A couple of weeks ago, I was eating lunch at a virtual reality event when a fellow attendee asked me a question. He wasn’t sure, he said, what app and game genres really felt VR-only, rather than existing media on a different kind of screen. This is something most VR enthusiasts have probably asked themselves at some point, and given how niche the medium still is, it’s an open question. But if anything can give us a sense of where things might be going, it’s the Game Developers Conference, which has slowly turned into one of the biggest shows of the year for VR. I’ve recently returned from GDC, and after spending hours with various headsets and motion controllers, I’ve got five genres you might be having fun with later this year — if you aren’t enjoying them already.
Out right now: Ripcoil, and arguably HoloBall, Danger Ball, and Proton Pulse
Tron’s aesthetics have slipped into a lot of virtual reality experiences, but they’re particularly strong in Sparc, an upcoming VR future-sport title from EVE Online developer CCP. Sparc (formerly known as Project Arena) is a two-player game similar to Pong, in which two hip alien avatars bat around glowing rings in an attempt to get past each other’s shield and score a hit. Unlike Pong, though, you’re physically grabbing, dodging, and throwing. It’s like playing frisbee in cyberspace.
It’s hard to say whether Sparc will have enough complexity to stay entertaining, but the simplicity of its formula is exactly what makes it attractive to developers. You can deliver something people could only get in VR with one simple map, a few art assets, and a basic AI for players to train against. Ripcoil, an Oculus Touch launch title, is similar to Sparc — but with the addition of a gliding mechanic that feels almost uncannily real. And if you go a step further afield, you’ll find a lot of virtual tennis or Brickbreaker-style games with a Tron-like neon sci-fi vibe.
Upcoming: Arktika.1, Killing Floor: Incursion
Out right now: Arizona Sunshine, Raw Data, Island 359, Robo Recall
First-person shooters became one of the first great dashed hopes of VR, once developers realized that zipping around rooms with a controller tended to nauseate players. Since then, they’ve been on the hunt for a replacement that feels truly VR-friendly. At first, this meant a lot of wave shooters that locked players in one place or let them move between a few spots. But it’s tough to add complex narrative beats, environments, or enemy behavior to that.
More and more, this is being fixed with teleportation. Players move through a level by pointing (or looking) at a space on a map, hitting a button, and moving there immediately. Arktika.1 — made by 4A Games, the developers of Metro 2033 — uses this mechanic in what looks like one of the most narratively rich VR shooters so far. Its maps are full of cover points marked either as blue (safe, but tougher to shoot from) or yellow (riskier, but with a clearer line of sight). From behind them, players shoot bandits, scavengers, and otherworldly creatures in a grim post-apocalyptic setting.
Another title that’s being released this year, Killing Floor: Incursion, is less somber and more crowd-pleasing. Its teleportation system helps players evade virtual zombies while fighting them off with axes, knives, shotguns, pistols, and sometimes their own severed limbs. You can also play with a partner, which adds another layer of strategy.
Upcoming: Mage’s Tale
Out right now: The Unspoken, Left-Hand Path, Waltz of the Wizard, Wands
Casting spells in most video games is a matter of hitting keys or occasionally drawing some shapes with a mouse or controller. Motion controllers make that process a lot more satisfying, because suddenly you’re directly waving a wand or tracing glyphs in the air. Last year saw the release of two spell-based dueling games called The Unspoken and Wands, as well as a Dark Souls-like indie game called Left-Hand Path.
But the newly announced Mage’s Tale, developed by Wasteland 2 and Bard’s Tale studio Inxile Entertainment, is one of the best versions of the concept I’ve tried. In order to get through a series of dungeons, you’ll need to fight goblins with your magic, search crevices and solve puzzles to get new ingredients, and use these to brew up new spell combinations.
Upcoming: Blade & Soul: Table Arena, Brass Tactics
Out right now: Dragon Front, Airmech: Command
I’ll be honest: I think the immersive tabletop genre is a little silly. In the abstract, I like the idea of reinventing things like card and strategy games as physical environments in virtual reality. Brass Tactics is an interesting competitive strategy title with a nice faux-medieval style. Based on a Korean MMO of the same name, Blade & Soul is similar to the mobile game Clash Royale; players throw animated spells and creatures onto a board in an attempt to destroy their opponent’s stronghold in a given amount of time.
But in Brass Tactics’ case, the virtual reality environment makes things tougher to keep track of, since you have to keep swinging yourself around the table in order to manage units. (It also made me a little sick.) In Blade & Soul, the game just isn’t interesting enough to make me want to be fully immersed in it, rather than playing it on a tablet in bed. Still, this opinion clearly isn’t universal, and I’m willing to give the genre some time to mature before making a final judgment.
Upcoming: Ghost Paint
Out right now: Kingspray Graffiti
This isn’t quite a game genre — it’s closer to a painting app style in the vein of Quill or Tilt Brush. But graffiti simulators offer something neither of these tools do: a structured, real-world setting. You’re not making art in an abstract sense, you’re imitating a slightly transgressive painting style in a simulated back alley or rooftop or reservoir. These simulators tend to put sharing and collaboration front and center, encouraging sharing pictures of your work or (in Kingspray’s case) painting on shared walls.
Ghost Paint, a new experiment from Robo Recall (and Unreal and Gears of War) creator Epic Games, offers stencils to make painting even easier for people who might find it initially intimidating. Who knew one of the most fun VR experiences you can have would be skeuomorphic MS Paint?