VRguy podcast Episode 17: Matt Peckham, Video Game Critic for TIME

My guest today is Matt Peckham, TIME’s video games critic. This episode was recorded on June 29th, 2016.

Matt and I talk about when VR games are preferred to non-VR games, about platform exclusivity, and much more.

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Interview transcript

Yuval Boger (VRguy):     Hello, Matt and welcome to the program.

Matt Peckham: Hello, Yuval how are you? Thank you for having me.

VRguy:  I am good, thank you very much. Matt, who are you and what do you do?

Matt:     Well, I am Time magazine’s games critic. That means that I, generally speaking, focus on reviewing games for the magazine and for the online site, time.com.

VRguy:  That sounds like a dream job where people actually get paid to play games.

Matt:     Yeah, you could say that. It has its ups and downs. I would say more ups than downs for sure, but the downs that people don’t think about when I hear that, I do get that, “Oh, you get paid to play games for a living,” is that that also means you get paid to play games all the way to completion that you might otherwise rather not play. If it’s a 40 hour bad game, that’s maybe 35 hours of your life that you have to knuckle down and deliver. That’s the down side, but I’m not complaining.

VRguy:  You’ve been doing games, and now you’re also doing VR games. When did you start getting interested in VR games?

Matt:     Yeah, that’s a really interesting question because my interest in VR goes all the way back to my undergrad days in the ’90’s, when there was the initial sort of cultural … Where it kind of bubbled up. You had movies like The Lawnmower Man and such. I had a really good friend in undergrad, and he and I just got way into the … Everything from Kurzweil and the futurists to there was a magazine called Discover that used to do a lot in futurism and science. Imagining that it was about to happen. We thought this wave is going to break. It’s inevitable, it’s going to happen in the next 5 to 10 years, and we’re going to have the Lawnmower Man, or hopefully not the Lawnmower Man, but these complete sensory wrap around environments. That was around the time I got interested. Then obviously I don’t need to tell you the market kind of just disappeared because all of these ideas emerged, and none of them really gelled. Probably Nintendo’s virtual boy being the most, I think, culturally visible one. That’s a long answer to your question, but I think the early, mid ’90’s.

VRguy:  A few years ago, Microsoft introduced the Kinect, and for a while there was a feeling that this was going to be the next big gaming platform. I think over time people realized that there is a certain type of games, maybe fitness games or dance games, that you could do really well with the Kinect, and you couldn’t do otherwise. Other than that, it was more of a novelty than a revolution. Where do you think VR is on that scale? On the sort of novelty to revolution scale?

Matt:     When you ask that question, when you say VR, do you mean kind of in its current iteration with the headsets that we’ve just seen emerge?

VRguy:  Yes.

Matt:     I think with what we’re seeing right now, what’s just coming out, I think, I don’t know that I want to go so far as to say that it’s novelty because I certainly, I think, appreciate some of the magnitude of the shift that’s occurring when I put on one of these headsets and try some of the better implementations of game ideas within this new thing. I do think it’s definitely a niche today, in 2016. A very small market. I mean, it’s expensive, it requires a very expensive PC, and the experiences themselves require, I think, kind of an enthusiast mindset. You have to be already interested in this technology, I think. You have to already have been following. You have to already have been planning to involve yourself in this process.

                Like the Kickstarter supporters for some of these early headsets that are emerging now. I could be proven wrong here, but my bet is that that’s what we’re going to see in terms of the financial returns as the numbers trickle out, and we see the sales of these companies. It isn’t to say that VR is itself … The promise of VR remains what it was two decades ago, I think, which is that it’s inevitable, it will become essential part of everybody’s life I believe at some point in my lifetime. The current iteration, I think, is definitely a niche platform.

VRguy:  If you could think of the best racing game, not in VR. Then the best racing game in VR, without naming names, would you prefer playing inside a headset, or outside the headset today?

Matt:     That’s a good question. That’s a very good question. Okay, so for a racing sim, I would say I would prefer to play outside the headset. I have to think about that, why that would be because if you asked me about a flight sim, I think I would give the opposite answer. I think for me personally, flight in virtual reality is far more interesting than driving along the ground, if that makes any sense.

VRguy:  Is it just because the perception of flying is stronger in VR, whereas when you’re on the ground in a racing sim it’s just looking left and right? The immersion is not as important to you?

Matt:     Yeah, I wonder if it’s that when you’re in a … So much about virtual reality right now works best when you’re moving, when you’re close up, or when you’re … With an object, you’re near an object and you’re moving slowly, or you’re not moving at all and you’re just looking around. I think those types of games are where VR works the best. Climbing games, or puzzle games, or adventure games where you’re standing in an area and looking around, and you’re looking at things very close up. When you have to deal with distance, when you have to deal with visualizing distance, I think it becomes more of a problem. I think in a driving simulation, you’re not close enough to the scenery, but you’re always aware of the scenery around you. You’re always aware of how low resolution, how low-fi it is. It just isn’t very interesting. Well, then the other thing is the racing things I’ve played in VR, because of the power that’s required to process to create visuals that are plausibly realistic is so great that they … The stuff I’ve played anyway has cut a lot of corners.

                It just doesn’t look very good. I’m kind of, I’m involved in a driving game where I’m looking around at really uninteresting things whereas in a flying sim, yes you need to … You’re looking at things that are at a great distance from you, but you are already so far away from them, they’re already in a sense abstractions, or like the space sims. The space flight sims I’m really thinking of in particular. You’ve got asteroids and other ships, so it’s less about the visual experience than it is about just inhabiting that space in the sense of motion because you’re doing barrel rolls, you can’t do a barrel roll in a car. I mean, I suppose you can, but not in the same sense that you can in a flight sim. I think it’s the mechanics of the flight sim and that sense of being free form, unattached from the ground, able to move in any direction, omni-directionally, is more interesting to me, if that makes sense.

VRguy:  It certainly does. Let me ask the same question, and add the social aspect. Let’s assume you were playing versus a friend in the same room, or I’d be playing with my son. In or out of VR, what’s your preference?

Matt:     Oh, so if I’m playing socially with somebody who’s sitting next to me in a VR headset, and also playing next to me?

VRguy:  Yes.

Matt:     Oh, another good question. I think it’s not … I haven’t tried it, so I feel like I’m I’m not answering from a position of knowledge, but I think VR gets less interesting to me if I’m sitting in a room next to somebody else then I’d rather have the headset off, I guess, right now. I’d rather not have it on because I want to interact with that person socially. It feels strange to me to think that I would be sitting in a room next to somebody with a headset on communicating with them kind of indirectly, but all the while knowing that they’re physically present in the room next to me.

VRguy:  Yeah, I could see that as being a problem. When you write about games, do you feel like you’re writing to a different audience when you write about games versus write about VR games?

Matt:     Oh, definitely. I mean, it depends a little bit on the game. When I’m writing about a game that is an existing game from a hardcore game in gaming-dom, I’m trying to avoid naming any here, but a known franchise that’s been ported over to VR, then I’m writing more toward an audience that I know is coming to … That already plays the game and wants to know, is there something about this that’s interesting now that I need to play attention to? So much, as you know, so much of what I think is actually most interesting about VR is occurring completely outside the existing gaming paradigm. I personally have no interest, or I have far less interest in playing a game that already exists that’s been somehow ported into VR than playing something completely off the wall.

                II didn’t play it, but somebody was telling me about a game where it’s basically pong in VR. Where you shift your head back and forth and that’s like moving the paddle in pong, and that it actually feels … The sensation is … The brain is so tricked that it really feels like you’re on a floating hover board going left and right. Those kinds of experiences I find speak to the medium to what VR, what it’s potential is far better than somebody coming along and taking an existing franchise and just making it wrap around for a headset.

VRguy:  Do you think that this next generation of games, the ones that would compel you to play in VR, do you think they’re not here yet because they’re just being developed and people are still experimenting with how to deliver the best experience in VR, or do you think it’s more about peripherals? Hand controls, or eye tracking, or something beyond the headsets?

Matt:     I think it depends. I think it’s a little of both. I think I’m going to lean a little on an answer that one of the major VR developers gave me that resonated with me 10 years ago, and that I … It feels like the right answer to this question still today. This persons concern was that people’s reluctance to engage with VR today still is that they don’t like to put very strange things on their bodies, much less this very sort of clumsy looking headset with what people have jokingly referred to as the bridal veil of cabling that runs down the back. Then you have … At GDC we had minders who had to stand behind us and hold that cabling so we didn’t trip over it as we played. There are significant obstacles to the kind of immersion that VR promise in the cultural sort of marketing of the last 20 years of what we expect it to be. I think that’s a … Maybe for me that’s the greatest obstacle.

                As far as people … The other side of that though, the other point, the other aspect of the question, are people just not … Are they still trying to figure out how to make experiences that fit the new platform? It’s a harder one for me to know. I can say I’ve definitely had experiences, I’ve definitely played games. They’re off the radar games, they don’t have big names, but that I think are already doing things that couldn’t really be done outside of VR, and that I think really … I would buy VR just to play these things. I think we’re already seeing some of that. Now I think there are already developers that are grappling, I think, meaningfully with the question, but I think the preponderance of VR sims is still, and what gets attention in the media, is taking these existing racing, or role playing, or shooter, or whatever games and trying to sort of force VR to accommodate this pre-existing experience. In that sense, I don’t think that’s where VR … I hope that’s not where VR is going, because that’s not what I find interesting about it.

VRguy:  Have you had a chance to try an augmented reality game? Bouncing a ball off the wall, or shooting in your living room, or so on? If so, is it better or worse than completely immersive VR?

Matt:     This I haven’t, I unfortunately haven’t been able to try. I think the one major augmented reality headset that’s not out yet, I haven’t been able to try that. My experience with AR has primarily been through, or Google glass, or anything like that, I’ve only really messed around with Nintendo’s attempt at doing some limited AR with the 3DS. It’s interesting. I see more of the potential than the delivery with the 3DS. It’s interesting, my 4 year old likes to play one particular AR game where you take a picture of somebody’s face, then it maps it onto an obstacle that you then have to shoot at by moving the game pad around, and it maps the experience onto what the camera is picking up of your surrounding environment. It’s kind of fun, but it is definitely more AR as a novelty experience. See, I don’t know Yuval if I can speak from experience in a way that would give you a good answer on that because somebody who has used this other headset might be able to give you a better answer than I can.

VRguy:  Very good. Have you had a chance to try some of the public VR experiences? Those that ultimately people would buy tickets for as opposed to playing at home?

Matt:     Oh God, 15 years ago. I did 15 years ago, I was at, I think it was at the mall of America believe it or not. They had a VR experience. It was set up in a boxing ring style thing. When you got in, you put on headsets, and then you stood there and kind of fumbled around and tried to shoot at each other with, I think, it was like vector graphics. It was pretty primitive. I did pay for that, so I think I technically qualify as a yes to that answer, but as far as the contemporary stuff, no. Outside of demos at the game shows and things, no.

VRguy:  Got it. As we come closer to the end of this conversation, I get asked recently about exclusivity in gaming. Game developers getting paid to create a title that’s exclusive, or to make sure that a title is exclusive to a particular platform. Do you think that’s a good thing for the industry? Do you think that’s a good thing for developers? What’s your take on that?

Matt:     I know somebody sitting on the marketing side would maybe cause me to have a little bit more nuanced answer in that I’m not looking at all of these companies and developers books. I don’t know precisely how much money is being spent, or how the market forces there, but generally speaking, my instinct has always been that exclusives are bad for the industry. I understand the desire to use them to sell a platform, and I understand the consumer loyalty that then can kind of ensue when you have a franchise that takes off and such, but I’m balanced I think moving experiences between mediums and increasing the audience size without that being at the expense of another platform is a good thing. What am I trying to say here?

                I think it kind of is born out a little bit, and it’s hard to know how much of it is lip service or not, Yuval, but I mean you see the heads of the major gaming companies saying more or less the same thing. These days, when they’re asked about this, 4, 5, 6 years ago where they were trying to line up exclusive titles all the time, you hear them saying thing like, now, saying things like, “Yeah, I don’t know that it was the best idea and we’re not really pursing that strategy so much anymore.” I think what you see more now is you see companies buying a major developer and then having that IP, and that IP is exclusive, but only in the sense that the studio is a subset now of the platform manufacturer. Generally, yeah, generally speaking exclusives, I’ve never been a fan of the idea of exclusives in gaming.

VRguy:  If you could drive the work plan, the priorities of people like me or other people who make hardware or are responsible for software platforms, or for game experiences, what would you have us work on for the next 12, 18 months?

Matt:     Oh God, oh just 12 or 18 months? Oh jeez, putting me on the spot. Well, specifically in virtual reality?

VRguy:  Yes.

Matt:     I think, oh boy. I could go one of two ways because I can either see John Carmack, his vision of the future which is an untethered virtual reality where we’ve eliminated the cables and we’re starting to really shrink down the strangeness of the head mounted experience. I could either go that way, or I could go the other way which is that my greatest, my personal … The thing that I wish VR did better already now today in the higher end headsets would be if we could increase the fidelity of the experience so that I am really convinced, or much more so than I am now. Eliminating the screen door mesh that you still see when you’re looking out at these worlds and really focusing, and crystallize it. I could one of two ways, either in terms of the ergonomics, the wearable nature of the experience, or the clarity and the fidelity. Can you do both?

VRguy:  Well, in this question we can do whatever you want. Sounds like you want us to do both, and that’s great. Where could people connect with you to learn more about your work, your writing, and your priorities for the next year and a half?

Matt:     You can find me in Time magazine, or at time.com, or on twitter @mattpeckham.

VRguy:  Any last word, any answer for a question I didn’t ask yet that you really want to get off your chest?

Matt:     Oh boy. I should have thought of something. The thing that I appreciate always about speaking with you, Yuval, is that you ask very thoughtful questions, and the kind of questions I wish more people would ask. How about I leave you with that compliment instead?

VRguy:  I appreciate it very much. Thank you, Matt. Thank you so much for coming onto my program.

Matt:     Thank you very much for having me, Yuval. Real pleasure speaking with you.

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