Genre Fit: VR’s biggest obstacle

Before I start this article, I want to share a small story with you. When I first played Resident Evil 7 in VR, I have to admit that it was horrifying. In fact, it was as horrifying as it was uncomfortable. Walking with a controller through 3D space while my point of view was locked to the headset was disorienting and nauseating. I would frequently have to reorient the camera or else my neck would get twisted in uncomfortable ways.

No matter what I tried to do in the game, it felt like I was stuck outside my body. While the VR headset successfully immersed me in the game world, it also left me at the mercy of a weird alien mind control device called a Dualshock 4.

Resident Evil 7 may be a fine game, but the virtual reality experience left a lot to be desired. That's a problem we'll likely see more and more often as VR gaming becomes more popular. 

Know The Limitations Of Your Equipment

These problems aren’t a result of shoddy design. Resident Evil 7 is a perfectly well designed game that uses up-to-date graphics technology. Outside of VR, the game controls just fine. In VR, the headset doesn’t lag, the visor doesn’t get blurry, and actions feel tight and responsive. Yet, all this design perfection doesn’t do much to counteract the nausea. And that’s because this isn’t a problem with design execution, but rather design philosophy. There is no level of tech that would have helped me keep my lunch down.

Resident Evil 7, along with several other VR titles, suffers from a failing in what I'll call “genre fit.” Genre fit describes how well the type of game you are playing fits the hardware you are playing it on, and it’s not a problem exclusive to VR. We have been grappling with genre fit for years, ever since the early days of arcades.

Examine the light-gun game, for example. Light-gun rail shooters were all the rage in the arcade, provided you could pick up a plastic gun and actually fire at the screen. However, the same genre failed on consoles, which couldn’t provide the same experience. Instead, console light-gun games were basically glorified shooting galleries. Duck Hunt, anyone?

Further, consider the first-person shooter. While the FPS existed on PCs for a while, it didn’t become popular on consoles until the adoption of the dual analog stick control schemes. You simply couldn’t provide the same amount of aiming and movement accuracy with a d-pad that you could with a keyboard and mouse.

VR-Friendly Genres

VR is still a very young technology, so we aren’t quite sure what genres fit the technology best. But instead of trying to figure that out, we are largely approaching the issue backward. Instead of thinking about what experiences are best served by VR technology, we are creating games in non-VR space and attempting to convert them into a VR control scheme.

This is what plagues Resident Evil 7. Its genre of first-person puzzle/exploration-based survival horror just isn’t a good fit for VR due to one specific mechanic: exploration.

VR is still struggling with the concept of movement. Even our best VR headsets can only manage player movement in the space of a small room. But games like Resident Evil 7 require movement through huge houses and underground catacombs Currently the most popular method of moving in larger space in VR involves some sort of teleportation mechanic, which is a poor fit for a horror game where you'll often be chased by enemies, as teleporting away can break the tension. As a result, in Resident Evil 7, the player’s avatar in VR space ends up moving great distances via a traditional control scheme while the player stays in the same physical space – a perfect recipe for motion sickness.

To better design a VR experience, games should be planned around VR’s limitations. For example, a better genre fit for VR horror would be an "Escape the Room" game. By definition, these games take place in the space of a single room, exactly the space that VR headsets can simulate. Moving between rooms could be handled with a simple menu, similar to the way the Zero Escape series handles it. Everything else would be a matter of puzzle solving and narrative decision making. No motion sickness required.

This is why the killer early VR apps tend to be games like EVE: Valkyrie. At its core, EVE: Valkyrie is a flight simulator, a genre in which the player character remains seated in a cockpit for the entire game. Once again, this perfectly falls in line with the limitations of VR movement. The player’s avatar is never asked to move from their seat, so the player never has to move from their seat.

There are several other genres that fit the VR mold quite well. Racing games, for example, have the same strengths that flight simulators do. The aforementioned rail shooter also works well in VR, and we've seen the VR success of stationary shooters like Space Pirate Trainer

Genres with absolutely no movement, like Visual Novels, would also be a fantastic fit. Who wouldn’t want to put on Phoenix Wright’s blue suit in virtual space? And, yes, if you are that kind of gamer, you could probably also make a fantastic dating simulator in VR as well. Just…no touching, ok?

Until we have a better way to simulate movement, we are never going to see a VR Call of Duty or Counter-Strike. But that’s fine. Not every genre has to fit every control scheme. As for Resident Evil 7, it probably would have been better off if it treated its VR experience like Superhot’s. In this case, the main game would involve normal movement, while the VR experience would be a side game that requires no movement at all. After all, Capcom already showed us how good they are at developing stationary horror experiences with their first VR demo: