The VRMMO has been a dream for decades, and they have appeared in a wide range of media from books-to-movies like Ready Player one to anime such as Log Horizon and Sword Art Online. Giving people a new world, social space, and adventure rolled together is a feat not easily accomplished. Zenith: The Last City is the latest to attempt. While they have made great strides, we are still a long way from a shared virtual universe.
Creating A New Way to Socialize
While VR is becoming more and more accessible, large developers with more resources are still hesitant to invest their time (and money) into what they see as a more risky venture. It’s true that virtual reality is more time-consuming and expensive to develop, like any new technology. It also happens to be a substantially different beast than the consoles or PCs that have been built around a traditional gaming experience. Most developers are still figuring out the best way to utilize the technology, from the way the headset tracks movement to controllers, even hand tracking. It reminds me of the switch from 2D games to the first 3D games. Some games like Rayman and Bubsy had a noticeably difficult time with the transition. Others like Mario 64 and the widely beloved Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time definitely found their footing. It takes time to understand the new tech, and how players can and will interact with it. We’re getting through that stage now, and starting to see more and more developers crafting longer, more polished experiences. This is a crucial step to creating a massive digital world.
Now more than ever before, we are starting to understand the need for digital connection and the integration of the internet with how we communicate is becoming intrinsic to our lives. While VR will never be a substitute for real-world interactions, the last few years have forced us to embrace conference calls and Zoom meetings. Adding an additional dimension to these forms of communication could be beneficial in further bridging gaps in our cultural understanding, especially between countries, where a face-to-face interaction may not always be possible. There are currently numerous apps on the Meta Quest 2 alone that can facilitate meetings, both socially and professionally. However, most of those are self-contained social areas, like a virtual office or living room with each person being in a locked position other than their heads and hands, limiting their ability to interact with the world itself.
Toying with the number of virtual space players are allowed to experience has been going on since the beginning. Games like Job Simulator allow for some exploration of your immediate surroundings, and others like Arizona Sunshine and Gun Raiders let players run free within the bounds of the allotted space. Games like these have given rise to a reasonably accepted method of movement. Now that we can move around, unshackled to an arm-length digital space, it’s time to make larger and larger worlds to explore together.
A Reason To Explore
The social part of the VRMMO is essentially perfected. It is creating a new world and, in this case, a new reality. That is something easier said than done. It’s one thing to make a space expansive enough for players to explore, but they need a reason. Whether it’s a treasure, loot, adventure, or just the fun of hanging out with friends that you couldn’t hang out with physically, MMOs have been a great place to virtually connect with friends and make new ones.
The question then becomes “Why should I spend time in your world?”. Virtual MMOs have an uphill battle in this regard since the hardware and software limitations are severe compared to what we have come to expect from their sci-fi counterparts. Striking a balance between making a rich enough world that players want to be there and explore and having enough to do/ experience once they are there will be the biggest challenge for now.
The latest offering in the VRMMO realm is Zenith: The Last City. As I have been exploring this world, I have to say, I’m impressed with its size. Massive compared to other games of its kind, I have spent hours exploring only a small portion of it. It’s important to note: this is not a review of Zenith (that will be coming at a later date). However, as an example of the current limitations of the virtual reality technology on offer right now, it is impressive. The easily predicted hiccups are there: glitches, lag, and graphic problems. Nevertheless, we have to understand that this tech is only in its infancy (toddler, at best). Some developers have taken the “cartoon” approach, making their characters and backgrounds more cute and cartoon-like in order to create a cohesive, singular aesthetic rather than attempting realism and either causing severe software bugs or worse: not pulling it off convincingly, and thus, becoming notorious as a result.
So, What Now?
I think a lot of you could agree, it would be nice to have a new world to escape into every now and then, and become a hero, rogue, thief, etc. It would be nice to be something or someone else for just a little while. We could dance on the moon or go T-rex hunting in Atlantis. The great thing (and what I think is the biggest draw) about VR is that the only limit to what could potentially be done in VR is our own imagination (and, for now, hardware). With the announcement of the “Metaverse”, we are seeing a renewed interest in creating a new world where anything could be possible. We may be a few years from visiting such a place, however, we should acknowledge how far we’ve come in just over 36 years. In 1985, we were introduced to the “Super Mario Bros” and video games took flight. Through the years we’ve seen games like Myst and World of Warcraft create massive worlds. We’ve helped Master Chief stop Halo and Samus Aran defeat Metroids. Technology has come from needing a cartridge larger than most smartphones, to playing “triple-A” games day one over the internet on aforementioned smartphones. And now we have taken our first steps into fully virtual environments. I have no doubt that more impressive, lush, and creative worlds are coming, sooner than you might think.