2020 Explore VR Awards!
Winner - Half-Life: Alyx
Runner-up - Population: ONE
We love virtual reality and want it to go mainstream - not as a reaction to global disasters, but for its ability to increase our immersion in digital content. While the library of VR games has continued to grow unabated, content from AAA developers since Bethesda's Skyrim and Fallout 4 ports has been sparse. The arrival of Valve's latest entry to the Half-Life franchise was therefore greeted with jubilation. Although it has a few issues - it doesn't play quite as well with Vive wands as it does with the Index controllers, and the frequent puzzles break up the flow of the action and narrative too much for my taste - it still delivers the big budget environments, polished gameplay, and blockbuster quality cinematics that we were expecting. The impact of HLA is hard to quantify, but it's easy to imagine that it has inspired other AAA studios to work on their own forays into VR. Time will tell!
First-person shooters are great in VR, but the narrow hallways typical of the genre don't maximise the potential of the medium, which shines most when it provides the player with large environments to explore and admire. Its sub-genre "Battle Royale" was therefore an intriguing prospect, and proved to be hugely enjoyable when I participated in BigBox VR's first European Beta in 2018. Its only fault was performance, and the developer worked on this in conjunction with Oculus Quest support over the next two years, and emerged triumphant. While not everyone likes the new, more cartoonish graphics, I appreciate the rock solid performance on my ageing PC rig, and personally I like the style, which takes me back to Virtua Cop on the Sega Saturn (I'm now an ageing rig myself!). Fortunately, the gliding mechanic that I fell in love with during the Beta remains intact - it's worth playing just to experience the thrill of stretching your arms out and launching yourself from a tall building - they nailed it very early on and I'm glad they didn't change it. The game's crossplay feature ensures that there are enough players online to dive into a match, and I'm sure it will endure as one of the format's leading Battle Royales for many years to come.
Winner - Team 21 Studio
Runner-up - Hello Games
Team 21 Studio ran a wildly successful crowd-funding campaign for their upcoming MMORPG Ilysia earlier this year - https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/team21studio/ilysia-experience-the-glory-days-of-mmorpgs-again-in-vr. While the prospect of the game is itself reason enough to support development (which you can still do now in return for monthly rewards on Patreon, here - https://www.patreon.com/ilysia), fans were enamoured by the small studio's sense of humour, community engagement, work ethic, and willingness to connect on a more personal level - a breath of fresh air in an industry that (understandably) tends to maintain a professional distance from its customers.
It's sad when a developer abandons their game prematurely. It doesn't happen too often, but it can have a lasting impact on the game's future playability, and this is especially true for the still evolving VR format. A case in point would be Loading Human, an early gem of a game sadly hampered by a terrible locomotion mechanic. Fortunately, most developers do a great job of improving their game with bug fixes, performance patches, and feature updates, and Hello Games have excelled at this with their work on No Man's Sky - still a treasured jewel in my game collection. I hope they will continue to make improvements - the game would benefit from full body tracking for instance.
Winner - Index controllers
Runner-up - Oculus Quest 2
The Vive wands were never that great. In some respects they were inferior to the developer kit. The Index controllers offer a big improvement in comfort, and provide developers with the option to make use of finger tracking. They are also compatible with the Vive headset, which is useful for me as I'm not ready to upgrade that component yet. While the difference in shape forced me to disassemble my harness-mounted controller dock, the Index controllers have enhanced my enjoyment of VR.
There have been so many VR headsets released since the Oculus DK1, it's tempting to become blasé about them. However, the impact that the Quest 2 is having should not be ignored. The price to performance ratio is outstanding. Consequently, it is bringing people to VR in droves, and they seem to be enjoying it. There is a symbiotic relationship emerging between Oculus' standalone and PCVR that may have a profound impact on the industry - games are being developed cross-platform because of Quest 2 that might not have been developed for PCVR alone. Meanwhile, PCVR development is stimulating interest in VR and a demand for this low-cost contender. This relationship is strengthened by cross-play - Quest users and PCVR users are playing some of the same games together, and socialising outside of VR on platforms such as Discord. This has to be a good thing for the health of the format, even if one of the motivations driving Facebook is the desire to have the next generation create an account on their social media platform.
Best Hardware Hack
Winner - "VRona" Omni mod by SutekiB
Runner-up - Cybershoes standing mod by Virtual Reality Cauldron
One of the perks of being the editor is that you can nominate yourself for an award and declare victory! That is the case here, though all joking aside I think I deserve it! Project VRona is a modification to the Virtuix Omni that allows the user to have their hands down by their sides and to kneel. I started this project over seven years ago and wrote a blog documenting my progress which is still available online - here is the first entry, published on May 1st, 2013 - https://bensvrblog.wordpress.com/2013/05/01/hi-im-ben-aka-sutekib-welcome-to-my-vr-blog/
Although I stopped updating the blog after only a couple of months (by September I was already preparing to demonstrate the Omni in London, having established contact with Virtuix), I would continue to work on the design on and off for years, in my spare time. So, why did I wait so long before building it? I didn't want to demonstrate functionality that might never be available to consumers. Even though I was fairly confident back then - "These (suspended harnesses) will no doubt become available in due course", I wasn't sure how long "due course" would be! It was only after I got an advanced look at Virtuix's Omni One prototype a few months ago that I felt the time was right to finish the design and build it. Although I have some experience constructing prototypes, I'm more of an ideas-guy - I have no formal training as an engineer which is why most of my creations are held together with Velcro and zip-ties. So, given the amateurish quality of my handiwork, I was pleasantly surprised that it did not instantly disintegrate during my first stress test. Not only that, I was able to reintegrate the Omni's tracking system above my head, so I can continue to demonstrate strafing and walking backwards.
Now that I have experienced the freedom of walking with my hands down in a relaxed and natural manner, and have felt how cool it is to kneel behind cover during firefights, I wouldn't want to go back to the restricted nature of the Omni's support ring, and I can confidently say that Omni One will live up to the promise I saw in it years ago - it will transform not just gaming, but many applications of virtual reality.
A very, very close second place to VRona has to be the Cybershoes standing mod by Virtual Reality Cauldron. A similar idea to VRona, but differently executed, allowed him to use the Cybershoes (designed for seated play) in an upright position. Although this first demonstration might look a bit uncomfortable, I'm impressed by his ingenuity and I look forward to seeing where he takes this idea.
Most Anticipated Game
Winner - Ilysia
Runner-up - Low-Fi
The long running debate as to what will prove to be VR's "killer app" is not yet settled. There is a growing sense that there may never be a single game or application that we can confidently point to as the catalyst for mainstream adoption of virtual reality. However, if any game could signal that VR "has arrived", there is a good chance it will be an MMORPG, and I believe that MMORPG may be Ilysia.
There is far too much to Ilysia for me to attempt to encapsulate it here, its scope is quite breathtaking. I would instead urge you to join their discord and consider supporting them on Patreon:
Though Team 21 Studio and their community will often jokingly lament comparisons to the Japanese animation about a fictional VRMMORPG, Sword Art Online, I believe the team must secretly be fans (as I am). SAO focusses on generic RPG concepts and Ilysia will be far more nuanced, but the pre-alpha I participated in allowed me to enact one of my favourite scenes from the anime - the building of XP by killing boars (a low level mob) on the grassy plains outside the starting town. I spent hours having fun by running around levelling up in this way, feeling like I was living out the anime (without the risk of death by HMD), in preparation for my first ever raid on the pre-alpha's Spider Boss. Though I am not gregarious by nature, it is nice to hear human voices and see that I am not the only one enjoying the game. Multiplayer, like many other things, is greatly enhanced by VR. There will be NPCs, including a mermaid who has been turned to stone. My main objective when the game releases next year will be to find a way to lift the curse on her!
Low-Fi is a game I've followed with great interest for a long time. While a VR port of Cyberpunk 2077 is just wishful thinking at this point, Low-Fi is an earnest attempt to deliver a similar experience - though the developer will be quick to explain to you why Low-Fi is even more Cyberpunk than Cyberpunk 2077 is. I am keen to play this game soon - it's currently available in a form of early access here - https://anticleric.itch.io/low-fi, I have just been waiting to upgrade my PC so that I can do this game's beautiful graphics justice.
Most Anticipated Hardware
Winner - Omni One
Runner up - Tundra Tracker
Virtuix is returning to the consumer market after a five-year hiatus with the Omni One - a much improved version of the Omni virtual reality treadmill. Development is still ongoing, but Virtuix is building on a very strong technological base, and I'm sure it will be ground-breaking. I've had the pleasure of using the Omni at the heart of my VR setup for many years, and it's time others got to enjoy the benefits of a great VR treadmill, without having to resort to less immersive alternatives. You can learn more at https://invest.virtuix.com/.
The recently announced Tundra Tracker is claimed to be a lighter, cheaper alternative to the Vive tracker (pictured alongside). According to an exclusive interview with Road to VR - https://www.roadtovr.com/tundra-tracker-vive-tracker-alternative-steamvr-tracking/, it will be “60% smaller, consume about 50% less power, weight (sic) 50% less, and have twice the battery life”. It is unclear whether it will have the same level of tracking performance, and if so, how it achieves this with a smaller form factor, but if it is able to match the performance of the Vive tracker alongside its own advantages (see the article for more information), it could be a huge development for VR. Full body tracking is one of the most desired additions to VR experiences, but the bulk and cost of the Vive tracker has dissuaded consumers from adopting it in large enough numbers to motivate developers (with only a handful of exceptions) to add support. Consequently, gamers have been limited by the tethering of locomotion heading to the controller orientation, which makes it difficult to move in your intended direction whilst moving your arms (for instance, to attack). The other option - head-guided movement, is also limiting (and often nausea inducing), as you cannot look around independently of your walking direction. While Omni One will allow developers to map a player's heading to their hip orientation, the benefits of the Tundra Tracker extend beyond hip tracking - for instance, 1:1 foot tracking. Tundra Labs will be launching a Kickstarter for the device soon, and I look forward to learning more about it.
Most Desired Port
Winner - Cyberpunk 2077
Runner-up - Red Dead Redemption II
I've been a fan of the Cyberpunk genre since I was a child - perhaps it's the allure of advanced technology, which also draws me to VR. Being an open world game, Cyberpunk 2077 is well suited to the medium, and so of course I had to play it with my VR setup! Even with an old GTX 1080 GPU and an i7-4770K CPU, I was able to play this game on medium settings, and it looks amazing! Such is the level of realism, whilst playing I began to have flashbacks to the times I have walked through the streets of L.A. and San Francisco. I even thought I was beginning to smell the metal baking in the hot sun (but maybe that was just my PC). It is really too good a game not to be ported to VR, so I'm confident it will happen someday. It's a pity that the launch was marred by so many videos highlighting the bugs that are not uncommon when a game of this scale is newly released. There has been a trend towards this type of user generated content - videos that are critical or humorous seem to attract more views, and with so many people trying to get noticed on YouTube, it's common now to see a wave of apparent negativity that is really just attention seeking, and does not reflect people's true feelings. I hope that this phase will pass soon and that Cyberpunk 2077 gets the recognition it deserves.
Rumour has it that Rockstar is working on a VR game. It would be great if it were a VR version of the critically acclaimed Red Dead Redemption II. I was a fan of the first game, although I stopped exploring once I got to the first shanty town where I could play poker and liar's dice - I figured the game couldn't get any better than that, so I just stayed there!
Congratulations to the winners and runners-up, and I wish you all a healthy, happy, and prosperous new year!