Strapping on the Oculus Rift Dev Kit 2 headset and putting a PC connected Xbox controller in my hands, I'm suddenly aware of a strange landscape and a virtual helmet obscuring part of my vision. Similar to many of our readers I'm a Virtual Reality newbie, aside from a hurried first generation Oculus Rift demo of the roller coaster at a tech conference, or maybe that time I played Nintendo's Virtual Boy back at my friends house in 4th grade.
Pollen, the first title by Helsinki's Mindfield Games, is a different experience. Being able to take your time and explore a world in VR is tough to compare to an on-rails demo due to the simple fact that it's you who's doing the exploring; recalling my experiences to write this article I've got a different sort of memory than first person games. It's a deeper level of "oh yeah, I was over there, and then I did that".
As I make my way to the the base built into a rocky hill it's clear this immersive exploration experience is exactly what Mindfield is trying to create with Pollen. Rather than a fast-paced shooter, Pollen pulls back to the adventure genre (think games like Gone Home or The Dig) and is set on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn, where you have to solve puzzles and figure the story through your own actions. As far as theme goes, the bee in the teaser trailer leads to some hints about the plot, and in general Mindfield CEO Ville Kivistö says they're drawing from films like 2001 A Space Odyssey, Solaris, and The Moon for their ambient sci-fi feeling.
The visuals in the actual headset aren't as crisp as the teaser video, but entering airlocks and, exploring the inside spaces, and interacting with objects is just damn cool in virtual reality, especially given the new features of the Dev Kit 2, which allows you to move your vision slightly around just by leaning forward or backwards, like to peek around corners or looking down to pick up a crowbar.
It's not yet clear why I'm on Titan yet, but I figure I have to let the developer get back to his computer so he can continue tweaking this crazy looking spider vehicle which will be playable later in the game.
A new gaming industry?
Pollen is one of the first gaming companies dedicated to VR gaming, and talking to Kivistö it takes a different mindset to create a game for Oculus Rift. Mindfield has taken time to perfect the in-game motion so movement feels natural and doesn't cause motion sickness. Additionally developers looking to tackle VR have to think about interaction with objects and world design differently, and Kivistö made a point about how sound design needs to be polished for true immersion. "That's the tip of the iceberg," he points out.
Mindfield is also releasing their game in the standard 2D desktop experience, but it's more difficult to do it the other way around. "There are some genres that transfer easily to VR. But for quite some other games, like FPS you need to design the game so the movements feel good and make you motion sick. For big AAA studios it will take time to do a game VR first. Like the rise of iPhone and iPad games, the big houses will try to follow," he says.
A good chunk of Mindfield's team has come from Grey Area with some Mr. Goodloving names in there if you want to look back even farther. One sign that Mindfield Games is pushing in the right direction is that they've had no problem finding talent - on the flipside talent seems to be coming to them. Helsinki's gaming minds may be getting tired of the grind of mobile gaming; rather than putting countdown timers on top of digital buildings under construction, they can now play with next-generation technology and tell stories with game-changing hardware.
Despite that, the average vanilla investor might, perhaps justifiably, have more hesitation about investing in a VR gaming company. Mindfield has already been able to raise a seed round from local Kingmaker Lifeline Ventures and Tekes for an undisclosed amount, and Mindfield betting big that VR will a major new category in a few years.
If I didn't get a chance to dig into the game, I might be writing something now about user penetration and the hurdles of creating games for a platform without an established market, but once you play something that gives you that "oh wow" feeling, you want to own it. I want to go back to Titan and figure out the mystery behind Pollen and figure out whatever else a VR headset can do. Once Oculus Rift releases their next-gen consumer version in 2015 (with Pollen's launch just after that) I think I won't be alone.
Talking longterm, I think it's safe to say VR headsets are going to be a bigger part of our future. Gaming will be the system seller, but Kivistö points out that the possibilities are fairly endless. As easy examples you could take a headset onto a plane to feel like you're not stuck in your seat, or for home entertainment you could even watch football games like you're in the stadium.
"It’s really hard to tell what’s going to happen with it, and see how it wouldn’t break out in the next few years," says Kivistö. "[Oculus Rift Dev kit 2] is your black and white mobile headset. In 5 years you’ll have an iPhone. How big is the change?"