Roomscale VR is Great, But the Gamepad isn’t Going Anywhere

by David Jagneaux • February 6th, 2017

For many people, the end-all be-all of virtual reality is being able to get up and move around inside of a digital space with roomscale. With the HTC Vive, you set up lighthouse base stations in opposite corners of your play space and the system tracks your movement in 3D space around your entire room. With the Oculus Rift, you can accomplish something very similar with extra sensors and the Oculus Touch motion controllers.

There’s nothing quite like taking a step forward with your own feet and feeling yourself moving in a digital environment. For some genres of games, like first-person shooters, it’s nothing short of revolutionary. Even though roomscale is amazing, it doesn’t mean that something else isn’t just as impressive and exciting in its own way. Just because we have full movement in roomscale VR now, it doesn’t mean that gamepad-based VR experiences are dead.

Luckys Tale EVE Valkyrie Image

History of Excellence

While the VR industry is still in its infantile stages, developers are constantly experimenting and seeking new ways of delivering exciting moments to players. The best horror game I played last year was a roomscale-only title called A Chair in a Room: Greenwater [Review: 8/10], the riveting Onward is an incredible shooter that immerses you in its action, and exploratory puzzle games and adventure titles like The Gallery [Review: 9/10] breathe new life into formerly dormant genres. I recognize the potential of roomscale, but it doesn’t have to come at the expense of the gamepad.

The first VR game I ever played almost two years before it released was EVE: Valkyrie [Review: 9/10] and it blew my mind. Cockpit experiences and racing games feel great using gamepads and are arguably even more immersive than their standing, moving, roomscale counterparts. This is especially true while we’re still struggling with VR’s distracting wire problem and room size requirements.

But when it comes to gamepad games, the best practices of how to create a control scheme, what works for different genres, how to design a game world, what makes something fun, and all of the other guiding principles have been researched, developed, and iterated on for decades. Bringing those existing ideas into the immersive world of head-tracked VR is complicated enough without asking people to move around as well.

With so much potential and history in the game industry that’s rooted in the player holding a gamepad while seated, it feels like a disservice to that legacy to simply ignore it altogether. Some roomscale experiences have the potential to wrap us up in the power of their stories and innovation of their technology, but other times I just want to sit down with a controller in my hand and play a good game.


Iteration and Innovation 

When I play a game like Lucky’s Tale [Review: 9/10] in VR, I’m reminded of Super Mario 64, but I feel closer to the action than ever before. Edge of Nowhere [Review: 9/10] reminds me of Uncharted, Tomb Raider, and The Last of Us, but the sounds of the world surround me. Resident Evil 7 [Review: 9/10] feels like the most immersive and terrifying game ever when you’re trapped alone inside the PSVR headset.

Damaged Core [Review: 9.5/10] is inventive and unique in a way that couldn’t work outside of a headset. These and other games we’ve seen over the past couple of years are proof that you don’t necessarily need to get up and move around in roomscale to enjoy a VR experience.

Landfall, which just had its free weekend beta, is a clever implementation of a top-down tactical game that uses a gamepad as the bread and butter form of controlling your unit. Updating a genre and re-imagining it in a new way doesn’t necessitate throwing out the gamepad in favor of motion controllers.

I love being able to look down at my hands and see them accurately represented with hand controllers, but depending on the type of game, that could be a poor form of interaction. If I’m playing a fast-paced shooter like Rigs [Review: 8/10], that cockpit isn’t conducive to using motion controllers. Third person games feel right at home while holding a gamepad and plenty of obscure or more niche genres work better with dedicated buttons and analog sticks.


Diversity of Options

At the end of the day, there is enough room in the industry for both gamepad and roomscale VR. There is a certain time, place, and mood that lends itself well to moving around a room in an immersive digital space. Getting physical with sports games, ducking behind cover in shooters, and exploring strange new worlds feels like a natural fit. But if you’re putting me in charge of an army, sticking me in a cockpit, or asking me to control a character in third-person, I’d feel more at home with a gamepad in my hand.

And finally, being perfectly honest here, sometimes I just want to relax on a couch. It’s the same reason that despite my love for VR as a medium and as a way to advance technology, I don’t want to give up traditional gaming either. Looking at a TV or monitor a few feet or yards away is satisfying in its own way and I don’t think everything needs to be in VR to be good, and just because it is in VR doesn’t mean it can’t use a gamepad.

The more options we have the better chances there are for innovation and simply good game design. I want to play and enjoy VR games because they are good games first and foremost, not because they are novel experiences.

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What's your reaction?
  • NooYawker

    Sometimes I don’t feel like getting up and running around the room. So yea I’ll play some mervil or luckys tale. But after the initial “wow that’s so cool” why do I need to play this in VR? Played a game called fated which is an adventure using a controller and it really pales compared to touch.
    If I’m going to play a game using a controller I just take off the headset and play a regular PC game.

    • That’s a fair point for some genres, but I’d contend that a lot of gamepad VR games wouldn’t be playable or at least would suffer greatly if taken out of a headset.

  • Sean Lumly

    I 100% agree with the thesis of this article, as the sentiment mirrors my own experiences. My favourite VR title to date is a 3rd person, controller-based game by the name of “Robot’s Rescue” on PSVR’s “Playroom VR” collection of mini-games. It is a short “experience” but it is delightful in its implementation and sense of immersion.

    While Robot’s Rescue could be played outside of VR quite handily, the VR experience (IMO) is second to none (and gives Mario a serious run for his money!).

    I would love to see more 3rd person VR using a gamepad! The thought of playing a Dark Soul’s like game, or Ratchet And Clank, or Mario3D World is exciting! And best of all, developers of these titles may be able to target both VR and traditional Video with their game for potentially larger revenues.

  • Tako Schotanus

    I think as long as the RIft and Vive don’t have visible gamepads like the PSVR it’s always going to be more hard-core gamer only. Having this invisible gamepad when you’re not 200% familiar with its layout just doesn’t work IMO.

    • Mourz

      I couldn’t agree more. I grew up on consoles, but I will never buy one again. Do all my gaming on PC and rarely use a controller. If I am at a friends, I must look down at the controller even after hours of use.

  • jimrp

    True. But in the future it will be used less.

  • jimrp

    3rd person will be what we call retro gaming now.

  • mectron

    Controller are great for sitting VR game, no body look at their controller when playing not even the most casual player. so it make a natural choice. But confining your VR experience as sitting only (or only facing forward) you only limiting your choice, luckily the two major headset offer booth great Room Scale and sitting experience.

    • Tako Schotanus

      I think you’ve forgotten how it is to be a non-gamer. Try it sometimes with someone who doesn’t play: they will either look down at their controller to see what A, B, X, Y is (they don’t know where those buttons are, let alone which is top, or bottom or left or right!) or they need to feel around for the upper and lower triggers (if they even know there are two of them). It’s like giving someone an unmarked controller, many people would not know which button is which. I’m a PC gamer and I have NO idea, but as long as I can look at the controller and the game tells me to press X then I can manage. In VR that would be much harder. THe PSVR solves that very elegantly by being able to track the controller and therefore display it in-game.

      • J.C.

        Look, VR isn’t currently FOR “non gamers”. The cost alone scares off quite a few people who DO play games a lot. Learning a controller layout takes an hour or two, max, which should be done playing non-VR games anyway.
        PC gamer? You must stick to a VERY small genre of titles if you don’t have a controller. How do you play racing games? Twin-stick shooters? Do you honestly play platformers with the keyboard?

        Controller design, Nintendo excluded, hasn’t changed much for over ten years. Meanwhile, you’re saying people find motion controllers more intuitive? They absolutely do NOT. On the Vive, the only button they remember exists is the trigger, literally every other button has to be explained over and over and over. Games with visual representations in them have to show entire pictures of the controller to explain what they want people to press instead of a small, lettered prompt.

        Your argument is apparently that you think people are willing to shell out $800 (minimum!) for something they previously had zero interest in (gaming). And then you’re arguing that they won’t ever learn the controller layout for this thing they spent nearly a grand for? You’re looking for problems where they don’t exist.

        • Tako Schotanus

          > Your argument is apparently that you think people are willing to shell out $800 (minimum!) for something they previously had zero interest in (gaming).

          I was very likely born long before you were and I’ve been a gamer all my life, but I’m a PC gamer so I can tell you you do NOT learn a controller in two hours. I’ve played through games like The Last of Us and Red Redemption on the PS3 and I can assure you I *still* need to look at the controller for the first hour or so to remember where the buttons are.

          And on the PC I do not use a controller .. EVER.. what kind of PC gamer are *you* that you can’t play all those games just fine with a keyboard?

          > Meanwhile, you’re saying people find motion controllers more intuitive? They absolutely do NOT.

          Ok, *now* I know your are full of it, just making up bullshit reasons. The entire fact that you can *see* the controllers and therefore where your hands are does indeed make it a 100x more intuitive than anything you *cannot see*! And on top of that most of the time you can just *look* at the controller to see where the buttons are. Better yet, many games even put hints there so you don’t even have to remember what button does what!

          • J.C.

            Wow, combined PC elitist AND ineptitude! If you played all the way through The Last Of Us and still can’t remember where buttons are, maybe the problem is…JUST YOU.

            As for PC games that can be played “just fine” on a keyboard, okeedokee. Please explain analog throttle and steering with a keyboard. I’d love to know where those controls are. if you don’t think they’re useful, try racing against someone who HAS analog controls, it’s like controller vs KB/M for FPS games.

            You seem to tout your age (I’m 40) as an advantage, but you clearly haven’t used your time to learn how a basic controller works

          • Tako Schotanus

            Haha I *knew* you would make it personal. You just couldn’t resist could you 🙂

            You just go ahead and give your controller to your parents or grandparents and see how they fare. Now imagine the same thing without even being able to *see* the damn things. I can tell you they will have a really hard time (if they don’t give up within 5 minutes). Now do the same with the Rift or Vive with controllers. There’s just *no* competition. I’ve had people from as old as 76 to kids as young as 4 and none of them have any problems at all (well, admittedly, the Vive grip buttons do cause some problems).

            Keyboard and mouse for racing games is not ideal but enough to have fun. Of course analog controls are *better* for racing games, but that’s not what this discussion is about, it’s about the fact that if you cannot *see* the controller you are shutting out the complete non-gamer segment of the market and you also make it ridiculously hard to even learn it. Learn the controller in 2 hours you say? HOW? If you can’t *see* the damn thing! Should people first play on an XBox or PS for a couple of hours before they use VR? What when they forget in the middle of the game what button is what? Take off the headset for a moment to take a peek?

            You’re just in denial when you think this is so easy for people and that the problem is them if they can’t figure it out.

            I have no problem with PC games that often have a dozen different keys that you have to remember, but at least I accept that for most people it *is* hard, especially when they just want to jump in and play for a moment, they don’t want to spend time getting familiar with controls. And that’s something VR with tracked controllers handles marvelously.

            And again, if you read back I didn’t say there shouldn’t be any gamepads in VR, I said that Sony got it right when they made their gamepads trackable and use that to show them in-game, it’s a brilliant solution. It’s you who says that’s not necessary at all and that people who can’t use invisible gamepads are inept. You somehow try to defend the position that an invisible gamepad is more intuitive than motion controllers, hell, you even seem to find them better than Sony’s tracked gamepads, because at no time have you even admitted that they would obviously be better for non-console-gamers (most people) to get used to. So really, who was the elitist here again??

            (And yes I’m quite a bit older and no that’s not an advantage, it’s to show you can be a gamer for many many years and not have used gamepads enough to know how to use them blindly. You know what, as a software engineer I’ve typed on keyboard daily for over 30 years and I *still* can’t type blindly! How inept is that huh!)

        • elev8d

          I have a Vive, and I have a PS4 and an Xbox. I always have to look at my controller, because the placement of X is always different. I shelled out $2800 for my VR setup. Guess what, I want a tracked gamepad to use in games.

  • Eelke Folmer

    Eventually gamepads will disappear as hand tracking solutions like Leap motion will become integrated in VR headsets. My research lab also studied what happens if you combine room scale navigation with controller navigation and because this is easier, participants in our user study over time ended up abandoning the use of room scale, which is considered detrimental to presence.

    • Tako Schotanus

      Just to be clear: abandoning the use of room scale = detrimental to presence? (which is what I would assume but perhaps I misunderstood)

      Because I do notice that when the environment is bigger than what I have I do indeed tend to use navigation(teleportation) and only do a step or two at most in any direction. But turning around and moving to reach things I would still do physically.
      But in games that adjust to my play size and don’t have any locomotion like Job Simulator, moving around seems very natural.
      I’m guessing we still need to find a way to have larger spaces without making people “lazy”.

  • MikeVR

    Different experiences will require different inputs and amount of space to get the best result?
    Conveniently until the launch of Touch the narrative was all about “input fragmentation” being “controversial” and “the death knell for the Rift”…

  • GodMk2

    Oculus really missed a trick with the Xbox controller – imagine if they’d made an accessory for it to slot into, with some constellation lights on the back. You then have a thing you can point at stuff and you can see a rendered version of the controllers in game. I play xbox and PS3/4 but still struggle with hitting A instead of B when in VR. My fingers drift off and find myself looking down the Rift’s nose to see where my hands are. Not exactly immersive. Also have a PSVR and it’s a lot easier for people who come round who are none gamers, especially as the games in the VR Worlds mini games make extensive use of the touch pad on top. Although I don’t really like the PS VR (as it’s a sit on the sofa device) , Sony have made it work well in a party environment, like the game where you have to shout out who the baddie is, which you can only see on the TV. “BLUE HAT, TWO RED EYES, X ON HIS CHEEK. BANG. Riot! No! – I SAID 2 RED EYES! Not 1 RED EYE AND AN EYEPATCH!

  • Marco Dena

    We need a new, trackable gamepad with updated design and functionalities.