When it comes to VR, Cliff Bleszinski is chasing his (lucid) dreams

Boss Key Productions CEO Cliff Bleszinski is excited for the future of virtual reality, but he's realistic about the near-term challenges.

Boss Key Productions CEO (and former Gears of War lead designer) Cliff Bleszinski is ready for VR to finally happen – for real this time. He’s been into VR since the 80s, and for that reason was an early investor in Oculus. Bleszinski hopes to make a new VR game that goes beyond the realm of the tech demo, to finally live that lucid dream.

To a full house at last week’s Reboot Develop conference in Dubrovnik, Croatia, he explained his relationship with VR: “As it’s coming around again, I’m like -- ‘let’s not screw this up!’”

Bleszinski explained how his experiences with lucid dreaming has affected his outlook on VR.

“I don’t get much sleep,” he said. “When I do sleep though, I go into all these weird places, these other worlds. I’m a bit of a drinker too, and one of the things I’ve learned, especially at these conferences over the years, is that your brain is a computer. It’s one big CPU, and when you’re sleeping, your brain is compiling the code of what you’ve experienced over the day. If you can’t sleep, that’s blockage that doesn’t allow the code to compile.”

“When you drink and hang out at these conferences, you wind up having these crazy dreams.

"If you remember VCRs, your parents could just barely connect it – they couldn’t even set up the clock. Are they going to figure out how to set up a VR headset?"

Metallica was once [referred to as] ‘Alcoholica.’ I was listening to Enter Sandman, about having crazy intense dreams, and I realized that was about them cleaning up and having their brains compile.”

This was how he wound up getting into lucid dreaming. “You get to the point where if you realize you are dreaming, you can start controlling and influencing the experience,” he said. “And to me, that’s what VR can be, which is really amazing, and that’s why I don’t want people to screw this up.” 

Now, when sleeping, he puts on an eye mask. “Internally, my mind thinks I’m wearing a headset,” he said, and this helps him take control of his dreams.

“To me VR is a lot like lucid dreaming,” Bleszinski says. “For me it’s not just about games, but also what it could do for seasonal affective disorder – how about putting the headset on and going to the beach? Or helping veterans with PTSD? Or helping people empathize with what it’s like to be in prison?”

Significant challenges, promising future

But there are significant performance and cost barriers to getting really good VR into everyone’s hands. The first thing is the engine, he says. “This isn’t because I used to work at Epic, but the best VR experiences I’ve had are in Unreal Engine 4. Unity is a good engine, but when it comes down to it you can’t beat the definition of Unreal Engine 4. Detail is incredibly important in feeling that sense of presence.”

“Unfortunately this costs a lot of money,” he added. Bleszinski said he has been pitching a game around, but investors are balking. He wants to make something that’s more than just a tech demo, so he wants a lot more money, he said.

“What you’re seeing right now is a lot of the wave shooter game -- ‘here’s a wave of robots or zombies.’ They’re great, but VR, when it comes to the trajectory of the industry, is mimicking the arcade games of the 80s. If you want to make a good VR game, start there, and move on to what’s next.”

There are too many things going on with VR right now that will make people stop playing. “Loading times suck, which will make people take the thing off their head real fast,” he said. The install base is too small, and room-scale VR isn’t going to work for anyone in a large metropolis who doesn’t have the space.

Likewise, setup needs to be easier. “Oculus requires me to re-set it up on a regular basis,” he said. “If you remember VCRs, your parents could just barely connect it – they couldn’t even set up the clock,” he said. “Are they going to figure out how to set up a VR headset?”

He also feels the market is diluted by all the crappy me-too VR headsets, and is harmed by developers blaming players’ motions sickness on the players themselves. “Some people say ‘you just need to get your VR sea-legs’ - I say no, if you’re saying that and you’re a developer, you fucked up.”

VR is still in the enthusiast realm now, he said. “Those who have it and love it are into it, but it’s gonna have to find its own location-based entertainment, like a Dave & Busters,” he said. But to all the VR naysayers he had some words as well: “It’ll get better, it’ll get faster. Just give it a little bit of time.”

[Brandon Sheffield was flown to Reboot by the conference as a speaker, and wrote this report while there.]


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