There was plenty to see at this year's New York Comic Con, from the stars of the newest Netflix shows, to elaborate cosplay of superheroes and giant robots. However, it seemed like quite a few exhibitors would prefer that attendees spend their time in booths with virtual reality headsets strapped to their face. But instead of feeling like a pop-up arcade where fans could delve into the worlds of their favorite programs, many of the simulations felt like cheap marketing presentations. And, honestly, the technology and fans deserve so much better.
The use of virtual reality to promote other media is nothing new. We've seen simulations that allowed you to visit Castle Black from HBO's Game of Thrones, or one that put you into the role of a Ghostbuster. Indeed, the Westworld setup at New York Comic Con would appear to be more of the same, with some extra flourishes to more fully immerse attendees in the world of the show. Those who showed up at its off-site location were greeted by women and men dressed in white and asked to wait in a tasteful lounge area. It felt luxurious, like I had actually booked a trip with the fictional company. Unfortunately, that feeling wouldn't last very long as I was led into a mostly empty room and an HTC Vive was strapped to my face.
I continued my experience as a Westworld customer, waving the controllers to choose a hat and gun, then testing out my shooting skills on a small range. I felt mildly annoyed by the inability to walk around and explore the buildings in the distance, and that feeling got worse as the narrative kicked in. The scenery "glitched" and I ended up in a lab where technicians frantically scrambled to figure out what was going wrong with the sim. I was told to sit down -- in an actual physical chair -- and then I was rolled around the laboratory floor, passively watching as executives argued and malfunctioning androids attacked their makers. It was essentially an infodump that the company hoped would interest me in the series.
Amazon did something similar for The Man in the High Castle, minus the exterior role-playing elements. I was show protagonist Juliana Crain, searching for a filmstrip hidden in an office. I was a bit too tall for the room and looking down revealed some comically large breasts, while the gameplay mostly consisted of clicking on various items, with text hints appearing if I took a tad too long making my way through the office.
A lot of VR experiences encourage exploration and discovery, but neither of these programs had the luxury of letting the user wander due to the need to push their particular TV shows in under five minutes. They didn't even do a very good job conveying what their source material was about. A friend of mine who also tried the Man in the High Castle experience said that it was a good thing he had seen the pilot, because he otherwise had no idea what was going on. The same is true of Westworld: I know that it's ostensibly a story about theme park androids run amok, but that's only because I'm familiar with the source novel and original film. The confusion and frustration I experienced during the VR demo actually made me a bit wary of the show: I still haven't seen a single episode.
These experiences are "convention exclusive," meaning they'll never see release outside of the handful of attendees who arrive at the booth early enough or are willing to wait a few hours in line for a turn. They don't even have a good ripple effect: You can't really share the experience on social media, and your friends won't watch a TV show or movie just because you saw a cool VR demo. So most of these demos tend to be short and unsatisfying, because there's no point in spending a lot of resources on something that can only reach a couple thousand people at most.
This results in a sort of knock-on effect, as the experiences stop being worth the time and money attendees put into them. A single-day badge is $50, and many of the booths had lines advertising two or three hour waits. With hundreds of guests, dozens of panels and cosplay to check out, I'd be pretty pissed if I wasted a good chunk of my day on a mediocre VR demo.
At first glance, Starbreeze Studios' John Wick experience would seem to be more of the same: It's also a tie-in for an upcoming film and a limited number of stations meant a long wait. You even start out by watching a short trailer. But it quickly breaks off into a fully-realized simulation, forcing you to defend yourself from waves and waves of attackers on a roof. I was far from a passive observer of an ad at this point: I had to actually turn to aim my guns and duck behind walls to avoid being shot.
It didn't matter whether or not I was familiar with John Wick, because it cut to the meat of what people like about the series: The intense action sequences. Granted, it's a lot easier to convey the story of an assassin who everyone wants to kill than say, an alternate history where the Nazis won World War II. But, the best games and VR experiences play to their source materials' strengths, and John Wick did that beautifully.
The reason that it succeeded is because it's not an ephemeral gimmick. It's actually going to be a real game next year, called "The John Wick Chronicles," available on SteamVR for $20 in February. So no one actually needed to stand in line for hours to try it, they could have just waited for the retail release. But, if they'd never tried VR before, it was certainly a good first experience to have. It sold virtual reality as much as it sold John Wick.
This is important because even with three major headsets available, the price and required hardware keep them out of the hands of many fans. Large public events like New York Comic Con end up being the first time many people get to try the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, so those experiences need to be good. Who's going to want to buy a headset if their first simulation is a bad commercial?