VR Needs a Romero

Jeff Atwood’s blog post, The Road to VR, neatly summarizes a bunch of conversations I’ve had recently after receiving my Oculus dev kit.

“If nothing else, it is abundantly clear that even after all these years, VR presents deep, hairy technical challenges even on today’s insanely fast, crazily powerful hardware. That’s exactly the sort of problem suited to the off-the-charts skill level of legendary programmers like Abrash and Carmack. Having both of these guys working on the newest Oculus Rift prototype with an enthusiasm I haven’t felt since the early 90’s means we could be on the verge of a Doom or Quake style killer app breakthrough in VR.” (The Road to VR)

I have such high hopes for VR. Michael Abrash and John Carmack were responsible for some of the best innovations in 3D Video Games and put the First Person Shooter genre on the map with Doom (Carmack) and Quake (Carmack, Abrash). 

When I first strapped on my Rift and loaded up Riftcoaster, I was expecting graphics comparable to a game from 3-4 years ago. Say World of Warcraft in 2008. Instead, the resolution and framerate feel more primitive than GLQuake in 1998, which left me quite disappointed. I tried a variety of games and had a similar experience – something just felt ‘off’ and my brain couldn’t get into it.

However, there was one game that blew me away. It wasn’t a big-budget shooter, or even one of the more highly rated rift demos. It was Rift Racer, an incredibly low-poly racing game that loosely resembles the old DOS game Stunts from Distinctive Software/Broderbund in the early 90’s.

Rift Racer

Rift Racer, an early racing game for Oculus Rift

This game nailed the combo of graphics that were simple enough to appear ‘normal’ within this low-res world, controls that felt smooth, and above all else: absolutely perfect head tracking. It’s crazy how much of a difference being able to look slightly left makes when taking a left hand turn… Or the moment when you’re launched up in the air from a huge ramp and look down as you quickly plummet towards the ground. All of these details added together to create a wonderful, immersive experience.

Abrash constantly refers to ‘immersion’ and this demo made me understand why. Some percentage of aspects of the world around you must feel ‘real’ in order for your brain to believe the trick.

These decisions I just described are not feats of engineering or technical challenges, they’re design decisions. I’m describing how the game ‘feels.’

Who will be the great designer to step up and push the technology in a human direction? Who will painstakingly tweak the nausea-inducing prototype to nail the exact right use of visual cues, audio, and sensor motion until my brain truly believes I AM the Pyro from Team Fortress 2?!

It’s great that we have two of the world’s greatest game programmers working on this challenge, but for VR to succeed, we need a designer with a vision to compliment Carmack and Abrash’s wizardry.

The book Masters of Doom beautifully describes the type of product created when a great designer and a great engineer get together. Doom and Quake were perfect examples of this union.

If Doom and Quake represented the first wave of interactive 3D, Virtual Reality will be the second. A designer needs to rise to the occasion, or else we’ll end up with clunky, high-tech systems that don’t feel human. The same pairing of great games with the right graphics, controls, and mechanics need to be designed for VR to be a success.

Who will be VR’s John Romero?

Special thanks to Christian Arca and Henrik Rydberg for critiquing a draft of this post.

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  • Alfonso John Romero

    I am humbled. :) To be more correct, Michael Abrash was not at id nor work on DOOM. He joined the company during Quake’s development. Also, STUNTS was not shareware – it was published by Broderbund Software and developed by Distinctive Software.

    • Brad Dickason

      Thanks so much for reading and commenting!

      I grew up in Dallas attending Quakecon/CPL events and was hugely influenced by your work!

      I corrected the points you’ve raised within the post for clarity :)