The future of PC gaming: virtual reality

Illustration by Marsh Davies

All week long, we're peering ahead to what the future holds for the PC gaming industry . Not just the hardware and software in our rigs, but how and where we use them, and how they impact the games we play. Here's part three of our five-part series; stay tuned all week for more from the future of PC gaming.

Palmer Luckey has dedicated his career to virtual reality and bet millions of investment dollars on the idea, so it's expected that he would call it “the most exciting technology of the last century.” It's still a bold statement from the young entrepreneur and founder of Oculus VR, and we told him as much during our chat at CES 2014 .

“I didn't say it's going to be the most successful,” said Luckey. “But I think it is one of the most exciting, especially when you think of the potential.”

Luckey has a lot of support there; science fiction writers and scientists alike have been spinning tales of VR's potential for ages. All the way back in the '80s, Jaron Lanier—the computer scientist credited with coining the term—very accurately and excitedly predicted the virtual reality trends emerging in PC gaming today: massively multiplayer worlds, motion controls, and head-mounted displays (HMDs) through which we're immersed in stereoscopic visions of unreal places.

a virtual reality parachute trainer

And even before Lanier's predictions, there's been a persisting sense that virtual reality is both feasible and inevitable, but the VR revolution just never came to pass. The technology didn't work in a consumer setting, and VR became a joke—a list of novelty failures like the Virtual Boy.

Palmer Luckey and the Oculus Rift VR headset are putting that behind us. The device isn't a proven success yet, but it has proven that it's not a joke. By all indications, including the millions of dollars from enthusiastic Kickstarter backers and major technology investors, the virtual reality dream is real.

Why VR works now

Consumer head-mounted displays existed before the Oculus Rift, but they weren't nearly the stuff of cyberpunk fiction. Shining stereoscopic images into the eyes is easy—a plastic toy can do that—but immersing the wearer's head in a world without making their stomach feel like an airborne water balloon is a lot harder.

Virtual reality that feels anything like reality requires an HMD with low-latency head tracking, high-resolution screens, minimal motion blur, and a field-of-view expansive enough to reach the peripheral vision. The first Oculus Rift prototype came near to solving these problems, but still made our managing editor, Cory Banks, quit Half-Life 2 with the contents of his stomach.

The latest hi-res prototype, however, strapped Cory and his stomach into a space battle with enough fidelity to keep his lunch secure. By overcoming its biggest critic—the finicky human body—virtual reality has proven that it's ready to arrive in our homes. It is no longer the stuff of failed Nintendo systems, theme park rides, and arcade installations of the '90s. It's real, and we'll be using it in the next year or two.

Mind you, modern VR technology is nowhere near the dreams of sci-fi writers—we still need better motion control, haptic feedback, and face capture solutions—but think of the Rift as the PC you would have played Doom on in 1993. We look back at those Pentium-powered antiques and laugh, but Doom was worth it. The VR tech of 2034 will make today's Oculus Rift look silly too, but VR is just sophisticated enough now to be worth having, and that's why this is its watershed moment.

Game changer

What this moment will do for games is the most exciting unknown. It isn't just about playing the same games with screens strapped to our faces. Virtual reality isn't a type of display—it's a new gaming platform and it needs its own kind of games. In my ideal fantasy of the near future, we're still playing all the games we play now, but we have an expansive set of mutated genres made possible by VR.

As a first step, simulation makes sense. The closer technology gets to simulating reality, the better suited it is for simulations of reality. In the most basic VR scenario, you're sitting in a chair with a headset on, which makes it perfect for games about sitting in a cockpit or driver's seat. Expect VR support to be standard in driving, flight, and space sims—Project Cars, for instance, already supports the Rift, and EVE Online developer CCP is making EVE Valkyrie, a dogfighting game designed specifically for the headset. Elite: Dangerous looks very promising as well—see Andy talking about it below.

First-person shooters work in VR, too—I played through part of Half-Life 2 with a Rift developer kit—but slower is better. With a Rift on my head, I spent more time than ever before walking around looking at the details of Half-Life 2's floors and ceilings. I also noticed that, when I took my time observing, I was able to create a better mental map of the levels than I recall making during any previous playthrough.

I doubt, however, that Titanfall would make a good VR shooter. Jetpacking up walls and being flung around by giant mechs might disorient even astronauts.

“No matter how good you make a VR headset, it won't necessarily let you do everything you can do on a monitor without feeling disorienting," says Luckey. "And that's because a lot of things that you do in traditional games would make you sick if you did them in real life.”

Call of Duty multiplayer, for instance, would also probably not benefit from VR. Constant sprinting, 360-degree spinning, and bunny-hopping? No thanks—and I doubt you'd get a competitive edge. That doesn't mean VR games will all be mundane strolls through static scenery, but even in a shooter or on a psychedelic trip to Mars, I expect movement will need to be more natural. How often do you actually strafe across a room or walk backward around corners?

We'll move more like people move, we'll explore more—with the Rift, just being in a place is instantly more interesting than it ever was on a flat monitor—and more and more, we'll stop being asked to wield a gun at all times. Shooters will exist in VR-land, but they'll further lose status as the dominant genre for first-person games. The survival-horror genre will continue its recent ascension—Zombie Studios is already developing the Rift-compatible, properly terrifying Daylight—and the less masochistic will find a greater number of first-person RPGs like Skyrim and exploration games like Dear Esther, The Stanley Parable, and Gone Home.

VR games won't always fit into traditional definitions of games (as the last three I mentioned are either accused of or praised for, depending on who you ask). We'll visit foreign landmarks by exploring photorealistic 3D-scanned replicas. We'll bounce on the surface of the moon with friends. We'll dive into the Mariana trench in personal submarines.

These ideas call back to the multimedia CD-ROM experiences of the mid-'90s. The era's video encyclopedias and FMV games didn't earn the best reputation, but they'll come back in a much better way with VR. Consider Star Trek's reality-generating holodeck. The crew of the Enterprise didn't jump into the horrors of war as endlessly respawning soldiers. As much fun as that is (don't think I'm going to stop enjoying Rising Storm), I don't see it as the most exciting use of VR technology. No, Picard and crew experienced places, stories, and simulated people. They were role-playing, and even though the holodeck was just a plot device, I foresee real VR technology encouraging the same kinds of experiences. And with those experiences, I expect VR will spur on advances in relatively un-advanced segments of game design and programming.

A new reality

As one example, virtual reality should lead to more convincing characters. Right now, short of hiring actors to populate my personal Sherlock episode in some kind of multiplayer murder theater, there's no way to have a natural interaction with a non-player character in a game. People don't fall in love via dialog wheel or blink idly when they have nothing to say, and as games start to feel more like reality, we'll expect their characters to act more like real people. AI and voice recognition will improve, and communication will become more important to gameplay.

And when VR hardware is sophisticated enough, the goal of improving graphics and motion controls will be wholly replaced with the task creating more and more complex simulations. That's the ultimate dream of VR from the perspective of many who have written about it—a reality substitute, where people play, socialize, shop, and do business, as in Neal Stephenson's Snowcrash and other sci-fi fiction before and after it.

“Virtual Reality starts out as a medium just like television or computers or written language,” said Lanier in a 1988 interview with now-defunct magazine Whole Earth Review. “But once it gets to be used to a certain degree, it ceases to be a medium and simply becomes another reality that we can inhabit.”

Today, Luckey is saying much the same thing. “When VR is going to be exciting is when it gets as good as real life at everything,” he says. “And you start to say, well, 'Why would I travel on a business meeting across the world just to go sit face-to-face with people, if we can just plug in Rifts and get all of the same nuance of communication we could have gotten otherwise?'”

But that's not to say that gamers aren't important, or that the goal of VR is to leave gaming behind. We're vital, according to Luckey (and I agree), because that grand cyberspace future will never get off the ground without us.

"Gamers are the ones that I think are most accepting of this kind of new technology," he says. "Gamers are willing to take time out of their day to go do something that's out of the ordinary and fantastical. And VR is one of the best ways we're going to have to do that."

Tyler Wilde
Executive Editor

Tyler grew up in Silicon Valley during the rise of personal computers, playing games like Zork and Arkanoid on the early PCs his parents brought home. He was later captivated by Myst, SimCity, Civilization, Command & Conquer, Bushido Blade (yeah, he had Bleem!), and all the shooters they call "boomer shooters" now. In 2006, Tyler wrote his first professional review of a videogame: Super Dragon Ball Z for the PS2. He thought it was OK. In 2011, he joined PC Gamer, and today he's focused on the site's news coverage. His hobbies include amateur boxing and adding to his 1,200-plus hours in Rocket League.