PlayStation VR has the right price - and the right attitude
Sony takes the road less travelled in search of VR's killer app.
I am a tiny person, a few inches tall, and I sit in Shuhei Yoshida's enormous, outstretched hand. The cheerful Sony executive gently holds me aloft on a staircase in a spacious office environment. Other giants are gathered around us on the stairs; as I turn and look around, I see Hideo Kojima's face, inscrutable as ever, looming nearby like one of the chiselled heads of Mount Rushmore. How about that for a virtual reality killer app?
This surreal experience is a 'VR selfie' - a 360-degree 3D photograph much like most others, only with a rather different subject than the usual beaches and mountain tops. It's one of several unusual demos at a PlayStation VR event for press at the 2016 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco. PlayStation boss Andrew House has just revealed that Sony's virtual reality platform will go on sale in October at £349 - a good deal cheaper than the rival PC platforms, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, even before you consider how much less a PlayStation 4 costs than a VR-spec PC. Out there on the net, excitement and interest is buzzing. There's a run on Amazon pre-orders. In a single announcement, VR just went from exotic new technology to mass-market commercial reality.
And yet there remains so much to prove. The current VR boom is still driven mostly by novelty and a kind of wish-fulfilment: the final consummation of a technology many have been dreaming about since it first surfaced in the 1980s, long before it was ready, or in science fiction before even then. The high-end headsets offered by Sony, Oculus and HTC are all impressive gadgets, no doubt. But how exactly are we going to use them? What's the software going to look like? Each platform holder has a slightly different answer. Oculus, though it has much wider ambitions down the road, is launching Rift with a raft of traditional games enhanced by VR. Valve is concentrating on innovative, bite-sized experiences that take baby steps toward the possibilities of virtual space.
Sony is trying both of these and more besides, with a particular focus on social experiences and non-gaming applications. From the demos available at GDC, there's a sense that the platform holder is casting its net wide in search of VR's killer app. You could argue that it has the most pressing need to find it. The PC platforms can probably count on being supported by an enthusiast scene for years while developers find their feet in this brave new world. PlayStation VR, however, looks likely to fly off the shelves and quickly find a much broader audience, which is great news for Sony - up to a point. If it doesn't then offer that audience something they can't live without, it risks ending up as a fad. Without the right games or applications, it's easy to picture all those headsets cast aside onto a mountain of discarded Kinects and plastic guitars after a couple of years.
The GDC lineup offers more hope than concern. The most worrying things are that the range of software feels early and rather scattershot compared to the demos offered by Valve and Oculus - if not inappropriately so for a platform that's still six months from launch - and that Sony is perhaps lowering the quality bar a little too far as it invites developers to fling anything and everything at the wall to see what might stick. It's reminiscent of the early days of the motion control gold rush. For every Rez Infinite - an old favourite that just happens to suit the new idiom perfectly - there's an undistinguished bit of filler like the sci-fi shooter Megaton Rainfall. For every Headmaster - a throwaway but hugely entertaining football arcade game - there's an overdeveloped and stylistically forgettable attempt to make fantasy adventure gaming work, like Xing: The Land Beyond.
A dispiriting example of the latter is Golem, from Highwire Games, a new studio formed by Bungie alumni Jamie Griesemer and Marty O'Donnell. The concept plays to one of VR's strengths, its pronounced sense of scale, by embodying the player in a series of ever-larger magical automata. You begin doll-sized, dwarfed by the furniture in a small boy's room, and later take huge strides across a ruined landscape, battling other clay giants. But the solution for first-person movement, using tilts of the head to guide you, is queasy and finicky, while the motion-control combat using a PlayStation Move controller is clunky and erratic. It's a case of square peg and round hole.
On the other hand, we have the unlikely magic of Super Hypercube. A simple visual puzzle game by Kokoromi, published by Fez creators Polytron, this is essentially a neon, wireframe rendition of ridiculous TV gameshow The Wall: you need to rotate a 3D shape made of cubes until it will fit precisely through a gap in a rapidly approaching wall. With every wall, more cubes are added, making your shape larger and more complex - which also means you need to physically peer around it to see the wall ahead. It's hypnotic and satisfying; VR enhances your spatial understanding of the shape in front of you and, in the colourful abstract visuals and gently pulsing soundtrack, takes you to a surreal and strangely soothing private headspace - just as Rez does.
In terms of first-party games, Sony itself is spreading its bets. The flagship titles are Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, a shooting gallery; mech battler Rigs; and VR Worlds, a compilation of gameplay sketches which includes the already famous Getaway: London Heist demo. Big PlayStation-exclusive brands are notable by their absence, with the exception of the DriveClub VR demo, which I found visually impressive but sickening. There is one jewel in the crown, however. Sony's Japan Studio is making what must be one of the most flat-out entertaining VR experiences anywhere. It might also be the unlikeliest.
It's called The Playroom VR and it is, improbably, a multiplayer party game. It will be a free download with every PlayStation VR purchase - which is a stroke of genius on Sony's part, not just because it is brilliant fun, but because it's social, inclusive, and best played by passing the headset around so every one can have a go. It also makes use of a unique advantage PSVR has over its competition: the external processor unit that can output a separate image to the TV screen. On most games this is a 'social screen' - a 2D rendering of the VR view, which allows anyone else in the room to follow the player's experience - but in The Playroom VR it is an entirely separate view for up to three more players.
This setup is used to conjure up a bunch of riotous and silly asymmetric multiplayer games; it is very much PlayStation VR's answer to the Wii U showcase Nintendo Land, playfully exploring the possibilities of two perspectives on the same action. In one, the VR player is a sea monster head-butting buildings and dodging missiles aimed by the TV team. In another, the VR player is a cat peeking from behind a curtain, trying to catch the TV team's mice moving around in a game of statues. Co-op games, including a Luigi's Mansion-inspired ghost hunt (the Playroom team clearly love their Nintendo), require vocal communication, because the TV players can see elements the VR player can't. The VR player's head movements are mimicked by their avatar on the TV, adding a deliciously comic performance element.
At this early stage in VR's rebirth, moving past the idea of immersing a single player in virtual space must have been quite a leap. The Playroom team has done just that, creating a link back to the real world that is not just entertaining, but could go a long way towards dispelling VR's antisocial stigma. It's especially impressive when you consider that the separate TV view was, in the developer's words, a "late innovation" in the platform's development.
This is exactly the kind of inclusive, creative thinking that Sony needs to make VR work as a mass-market proposition right out of the gate. The thinking is inherent in the design of the platform, especially that external processor unit, which makes the social screen possible, and also the system-level cinema mode that will let you play standard PS4 games or watch Netflix on your own private IMAX-sized display in VR. Somewhat paradoxically, this could be a real selling point. So could the fact that the VR media player - the software used to transport me so bizarrely to Shu's welcoming palm - can play VR photos and video from a USB stick. I presume that this detail is Sony accidentally-on-purpose leaving PSVR's back door open to those VR innovators in the porn industry.
A couple more GDC demos show Sony looking far and wide for new ways to make virtual reality fun. One is, surprisingly enough, a classical music recital. A profoundly impressive VR video, this sits me on the edge of a soundstage at London's Air Studios, a few feet from the violinist Joshua Bell and his Stradivarius, with a pianist accompanying him to my left. The 3D positional audio tracks my head movements perfectly as I look around the space, and VR's sense of presence greatly heightens the intimacy of the performance. Oculus is also investigating the possibilities of live performance capture, and the potential is huge. With its sense of presence and immediacy, VR creates a feeling in the viewer that has more in common with theatre than cinema - and it can offer better than the best seat in the house. Imagine sitting centre stage for Shakespeare performed in the round, or amid the band on Glastonbury's Pyramid Stage.
Theatre came up again in a different way in London Studio's social VR demo. In no way a commercial product, this rough but entertaining demo is a playful exploration of the possibilities of inhabiting virtual space with other players - playing table tennis together, banging on drums and so on. Movement, done by clicking through 15-degree rotations and actually pointing in the direction you want to walk in, is a little awkward, but it works and doesn't make you feel sick. Once again, the exact mimicry of the head tracking - further enhanced by Move controller tracking for our big, floating Rayman hands, positional audio for voices, and facial animation synced to the microphone - is the secret sauce that brings the other avatars to life in a way you haven't quite experienced before, despite the demo's basic cartoon graphics. (There's something about being able to follow someone's gaze.) Once they get comfortable, most people who try the demo tend to slip naturally into performance: mugging, shrugging, high-fiving and doing disco dance moves. There's magic here, but no sense yet of what it might turn into, or whether that is really something people want.
What it does show - along with the other system demos, The Playroom VR, and the design of the platform itself - is a genuine open-mindedness on Sony's part as to what VR might be and what people will want from it. It's the right attitude, and it will be as crucial to PlayStation VR's chances of success as that price point. It is still too early to tell whether software innovation will be able to keep pace with uptake of the hardware, and thus keep PSVR off the great scrapheap of peripheral gimmickry. Based on the GDC showing, I wouldn't realistically put its chances at any better than a cautious 50/50. But in this game, caution will get you nowhere - and Sony is throwing caution to the wind.