The Tom's Hardware Indie VR Roundtable (360-Degree Video)

We gathered five of the brightest and most creative indie VR developers to discuss their development process, the future of VR, and questions submitted by you! You won’t want to miss our first ever Indie Developer VR Roundtable discussion recorded and broadcast in 360° VR!

Joining us for the first ever Virtual Reality Roundtable are:

  • Nick Abel hails from Tomorrow Today Labs, the developers behind NewtonVR, a physics-based interaction system, designed for Unity, and maintained as a free resource to VR developers.
  • Alex Knoll is a co-founder of Stress Level Zero and creative director of the VR shooter Hover Junkers.
  • Andy Moore spearheads Radial Games, makers of Fantastic Contraption, a free-form Rube-goldberg-esque puzzle game for the HTC Vive.
  • Andrew Dayton is a former technical director for Pixar Studios, co-founder of Steel Wool Games and executive producer of the turn based VR strategy game Quar: Battle for Gate 18.
  • Kalin co-founded Funktronic Labs, developers of the upcoming VR native first person strategy game Cosmic Trip.

Indie VR Roundtable

This is a landmark year for VR. The release of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift means that after years of promise and hype, virtual reality has finally broken into the consumer market. It’s clear though, that virtual reality has not yet broken into the mainstream.

A prohibitive price point and beefy hardware requirements have both prevented VR from being a medium that is  In spite of that, VR is clearly the future of gaming and entertainment. VR was omnipresent at E3. Nearly all of the biggest publishers and developers had VR titles on hand to demo, and IndieCade, the independent developer showcase, had a number of VR demos, an amount nearly on par with the non-VR titles.

From the games the Community staff played at E3, it was clear that the independent developers of today are thinking ahead to a time when VR is the norm. The experiences presented were VR-native, not a mere translation of a traditional video game to the VR medium.

We wanted to know first hand why these developers were so excited for VR, which was why we invited five of them for the first ever Indie Developer VR roundtable discussion. Over the course of one hour, we discussed the VR development process and the ethics of VR, and we finished up with some questions fielded from the Tom’s Community. What followed was a rich discussion that gave me a firm understanding of where VR is headed.

The VR Development Process

We kicked off the discussion with what I thought would be a softball question for the developers. I wanted to know how the development process differed for VR games versus traditional video games. Were there any pros or cons to VR development? Were there any game mechanics or design elements only possible in virtual reality?

Andrew Dayton, the affable former Pixar employee and one of the leading voices in the indie VR scene, kicked things off. For Andrew, the most interesting development in the shift to VR is the greater freedom given to players. The ability for players to do anything and go anywhere adds another variable to the game design equation. Andrew explained that in traditional games, “[The game designer] has a simple understanding of what the player is going to do. You can sort of predict what a player is going to do. Once a player is given 360 degrees of exploration and multiple planes of view, all of those assumptions are thrown out the window.”

Andrew noted that he and his team could be predictive in VR, but probably not accurate. This aspect of freedom fundamentally changes the conversation between the gamer and the game developer. Andrew’s team must now ask themselves, “Do you allow the user to be more free, or do you drag them around to go to where you want the player to go?”

This new dynamic between player and game designer lies at the heart of what is driving these developers to create games and content for the medium. For Kalin, one of the lead developers of Cosmic Trip, a positive outcome from working in VR is how much easier it is “to engage with players.” On the flip side, he said, none of the developers “really know what they’re doing." He added, "A lot of game development is iterative. In VR [that experimentation] is taken to the next level. The things that you think will be fun, you try it out and it’s garbage, and vice-versa--some stupid small thing ends up being really fun.”

The unknown adds an level of experimentation not present in traditional game development, an element that Andy Moore, lead designer of Fantastic Contraption, finds inspiring. “For the first time ever in my development career, I feel like I’m actually inventing something instead of remixing something,” he said.

This inventiveness gives developers the opportunity to be genre-defining for the first time in 20-odd years. These independent developers don’t want to merely make awesome and fun games; they want their legacy to be part of the gaming history. Kalin summed it up perfectly when he said, “People look back at Blizzard games, like Warcraft, and that’s "RTS" now. They just defined the genre, and we get to do that, and we don’t know what the genres are going to be yet.”

The Ethics of VR

Virtual Reality, like other electronic mediums that came before it, has been subject to ethical scrutiny, some warranted and some not. Whatever your position may be, VR fundamentally differs from other forms of escapism and entertainment. The promise of VR is not merely interactive immersion, but rather a competing form of reality.  Both social and philosophical issues abound this nascent medium. Ethical questions range wildly, dealing with issues of parenting, sex and escapism. The developers invited to the round table were acutely aware of these ethical questions and did not shy away from answering them.

We began with the question of parenting: Is it safe to allow kids to use VR? What’s going to happen to a child who grows up in a VR world? Dayton, the only parent present, believes, “Like any medium, you have the potential to use it for good things, bad things, you can overuse it. Television, I remember growing up as a kid, they used to say, ‘Don’t watch too much television, it will corrupt your mind.’ As an only child I watched a lot of television and cartoons, and you know, I don’t think I’m too horrible of a person. It’s like anything else. It’s a new language that can be introduced to kids. It can be used for education, it can be used for entertainment, but like anything else, if you over use anything it can potentially be bad.”

And for those of us who are depressed, lonely, who live in a reality that just plain sucks, is there potential for overuse? Are there consequences, physical or mental? Andy Moore, like many of the developers, was quick to point out that, “We haven’t really seen any negative effects yet, but [we] are totally open for there to be new research and studies on what works and what doesn’t physiologically. Like eyes, because there is no focus, does that affect long term vision? I don’t know.”

The real issue for eyes, according to Alex Knoll, co-founder of Stress Level Zero and creative director of their title Hover Junkers, “are the lenses, the focus, like if you get something too close to your eyes, your eyes are going to try and pull in, but the screens are still so far apart that can really mess with your eyes.” All of the developers were confident that as the hardware and science improved, these sorts of physical issues would disappear.

But what happens when the technology gets too real? This is a real issue when considering the idea of virtual sex. Already, there are loads of devices and toys designed to work in conjunction with VR to enhance simulate sex. Is virtual sex with a porn star prostitution? Where do you draw the line? For the developers, these types of outcomes were inevitable and could not be stopped.

“Porn drove the adoption of DVDs, VHS, the internet, probably, there are so many things that porn drives, but we just don’t talk about it,” said Moore. The developers view porn and sex in VR as a helpful tool to get users, not something they should necessarily be concerned about.

Like many of the other developers, Nick Abel, lead developer at Tomorrow Today Labs, had a sort of laissez-faire attitude towards sex in VR. “Out of sight, out of mind,” he said, adding, “I think the people who are making [pornographic] content are doing it as entertainment. They aren’t necessarily trying to drive any culture shift, but they are going to sell hardware, which is good for us.” Knoll sees the pornographic content as a vindication of virtual reality, “guaranteeing that VR will not go away.”

The future of sex in VR is a bit murky, even for the developers. Moore said it best by concluding that, “[Sex] is going to drive things, and it's going to be there, and it is going to change people’s perspectives around sex. How? I don’t know.”

Tom’s Hardware Community Questions

The discussion was also a chance for our community to hear independent developers talk about both the good and the bad of VR, a refreshing conversation in an industry built on hype and promise. It was an incredible opportunity for the developers to engage with our enthusiastic computer hardware community. It wouldn’t be a Tom’s Hardware event without our loyal readers, which is why we decided to wrap up the discussion with questions fielded from the community.

(The Tom’s Hardware community sent in quite a few questions, hundreds in fact, making it difficult to decide on which were the best. We put this talk on for you, our loyal members, so if your question was not answered during the discussion please make sure to let us know in the comment section! We’ll do our best to get an answer from one of the participating developers.)

The overwhelming majority of you want to know where VR is headed, especially in regards to peripheral development. The HTC Vive launched with special controllers dedicated to navigating a 3D space. The Oculus Rift will soon release the Touch controllers, which I’ve had the pleasure of trying, and yes they function just as well the Vive’s version. Sony’s VR headset is launching with Move controller compatibility, but what’s next for player input? Will we have specialized controllers for a given game?

Kalin began the discussion by describing the current environment for VR Input. “For the first wave of VR, we’re just going to want our hands in it. From that, the next jump will be as much body as we can get. The [Google] Daydream controllers, the [HTC] Vive controllers, and the [Oculus Rift] Touch controllers, [are going to] reach a feature parity at the end of the year.”

Looking forward though, Knoll believes that, “We’re going to see a lot of peripheral use for content creators, like Twitch streamers and YouTubers, because they want to put on a show. There is a lot of improvisation to the content they are creating, and so it will be more interesting for them to have all that tech and spend all the money so they can get their actual bodies and their fingers and their feet in there, but that’s way more social.” In other words, it's not for gaming. The ideal situation for developers, according to Abel, is feature parity across the board, which will allow him (and others) to reach “as wide an audience as possible.”

Talking about audiences was the perfect segue for addressing the Community’s most pressing topic of discussion, which is game exclusivity. Many developers viewed game exclusivity as a necessary evil, another method to secure funding for their game. Moore had mixed feelings for exclusive contracts for his games, saying on the one hand, “Exclusives hurt customers, but we will not have innovation in the market place or competition without them, so it’s a bit of give and take. As an indie developer with no budget, and no financing, no financial backing, I love the prospect of exclusives, and they allow me to create things on platforms that I wouldn’t otherwise be able to afford.” Kalin added, “For a lot of these games, it’s either exclusive and they get the budget, or they just wouldn’t exist.”

Wrapping Up

It’s clear from this discussion that Virtual Reality has a very bright future ahead. The enthusiasm these developers have for the nascent medium was palpable throughout the discussion. After speaking with such knowledgeable folks, I’m confident the Tom’s Hardware Community and the gaming community in general is in very good hands.

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    Your comment
  • Yuka
    Man... I was expecting a nice interview, but you guys overdid yourselves so nicely.

    Damn fine job Toms and guests!

    I had a blast listening and, weirdly enough, moving the camera, haha.

  • Johnny5
    Thanks Yuka! We hope to hold many more of these in the future.
  • bit_user
    Thanks for this. It was very interesting to hear.

    Now about that... 360 degree video doesn't seem so useful, especially in the middle of the table. It's like you'd continually be spinning around, trying to look at who's talking. Needless to say, I didn't. I just shrunk the window and listened to the audio.

    More on the audio: it was pretty poor. I got lots of small dropouts, hiss, and distortion, and there were some participants I could barely hear. Due to loudness and distance variation, I'd have to turn up the volume to hear the quietest speakers. Then, everyone would break out laughing, blasting my ears and forcing me to turn it back down.

    Please, if you use 360 degree video for more panel discussions, maybe seat everyone in a semicircle and put the camera at the center. Also, if you can find some way to enable auto gain adjustment on the volume (or do it in post), that'd be even better.

    But, I really don't think 360 adds anything, for this type of content.