This week, I bought a flightstick because I was so enthralled with Elite Dangerous.
Elite is every space nerds wet dream. If, like me, you spent your childhood watching Star Wars on repeat, built X-Wing cockpits out of boxes, and get tingles looking at a clear night sky, then you’ll be familiar with the feeling I got from playing Elite. From the moment you step into your cockpit, you’re immersed in a living, breathing universe. Comparisons to Eve Online are understandable with a similarly steep learning curve, focus on galactic economics, and player-driven events. But where Eve is not a simulation game – the ship perspective, skill system, and other elements mark it firmly as a third-person MMO – Elite puts you right in the cockpit. You are that pilot, sweating in dogfights, and watching stars zip past. Look down and you can gaze at your own space-thighs, happily space-clad in space-lycra. From the moment you step into the game, your ship is your own; from the preflight checks, to planning warp jumps to other systems. You even need to refuel your ship, which means you need to take regular pit stops, either by popping into a station, or by flying close to a star with a fuel scoop.
It’s such a real experience that I screamed out loud the first time I dropped out of hyperspace into a close orbit with a star. Watching the inside of a station as it rotates around you left me in awe. An interdiction bubble pulling me out of supercruise left me shaken and confused, and the all-too-brief battle with the pirate responsible led to swearing and anger as I watched my ship explode around me. On a normal PC monitor, Elite is one of the most amazing immersive experiences that I’ve ever taken part in.
So really, Elite should be the poster child for VR headsets. People should be rushing out to drop £500 on an Oculus Rift. Steam VR should have them foaming at the mouth. Even Google Cardboard’s limited functionality should be celebrated.
But it’s not. But it did highlight a flaw that everyone should have seen coming a mile off. And it’s nothing to do with the usual technological, or even ethical problems that VR throws up. It’s actually tied into Elite‘s very genre. Despite the fact that it’s based in outer space, Elite is best described as a simulation game. Think about other simulators; Microsoft Flight Simulator X, Train Simulator 2016, even Euro Truck Simulator 2 – what do each of these titles share?
If you said “buttloads of controls”, you’re right. Simulations aim to simulate real life (big surprise there) and so, generally have re-bindable controls for everything and anything – Euro Truck Simulator 2 has six different controls just for lights. Each of those controls has a button bound to it, and God help you if you forget to use the right one. This “controller complexity” has generally been the reason that you don’t see many simulators on consoles – the average gamepad simply doesn’t enough controls available. My T-Flight Hotas X has a whole bunch of controls available for binding, but they’re still not enough to completely eliminate the need to have the keyboard nearby and ready for action.
But it’s not really about that at all. The problem involves having so many controls, often with niche uses. You might not use many very often, and so you might not be able to instantly recall where it is, without looking. Hell, I currently have 500+ hours in Dota 2, and sometimes still look at the keyboard to be sure of which key I’m pressing. VR headsets give you an amazing all round view of the simulated world, but they also block off all sight into the real world. If I’m wearing a bulky VR headset, how can I look down and be sure what I’m pressing?
Sure, with time and patience, you’ll be able to learn these keypresses off by heart – but does that mean that VR technology should be avoided by anyone without a photographic memory and/or 200+ hours in the game?
The worst part is that this doesn’t really put me off. The allure is just too strong. But… I can see my ardour being dampened if I constantly have to lift the headset to peek at my keyboard. Or worse, find my keyboard, since I’ll be primarily using a joystick. And since Elite Dangerous can’t be paused, I’ll probably fly into a star while I’m doing it.
I’ll be honest. I know this is a small complaint. And it’s one based in ignorance one too. I have no real experience of VR headsets, and I have no idea if this truly will be an issue. But you see a lot of VR users using controllers – the Oculus even ships with one – and that makes me think that these limitations have already been realised. But why has no-one highlighted this as a real issue in the simulation genre? That’s where VR will have the biggest impact, but is also the genre where controllers are of limited use. So, will the inherent complexity of simulators like Elite Dangerous make using a VR headset with them just too damn hard?
Only time will tell.