Image Credit: Adidas TERREX VR Experience

Climb your way to victory.

If you’ve climbed up the side of a virtual mountain in The Climb, then you know how good VR can be at making you respect virtual geometry—almost as if your body were clinging to a rock wall for dear life. You aren’t actually in peril, no matter how convincing the experience is, but that level of immersion sticks with you. And when it’s somatic immersion—when your body pulls harder because your brain is shocking your whole system with adrenaline—you simply sweat more.

Likewise, when you exit a VR game that features climbing and/or other types of environmental locomotion, and you venture back to a game that relies solely on thumbstick movement, you may feel like you’ve taken a step backward in the immersion department.

While there are a handful of new VR games which include environmental locomotion as one of the main features—Ready At Dawn’s Echo VR and Insomniac’s upcoming Stormland to name a couple—it’s striking how rare climbing is in VR gaming right now, given how intuitive it is for 6DOF VR controls.

In League and WAR DUST are, at first glance, pretty standard FPS genre titles. Both games are from tiny studios on shoestring budgets. Their handling is often finicky, and they both feel much more ‘early access’ than other, more established VR FPS titles.

But that is precisely why their climbing mechanics are as important as (or possibly more important than) those introduced by the high-budget, high-profile titles being put out by Oculus.

As the VR industry moves forward out of its first generation, players will begin to expect more immersion out of the VR worlds they explore in, regardless of whether a particular VR game is an FPS, an RPG or a boxing simulator. And, most importantly, regardless of a game’s budget.

Climbing, or at least grappling with objects, is a natural way to interact with the world around us. In real life, you can hurdle yourself over obstacles and climb up the side of surfaces, based on how skilled and/or well-equipped you are. And, because VR experiences are about immersion and reactivity, developers should always ask themselves how people will try to interact with their game worlds.

One of the things that break immersion in games like Pavlov, Onward, and Contractors, all of which take place in a realistic context, is the lack of an ability to grapple with the environment. This is why almost anybody who’s tried and failed to climb the ladders in Onward‘s ‘Downfall’ map would tell you that the lack of a climbing feature is disheartening.

That’s because unnatural player interaction limitations in VR are just so much more visible to players who’ve already gotten used to playing in more reactive gameplay environments. Climbing up ladders is a standard affair in non-VR games, but for a great VR example, look at how often people play down the combat system in Skyrim VR simply because games like GORN and Blade & Sorcery present their combat systems more immersively. (On that note, Blade & Sorcery is being created by one person.)

Both Pavlov and Onward were responsible for laying down the foundation of military-themed VR FPS mechanics at a grassroots level. Meanwhile, Contractors refined the mechanics of both games into one of the most visually detailed packages we’ve seen in any VR FPS.

Each of those games represents one ‘notch’ on the VR FPS iteration belt in its current vertical trajectory. Thus, if all military-themed VR FPS games only continued in that direction, the next developer would only take what Contractors did and make it even shinier.

And that’s where In League, WAR DUST, and Stand Out are pushing VR’s development language laterally.

Introducing their own environmental locomotion (i.e. climbing/grappling) systems, the developers of In League and WAR DUST are expanding upon, at a root level, what it means to write a ‘realistic’ VR FPS title.

They are rejecting the baseline of what it means to write a VR FPS genre title in the vein of Onward and Pavlov; both of which are games that were originally built to mimic the game mechanics of popular flatscreen games, answering the question of “What happens when we take ARMA and Counter-Strike and drop them into VR?”

Instead, the uniquely VR climbing mechanics that In League and WAR DUST have introduced are particularly illuminating in terms of how weapons, maps, and gameplay beats need to be shaped to accommodate such a feature in this type of game.

And even though In League and WAR DUST are low-budget titles with minimal polish, minimal graphics, and missing features, their developers are writing the VR game development handbook in real time via early access—at a much faster cadence than Oculus, Valve, Sony, or any of the other big publishers in VR. Even if these games don’t survive, they are laying the foundation and providing free research to other developers in the field.

How does climbing work in WAR DUST and In League?

WAR DUST lets you climb anywhere that you’d normally be able to climb in a flatscreen game like Call of Duty; meaning that you can thrust yourself over barricades and through open windows. You can also climb ladders and hoist yourself up onto surfaces like the interior of a helicopter or a platform that’s leveled above you.

However, what makes climbing in WAR DUST fundamentally different is that you aren’t abstracting anything to a button press. You are, as in The Climb, using your available free hands to latch onto a surface and pull yourself up. When you’re holding onto a ledge and lifting yourself up onto the platform, holding your gun in your other hand, you are doing something that feels real in that special VR way.

Meanwhile, In League’s climbing works much the same, but with even more freedom (for better or worse). You’re granted the ability to climb up the side of any object, including walls, trees, and other players.

At some point, VR players will expect more. VR games that include exploration as a major feature, yet render players unable to grapple up and over the sides of objects—even no-brainer objects such as ladders—will sweat revenue to games that let players have that freedom.

Granted, that ‘pivotal breaking point’ in player expectations won’t be one singular point. It will be the continuous result of many handfuls of imaginative VR game developers playing games like WAR DUST or In League, going “Wow, wouldn’t it be cool if we could climb in VR more often?”, and implementing similar features in their own games.

How do you feel about climbable environments becoming a standard practice in VR game design? Let us know in the comments.