Oculus Rift at Pax AUS 2014

oculus rift pax aus 2014

Warlords, kings and Italian plumbers were in abundance as AndMine Art Director Ravi Vasavan and I entered the cavernous foyer of The Melbourne Convention Centre right at the 3pm peak hour on the opening day of the 2nd annual Melbourne PAX gaming convention. Having a fascination with gaming culture and being a casual gamer myself, I was interested in seeing what the actual “gaming community” was like en-masse in one concentrated space.

Interactive game marketing is big business these days, and the almost exclusive environment is online. The obvious rationale for pouring marketing spend for an upcoming release exclusively into digital channels is that the medium itself is digital. The more compelling reason is that gamers are a genuine community in every sense of the word; in fact, the gaming community is one of the world’s most engaged. Forums, editorial, social networks and blogs on the category number in the tens of thousands. They are fickle, passionate and willing to spend half a month’s wage on a new graphics card to play Assassin’s Creed Unity at full resolution and frame rate.

Interactive is one of the only comparable industries to women’s fashion. It’s an unusual analogy but the similarities are striking. Where else do you see such a high percentage of income spent on discretionary purchases?

Revenues are in the billions per year, surpassing Hollywood some time ago now, and it’s mainly due to the average spend. The cost of a new-release blockbuster title is around $80. A console is around the $600 mark, and a PC for the core gamers, well, the sky is truly the limit. Those price-points are comparable to luxury goods. Especially when you take into account that no one ‘has to game’. You don’t really need an Xbox One to eat or breathe, or a PS4 to get from A to B.

It’s because of those numbers that big studios are employing hundreds of developers for games like Destiny. This equates to millions of dev hours just to make sure the grass bends consistently and the sunlight refracts off the enemy’s helmet the right direction.

Everywhere we looked there was a line for an exhibit. It confused me because there seemed to still be hundreds of unoccupied consoles, or games with a lone spotty teenager playing on his own. The attendant at the Nintendo booth explained that they were lining up to play the new Smash Brothers Melee on Wii U. It seems that most booths had at least one pre or new release title that was causing the queues to form. Xbox had the new Halo and Playstation had several hot games.

After picking up a few controllers in just a few minutes I wandered further into the abyss, and it didn’t take long to find the stand I was really there to see. I’d spent a number of hours recently watching YouTube reaction videos of people experiencing Oculus Rift for the first time. It fascinated and terrified me at the same time.

The line was long and I asked The Enforcer (the name given to PAX attendants) how long the estimated wait would be. She quickly replied with’ “’bout an hour”. At my age, lining up for anything at all, let alone at a gaming convention was not appealing. I decided relatively quickly that it was worth it. Who knows when I would get another opportunity to immerse myself in Oculus Rift as cutting-edge as this? The hour lapsed quickly as we wound our way around the outside of the booth and ended up back where we started. I looked at my watch and to the minute an hour had passed. (Apparently Oculus Rift can see the future as well as simulate the past).

There were six setups with only half the number of games. Alien Isolation peaked my interest but time wasn’t on my side, so I took the first available offering. It was a gameplay demo described as a ‘Matrix style time-bending shooter’ called Super Hot (probably a working title).

One of the booth attendants helped me with my headset and quickly ran though the premise of the game. It sounded like a great mechanic to test out the Oculus Rift capabilities. But as soon as the game booted into the VR environment – uh oh – I felt woozy. I’d read the disclaimers out of boredom on my way around the line and they had mentioned motion sickness. I hadn’t suffered from that affliction since I was a child and went a bit overboard on one of those spinny egg things in the park.

I pushed through and managed to focus on the game’s objectives. It took me longer than usual to figure out what was required because I was still trying to come to grips with the environment as well as the nausea. Three faceless sprites point and shoot as you appear from around a corner. You move, the bullets move, you stop, the bullets slow down to a crawl – got it! On my 26th life I actually managed to pick the gun up and shoot them all. The headset came off after 10 minutes and I got up, thanked the young girl that helped me, then attempted to move on. Finally, the sickness set in and we headed to a bar just outside the Exhibition Centre hoping a beer would cure me. But it turns out only time would do the trick.

The experience was amazing, and it seems that motion sickness only affects some people and goes away after their initial attempts at motion reactive VR. I was kind of hoping for more thrilling media to experience it for the first time but I can see why they show off the clever stuff, not the terrifying examples that make noobs piss their pants and fall over.

If this thing really takes off, which it inevitably will, human interaction will prove a dying art form. Wall-E will seem like a clairvoyant prophesy in years to come, rather then an adorable kids’ flick. The future is scary, my friends, and the pioneer of this new terror genre is Oculus Rift.

Facebook will surely realise their investment in O.R. before too long and be regarded as the fathers of a pervasive new technology. However, it hasn’t gotten off to a flying start from a software point of view. Developers have been cautious to invest time and resources into a guinea pig phase that will likely not see an immediate return in investment. Hopefully some of the bigger studios are starting to take the platform seriously and move forward on some big name titles in anticipation for a late 2015 or early 2016 launch.

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