Saturday, March 9, 2013

The Oculus Rift and Receiver

Yesterday I went with a friend to a SXSW panel about the Oculus Rift, comprised of creator Palmer Lucky and legendary game designers Cliff Bleszinski and Chris Roberts.


One of my biggest takeaways (aside from "this thing is going to be really cool!") was that the Rift was going to necessitate changes in both game design and interfaces. Everybody on the panel at one point remarked how inadequate controllers and mouse/keyboard are for the immersive experience the Rift provides. While the panel was filled with speculation about various devices that could be used to enhance virtual reality ("omni-directional treadmills" were mentioned more than once), less was spoken of the kind of experiences users could expect. This lack of specifics isn't surprising given that the product is still in development, but the subject of game design for the Rift is the most interesting one for me.

One panelist mentioned that Bleszinski's classic Unreal Tournament (1999) is a poor fit for the Oculus Rift, primarily because the players simply move too fast. The Rift is designed for slower, more engaging experiences. Receiver (2012) is such an experience.


Receiver was a game created during a one-week game jam. As such, it feels more like a proof-of-concept project than a full game, though it isn't incomplete. Its most notable and exciting feature is the way it handles guns, which is different from nearly every FPS out there. Receiver simulates the mechanics of its three different guns, which means a few things: the gun isn't locked to a reticle fixed to the center of the screen, ammo can be manipulated down to individual bullets in magazine and cylinders, and the player must be aware of the hammer, chamber, and safety. Overall, it's a more involved experience than clicking a mouse button to shoot from the hip and pressing 'R' every once in a while to reload.

While the story and setting of Receiver is somewhat bland, the moment-to-moment experience (the plot) is quite exciting. Having to deal with the mechanics of the gun changes its role from a purely power-granting object to an occasional obstacle. Usually a game will give you a tool that you can manipulate the environment with, but this is the first time I've had to actually manipulate the tool. The dynamic here is more intimate than most game experiences.

There are two types of enemies in Receiver: stationary turrets and floating drones. Both will kill you within seconds of seeing you. Because the game has perma-death, the pressure to avoid being killed is high. A good player will walk cautiously through the game's hallways, listening for enemies. In these pauses between enemy encounters, the player must make sure their weapon is ready - magazine or cylinder full, a round in the chamber, safety off. This down-time is crucial, giving the player time to regroup and reload.

When shooting finally goes down, it's usually over pretty quickly. Either the player or the enemy will be shot and killed. It's almost as simple as that. There are other factors involved: who gets the drop on who? Who has the better shot? The winner of a shoot-out in this game is determined less by who has better aim and more by positioning and readiness. Because a single shot disables an enemy (as in real life), the action is over nearly immediately. These interactions are very exciting, and oftentimes frustrating (luckily, the ability to restart immediately makes the game addicting instead of annoying).

The sort of methodical gameplay that Receiver offers will be right at home in the Oculus Rift. The strength of the rift will lie in players "being" in an environment, taking everything in carefully. Receiver encourages - actually requires - just that sort of gameplay.


I think the Rift may actually improve the game. One of my biggest problems with it is the relationship between movement and gun-aiming. Receiver treats in-game aiming similarly to how the Wii treated FPS aiming. In both, there's an imaginary box in the middle of the screen in which the player can aim their weapon freely. If the player aims outside the box, the camera will move in the direction the player is aiming. Such a technique attempts to simulate the separation between hand and eye/head movement, but sacrifices speed of the latter.

The Oculus Rift may solve this problem with its head-tracking technology. Because the Rift tracks where your head is looking in 3D space, the camera in-game can move with it. This technology allows the player to control the movement of their body separately from the camera, potentially allowing keyboard/mouse to focus solely on weapon aiming while the Rift takes care of looking at stuff.

Receiver is going to be available to play with the Oculus Rift, so color me stoked.