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These SteamVR games will make or break virtual reality

The only thing that can stop VR is bad VR. Thank goodness Steam VR's launch titles are all great.

Sean Buckley , @seaniccus
01.29.16 in AV
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In one month, the HTC Vive will be available for pre-order, giving consumers a chance to buy the first room-scale virtual reality system with full head and hand motion tracking. It sounds great, but what are you going to play with it? Valve knew you were going to ask that -- which is why it hosted the SteamVR Developer Showcase in Seattle this week. In all, the company showcased twelve games that stood out as some of the best VR experiences Vive owners can have in 2016. Better still? There's not a bad egg in the bunch -- I've played all of them, and I already want to play all of them again.

Gallery: Twelve SteamVR games you'll be able to play when the HTC Vive Launches | 12 Photos

Believe or not, the fact that I can say that about Valve's showcase is huge. Oculus' Palmer Luckey once told me that the only thing that could kill virtual reality is bad virtual reality -- and he's right. The sense of presence one feels in consumer VR is so hard to articulate that the challenge of explaining it to new users has become something of an inside joke to the industry. Every developer I asked at the event told me the same thing: If you want a newbie to understand why VR matters you have to make them try it. If they do, and the experience is bad, they'll write it off as a gimmick. That's why events like the SteamVR developer showcase are so important: These are the first, best experiences consumers will have. These are the games that will make or break the virtual reality industry. Thank goodness they don't suck.

Part of what makes most of these SteamVR launch titles work is that there's no learning curve. Thanks to Valve's lighthouse laser tracking tech and the HTC Vive's motion controller, interacting in VR is pretty much like living your normal life. If you want to go somewhere, you walk there. If you want to pick something up, you reach out and grab it -- albeit by pulling a trigger on a controller rather than physically closing your hand. This makes everything feel easy and natural. When attack drones assault you with lasers in Space Pirate Trainer, you can avoid them by dodging and ducking. When Zombies charge you in Arizona Sunshine, defending yourself is just a matter of raising your arm (and the virtual gun it holds) and shooting. For the first time ever, you don't need to learn how to manage swing-power meters to play a golf video game -- in Cloudlands VR Minigolf you simply swing a club. If you're a human alive today, you know how to play games in virtual reality.

That said, there are still rules to learn. Yes, you can walk around in a real world space, which translates to in-game movement, but that space is limited by reality. How do you walk down a virtual hallway if your real-world couch is in the way? Games like Budget Cuts and The Gallery answer that with teleportation mechanics -- moving the player's physical walking space to a new point in the virtual world. For Budget Cuts, this manifests as an in-game portal gun, where The Gallery uses a simpler (and less narratively explained) fade-cut to the new location.

There were abstract experiences too, like the omnipresent canvas of Tilt Brush. This painting program that lets you draw directly on the virtual air around you -- but it's still built upon the rules of a reality the player already understands. It's not just the visual illusion of the HTC Vive's headset that made these experiences feel real, it was the act moving, interacting and existing in a virtual world as you do a physical one. For now, that's an HTC Vive exclusive experience. The Oculus Rift is launching with a focus on a seated experience, although most of the developers at SteamVR's Developer Showcase did say they planned to port their games to the Rift after Oculus Touch launches later this year.

We don't even know how much the HTC Vive is going to cost, and it's too early to say which consumer VR headset will reign supreme at the end of the year -- but if you do go all in with SteamVR, at least you'll know that there are a dozen top-tier experiences you can have. Hopefully, this is just the beginning.

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