Are VR Arenas the New Laser Tag?

One of the most famous guns in games is the BFG from Doom, a rifle with an acronym so profane that its movie adaptation preferred to render it as “Bio Force Gun.” The moniker is emblematic of the game’s outrageous premise: blast every demon on Mars into smithereens. The Doom series has always felt like a spectacle of adrenaline-soaked glee. It established many conventions of the first-person shooter genre that persist to this day.

But those conventions have posed a problem as the genre makes the leap from 2D screens to VR. How, for instance, do we reproduce the heady rush of running, jumping, dodging, sliding and gunning we get on screens, particularly for shooters as fast-paced as Doom? Unlike the Doomslayer, most people aren’t imbued with the supernatural agility required to physically dodge a rapid stream of bullets or avoid the gnashing teeth of monsters charging towards them. And compounded by the issue of motion sickness, this makes shooters even more of a challenge to translate to VR.

Some games have addressed the issue by taking movement out of the equation entirely. But others are experimenting with different spaces and ways of playing in VR. For instance, dedicated VR spaces address many of the issues with VR shooters by offering a bigger space than most homes can accommodate. I was recently invited to visit Zero Latency, one such arcade, which provides players with warehouse-sized spaces in which to live out their space marine fantasies.

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Stepping into the PVP VR Arena

While some VR arcades allow players to experience titles already on the market, others develop their own games and shooters. Zero Latency has a small library of proprietary games they develop in-house. One of their newest space-themed shooters is Sol Raiders, which provides what they call a “free roam virtual reality” experience, similar to the Oculus Quest. The tradeoff, however, is the equipment you’ve got to lug around: you’re given a heavy plastic rifle, an Alienware-powered VR laptop backpack, headphones and VR goggles — all of which can weigh up to 15 pounds. Is it worth it?

“Having 8 people in a virtual environment shooting at each other isn’t fun for long,” says Joshua Thillagaratnam, a representative from Zero Latency. “A lot of work went into experimenting and testing out concepts, to give players things to do in the environment that was fun, challenging and ultimately rewarding. What’s exciting to me about PVP VR, and any new competitive video game, is what players bring to the game, and how their imaginative experimentation within the game ends up shaping its ongoing development.”

In The Thick of Shooter Action

As shooters, the Zero Latency games aren’t exactly pushing the envelope for the genre. Mechanically, they resemble tightly-scripted shooters of yesteryear, with levels remaining largely stagnant and linear. The mechanics in Sol Raiders are also straightforward: shooting and interaction are essentially just pressing down on the trigger button of your bulky gun, while aiming requires you to look down the scope of your virtual rifle. Players are divided into two teams of four, with each team stationed at one side of a massive room. If you’re killed in combat, you can be quickly revived in another virtual level, and then saunter over into a nearby glowing portal to get back into the thick of action.

Understanding the environment and the boundaries of the game isn’t always intuitive, however; there were moments when some of us were stuck behind a closed virtual door, not realizing that we could open it by shooting at a glowing spot with our rifle. And if we got too close to one another in real life, an in-game notification warned us about the proximity of other players. This, too, happened far more regularly than I would have liked or expected, even though the room we were in was imposingly vast. And while it’s still breathtaking to experience the dizzying heights and visual bombast of being in a VR environment — one mode had you transported to another part of the level via a precarious-looking lift, which glides unsteadily across a dangerous cliff — the game definitely plays much more slowly than standard shooters.

Rather than seeing these factors as limitations, Thillagaratnam embraces them as quirks of the medium, believing that Zero Latency’s offerings are better compared to team sports, rather than other shooters.

“With FPS games you’re sitting down looking into a screen. You’re interacting with the content using a control pad or a keyboard and mouse,” he says. “The experience of competing in a VR experience is more like playing team sports. It’s active, you move a lot, and it’s first and foremost a social experience. You’re actually physically present in a space with other people.” 

He goes on to explain that Sol Raiders, in particular, isn’t trying to be a watered-down version of traditional shooters with a VR gimmick. Instead, it’s about embracing the different play styles — and physical abilities — that players can bring to the game.

“If you’re nimble and quick on your feet, you’re going to be able to have the upper hand in some predicaments. Conversely, if you’re a paced and strategic shooter with fantastic aim, you can use that to your advantage.”

Zero Latency’s Answer to VR Shooters

One issue that Zero Latency’s PVP VR shooters still share with conventional FPS games is ensuring that gameplay can engage more experienced players without alienating casual ones.

“Human opponents are unpredictable, their playing and movement styles are incredibly varied, and each Sol Raiders match is going to be unique,” says Thillagaratnam. “The main difference from our other games is that there’s this new focus on making it possible for casual gamers to play with pros and [still] have that be fun.” 

What’s most important, at least to Zero Latency, is that their VR games remain accessible to a large group of audiences: casual players, gaming enthusiasts, sports aficionados, and even people who don’t even get to work out very regularly.

While VR promises to immerse players completely into an alternative universe, the platform is still somewhat undercooked when it comes to conveying a variety of movements. There’s room to run and sprint, but not very much; meanwhile, the capacity to perform complex acrobatics is curtailed by our physical bodies.

Sol Raiders has significantly fewer features than non-VR shooters, but has been developed with inventive ways to circumvent the platform’s limitations: the virtual arena is smaller, while the control scheme is a lot more simplified; switching weapons is a matter of pushing a button on your gun, while the game issues a warning visual when you’re about to run into another player or a wall.

For now, given the breakneck pace of technological advancements in VR, the potential of VR shooters is immense. And even though Sol Raiders is more akin to playing paintball or laser tag than a fully-featured video game, it’s still exhilarating fun — especially when sniping at your friends within the depths of a derelict space station or across towering space canyons, knowing they’re right there in the room with you.