Tales of the Rampant Coyote

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VR: Where are the RPGs?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 13, 2022

We have a few VR games now inspired by Japanese anime styles, including an MMORPG. Role-playing games in VR are unfortunately less common than I would have expected, but not rare. We have choices. Many of them suck, but we have choices.

Several weeks ago, Virtual Dreamers has some discussion on the relative absence of JRPG-style games. His video poses more questions than answers, but it sparked some questions in my own mind. Since this video came out, one of the first JRPGs has come out for PC and Quest VR – RuinsMagus. I would love to tell you how it is, but it currently has a bug that prevents it from running on my machine. Hopefully that’ll be fixed this week. It is an indie offering, so like most things VR, it is the indies who are blazing the trail.

On the one hand, it’s weird thinking that JRPGs are under-represented, considering how common they are in flat-screen space. The existence of RPGMaker (in its various incarnations) has really pushed things in this respect. Once they made it possible to release commercial games with the tools, and especially once Steam opened the gates for RPGMaker titles, we became inundated with them. And yeah, 95% of them are crap. Sturgeon’s Law still holds. There’s still a TON of cool stuff in that top 5% though.

The simple answer to this is that we need is a “VR RPG Maker” — something a little more structured and easier to use than Unity plus some third-party assets and toolkits.

The problem with this simple answer is complicated, but it comes down to this: We don’t know what a JRPG in VR is supposed to look like, yet. Let me explain:

The definition of a JRPG “style” is already very loose. JRPGs became their own genre in part because of the conventions Japanese game developers followed. A few key games became popular, their conventions became roughly standardized, and then–as with RPGMaker– the console import market (and some PC games) were flooded with games that bore a lot of surface similarities. Western developers emulated the style, so the industry slapped the JRPG label on them and we called it a day. Today’s “JRPGs” – the higher-budget ones coming out of Japan – actually have a lot more in common with their mainstream Western cousins than the traditional 16-bit / 32-bit JRPG, in my humble opinion. Outside of art style, of course.

Virtual Reality is a whole new ballgame, even more than I naively expected six years ago. It’s not just a 3D game with 360 degrees of view. It changes everything, and while we’ve gotten a lot better at it now, there’s still a lot of “best practices” to figure out, and a lot of uncharted territory to explore. I’m not keen on adhering to convention for the sake of convention, but it doesn’t hurt to follow them if that’s not an area you are really trying to innovate in. Right now, we have some proto-conventions in RPGs evolving, but … they are still pretty rough.

In VR, the menu systems so popular in PC RPGs (and older console games) are not considered the best approach. VR mimics the real world and works best with physical analogs. You don’t just select an “Attack” option from the menu with a generic “Sword” object equipped. I mean, you can, but that’s a little like walking your bicycle. However, numerous VR games have chosen that just picking up swords, swinging them around, and trying to sheath it when you want to do something else is fraught with its own challenges. Players will wiggle their weightless two-handed swords with a single hand at ludicrous speeds, items will be dropped when you just wanted to move them from one hand to the other, inventory slots at your belt will be missed constantly, items will drop behind an inaccessible spot behind the merchant’s counter rather than being sold. The games have trouble interpreting the arcing flow of real-world movement into your intended actions.

The game that should make you feel like a badass adventurer in a fantasy world ends up making you feel like a mute klutz wearing oversized mittens.

Some of this is just the limitations of the technology. Or budget. That’s fine. We made awesome, compelling games back in the 16-bit era in spite of tech limitations. Games had much lower budgets back then, too. We did this through abstraction – generating the conventions that made things easier (or more user-friendly) to play given the limitations of the medium. We never demanded that the player walk by controlling each foot individually. And just because a player can, theoretically, control the precise arc of their blade doesn’t mean we have to be 100% literal about it in VR.

Some level of abstraction is necessary, even in the world of Virtual Reality, but we need to figure out what those should be. Somewhere between the clunky menuing of popular flat-screen games (If you have played Skyrim VR or Fallout 4 VR, you know of what I speak), and the clumsy but cool visceral physicality of Blade & Sorcery. The latter began as an RPG, I understand, but evolved into being more of a sandbox fighting simulator.

As we get more RPGs in this medium, categories will start forming around certain feels, flavors, and features. The three Fs. Some games will emulate the feel and flavor of our favorite JRPG classics, and we’ll label those VR JRPGs or something. For now, I just hope we’ll see more RPGs for VR. Japanese or otherwise.


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