GDC 2018 offered clear proof that developers are focused on expanding the reach of immersive entertainment. Pre-GDC buzz centered around what new virtual reality game titles, hardware, and development tools that would be revealed. The full conference gave attendees a chance to see what some of the bigger players in the VR/AR market were up to, and left a lasting impression: VR is more than just a novelty for leading brands and content studios.

Developers Are Attracted To Immersive Entertainment

GDC is the world’s largest professional game industry event and game development conference. Running over five days in March, the event attracts people and companies from around the globe, many of whom are focused on the exchange ideas and demoing new immersive entertainment experiences. Unlike the gamer-focused PAX and (mainly) industry-specific E3, GDC is—to quote former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer—about developers, developers, developers.

In 2016, GDC’s organizers UBM decided to split the annual conference into two distinct elements—GDC and VRDC. GDC would continue to focus on all aspects of the gaming industry, while VRDC would be dedicated to panels and sessions that provided insight into what was deemed to be a nascent game sector.

Two years later and it is fair to say that the symbiotic relationship generated by the two events meant that the expo floor was split between familiar gaming (consoles, PCs and board games, for example) and virtual or augmented reality experiences. In addition, there was an increased number of hardware and software vendors that offered location-based VR solutions and free-roaming hardware demos.

There were over 70 companies demoing a dedicated VR/AR product or service at GDC 2018. These consisted of the usual suspects—Oculus, Unreal/Epic Games and Google, for instance—and some companies that are emerging content leaders (Survios, Experiment 7).

Other leading companies used GDC as a portal for breaking news, with HTC Vive announcing both the price of its Vive Pro HMD and the international launch of the Vive Focus. The good news is that many of the companies at GDC will also be doing the rounds at PAX and E3 in the coming months.

GDC Is A Perfect Place To Experience VR

As in previous years, the first two days were given over to the stand-alone VRDC event.

A significant amount of panel sessions and thought leadership provided attendees with both a sense of where the VR industry was now and its possible future. In addition, there were numerous presentations by content studios and VR content developers—cheerfully referred to as “Post Mortems"—that showcased the immersive experiences that were done well (Magnopus’s CocoVR) or those that seemed to be a work-in-progress (Pac-Man Hololens).

Somewhat surprisingly, Magic Leap also came to the VRDC party.

The secretive startup was present at a number of panel sessions, launched its Creator Portal, and announced that the Magic Leap One Creator Edition has support from Epic Games’ Unreal Engine 4 development software. The caveat to all this Magic Leap activity was that there was no sign of any physical product in the massive exhibition space within San Francisco's Moscone Center when GDC took over on March 21.

Magic Leap's absence aside, Facebook-owned Oculus was a major presence at the expo, as were Google, Intel and Qualcomm. All of these companies made the most of the interest in VR, with both a large amount of floor space dedicated to virtual reality and a steady flow of people through their booths.

LA-based content studio Survios’s two boxing rings garnered significant attention, with the company debuting its Creed: Rise to Glory VR boxing game. In fact, Creed was probably the most innovative demo at GDC, with the experience expected to be in location-based VR centers by the end of the year. The company also gave attendees the chance to be virtual DJs in its Electronauts experience, a slower pace than Creed but no less satisfying for the aural enthusiast among us.

Microsoft maintained its wall of silence about any involvement in VR, preferring instead to showcase its gaming content and developer relationships, which caught nobody by surprise. To be fair, the company has promised that E3 2018 in June will be its “biggest showing ever,” a promise that might—or might not—include some level of VR-focused immersive entertainment.

Immersive Experiences Must Find Their Market

With the exception of Survios, Oculus was likely the winner at GDC 2018.

Thanks to its combination of new experiences—Experiment 7’s Catan VR, Owlchemy Labs’ Vacation Simulator, and an online multi-player version of Anshar Wars—plus the public debut of the Oculus Go HMD, the booth had a steady stream of curious attendees. The consensus is that this headset could be a reasonably-priced entry-point for consumer VR, although time will tell if this device lives up to Oculus’ promises of VR optimization and convenience.

The question is, how far has the virtual reality sector come from, say, VRDC in 2016? The simple answer is not as far as it would have wanted, although there is a consensus that the tech and content have come on in leaps and bounds in the last two years.

The majority of attendees at this annual conference are developers, so you would expect there to be significant interest in the latest VR techniques and problem-solving solutions. The number of must-see content or experiences was admittedly on the low side, irrespective of the efforts of some of the major players and the indie community.

With that in mind, there some discussion in the media after GDC that virtual reality is still trying to find its place in a competitive immersive entertainment market. There is a defined interest in VR and the quality of available content has improved, but the heightened expectations that surround VR have (as yet) not translated into sales, irrespective of platform or hardware.

That is not to say that the VR industry should take its ball and go home, far from it.

GDC dedicated more floor space to VR in 2018 than in 2016, while people seemed happy to wait in line for next-generation hardware and experiences that may not be as accessible at, say, PAX or E3.  And that is a direct result of the high profile that immersive entertainment enjoys. We may be some way from the OASIS, but all we really need now is developers and content studios to convince the general public that VR is a must-have experience, and not just an immersive novelty.