Exploring VR MMOs in search of the Ready Player One experience

Regardless of how you feel about Ready Player One, we can agree that the concept of Oasis, a massively multiplayer online simulation where you can play games, have adventures, socialize, and be any type of character you want, is a compelling one. But have we gotten anywhere close to Oasis here in 2018? Can we strap on a VR headset and dive into a virtual world crowded with other players, filled with games and adventures and role-playing? And hopefully one without quite so many tiresome references to 1980s pop-culture?

I decided to spend a day finding out. And since I'm using Ready Player One's Oasis as sort of an ideal baseline, it makes sense to start with the actual Ready Player One VR game itself. The Oasis is in beta, and boasts that "you can go anywhere, do anything, be anyone—the only limits of reality are your own imagination."

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Turns out there are actually a few more limits than advertised, at least in its current state. The OASIS beta begins with you standing in Wade's dumpy trailer from the film, papered with '80s game posters and present day filth, where you pick up a VR headset—a virtual one—and put it on over your VR headset—your real one—thus whisking you into Oasis to hopefully meet a group of unlikely heroes. At least for the moment, you can't actually be anyone, since there are only a handful of premade avatars to choose from. Guess I'll be the cowgirl, then.

Now standing in a much nicer virtual apartment, you can open the Star Map, which is shaped like a Rubik's Cube because god forbid this fiction goes a few moments without yanking its crank to the 1980s. Using the map you can visit a few different virtual game worlds. I enter Planet Gauntlet, a fantasy realm where I can use a bow and arrow to shoot skeletons and hoover up immense piles of gold coins by waving my hand.

And it's actually a fun game! Shooting arrows into skelly heads is cool, and they're actually a bit creepy when they get really close to me. There are potions to glug and bombs to throw and while the levels aren't terribly interesting, firing a bow in VR is always cool.

Next I enter Planet Doom, a shooter, where I fight against waves of enemies who explode into coins when I blast them. It's not nearly as fun as Gauntlet, plus I run into some serious input lag that makes me feel sick as my virtual hands stop syncing up with my real ones. Also, while some of the games in the Oasis beta might be fun, I'm all alone in here. Oasis isn't supposed to be just about playing games, it's about pretending to be someone else in a huge crowd of people who are also pretending to be someone else. I decide to leave despite never having found a group of misunderstood outsiders to join.

While searching some forums for recommended VR MMOs, I come across a post from a developer who is making "something like" Ready Player One's Oasis. It's called Community Garden, in Early Access on Steam: "Community Garden exists as a place for the VR community to escape from reality. Explore the city, plant a garden or throw some rocks in a pond or shoot some hoops. Do all this with other VR players from around the world."

I manage to do some of that. I discover a vending machine in the city that will dispense boxes of seeds. Dropping the box in the park (or even in a planter on the sidewalk) and then watering it with the hose permanently attached to my left hand will sprout a little plant. It's sort of cute, and easy to imagine a bustling city full of gardeners all working together to make virtual plants grow.

Unfortunately, like the Ready Player One beta, I'm all alone in here, with no sign of VR players from around the world. I wander the empty city. I try to play hoops on a basketball court but I can't find a ball (I do spray my garden hose through the hoop, but it's not much fun). I throw a rock or two. I discover that by climbing a tree it makes look like my watering has flooded the entire city, which at least gives me a moment of roleplaying as the Bringer of the Great Flood. Alas, it's just a glitch.

Community Garden, while a bit basic-looking and barren, is a nice idea. I'm hoping it continues developing in Early Access and finds more players to populate it.

Next I dive into Somnium Space, free to play in Early Access, described as "an Open, Social, Virtual Reality world. A world that will have its own economy and its own currency. A VR world with its own Marketplace, Games, Social experiences and Virtual Land ownership."

Unlike Ready Player One and Community Garden, it does allow for some avatar customization, and the space is full of exhibits, games, and activities. You can go bowling, ride a rollercoaster, visit a theater to watch a film, and even help yourself to a free hot dog, perhaps because the economy isn't fully realize yet. I have about six hot dogs.

There even a showroom to check out a Tesla automobile, though clicking the 'buy now' button on the showroom screen doesn't let me actually buy a Tesla. I guess that's good news for my credit card. It also won't let me open the car door, and when I stick my head through the window the Tesla is completely empty inside. Maybe that's why it's so electrically efficient. There's nothing in there requiring power.

Also empty in Somnium Space: the space. I'm getting seriously lonely in all these virtual worlds that are devoid of other players. I feel like I'm going to run out of different ways to say the phrase "ragtag group of misfits" long before I ever find an actual eclectic assemblage of oddballs.

Luckily, the last VR world I try is called Orbus VR, and there's absolutely no shortage of other players. There's also character customization, games, adventures, and pretty much everything else I've been looking for. It's cartoony, but it's great.

After a tutorial where I learn how to use my map, compass, and a weapon—some of these items use menus but others you can just pluck from holsters and the backpack on your body—I perform a quest that requires shooting a deer in the face with a blunderbuss, then visit the town square. It's bustling with actual human beings. One is trying to sell a dragon to another player. Others are engaged in combat just outside town. People flit here and there, but plenty stop to wave or chat. One is amusingly AFK, his hands laying on the ground beside him as he takes a break in the real world. But after all this time alone, it's almost thrilling to wave to someone and see them wave back.

The dragon salesman hustles over to me. "One question," he says. "Would you want... a DRAGON?" he announces dramatically, complete with a bow and sweeping gesture of his virtual hands. I explain I don't have any money, so he just gives me one little pet dragon, and then proceeds to show me around town to demonstrate how the game works. It's all pretty wonderful.

Orbus is fun, though it crashed to desktop a few times: the dragon salesman who was showing me the ropes was about to take me fishing when the game crashed for a third time, and I decided to call it quits for the time being. Orbus is also pretty pricey in Early Access at $40, but it's the closest thing to an Oasis I've seen so far, and I plan on going back.