North America’s largest VR arcade offers a (just) a taste of the state of the art.
As the latest generation of Virtual Reality evolves, barriers to adoption still remain: physical discomfort, lack of compelling content, and expensive, complicated hardware systems. The last of these is particularly egregious, as contemporary VR requires not only a headset, but a powerful CPU/GPU combo, and typically, some room to move around – a particular challenge for urban apartment-dwellers like myself.
I recently paid a visit to VR World NYC, an update of sorts to the kinds of coin-operated gaming arcades I visited as an adolescent. I’m a relatively casual gamer, and I’ve used most of the major VR systems before (with skepticism), so I was curious to see whether its new experiences and technologies might inspire me.
Entry to VR World is fairly straightforward, but not inexpensive; a two-hour pass cost roughly $40 with an advance-purchase discount. On arrival I checked in at the front desk and was given an RFID wristband, as well as a lightweight fabric eye mask, to be worn under the goggles for sanitary purposes.
My colleague and I started our tour at the top level; here, the space was subdivided into ‘nooks,’ each of them devoted to a single VR experience. Most had a video display showing off trailers or live gameplay, while smaller experiences had to suffice with a printed description. A small tablet at each station let us tap our RFID wristband to join its virtual queue.
Our priority was to try out multi-user experiences that we don’t have the space or hardware to run at home. To start, we geared up with headsets and controllers to play Arizona Sunshine, a first-person zombie-shooting game. Two additional visitors joined in, as our team attempted (successfully!) to defend a desert camp from an onslaught of zombies. The game was fun, if at times nerve-racking; I felt a real sense of panic when the occasional fast-moving zombie ran directly toward me. While the four players competed for points, there was no real interaction among us, making this a bit disappointing as a multi-player experience; we could have played independently of each other and achieved the same outcome.
Next, I tried out Starship Commander, a single-user game; this one was quite different, as it used voice commands and headset tracking instead of hand controllers. After some brief conversations with a ‘holographic’ mentor, my starship was quickly surrounded by dozens of enemies; my task was to track these closely with my head movements in order to activate targeted missiles. I seemed to be really bad at this, since I spent nearly 10 minutes and still hadn’t made it to my destination planet.
Heading down to the Mezzanine level, we checked out Ayahuasca, a non-interactive immersive journey intended to simulate the hallucinatory experience of its namesake drug. It was beautifully crafted and rich with detail, but content-wise, a bit unsettling. Its edenic rainforest setting quickly dissolved into a field of squirming insects, followed by snakes – surrounding me, devouring me, and leading me through an abstract cathedral made of… more snakes. After additional stints in fractal landscapes and catacombs filled with human remains, the journey returned to its forest start. It was technically impressive, yet altogether kind of unpleasant.
We descended to the ground level and checked out Project CARS, an auto racing game with a driver’s-seat interface incorporating a steering wheel and pedals. The graphics were quite good, with beautiful, mountainous landscapes surrounding the road. It took me a while to get used to the sensitivity of the driving mechanism, and in the process I hit a lot of walls. Unfortunately, in this experience – unlike any other VR experience I’ve ever had – hitting the virtual walls provided a disorienting visual jolt that induced a bit of nausea.
Tower Tag, the most popular experience, was yet another shooting game – though this time, our goal was to attack one another. In this game, players shoot tethering beams to swing across a series of towers in a sci-fi arena, hunting or evading their enemies. The swinging gesture was intuitive and viscerally rewarding – just navigating the environment was a lot of fun. My colleague had a harder time getting used to it, and after tagging her a dozen times, I gave up and let her assault me. While it worked well as a ‘true’ multi-player experience, I wished that the game engine would introduce a few more challenges or obstacles, as it felt repetitive after the first few rounds.
Last, in our quest for a non-shooting multiplayer game, we stumbled upon something even more violent – Jousting Time. This game’s simple, Wii-style graphics betray some gruesome content, as our avatars lost their armor, arms, and even heads in the cartoon-medieval arena. It was silly and fun, but we both conceded afterwards that we weren’t quite sure how our gestures affected the outcome.
As you may have noted from the links above, several of these games are commercially available via the Steam store. These games typically have home and arcade versions, the latter with different pricing and modified mechanics to ease onboarding and throughput. Looking at online videos, it appears that many have advanced levels and complexity that I didn’t experience at VR World. It’s probably not feasible to introduce these into an arcade-length experience, but at a time when players spend upwards of 100 hours exploring the open-world environments of console games like Skyrim and the Assassin’s Creed series, can a 10-minute game feel satisfying and not superficial?
The hardware at VR World, a mix of Oculus and Vive headsets, was typically a generation behind the latest versions; having recently tried out a Vive Pro, I missed the comfort, resolution, and responsiveness of the up-to-date device. I struggled a bit with the sanitary mask, which had a habit of creeping up and blocking my eyesight. And while the staff were extremely helpful and friendly, the space itself was a little depressing; that said, the venue is moving into a new location soon, which promises a physical environment that will better complement its immersive content.
I wasn’t quite sure what to expect at VR World; I’d hoped for a teaser of next-generation gaming, but didn’t play anything that really inspired me to return – or to download any of the games for my own device at home. But I’m glad it exists – as a way for the general public to experience VR without making a huge financial investment, and as a necessary bridge toward building future business models for this type of experience.