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Insights and Announcements in VR Gaming From The Virtual GDC Showcase

Highlights from the VR gaming content at this year’s week-long GDC event.


The virtual Game Developers Conference Showcase was held from March 15-19. The event wasn’t exclusively devoted to VR gaming, but a number of VR gaming companies and independent designers use Unity’s game engine.

A Quick Update on GDC Since COVID-19

The annual Game Developers Conference has, historically, been one of the biggest annual events in the technology industry. Like most other traditionally physical events, it has happened a bit differently since the coronavirus pandemic.

Last year, many game development groups held events independently. This year, Facebook (who held their own showcase event last year) partnered with Unity and Intel to offer a larger, joint showing in advance of the more complete Game Developers Conference, which will take place in July.

Major Announcements From Unity

It’s less than shocking that of the major announcements at the event, a number of them came from Unity.

Roadmap and Updates

Unity is very regular and reliable with system updates – we already knew that the updates would be coming, we just didn’t know what they would entail. There are “hundreds of improvements,” according to Unity VP of Product Andrew Bowell. The major takeaways for the coming updates in 2021 – the first of which is coming April 7 – include:

  • Visual scripting;
  • Improved net code;
  • Improved universal asset rendering;
  • Improved array and list reordering tools;
  • Introduction of a “play mode” for easier experience testing;
  • Introduction of a search feature;
  • Support for the latest version of C#.
Unity visual scripting GDC 2021 showcase VR gaming
Unity visual scripting

Nathaniel Bell of Insomniac Games also commented on his studio having been one of the first to use the Upres 2.0 tool from Unity ArtEngine, which uses artificial intelligence to create asset textures from photogrammetry.

The First Unity for Humanity Grant Recipients

Not all of Unity’s announcements had to do with actual software developments. Jessica Lindl, GM and VP of Social Impact at Unity, also used the platform to announce the first grant recipients of the Unity for Humanity program.

Out of five projects to receive technical, advertising, and monetary support to promote their social impact, two – Our America and Future Aleppo – are VR experiences.

“These realtime, 3D storytelling experiences help us to see the world a bit differently,” said Lindl. “Change happens when more stories are told.”

Updates from Game Developers

While he didn’t make any official announcements, Chris Busse, SVP of Development at Skydance Interactive said in a panel highlighting the success of The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners that the studio is “going to continue exploring The Walking Dead,” potentially hinting at an update or companion title.

During a panel discussion on social VR gaming, BigBox VR co-founder and CTO Gabe Brown made no official announcements but said that the company behind Population One is exploring new ways for users to share in-game currency and deep links directly to private servers. Brown also hinted at some form of beta program to give gamers early access to tools in pre-release.

In a discussion on the future of gaming, Denny Unger, CEO and Creative Director of Cloudhead Games, said that the group is working on another “cinematic experience” similar to Pistol Whip 2089. The five-scene experience with new weapons and bosses is “focused around the past” and will be a “wild ride.”

Major Trends and Themes

Unity’s GDC offerings definitely called attention to the role that game developers have played over the last year, and how the market has changed.

VR Gaming as “Escape and Connection”

“It’s a business, we’re obviously in a business, but I do think we ought to take a moment of reflection and just say, I think [the gaming industry was] a big part of getting through the last year,” Facebook Vice President of Play Jason Rubin said in a talk on the future of gaming. “As an industry, we owe it to ourselves to say ‘we did it.’ This was a big moment.”

Mike Verdu, also of Facebook Company, shared the sentiment in the same talk, saying,

“I’ve seen something happening in VR that I’ve been waiting to see for a while now, and that’s people scheduling time to be together in VR, to meet each other at a time and virtual place… It’s actually been very rewarding to see how people are using VR not just to escape their present circumstances but also to connect with other people in virtual spaces.”

The Rise of Social VR Gaming and “The Post-Appstore World”

As more people buy into VR gaming, more opportunity is created for social VR gaming – which in turn becomes more attractive to gamers and brings more gamers into VR.

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“Every single person told us ‘Make single-player games, there’s not enough people in VR.’ They came at us with just doubt,” BigBox VR co-founder and CEO Chia Chin Lee said in a talk on social VR gaming. “We had to come out with a bang that would make the liquidity that would make the matchmaking work.”

Omid Yazdanshenas, a Client Platform Engineer at Oculus, explained the feedback effect that this has on VR gaming in the same talk, saying, “People who play together are playing longer. It’s amazing to see. It’s almost a no-brainer, but [BigBox VR] has it down to a science.”

Developers aren’t just expanding the way that they think about VR gaming, they’re expanding the ways in which they get games to players, bringing us closer to what Rubin and others called “The Post-Appstore World.” In this vision of the ecosystem, players are more likely to find games through friends than they are through being presented with titles by the market itself.

“We don’t think that people will stop discovering games through the app store necessarily, but that they’ll be able to discover and play games in much more authentic and efficient ways than they currently do,” Playco co-founder and CEO Michael Carter said in an event on “The Future of Gaming.”

“App Lab gives developers this new channel to ship apps directly to customers,”  Verdu said of the recently launched Oculus portal in the same talk. “It’s off to a great start and we’re looking forward to seeing what kind of innovation developers will bring using this new channel.”

Increasing VR Adoption

As more people have picked up VR headsets, developers see an emerging economy of scale that allows them to invest more in creating more in-depth experiences.

“VR is starting to see that iPhone 3G moment where we’re seeing exponential growth that’s happening,” said Brown. “We’re seeing a demographic shift towards the mainstream consumer and as a developer that’s very exciting because that means we can make a game and we can make a business of this.”

Unger echoed the sentiment in a spotlight on Pistol Whip and specifically credited Quest and Quest 2 with being the devices that sparked the explosion in VR gaming.

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“It quickly shifted away from VR being a novelty into VR having a utility in people’s lives,” said Unger. “What that means for me at Cloudhead, as a developer, is growth. It means that we can support the products that we’re building for the ecosystem in a much more poignant way.”

An Incredible Year Ahead

Whether you’re a gamer or a developer (or both) there was already a lot in the VR gaming space to be excited for. And the virtual GDC just gave us a lot more. There is also another event coming down the road on July 19-23.

Jon Jaehnig
the authorJon Jaehnig
Jon Jaehnig is a freelance journalist with special interest in emerging technologies. Jon has a degree in Scientific and Technical Communication from Michigan Technological University and lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. If you have a story suggestion for Jon, you may contact him here.