In his VRDC 2016 presentation, Jesse Schell gave forty predictions about the future of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR). One of these predictions was that an asymmetric party game will be one of the top sellers by the end of 2017. But why will this be the case? What makes VR party games so special that they will be purchased over immersive single-player experiences? First off, due to the current low install base of VR headsets, gamers who don’t own VR will have VR game nights with friends that do. Second, the physical presence of others can increase engagement. Finally, asymmetric gameplay provides the structure for exciting new design spaces, waiting to be explored.
“Whoa, you really bought a Vive? Do you mind if I come over?”
According to reports by gaming research firm Superdata, VR sales failed to meet their expected numbers. However, their predictions indicate a continued growth for VR over the next few years anyway. Right now VR is too expensive for the average gamer, and especially for those more casually oriented. With the Oculus Rift headset costing $599, and the Vive $799, and a VR ready PC costing $800+, high-end VR isn’t the most affordable form of entertainment. Console VR is a little less pricey, with the PSVR costing $399 and a PS4 $299-$399, depending on the version. Despite the current price, gamers are still very excited to try out VR and play new, exciting games. While many gamers have yet to purchase VR, they will surely want to try it out with those who have. VR parties are certainly coming. People will flock to their friends that own VR. However, most VR games are solo experiences. One person can play an incredible, immersive, mind-blowing game, and everyone else will have to wait their turn in anticipation. In my opinion, VR platforms will need games that facilitate engaging experiences for those both inside and outside the headset. I believe this will be most effective through asymmetrical multiplayer gameplay.
The Physical Presence of Others Enhances Entertainment Experiences
What is so great about movie theaters? Is it the large screens, surround-sound speakers, or the overpriced popcorn? Perhaps, but I believe that the most contributing factor is the presence of others. An audience in a movie theater is a conduit of emotion. The audience becomes collectively engrossed in a film, and together they emote joy, laughter, excitement, and fear. Due to the presence of others, watching a film in a theater becomes an intimate social experience. I mention movies because I cannot think of a single film that was created to be watched by only one person at a time. It is the nature of media to engage and be experienced by as many people as possible, and this includes games. While some games are designed to be played by one person at a time, I believe that the presence of another person can, in many cases, enhance the experience for the player. VR can be a very isolating, but the presence of others can help alleviate feelings of loneliness, as long as the player is made aware of the other’s presence. While this helps the player in VR, a new problem appears for the person outside of VR. Through VR, players are given a great sense of presence and immersion, but this is lost on those watching them play on a 2D screen. The VR player is treated to a wonderful new experience, but the watcher is left waiting for their turn. They are unable to connect with each other, unlike those watching films in a theater. I believe that through asymmetric multiplayer, this problem can be solved.
Asymmetric Design and New Ways to Play
I’ve been throwing out the phrase “asymmetric multiplayer” throughout this article, so it’s best that I define it. Asymmetric multiplayer is a form of gameplay where two or more players must achieve the same or different goals, cooperatively or competitively, while confined to separate rulesets. While this definition might appear to be fairly open, the most critical part is “separate rulesets.” Due to separate rulesets, players can play together but utilize different mechanics and interactions. The person in VR can experience the new affordances first hand, yet the outside player can still interact with these affordances. A great example of this can be found in Playstation’s Playroom VR, a PSVR title containing a collection of asymmetric multiplayer games. In one of these games, the VR player controls a giant monster, while the other players, outside of VR, control little robots. The VR player’s objective is to destroy the city and attack the other players, who must run away until they can trap the monster and fight back. During this sequence, the player inside and outside the VR headset have the chance to interact with the new gameplay affordances of VR. In this case, the VR player controls the monster by moving their head, physically. They bash their head into buildings causing destruction; later, they dodge objects tossed by the outside players. This is a new form of interaction that is only found in asymmetric multiplayer in VR. The VR player is using the affordance of VR to physically move their head, and the outside players interact with that affordance through the mechanic of tossing. Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes is another example of a game that uses the affordances of VR to create an engaging asymmetrical multiplayer experience. Keep Talking uses the seclusion of VR to the game’s advantage. The VR player is tasked with defusing a bomb in a secluded room giving information about the bomb to bomb-defusal experts (the outside players) who the provide answers on how to correctly defuse the bomb. Both Keep Talking and Playroom VR use the affordances of VR, along with asymmetric design, to create original gameplay experiences. With an immense amount of open design space for game developers to explore, I believe that these are the types of games that will be most sought after by gamers, and thus push the sales of VR headsets.
Virtual reality is still very young, and there is plenty time for it to grow and develop. Despite lower than expected sales in 2016, I believe that the onset of new genres will increase the sales of VR headsets as gamers discover these unique gameplay experiences. As more and more people seek to play VR, asymmetrical multiplayer games will become increasingly relevant. VR players will seek freedom from the isolation of VR, and outside players will seek ways to interact with the affordances of VR even though they are not wearing a headset.