Minecraft and Half-Life – Are VR and AR Finally Reaching their Potential?
It might seem strange to think about, but the first Oculus Rift headset developer kit came out more than seven years ago. Since then, the world of VR and AR has seen its first golden age. Games like Superhot and Pokémon Go have given players a small taste of what this world could hold, with Pokémon Go being an especially successful multinational hit.
Though there have been individual cases of success, these forms of technology are so far not proving as revelatory as many gamers predicted or hoped. Despite no enormous leaps, however, VR and AR hardware is still improving steadily with each passing year as consoles, PCs, mobiles, and even self-contained devices continue to evolve. Combined with the coming releases of Minecraft Earth and Half-Life: Alyx, could we finally see a couple of real killer apps and system sellers? We take a look.
While it holds undeniable use as a tool, gaming’s integration of AR has, so far, seen a couple of major limitations. The most major component of this comes from the difficulty in integration. Really getting invested within an AR environment with many games would require a large viewing space as only truly possible through a VR-style total headset. While this might prove a solution in the future, at this point the technologies are often incompatible due to their highly specialised nature.
Another issue here is that even compatible headsets are, so far, bulky, power and resource-hungry, and not suited to mobile applications, an area where AR shines. Pokémon Go was successful in part because it bypassed this issue by running on phones and tablets. Rather than require a full environment to get engaged, Pokémon Go only needed a small screen, in other words, and this is an aspect that Minecraft Earth looks to emulate.
Minecraft is one of those games where gameplay is quite simple, though the governing systems can be immensely deep. This means operating from a mobile is not the issue it is with many games, and this immediately opens the experience to many who might otherwise disregard the coming release. Such an approach to development has proven successful in other niches, too. Take for example the likes of free online and mobile slot machines, which offer an immense variety of themes and settings. At this point, these non-AR game services let users play games which are already perfectly suited to the current gen of devices. They could easily see benefits with some form of eventual AR integration, which could further help in immersing players in Ancient Egypt or outer space, for instance.
From what we currently know, Minecraft Earth will let you create, defend, and destroy other human-created systems based not on servers, but on your (and their) physical location. In terms of exploration and cooperation, this is incredibly interesting. It will be available on most modern phones and tablets, and the potential user base for this game and the worlds it creates should be enormous. We can only hope that this opens the floodgates to other AR games, as so far, aside from Pokémon clones, this genre is woefully lacking. It might take a few years, but we hope the likes of Minecraft Earth could open these doors.
The final official part of the Half-Life series, HL2: Episode 2, was released on October 10, 2007, and ends in a cliffhanger. Fans have long been disappointed by Valve’s reticence in revisiting the series. The concern from Valve, or at least one of them, was that a sequel would not be revolutionary enough. Normally, we would dismiss such claims as PR speak, but as Half-Life 1 and 2 completely reshaped the gaming landscape, we have to put some faith in Valve’s claims.
This is what makes the recently announced Half-Life: Alyx for VR all the more exciting. In a recent AMA over on Reddit, the developers shed some light on the project which, given it has Valve’s largest-ever game-workforce involved (around 80 people), seems to be given the attention it deserves. According to Valve, the total playtime of HL: Alyx should come in at around the length of the original HL2, sans the additional episodes.
Other revelations of note include the fact that Alyx will be fully voiced, a rarity for player characters in a Half-Life game, although the original voice actress Merle Dandridge will not return. Valve also appears to be putting considerable work into different movement and control options, with an emphasis on overcoming some of the limitations which VR control implies.
Until then, Valve has made all of the games in the Half-Life series free to play on Steam. If you’re new to this series or just want a refresher, now’s the perfect time to jump in. These still hold up fantastically and have very low requirements, so any PC from the last ten years should run them without issue.
With games like Alyx and Minecraft Earth on the horizon, and the backing technology only getting better, the future of AR and VR gaming has never looked so bright. With new consoles due later this year and devices like the Apple Glasses slated further down the line, this is a great time to be a gamer. At the very least, it might be about time we opened a savings account.