrow. The studio isn’t only offering the chance to unlock virtual collectibles for display in your Oculus Home when you actually play the game (a function made available to Rift platform titles some time ago), but in a bid to coax pre-orders, Insomniac is also offering exclusive collectibles to anyone who plonks down the $40 now before it goes live, raising a few important questions: ‘Are VR digital pre-order collectibles a thing now?’ and ‘Why the hell should I care?’
Are VR Pre-order Collectibles a Thing Now?
Yes. Virtual pre-order collectibles exist now, ergo they are a thing; however it’s a bit more complicated than that. What purpose do they really serve? And how are they different from your bog standard virtual items? I’ll get to that, but first a bit of recent history for the sake of context:
In 2017, Oculus made Home customizable for all users as a part of its Rift Core 2.0 update, which represented a big shift for the Rift platform towards a more user-centric space. Before then, Oculus Home was basically a 3D splash page for the Oculus Store and game library, but as Home became something of an item-driven social space, it also made us all unwitting digital hoarders in simulacra, as we weren’t simply given a full set of stuff to arrange and play with, but were rather given an intentionally limited set of items that would then slowly expand over time.
Users were, as they are now, treated to a magical gift box delivered to their Home space each week for simply returning to play a Rift game, the contents of which hold three random items; furniture, toys, and decorations aplenty.
At the time, Oculus was no doubt experimenting in how to best drive user engagement, which is one of the biggest factors that VR has yet to nail—hence the boxes and slow drip of Home items to try and coax players back into their headset. Look no further than any of the largely depopulated multiplayer-only VR games launched in 2019 and you’ll know first-hand why nailing engagement is so critical.
That said, it’s unclear whether Home’s infinite dole of boxes really does bring enough people back for their weekly dopamine drip in the form of a gift unboxing; I have a pile that stretches back four months.
Eventually some unique collectibles were offered up though, such as an Oculus Rift DK1 owner statue indicating that you were an original Kickstarter backer (among other things), but it wasn’t until Oculus opened Home up to developers in October of last year that the ‘achievement’ model was fully realized. Achievements were no longer generic virtual plaques to hang on your virtual walls; studios had the option to create custom models and trophies representing achievements which you could proudly display—things with real workmanship that looked just like what you’d find in the game.
Side note: in addition to free virtual merch, users can import objects created in Oculus Medium, the platform’s art app, and can now also import .glb object files of any item you can create yourself, buy, or scrounge from the Internet, making Oculus Home more open in it customizabilty.
With the entrance of Asgard’s Wrath (2019) last month, the Rift-exclusive melee adventure game from Sanzaru Games, it seems pre-order collectibles are definitely a thing now, and depending on how well Stormland does, we may be seeing even more.
Asgard’s Wrath offered up a special shield and sword for use in-game, while Stormland is serving up five character model statues for your Oculus Home; not anything to write home about, but interesting to see how Oculus, the publisher of both games, is treating its thoroughbred ‘AAA’ titles in lieu of a pre-order discount or some physical bonus items.
What is clear: Oculus is experimenting again to see how it can squeeze greater user engagement out of its likely now stable pool of PC VR headset users, and whether the cheap and cheerful digital rewards will tip the scales in pre-order numbers.
Who the Hell Cares? (for now)
I’ll admit it. I don’t pre-order games on principle, partly because I don’t think it makes any real sense as a consumer (are they going to run out of digital downloads?), and partly because I don’t care about what I see as contrived extras; the same goes for Special Editions.
When it comes to physical bonuses, I simply don’t have the need for more decorative junk in my life anymore—no more than I need used newspapers or mass-print paperbacks that would be better served as a few megabytes living on my Kindle. I don’t want any more plastic and ceramic jetsam clogging up the precious space in my apartment, which is already reserved for flailing around motion controllers.
Although I’m a proud Apex Legends no-skin, I really don’t mind digital collectibles as long as they add value to my experience. However outside of the multiple hours of virtual interior design to make my perfect Home back when they both Oculus Home and SteamVR Home initially launched, I just can’t say I’m that interested in either any more past the initial honeymoon phase. In fact, I’m not social at all through platform specific stuff, as I go directly to social apps like Bigscreen, VR Chat, or Rec Room.
So who, for now, ultimately cares about all this pre-order nonsense? Without a doubt it’s the platform holders and game studios that use pre-order numbers as some measure of success. They know everyone isn’t pre-ordering the game, in fact there may only be a small fraction of people who do, but it points to wider trends in adoption, and also gives them valuable data on how marketing strategies work on their target audience. Digital goods are also basically free in terms of developer man-hours, especially if they’re based on game assets, so it only makes sense to throw out a collectible or two for the fanatics among us. That’s the boilerplate behind it, although there’s something else beneath the surface.
Something as trivial as a Home decoration pre-order bonuses actually represent a pretty surprising fusion of the physical and digital that you wouldn’t wholly see in non-VR games. Rare collectibles like avatar skins and trophies are a potent driver in flatscreen games, and there’s nothing stopping that from being true for VR too. There’s something even more personal about holding something in your (virtual) hands though, knowing that it’s rare, and putting it on display in a space that feels like its yours.
In the end, I cynically believe I’m not being manipulated correctly; I don’t care about Home now because it’s not the hub I want it to be. But as Facebook puts their Horizons app front and center, and we see yet more entanglement between Oculus and Facebook-brand social spaces, you can bet the company will be looking into more ways to turn the pre-order dial up to 11 as they hone in on how to craft a social environment that truly lets you flaunt your rare collectibles, skins, and yes, even hats.
Legendary programmer and Oculus CTO John Carmack today announced he’ll be moving to a “consulting CTO” role in order to reduce his time spent at the company to a “modest slice.” This, he says, will make way for him to pursue new ventures outside of VR.
Starting this week, I’m moving to a “Consulting CTO” position with Oculus.
I will still have a voice in the development work, but it will only be consuming a modest slice of my time.
As for what I am going to be doing with the rest of my time: When I think back over everything I have done across games, aerospace, and VR, I have always felt that I had at least a vague “line of sight” to the solutions, even if they were unconventional or unproven. I have sometimes wondered how I would fare with a problem where the solution really isn’t in sight. I decided that I should give it a try before I get too old.
I’m going to work on artificial general intelligence (AGI).
I think it is possible, enormously valuable, and that I have a non-negligible chance of making a difference there, so by a Pascal’s Mugging sort of logic, I should be working on it.
For the time being at least, I am going to be going about it “Victorian Gentleman Scientist” style, pursuing my inquiries from home, and drafting my son into the work.
Runner up for next project was cost effective nuclear fission reactors, which wouldn’t have been as suitable for that style of work.
Carmack was a key player in the Oculus Rift genesis story and is a widely known and respected software engineer. Prior to Oculus, Carmack was a co-founder & Technical Director of the famous id Software and he also founded Armadillo Aerospace, a private aerospace company.
He joined Oculus as its CTO in 2013. At the time the company was a small but rising startup which got bought by Facebook for $2 billion less than a year later. Carmack has worked primarily on Oculus’ mobile products, and been a visible (if deeply technical) spokesperson for the company. Even under the Facebook mothership he’s maintained a refreshing off-script ‘call it like I see it’ sensibility that’s earned him as many fans as his deep technical credibility.
While Carmack wasn’t a founder of Oculus, he’s been a key figure both before and after the Facebook acquisition (including getting wrapped up in a court case with his prior employer over the matter). His new position, which will have him acting more as an outsider to the company, follows the departure of Nate Mitchell, the last Oculus founder to leave the company in August.
Already have some basic game dev experience and looking to get into VR? Then you may be interested in Oculus and Unity’s new intermediate level VR game development course, which is not only free, but can get you some valuable feedback from Oculus on your creation.
Called ‘Design, develop and deploy for VR‘, the course is said to offer extensive intermediate level training that takes you through all aspects of creating a VR game by helping you build a vertical slice of an escape-the-room game.
Broken down into 11 units and estimated to take more than 20 hours to complete, you’ll learn from a dozen Oculus and Unity experts covering basic topics such as how to prototype and plan a VR experience, VR ergonomics, spatial audio, VR user experience (UX) design, and app optimization.
Although targeting VR game development, the skills learned in the course can also be applied to either consumer of business-focused experiences.
After you complete the course, you have the option to submit your vertical slice for review by the team at Oculus.
Before you start though, you should have a basic foundation in Unity development and some idea of VR basics, which you can explore through resources such as Unity’s intro tutorials and the ‘Build Your First VR App’ tutorial from Oculus. Then all you’ll need is Unity, the Oculus SDK and VRTK, and Oculus hardware; the course was developed with Rift S in mind, but you’ll be able to develop for both Rift and Rift S.
Here’s the course topics, contents and instructors:
Unit 1: Introduction – Chris Pruett from Oculus – Chris gives you an overview of the VR industry, best practices for a successful VR game and an overview of what you’ll be learning.
Unit 2: VR game development and prototyping – Ruth Bram and Mari Kyle from Oculus – Planning sets you up for success, and in this unit, you’ll learn to create a game design document, a player profile report and a press kit.
Unit 3: Using Unity to develop VR experiences – Joy Horvath from Unity – You’ll learn how to set up the Oculus and Virtual Reality Toolkit (VRTK integrations) in Unity as well as how to set up a basic VR scene.
Unit 4: Locomotion and ergonomics – Eric Cosky from Oculus – Get best practices for making your VR experience comfortable and learn how to implement a teleportation system.
Unit 5: Hand presence and interaction – Matt Franklin from Oculus – Learn how hand interactions work in VR, how to design interactions to manipulate objects and how to overcome challenges with item placement.
Unit 6: Best UI practices for VR – Gabor Szauer from Oculus – Transition from 2D to VR, review well-established VR interaction paradigms (think laser pointers) and find out how to design a user friendly interface for VR.
Unit 7: Sound in VR – Robert Heitkamp of Oculus –Implement spatial audio for VR with the Oculus Spatializer Plugin. Plus, dive into reverb and mixer settings and learn how to test your audio.
Unit 8: Performance requirements – Matt Conte from Oculus – Be efficient with assets, implement lighting and configure your settings to get better performance from your VR game.
Unit 9: Optimization – Cristiano Ferreira from Oculus – Get to the bottom of bottlenecks with Unity Profiler, Frame Debugger and Unity Profile Analyzer. You’ll also learn about the technical requirements to pass Oculus Virtual Reality Checks (VRCs).
Unit 10: Testing – Lisa Brewster and Bruce Wooden from Oculus – Successfully run tests on your VR application. By the end of this unit, you’ll be ready to implement quality VR playtests to your development cycles.
Unit 11: Submission and go-to-market strategy – Mari Kyle from Oculus – In this final unit, you’ll get a crash course on marketing to drive awareness of your VR experience and pricing strategy. We’ll also talk about best practices for submitting to the Oculus Store.
With Stormland, Insomniac Games set out to figure out if an open-world adventure game could really work in VR. The result? Not just ‘the new bar’, but a rather high one at that (not to mention one of VR’s first great co-op games).
Developer: Insomniac Games Available On: Oculus (Rift) Reviewed On: Rift S, Rift CV1 Release Date: November 14th, 2019 Price: $40
Stormland is a VR open-world adventure game with a good deal of shooting, though I would stop shy of describing it as a ‘shooter’; while about half of your time will be filled with combat, the rest offers traversal, exploration, collection, and progression.
The game is fundamentally composed of several sizeable ‘Strata’ (you can think of these like map regions), each of which is peppered with islands of varying sizes. Between the islands is a landscape of clouds; when you step on the clouds you ‘Slipstream’, a very fast means of traversal compared to the stick-based locomotion that you’ll use when on land. While you’ll mostly be hanging out in a single Strata for large stretches at a time, you’ll progress from one to the other as you go, occasionally returning to ‘Base Camp’ (the lowest layer).
Stick-based locomotion and Slipstreaming are complimented very well with a climbing and gliding ability. You can pretty much climb anything at any time, and you’ll glide around whenever you wind up in the air. As you get skilled with using these different locomotion tools, you’ll be able to move around with an incredible feeling of freedom.
Insomniac’s decision to allow players to Slipstream when traveling between islands is quite genius. It effectively ‘shrinks’ the map, allowing the space to feel quite massive without burdening players with trudging from A to B with nothing interesting to do; Slipstreaming is itself the interesting thing to do between A and B, and it’s actually quite fun.
When you aren’t cruising the clouds, you’ll looking for valuable resources or laying the hurt on enemy androids using a reasonably sized arsenal which gets more powerful over time. Combat is well paced, pitting you against just a handful of more challenging enemies at a time (rather than heaps of fodder).
While the soldier-sized androids come in a few different flavors, the tactics you’ll use against them are mostly the same. Thankfully, flying drones, leaping snipers, static turrets, and hulking goliaths mix things up enough for combat to stay fresh and challenging, with a sense of reward for picking the right strategy for the situation. That said, enemy AI can feel pretty dumb and unaware at times (especially if you’re picking them off from afar).
Killing enemies in Stormland is a very satisfying affair thanks to well placed effects and sounds that really sell the destruction. After 10 hours in the game I was still enjoying the thrill of disintegrating an enemy android with a double-shotgun blast to the face.
It’s a good thing then that the game gives you tons of freedom regarding which weapons you use and the combat tactics you employ. ‘Workbenches’ scattered throughout the game allow you to fabricate any weapon that you’ve discovered in the world, as well as grenades, health canisters, and more. All weapons can be used with one hand, but gripping with two hands adds an extra benefit like increased rate of fire, stability, etc. I came to prefer carrying an SMG, shotgun, and sniper rifle with me as my usual kit, and then improvising as needed by snatching other weapons from dispatched foes.
Stormland’s weapons don’t reload in the traditional sense. Rather than inserting a new magazine, weapons are actually ‘disposable’ by grabbing them with both hands and ripping them apart. This gives you both Alloy (the currency which you spend at Workbenches) and some ammo for that gun type. While magazine-based reloading can be a lot of fun in VR games, I think Insomniac made an excellent choice with Stormland’s weapon design in this regard; the gesture of tearing guns apart is an absolute joy, and this also means that even if you find a gun you don’t care for (which happens often) it’s still useful to you because it can be turned into Alloy and ammo. Insomniac clearly recognized the fun of this ripping/tearing gesture, as you’ll see it used in other places throughout the game (and surely, it will be picked up for use in other VR games too)
Alloy can also be found growing throughout the world of Stormland; you’ll shoot your hand laser at it to knock it free and see if vacuumed up into your inventory. Beyond Alloy, you’ll also want to snatch up any bio-fruit and Aeon Buds that you find. Bio-fruit recharges your special ability (things like invisibility or a stun gun), while Aeon Buds are a rare plant-based commodity which is important for upgrading your abilities.
Between scrapping enemy weapons, collecting the game’s various useful resources, and working toward whatever mission objective you’re on, Stormland makes it feel like there’s always something to do, be it around the corner, on the next island, or in the next Strata.
The game moves you along with a serviceable, but largely uneventful string of story missions which effectively introduce you to the fundamental workings of the game in preparation for the ‘Cycling World’.
After you complete the core story missions, you’ll be let loose to go tackle the Terminus in the Cycling World. The Cycling World is the state of the game’s Strata or regions; it’s identical for all players of the game and gets remixed once every calendar week. In the Cycling World you’ll be presented with a handful of missions in each Strata (similar to those found in the core story missions) and battle your way to the Terminus, the game’s highest and most challenging Strata. When the Cycling World turns over it brings new and rearranged islands, different missions, and new locations for enemies, objectives, resources, and more.
Conquering the Terminus will put your skills to the test, including understanding how to read your map and complete mission objectives which are not always easy to find. When you head to the Terminus you’ll want to make sure you’ve upgraded your skills and bring a full arsenal of upgraded weapons, grenades, health canisters, and the arm-skill of your choice.
Defeating the Terminus unfortunately doesn’t offer much of a sense of climax for the game (aside from being a fun challenge), but when the Cycling World turns over, you’ll be presented with remixed Strata and a new Terminus to defeat. If you beat the Terminus in the prior cycle, the next one will be even more challenging. In this way, Insomniac hopes that the Cycling World will create a sense of ongoing replayability for Stormland, while the escalating difficulty of the Terminus will amount to a bit of ‘end game’ challenge for players to dig into.
It took me about 9 hours from the start of the game to defeat the Terminus for the first time; because the Cycling World turns over only once per week, it’ll be a while yet before we know what kind of long-term replayability the game will have. Thankfully, even if you only battle your way to the Terminus once, Stormland is a compelling experience and a true framework for VR open-world adventure games.
The cherry on top is Stormland’s two-player co-op. Although player-to-player interactions (like handing each other objects) need much more attention, the ability to traverse a huge continuous world with a friend is a joy. It’s really fun to be standing atop a high vista, see something interesting in the distance, and tell your friend ‘hey let’s go over there’, before leaping to the clouds and racing to the other side of the map. Because the game offers a strong element of freedom with regards to weapons and tactics, it’s also fun to collectively strategize by picking complementary loadouts.
Stormland on Original Rift CV1
While the majority of my time was spent in Rift S, I played about two hours of Stormland on the original Rift CV1 and found that it fared nearly as well as the Rift S. While the game is easier to play with 360 tracking, as long as you are adept at maintaining facing the front of your playspace (or if you have a 360 sensor setup with your CV1), you ought to be able to get just as much enjoyment out of the game.
Stormland is a good-looking game which is occasionally downright gorgeous. While the islands that you’ll find yourself exploring are flush with flora and interesting terrain, it’s the cloudtop vistas that really bring out the ‘wow’ moments. Each Strata has a unique feeling which is deeply influenced by their strikingly different lighting conditions. Finding yourself up on a high vista, overlooking distant islands, and seeing the sun catch the clouds just right is only made more special by virtue of knowing that you can go out and travel to any of the islands you see before you.
The gentle onset of a spontaneous rainstorms brings with it a sense that the world is indeed living rather than static. These moments of beauty are unfortunately juxtaposed by some rough edges found elsewhere.
Early in the game you will receive the ‘Scanner’, a visor upgrade which basically highlights anything interactive or threatening within a certain radius. It feels like a cheap hack (in place of more thoughtful art direction and visual affordances) to help players locate useful stuff in the environment and to spot enemies among dense plant life.
Turning on the visor crowds your field of view with HUD elements while also highlighting seemingly half the world in front of you, no matter if it’s through a wall or not. This essentially collapses your sense of occlusion (which is closely tied to stereo-depth), while introducing tons of excess visual noise which makes it difficult to sort out what information is important rather than extraneous. In the middle of a gunfight, for instance, it’s all too easy to lose sight of your laser reticle amidst all the visual chaos. You can turn the scanner on and off at will (and believe me, I left it off as often as I could), but it is unfortunately essential to spotting enemies and finding key objectives.
This excess use of the visual channel is part of a broader trend. Both audio and haptics are also frequently abused with extraneous feedback that’s difficult to decipher among the mass of incoming information. ‘What did I just hear?’, ‘Who is shooting at me?’, and ‘Why does my hand seem to buzz randomly?’ were frequent questions on my mind as I played.
That’s an unfortunate sore spot in a game which is otherwise incredibly thoughtful and borderline groundbreaking in its VR design.
I could write an entire article on Stormland’s smart VR design (yes, even beyond this one), but to keep this review concise, I’ll slipstream through a few highlights.
For one, the game presents an entirely spatial interface to the player. It isn’t perfect, but it’s a huge step forward compared to the laser-pointer interfaces seen in so many other games. Interface elements are generally laid out as virtual touchscreens, including a spatialized map which has an ‘augmented reality’ style view where a 3D representation floats right there in space for you to look at. This is a good foundation, but another pass on usability (especially for left-handed players) would be welcome.
Second, Stormland has a fully spatialized inventory system. Once fully unlocked, you’ll have two hip holsters, two shoulder holsters, and three chest slots (for grenades and energy canisters). While this is steadily becoming par for the course, it’s the details that matter; the game actively prevents you from dropping anything that you’ve holstered. If you accidentally drop your gun in the middle of a firefight, it will levitate in front of you for a moment before flying back to your holster. The same thing applies to grenades and other items. This simple but effective system goes such a long way to de-clunking the moment-to-moment VR experience.
Third, interactions feel great. I already talked about ripping guns apart to collect Alloy. This satisfaction carries through to most things in the game, like harvesting fruit by grabbing it and then crushing it in your hand, activating grenades by pressing a button on top, grabbing levers, and activating elevators. It feels good because Insomniac spent a lot of time figuring out how to intuit what the player is trying to do and then helping them do it while making it look reasonably good (we got a behind-the-scenes look at that in this piece). While this occasionally goes awry (like when the game sometimes thinks you want to grab your weapon instead of grab for a climbing hold), it’s generally a positive for how the game plays and feels.
A quick minor point: I would have loved to see both a flashlight and binoculars in Stormland.
Though Stormland does an impressive job of maintaining player comfort, it has tons of artificial movement; very sensitive players should tread with caution, but, I would say it’s still worth a shot (you can always return the game under Oculus’ reasonable refund policy).
For how much movement is in the game, I was surprised to find that I was mostly comfortable throughout. You have some freedom (and settings) to steer clear of things that might make you nauseous. For instance, I typically opted not to sprint or strafe too much when using the thumbstick because that can sometimes get to me. Somehow speedy Slipstreaming and even flying at high speeds through the air remained perfectly comfortable for me, as did climbing and even flinging myself around while climbing.
Comfort options include head or hand-based direction of movement, snap or smooth turning, vignetting, HUD distance, and a few others. There’s an option to play seated (which adjusts your height), though with the extensive use of hip-holsters and the frequent need to crane your neck upward to climb overhead terrain, it isn’t a great experience.
In addition to crowding your visual field, the game’s HUD elements are often placed so far in your periphery that they are too blurry to read. Similarly, items stored on your chest are often quite difficult to see (this was worse on Rift S than Rift CV1) because of how far down you need look and the limits of the FOV.
Insomniac told us that the game was still undergoing optimizations ahead of launch; the build we were provided for review struggled to maintain smooth framerate on the Ultra at times, even on a GTX 2080 Ti and Core i7-6700K. While ASW smoothed over most of this, stuttering could be seen occasionally. I opted to turn settings down one notch from Ultra to High to reduce instance of bad performance, but even that didn’t make it perfectly smooth. Settings go lower still, but the game rapidly loses visual fidelity. We’ll take another look at the launch build to see if additional optimizations make a difference.
Insomniac Games is no stranger to VR game development. Since 2016 the studio has created three Oculus exclusive VR titles—Feral Rites, Edge of Nowhere, and The Unspoken—but its next (and possibly last Oculus exclusive), Stormland, is unequivocally its most ambitious VR production yet. Stormland rewrites the rules about what a VR game can be by synthesizing & expanding many of the important lessons that Insomniac (and the industry at large) has learned about making compelling VR experiences in the years since first-gen consumer headsets hit the market. We spoke to the Lead & Principal Designers of Stormland, Mike Daly and Duncan Moore, to learn how they pulled it all together to create one of VR’s first truly native open-world games.
Editor’s Note: The exclusive artwork peppered throughout this article is best viewed on a desktop browser with a large screen or in landscape orientation on your phone. All images courtesy Insomniac Games; special thanks to artist Darren Quach.
Built to Move
While it was entirely normal and useful, in non-VR games, to grab the camera and swing it about the game environment as needed, in VR the camera is the player’s head, and moving it around jarringly is a recipe for discomfort and nausea. Even moving virtually with a joystick from A to B can be uncomfortable in VR if special care isn’t taken.
In the early days of VR, the common refrain was to simply never move players virtually to ensure comfort. This led to VR’s (mostly derided) ‘wave shooter era’. These games, even if they were otherwise compelling, lacked something core to most non-VR games—the ability to seamlessly traverse large and varied environments.
Since then, VR developers have discovered a handful of methods to comfortably move players. But locomotion is so intricately interwoven with game design that the best VR games tend to be those which think of locomotion as a piece of the gameplay itself, not just a necessary conceit. Stormland, as you may have gathered by now, is one of those games in which locomotion is clearly part of the gameplay. And this is by no accident, says Stormland’s Principal Designer, Duncan Moore.
“Locomotion has always been in the core DNA of Stormland. Primarily because fun traversal mechanics are close to our heart at Insomniac. From the grind rails of Ratchet & Clank, to the wild city-hopping acrobatics of Sunset Overdrive, we at Insomniac know how powerful traversal mechanics can be. If done right, they create a great foundation of sticky gameplay that’s all about feel and feedback. Everybody understands the thrill of moving through space—it’s simple, relatable fun that connects to the kid in all of us,” said Moore. “From the very inception of Stormland, we knew we wanted players to slipstream across the clouds, jump, and glide in an open world setting. It’s one of the very first things we proved to ourselves and [Oculus Studios, Stormland’s publisher] when we started exploring the game. The big question from the very start was; can we pull off locomotion that is thrilling and free but also comfortable enough for VR?”
Moore said that the studio knew from its experience on prior VR titles that players were are more comfortable in VR if movement is tied to broad and relatable body motions, like hand and arm movements, rather than buttons or sticks.
“This is where we started with our first prototype of slipstreaming [zooming across the clouds] and gliding [flying through the air]. We found that mapping speed and strafing to hand position worked pretty well and was relatable. We kind of mashed up the ideas of superhero flight with surfing. While gliding across the clouds, you can reach your hands forward to speed up and pull them into your body to slow down. To change direction, you simply drift your hand input left and right to steer where you want to go. It ended up working well from the very start—we knew very early on that this was the direction for us.”
And though slipstreaming and gliding worked well enough to become a significant component of the game, it was climbing that really broadened the possibilities Moore explained.
“Everyone at the office loved VR climbing games and we knew this would be a great fit for open-world exploration. We didn’t know how big of a feature this would be at first, but once we got it in it changed everything! At first we planned to restrict climbing to certain surfaces, but after some experimentation we realized that free climbing on any surface suited our game vision perfectly,” he said. “Grabbing and climbing anything was a big revelation. That is, to be able to grasp any surface and grapple up it or grab it and fling yourself any direction. You are connecting your real hand to this virtual environment and moving yourself around in a very analogue, playful way. This is what VR can do that [no other medium] can! It immediately felt special.”
Moore recalled how central these mechanics became to the rest of the gameplay in a way that simply wouldn’t have worked if locomotion hadn’t been carefully considered from the outset.
“Committing to these mechanics early on set the direction for the rest of the game—it was the kind of bold decision that we needed to put traversal mechanics front and center. Our whole game is built from the notion that you can slipstream, climb, and glide almost everywhere in the open world. It affected every aspect of the game design and presented a mountain of challenges for us to solve, but it was totally worth it. It’s at the very heart of what makes Stormland so thrilling to experience.”
RGB Haptics is a new Unity-based tool that aims to make it easier for developers to create and implement haptic effects in VR games.
Haptics are important in games in general, but especially in VR—because the medium gives players significantly more agency than non-VR, haptics are critical for helping the player understand what’s happening to them and how they can interact with the world. Used correctly, haptics make VR games more playable and immersive. Unfortunately, haptics often go underutilized beyond the most basic rumble because creating, testing, and refining ‘haptic effects’ (unique haptic sensations) is a tedious process.
Understanding the importance of haptics in VR, studio RGB Schemes has developed a tool called RGB Haptics which aims to simplify the creation and implementation of haptic effects in VR games. Available now on the Unity Asset Store, the plugin eschews manual programming of frequency and amplitude in favor of a waveform-based approach which provides developers with a familiar pipeline when it comes to creating, implementing, and triggering haptic events.
Here’s a rundown of the features, according to RGB Schemes:
Raw waveform and audio file support across all types of haptics.
Custom waveform editor window, allowing you to design waveforms without ever leaving Unity.
Looping haptic playback support, as well as granular controls for the haptics. This includes playing, pausing, and stopping of haptics.
Automatically slices sampled data to target the controllers refresh rate, providing smooth haptics on supported platforms.
Supports Oculus Rift, Oculus Rift S, Oculus Quest, HTC Vive, Valve Index, Windows Mixed Reality headsets, and more. Anything supported by the Unity XR platform should be supported by this.
Supports both Android based VR devices as well as PC based VR devices.
Collision-based haptics scripts included, allowing for users to feel ice cubes in a glass.
The developer has also released a free PC VR and Oculus Quest demo to feel what kind of haptic sensations can be created with the tool.
RGB Schemes says the haptics plugin grew out of an internal tool which the studio created to streamline the use of haptics in its own VR projects.
“We were very surprised that other developers were not making better use of this technology, and after deep diving into the software support, we realized that doing so was incredibly difficult,” the studio said. “So we began building an internal tool for more easily building better haptics solutions, and decided to allow others to purchase this technology to use in their projects!”
While Oculus doesn’t offer much publicly in the way of understanding how well individual apps are performing across its VR storefronts, it’s possible to glean some insight by looking at apps relative to each other. Here’s a snapshot of the top 20 Oculus Quest games and apps.
Some quick qualifications before we get to the data dump:
Paid and free apps are separated
Only apps with more than 100 reviews are represented
Rounded ratings may appear to show ‘ties’ in ratings for some applications, but the ranked order remains correct
This is a snapshot as of today, expect positions to shift over time
Among the 20 best rated paid games & apps on Quest
Average rating (mean): 4.7 out of 5
Average price (mean): $19
Most common price (mode): $15
Among all paid games & apps on Quest
Average rating (mean): 4.4 out of 5
Average price (mean): $19
Most common price (mode): $20
Most Rated Paid Oculus Quest Apps
The number of ratings often gives a ballpark idea of the relative sales of each title; a title with more ratings is likely to have sold better than a title with less, though there’s certainly an unknown margin of error.