The Future of Social VR Games

First of all, PSVR is here and it is fantastic. I’m loving every minute of using my new VR headset, even when I got really sick playing World War Toons (a F2P VR shooter) and couldn’t play anything for the rest of the night. It was a sickness that I welcomed with open arms… and then paid for later that night.

social vr games

I have been telling anyone who will listen that virtual reality is absolutely amazing. If you have never tried any sort of VR, then just imagine what you think it will be like in your head — now forget that, because I promise you it’s way better than whatever you’re picturing. So yes, I was really blown away at first and I’m still enjoying myself now that the honeymoon phase is over.

But the question is: how will virtual reality evolve? What’s next for this technology? How will it change gaming and, even more so, how can it change us?

How Will VR Thrive?

I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of virtual reality as a medium. There are countless articles online and we all know by now that new tech lives and dies by how it handles video games and porn. Obviously, the PSVR’s main priority is video games; there are over 50 VR titles planned for the first year. And I’m sure Sony will eventually embrace the PornHub app because, well, they’d be stupid not to. Porn is coming to the PSVR whether Sony likes it or not (you can already watch 360-degree pornos in 2D without Sony’s “consent”). But the real concern, in my opinion, is how the social and multiplayer aspects will play out (not for porn, but for VR games, of course).

Arguably, virtual reality is a very solitary experience. But it doesn’t have to be. I had just as much fun being completely immersed in being the caped crusader, really feeling like I was the Batman, as I did yelling instructions to my fiancée as she tried to defuse a virtual bomb. One game really immerses you, causing you to suspend your disbelief to such a degree that you start trying to lean on things that aren’t really there. The other constantly reminds you that you’re not actually in a warehouse trying to defuse a bomb, but sitting on a couch while your partner frustratingly barks instructions that they’re reading from a 30-page manual printed on real, physical paper. Both are valid and enjoyable experiences. Both exemplify how VR will thrive in the future. And we need both to elevate this piece of tech to something more than just a gimmick.

Asymmetrical Experiences

social vr gaming

The latter example comes from my experience playing the fantastic party game Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes. This game perfectly addresses the problem of “couch co-op” in a brave new virtual world — it’s the same problem we saw with the Wii U gamepad. Both the Wii U gamepad and the PSVR headset are expensive peripherals that aren’t designed to be used in conjunction with another gamepad/headset in the same room. This means that playing games with people locally has to be different; it has to be asymmetrical. Just as the Wii U did before it, the PSVR seems to recognize this and you can see such examples in the free Playroom game.

What the Wii U did was give one player a secret screen in the form of a 10″ tablet that other players couldn’t see, and thus, they were given an advantage. The two problems with this are that it’s possible for people to peek and it’s not really possible to handicap the gamepad user (aside from having more players against them). The VR headset, on the other hand, creates an interesting dynamic. You, as the headset wearer, are transported to another place and you can’t see the TV screen that your friends are playing on, just like they can’t enter your virtual space. This is why Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes works beautifully in a virtual arena. The headset wearer has to communicate what the bomb looks like — does it have one or two batteries, what’s the serial number, does it have five modules, what sort of puzzles are on those modules, etc — while “the expert” reads through the manual (I think it’s more fun to print it out, but you can also read a digital manual on your TV screen) to find the solutions to the aforementioned module puzzles. Neither player can see what the other can; peeking is not even an option. You are not limited to two players either, as you can have several “experts” each with a group of pages from the manual all working together to help the headset player defuse the bomb. It gets really tense and incredibly fun.

The “Social Screen” Effect

One thing that makes Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes work (especially if you don’t feel like printing a paper manual) is Sony’s “social screen.” In an asymmetrical game, the social screen can show things that the headset wear doesn’t see (a bomb defusing manual, for example). But more often it is used to mirror what the person in the virtual world is looking at. You look awfully goofy when playing a VR game, but, at least with the social screen, your friends can see what you’re looking at and why you’re frantically waving your hands back and forth. More importantly, though, the social screen makes the experience of watching someone play a VR game way more enjoyable. On top of that, Sony has incorporated seamless streaming to Playstation Live, Twitch, and YouTube with the click of the “share button.” So people in the room and people on your PSN friends’ list can experience something similar to what you experience while you’re experiencing it. The headset also has a built-in microphone so you can talk to all of those people at the same time. I can’t imagine how this won’t change “Let’s Play” videos and Twitch streams from here on out.

batman vr

But let’s just stick to how this works for people in the same room as you, for now. One of my favorite VR experiences thus far was donning the cowl in Arkham: VR. This game perfectly exemplifies what I think single-player VR games need to be. It is purely narrative driven and has just enough interactivity to really make you feel like you’re in Gotham city. In fact, one of my favorite parts of the game was watching a virtual re-enactment (very meta, I know) of Nightwing’s alley fight. As Batman, you do nothing more than fast-forward and rewind the action then scan for clues. You are not fighting, you are not using exciting gadgets, you are simply watching something—and it’s exhilarating. It is hard to explain if you haven’t actually put on a VR headset, but virtual reality makes everything more interesting and exciting. This part was hard for my fiancee, who was watching me play, to understand why I was saying “holy shit, holy shit, holy shit” (it was my first VR experience, by the way). The TV displayed a run of the mill action sequence. But I was there, in that alley, controlling a really cool fight scene. I could lean in closer and see more details. I could turn my head and see what was going on behind me. It is unreal.

What really got my fiancee involved, though, was when I was trying to solve puzzles and find clues at the coroner’s office. This is where the social screen really shines. Sure, having her talk to me while I was trying to ignore the real world and just be the batman did take me out of it, but it made for a fun social experience. When she instructed me to “look right” for a clue, I literally turned my head to the right rather than moved an analog stick. When Killer Croc sprang up into my face, I jumped back in fear and she laughed. What she didn’t know was how real it felt and how my body instinctively reacted to an eight-foot alligator man trying to bite my face off.

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Socializing in a Virtual Space

The traditional gaming aspect of vying for a high score still exists in the virtual space. Granted, it’s not the most social aspect but something about seeing a floating leaderboard in Carnival Games VR pushes me to give it just one more go, and then another and another. Super Hypercube is the same way, even letting you filter out friends and a global leaderboard. The thing that both of these games do really well is that they make it really quick and easy to jump right back into the game after you finish; there’s no loading screens or any slow down, you just hit a button and you’re back to chasing that high score in a second. Sure, you can enter a party through PSN and talk with a friend while you play on your respective PlayStation systems, battling to beat each others’ scores, but that is not the same as occupying the same virtual space.

carnival games vr

Enter Sports Bar VR. This is similar to Carnival Games VR in that there are various move controller based mini-games, but there is one big difference: online multiplayer. Actually, hanging out in a virtual bar is the main draw of the game. You can quick join a lobby of up to six people, choose a friend’s lobby, or create your own. Part of why VR multiplayer games are so new and exciting to me is because of lobby systems can now work. Before, you were shown a screen where you can all type messages to each other or chat over headsets, and you all wait for the game to start. In Sports Bar VR the lobby is part of the game — it is a virtual space that you inhabit. You can walk around the bar — complete with a jukebox, barroom chatter, and NPCs — then start a game of billiards, air hockey, darts, or skee ball with any of the players in the bar or an AI opponent. But you can also just stack bar bottles, throw chairs, and talk. The ability to move freely around a virtual environment, start a game of 8-ball then throw a few darts while you’re waiting for your turn, all while meeting new people is pretty great.

I stumbled on another really fascinating possibility for Sports Bar VR when perusing a message board for the game. A few players were asking developers for the ability to watch actual sporting events on the televisions present in the bar. Currently, the TVs just show a loop of real people playing pool (in pretty good detail, I might add), but the fact that several people in the forum said they’d be willing to pay to watch PPV sporting events in the game. At first, I thought this was crazy. Then I imagined the following scenario. What if the thing you shared with your best college buddy was an intense passion for UFC. You guys never miss a fight and usually watch the big ones down at the local bar. But your buddy is a marine and got shipped off to Afghanistan. This sucks, but the good news is that his unit has a PSVR and so do you. Now the night of the fight you guys always dreamed of seeing ever since college comes and you can watch it together, in a bar, while playing darts and drinking beer. You can move around and interact with one another in a virtual space and talk to each other; it’s way more immersive and fun than simply talking on the phone while watching the fight because you can do all of the things you’d normally do at the bar. And once you actually try shooting pool in Sports Bar VR you will understand how good it feels — it is unbelievably realistic, with a great billiards physics engine and just feels right. This is what I see coming for the future of VR.

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The Future is Now

Given what we can already do in games like Sports Bar VR or even online multiplayer shooters like World War Toons, it is easy to see what could be coming in the future. It doesn’t even have to be all about games either. Right now there are several apps that allow you watch VR videos and you can even use the headset’s virtual 226″ screen to watch 2D Netflix movies. If you extrapolate this, it’s easy to imagine a world where people who live in tiny studio apartments that can’t fit large TVs can gather in a virtual movie theater to all watch something together on what appears to be a giant IMAXesque screen. Horror and comedy movies are best experienced in a theater setting so who knows, maybe it will be the same in a virtual environment. Of course, there might still be talkers and people with annoying laughs, but at least you don’t have to worry about somebody looking at their cell phone or opening a noisy bag of chips

Obviously, in order for a social game to work you need a player base. So the big question is: will social games like Sports Bar VR catch on? And, ultimately, could virtual reality make us more social people? Will it be easier for introverts to socialize if it’s virtual? Or is VR just a solitary experience? Only time will answer these questions. Right now, there are so many possibilities and I, for one, can’t wait to see how it all plays out.

What do you think is the future of virtual reality? How do you think the social aspect will affect this emerging technology? Let me know in the comments below!

(Editor’s Note: There’s undeniably a massive opportunity for Sony to tap into different types of virtual worlds and expand the social VR experience. With games like Sports Bar VR and Carnival VR, it feels like the basic ideas are there and they just need to be expanded. I’d argue that some of the many social online gaming experiences that are being played the most right now — like GTA Online, for instance — have great potential in their future iterations to include some social VR aspects. Think about hopping into a GTA Online-esque multiplayer online world, but instead of hunting down other players, you join up for bowling, skateboarding, a walk n chat, or whatever activity it may be…in VR.

As Joe points out, how great would a social movie theater be? Where you and your friends can “go see a movie” together on your PlayStations? I don’t know if we’d want EVERYTHING to be in VR, like with Ready Player One where there’s hardly any real-world social interaction. However, the possibilities for social VR gaming are endless, and we can’t wait for the technology and development to evolve so that we can see where we can go with it.

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Joe Portes
Joe Portes is a writer of fiction, essays, and humor.  He teaches Creative Writing at SUNY Adirondack. His short stories appear or are forthcoming in the Indianola Review, Funny in Five Hundred, Pitkin Review, and Z-Platt.

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