Week with the Rift: a dev shares detailed game play impressions, best practices, and helpful hacks
Oculus Rift dev kits are out in the wild, and Kickstarter backers have begun to play and create games, experiment with the hardware, and see exactly what’s possible in terms of modern virtual reality. No developer has been quite as enthusiastic, if not encyclopedic, in talking about his experiences with the hardware than “Cymatic Bruce,” a game developer who has been regularly releasing Youtube videos of his time with the Rift.
Did you see the video of Mirror’s Edge in VR? That was his. His videos include a hands-on look at many games, including hints on the best ways to get things working, and best practices for using the Rift itself, including links to the programs he's using and the games he plays in the description. If you're just getting started with a Rift, there are few better places to start if you're just learning about how it all works.
We spoke for a bit about his week or so spent in virtual reality, and his insights were fascinating.
Getting it all running
It takes a strong system to run games on the Rift, and I’ve been told the experience only “works” at 60 frames per second or higher. “I am running an Asus G74sx ROG Laptop, i7, 8gb Ram, GeForce 560m 2gb,” Bruce told me when I asked about his hardware. “Most experiences that I have tried have been fantastic as far as framerate!” He’s had good experiences running games at 45-60 frames per second, so there is some wiggle-room when it comes to performance.
“A major drawback to low frame rate is motion blur,” he explained. “There is already a bit of that in the Rift because of the screen, but it gets increasingly worse as frame rate drops. It also gets more difficult to track moving objects when the frame rate is low. This can lead to nausea in some folks. At 60 fps or higher this should be a non-issue no matter how sensitive a person is.”
These developer kits weren’t meant for consumers, and getting games to run can often include an extensive amount of fiddling with options. “Team Fortress 2 did require significant start up time to get the best experience,” Bruce told me. “You will want to tell the game what lens cup you are using (A, B, or C). Then there is the inter-pupillary distance test that measures the distance between the eyes and changes the game accordingly.”
“Finally, there are eight different control schemes in TF2; you want to try each one at least once to find out what feels best. After all that, you still might want to adjust your mouse sensitivity or something else to get the best experience,” he continued. What feels good to him may not work for others, and this is far from a plug-and-play device at this point.
Many games are being played using Vireio Perception, an-open source driver that supports the Rift. The driver warps the image and adds stereoscopic 3D for the Rift, but this can also take some fiddling. “Some games require special procedures to make sure Vireio recognizes them, like opening the game directly from its folder location instead of the Steam shortcut,” Bruce said. “Also, you may have to adjust the convergence, which is the point that your virtual eyes focus on and separation, which is how far apart your virtual eyes are, slightly.” In some cases you have to move files from the driver to the game’s folders on your PC. This is easy stuff if you’re even somewhat tech-savvy but, again, it can be intimidating to the casual PC gamer.
Bruce records the first time playing each game to record these issues and try to work through them. He had to adjust the mouse sensitivity way down and add a field of view mod to get Mirror’s Edge working well. He tweaked the shadows in Skyrim. Most games don’t know how to handle “rolling” your head – imagine touching your ear to your shoulder – and this leads to issues with shadows and reflections, which must be turned off to avoid weirdness. You don’t realize how much text and how many menus there are in Skyrim until you realize how many of them are broken when viewed through the Rift.
He’s spent around two and half hours playing a Virtual Boy emulator, of all the weird things, and has spent over an hour during a single session of Mirror’s Edge. “Once you acclimate - get your 'VR Legs' as Oculus calls them - certain experiences give you a giddy feeling. Some folks on the forums have coined it the ‘Rift High,’ a sort of post-roller coaster lightheaded feeling. Mirror's Edge is exhilarating!” It's fun to watch, and Mirror's Edge actually gives you a sense of being in someone else's body. When you jump from rooftop to rooftop, you can look down and see your legs pinwheeling. Grab a ledge, and you can look back and forth at your hands.
Oddly enough, one of the best experiences is more of a narrative journal than a game. Welcome to the world of Dear Esther.
Inside the journey
We reviewed Dear Esther in the past, and it's the closest thing that gaming has to a poem, if that doesn't sound ungodly pretentious. You're given a beautiful environment to explore, you listen to a voice telling you a story, and it's wonderful. If you haven't played it, please do.
It's also a game that comes to life in virtual reality.
“Playing Dear Esther in the Rift is an experience I would like everyone to have. One of the things the Rift does very well is stereoscopic 3D with no cross-talk between the eyes. You look around, and the ocean goes on forever, the lighthouse is huge, and the cliffs are awe-inspiring,” Bruce said. “Add to that the sound - the gentle crashing of waves and the occasional breeze. Strings begin to play and a man begins his monologue about the very items you are looking at. You are able to relate to his words so much better because the horizon really is too far away to measure, the cliffs really do tower above you, and the waves speak to you in 3D stereo about their loneliness.”
I warned you, this thing is going to turn us all into hippies. Bruce had some technical difficulties while recording the first pass at a Dear Esther video, which he said was for the best; he was too overwhelmed by the experience to speak coherently.
And this is the promise of the Rift; the ability to put us inside the game, and enhance the feeling of running across roof tops, or just enjoying the sounds and visuals of a beach while a man tells you a story.
“I tell you, I was almost moved to tears the first time. Not just because of the game, but because of the potential it represents,” Bruce said. “Here I am, playing on a dev kit with low resolution, forcing a game to work in VR with an open source program, and I am still touched. What will the future hold? This is the culmination of a dream for many of us, and it only gets better from here.”