Astro Bot makes the case for all VR platforms including a tracked gamepad
When the average person thinks about high-end VR gaming, an image of a HTC Vive or Oculus Rift probably materializes on the screen of their minds. While PlayStation VR is a perfectly capable platform, it's unlikely to be considered "high-end". Yet, PSVR has one huge advantage over every other headset currently on the market. The DualShock 4 gamepad. The key advantage of the DS4 controller is that it's tracked in real time. Back in November 2013 when the PlayStation 4 system first hit the market, many gamers complained about the annoyingly bright blue light on the front of the DualShock. Was such a light really necessary they pondered? Sony mostly side-stepped this issue. They explained the light could be used to help indicate the heath of your on-screen persona, for example. Little did we know at that time, that Sony had very big plans for that controller light.
When Project Morpheus, was first revealed to the world at the 2014 Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, a light bulb went off above millions of PS4 owners heads around the world. Ok, so that's the real reason for that annoyingly bright light! Yep, that was indeed the reason. They're going to track that controller for use with their new VR headset.
It didn't take Sony all that long to prove the concept in practice. One of the games available for the PSVR platform on launch day, was a free mini-game collection called The Playroom VR. This game showed several examples of how you could use a tracked controller, but it was the mini-game Robot's Rescue that had the PSVR world abuzz. Japan Studio, the developer of the title, decided to bring the game player themselves, physically into the gameworld alongside their adorable little mascot. They were able to do this, by bringing your actual real-life controller into the game world. Not only would the controller be tracked one to one, but a visual representation of the controller itself would also be a huge part of the experience. In fact, the storyline of the game incorporates the controller as a key gameplay device.
It's not hard to imagine other developers being influenced by what Japan Studio had accomplished with Robot's Rescue. Polyarc, the developers of what would eventually become Moss, had probably been paying very close attention. Moss originally arrived as a PlayStation VR exclusive back in late February of this year. This was seemingly the first VR game to benefit from the lessons that Japan Studio had demonstrated. Moss doesn't use the DS4 to quite the same effect as Astro Bot and Robot's Rescue, but the similarities are obvious regardless. In the same way as Astro Bot, the player is brought into the world (to a degree), to help an adorable protagonist. In this case, the wonderfully endearing mouse by the name of Quill. You help guide and assist Quill throughout her perilous journey.
Certainly, Moss and Astro Bot are the two most obvious examples of a tracked gamepad coming in handy, but we could also consider a game like Pixel Ripped 1989. You can enjoy Pixel Ripped 1989 just fine on an Oculus Rift or HTC Vive, but the game just feels a bit better on PlayStation VR, Again, it's the tracked gamepad. An Oculus Rift owner can make the argument that an Oculus Touch is basically a DualShock 4 that has been chopped in half. You still have the necessary thumbsticks. So surely, your experience of Pixel Ripped will be just as good right? Well, I'd personally argue that holding a single controller with two hands (like the DualShock 4), just seems infinitely more comfortable and natural. A controller split in half, is just that... a controller split in half. It's hard to imagine it being whole, when you can physically feel the separation, even if your eyes are deceiving you.
A tracked gamepad is definitely an advantage for certain types of games, but should a platform holder like Oculus or HTC actually go out of their way to mandate it as an officially supported option? Maybe not for existing platforms, but I do feel they should give strong consideration for any forthcoming VR platforms. It's not something that would be used for most genre's outside of 3rd person VR games, but I think 3rd person VR is going to remain an important part of the landscape. Remember, we're transitioning from a flat medium, to a medium that completely envelopes us, and this transition will be painful for some. Games will be needed to bridge the gap between these two different canvases, and 3rd person VR games do a great job of this. Long live the gamepad!