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Porting is Harder Than You Think

Summary: Porting games from other platforms will be difficult because many popular gameplay elements would cause disorientation in a VR headset.

In a recent story for Ars Technica, Oculus CEO Brendan Iribe said that porting games to Oculus won’t work.

Valve asked us to give a talk called ‘Porting Games to VR.’ When we gave the talk, we stood up, we put up ‘Porting into VR…’ and then [the next slide was] ‘…does not work.’” it turns out that [PC games like Team Fortress and Half Life 2], as made for a PC to the monitor and a keyboard and a mouse, do not port over well to VR for a broad audience. They’re just really challenging from a disorientation standpoint. You need to make it for VR from the beginning.”

Some people in the community challenged this statement, and people are surely going to keep working on ports. So I wanted to go deeper to show why porting is not going to lead to great experiences.

We’re going to look at the amount of work required to port a single game and that investigation should show the challenges involved in porting most of them. They say “write what you know,” which means I’m going to be looking at Super Mario 64, one of the most popular titles of all time. What challenges would there be in porting this game to the Oculus Rift?

Note: When I write below that something is “disorienting”, I am drawing either on my experience watching Youtube videos of people experiencing dizziness or sickness, or from the Oculus Best Practices Guide.

First person or 3rd person?

The first question is whether we want to have the camera represent Mario’s point of view or have the camera look over Mario’s shoulder like it does in the original title. Let’s examine each in turn.

First person

Here are some of the challenges associated with a first person viewpoint.

A very scary Whomp

Third Person

Okay, you’ve decided that maybe a first person camera angle isn’t ideal. Let’s look at some of the implementation issues for a third person camera angle.

Gameplay

Zelda HUD Zelda HUD

The Zelda 2.0 HUD is in roughly a fixed
position above your head.

Conclusion

I’m not trying to suggest it’s not possible to port a game like Mario to a head-mounted display. Mario is almost certainly not the easiest game to port, either. That said, many gameplay elements discussed here are found in other games (falling to your death, HUD in the corners of the screen, approaching walls, etc), and other games would have the same problems as the port discussed above.

We’re probably going to see a lot of ports. The earliest uses on new media often use patterns from older media. The first TV shows were people talking into a camera for 60 minutes (like they did on radio). It’s easiest to port games because the assets already exist and it’s “easy” in software and design terms to take something that exists and has proven to be a commercial success and make the minimal adaptations for a new screen. It may be easy to port, but I don’t expect ports to succeed on the Rift.