PlayStation VR has its limitations, but devs shouldn't ignore Sony's VR entry

PlayStation VR launches next week, and while it's not as robust or thoroughly modern as existing high-end VR systems, developers should still take a close look. Gamasutra editor-in-chief Kris Graft went hands-on.

Kris Graft (@krisgraft) is editor-in-chief, Gamasutra

Next week, the high-end virtual reality market will become more crowded by exactly one headset.

Sony’s PlayStation VR arrives on October 13, and select press were able to use the hardware in everyday home settings, giving us a chance to compare it to more established players Oculus Rift and Valve and HTC’s Vive.

Before I get to the aspects that are more relevant to you game dev types, here are a few broad takeaways as a user:

  • PSVR is the most polished-feeling piece of high-end VR hardware, compared to Oculus and Vive. Sony has the history and expertise as a commercial hardware manufacturer and it shows. The HMD feels light, and has a clever headband that stretches, retracts, and ratchets to hold it in place. The fact that Sony managed to get rid of that middle mohawk band that Rift and Vive sport seems like a small miracle at this point in the current gen of VR.

This is all $500, plus a PS4...which actually makes it the bargain option.

  • The price isn’t completely obscene to people who find the other two tethered-VR options too price-prohibitive. The PSVR bundle for room-scale experiences includes the camera and Move controllers and costs $500 (plus the $300 PS4, which over 40 million people already own). It's undoubtedly expensive, but not as expensive as the sit-down gamepad experience of the currently-available Oculus entry package ($600) or the room-scale-friendly Vive ($800), both of which require a PC with a decent CPU and GPU. But as we’ll go over, the latter two options are more expensive for a reason.
  • Last but not least, PSVR is the most accessible of the three high-end tethered VR options. The significance of this cannot be understated. The common thread that winds through the hardware, the setup, and the price is that Sony wanted PSVR to be the most accessible high-end VR experience on the market. And it is -- but there are some functional compromises, if not sacrifices, that game developers need to keep in mind.

Yeah. (PSVR vs. Rift vs. Vive. Image via IGN)

PSVR an amalgamation of old and new hardware

The fact that the PS4 even has a VR solution is kind of amazing. Consider this: the PlayStation Camera was designed for depth-sensing motion control in combination with the Move controllers, but it was not designed for a full-on room-scale virtual reality system. I wouldn’t put it past PlayStation's hardware guru Richard Marks to have thought of room-scale VR applications early on, but PS4’s camera was outwardly a reaction to the decidedly non-VR Kinect, which itself was a reaction to Wii.

"While Sony’s HMD is 2016 VR hardware through and through, the positional tracking system is years old. That affects the user experience, and therefore ought to affect how you would design a PSVR game."

Motion-control was thought to be the mass market play, and that’s why the PlayStation Camera launched with the PS4 in November 2013. VR as we know it today was still unproven: the Oculus Rift Kickstarter had only ended in September 2012, at which point people started thinking, "hey, this new-style VR might be a thing."

…and the PlayStation Move controllers debuted in 2010 for the PlayStation 3. These controllers are six years old and are the counterparts to the brilliant Vive controllers from April 2016 and the Oculus Touch controllers which haven't even launched yet.

In short, while Sony’s HMD is 2016 VR hardware through and through, the positional tracking system is years old. That affects the user experience, and therefore ought to affect how you would design a PSVR game.

The limitations of the tracking system are significant: Most notably there is only one camera tracking player movement (well, two cameras in one housing). That’s not unusual in the current VR race – Oculus Rift’s entry-level package only launched with one sensor. Nonetheless, having one sensor means that occlusion is going to be your biggest issue. With PSVR, player range is limited to the space right in front of them. Turning around in a virtual space will typically mean “hiding” the Move controller from the camera. Most first-person VR games handle this by making your virtual hand fade away, which breaks immersion and hinders interaction.

Slide from Job Simulator 2050 dev Owlchemy at 2016 Vision Summit.

The PlayStation Camera field of view is also inherently limited: if you’re closer to your TV/sensor, the FOV will often be too narrow to sense you bending down and picking something up off the ground, because the Move exits the viewable space. PSVR doesn’t facilitate a rectangular playfield, and calibration has limitations, so the developer will find that the play area is less flexible than the dual-Lighthouse Vive, in particular.

The tracking system also seems responsible for jumping or jittering of your virtual hands or controllers for games that require a wide range of motion. This isn't a deal-breaker, but it happens more on PSVR than on competing systems.

Issues arise when your hand and objects exit the camera's FOV.

PSVR hardware limitations don't need to mean bad player experience

Like any video game platform, developing for PSVR means designing for that platform, i.e. designing within constraints.

While I’ve suggested before that sit-down, gamepad-based platforms encourage developers to break basic VR user comfort guidelines (I think they generally still do...), developers who’ve adhered to those guidelines and taken into account PSVR’s hardware limitations have come up with great sit-down experiences.

Superhypercube from Kokoromi and Polytron is a game that has players stretching out their brains’ ability to comprehend and manipulate 3D shapes in a 3D space. Even though you’re sitting down or standing still when playing, the depth of VR serves the gameplay, as you peek around each shape to try to match it with an ever-impending hole. The game just wouldn’t work as well if it weren’t for the strengths afforded by VR.

Kokoromi and Polytron's Superhypercube feels at home on PSVR because it takes the platform's strengths and limitations into consideration.

Thumper from Drool is a game that uses VR less as a mechanic and more as a means for immersion. You don’t “need” VR to play (there’s actually an option to play Thumper in non-VR), but VR does make you feel like you’re in a world surrounded by lights and beat-heavy music.

In both of these games, you use a gamepad, and they never encourage or require players to bring their controllers out of sight of the PlayStation Camera. Everything happens directly in front of you, and thanks to the lights on the back of the PSVR HMD, head movement is fully tracked so you can turn your head and see what’s behind you.

The Battlezone VR remake from Rebellion puts you in a sitting position inside a tank that moves back and forth and strafes, all via the gamepad. People with stronger stomachs and inner ears than I seem to like it, but it was too much for my gut to take for longer than 15 minutes.

Even more nauseating (keep in mind that I am susceptible to motion sickness) was Supermassive Games' Until Dawn: Rush of Blood, a literal on-rails shooter that carts you around a scary theme park at night. You can use the gamepad or the move controllers (I used the Moves), and you sit down as most all interactions happen in front of you. But when the rails turned into a rollercoaster and went up a hill and then careened down, I had to stop. That kind of thing of a major VR design no-no, but there are some people whose stomachs are ok with that.

You can see where my stomach turned.

There’s also Wayward Sky from Uber Entertainment. This is a game made for players to sit in one place in a comfortable position, and is essentially a point-and-click game that puts you in front of a model of a world. This gives a lot of opportunity for cinematic moments and it’s fun to lean in and admire the detail of the characters in the game. Everything happens in the area in front of the player, and the Move controllers are never required to be in places that might be hidden from the camera.

Batman: Arkham VR  from Rocksteady is the most visually-stunning game in the current PSVR lineup, and is one of the highest-fidelity games on any VR platform I've played, which is impressive when the competition runs on PC game rigs. What it has in visuals and presentation, it does lack in interactivity -- there are so many things you want to touch and play with, but you're often left disappointed, confused, or left with unwanted results (especially if the game you play right beforehand is the brilliantly interactive toybox that is Job Simulator 2050).

A few minutes of Batman. You can see where it works and where it doesn't quite (Spoilers about the fate of Batman's mom and dad).

I won’t go over every single game I played, but the point is this: understand the limitations of PlayStation VR and adhere to them for the better game. PSVR is just like any other platform in that regard. For example, Owlchemy Labs’ room-scale Job Simulator 2050, which has been developed for the three major VR platforms, was rebuilt for PSVR. Interactions that happened behind the player were removed or drastically reduced to avoid camera occlusion, and floor height calibration was custom-built, just as two examples from that one game.

"Understand the limitations of PlayStation VR and adhere to them for the better game. PSVR is just like any other platform in that regard."

Tracking-related issues aside, while the PS4 has a good graphics chip, developers note that the CPU isn't so beefy, making CPU-bound games trickier to optimize. And from a business standpoint, PSVR is the first high-end VR system on the market where developers have to deal with console certification. That means following the strict guidelines of a traditional console game (as minute as making sure a trademark symbol is in the right place), but it also means dealing with new requirements specific to VR, as subjective as whether a game causes motion sickness.

No, PSVR isn’t as robust a VR system as the Vive or the Oculus, but as long as you don't design games that stretch too far beyond the limitations of tech that was retrofitted for virtual reality, it could prove to be plenty good enough for a chunk of the 40 million-plus PS4 players who are out there today.

My friend Alfred.

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