First Look: The ‘WizDish’

by Tom Colebrooke

At EGX this year I was fortunate enough to be able to charm my way into a go on the new ‘WizDish’ omnidirectional treadmill – the supposed revolutionary next step in virtual reality, and currently retailing for around £500 upwards.

I eagerly stepped into the bizarre croc-flip-flop slipper things that everyone else had struggled into to remove the friction from their own shoes. With these huge and rather cumbersome shoes now affixed to my feet, I hopped onto the circular platform, desperate to see if all the hysteria and hyperbole about omnidirectional treadmills was right. I put on the Oculus Rift and was greeted with the familiar sight of the Fallout 4 introduction. The first thing that struck me was how unstable I felt. Seconds after being put into the ring, I was uneasy in moving my feet even an inch, and my hands were gripping the circular support ring with considerable force.

To cut a short story even shorter, within moments I was frantically flailing my feet to opposite ends of the black slippery platform, occasionally changing direction, and always holding onto the rickety lifesaving circle of metal pole for dear, dear life. Far from being the surreal, immersive experience its being billed as all over the internet and beyond, I was stunned by how completely inept the system seemed to be. I’m not a light guy, but the platform still had a lot of trouble picking up my feet movement. Of course, the obvious problem with these treadmills is that they remove the possibility of hands being able to control anything in the game environment. This wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the feet movement felt natural and intuitive, but it was far from being either of those things. After a while, I figured out that for the system to register any consistent movement, you are forced to kick the sides of the circle – this not only feels unnecessary, but further unbalances you and forces you to once again resort to gripping the support bar. If the WizDish is trying to simulate scootering around the neighbourhood while leaning on a Zimmer frame, they absolutely nailed it. This bar, by the by, is low; especially if you’re 6” plus.

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Back to the lack of hands, however, as these are taken up by the natural impulse to not fall flat on your face. This obviously leaves no free limbs with which to use a controller, which makes it somewhat bizarre that I was playing Fallout 4 with no way of pressing A, X, triggers, or any other kind of button. This quickly made it obvious why the demonstration was using the prologue for Fallout 4, and not another section in the game. Firstly, the prologue is a walking simulator – suitable for obvious reasons, and secondly, no buttons need to be pressed. They can be, naturally, but they don’t need to be. Then something else occurred to me: the staff were holding the controllers whilst I was throwing my weight around on the platform.

Surely this makes the WizDish inappropriate for games, in its current form? If your peripheral, specifically designed for games, makes the player unable to play a game, then it has, in its very essence, failed to achieve its aim. If the aim of devices like the WizDish is to make gaming more immersive, more stunningly realistic, then surely it is underachieving in a spectacular fashion if it prevents the player from playing the game at all? This is a problem I have with VR in general at the present moment. It is inevitable that any new technology is going to have continuous and radical revolutions in direction and purpose as it finds its feet in a chaotic and fast-moving market, but why along the way does it feel the need to try and sell itself as just another peripheral for another young and quickly developing product. Because that is what the WizDish is – completely dependent on the Oculus Rift. I’m unsure as to whether it can be used with another VR brand. I can’t see why it shouldn’t be able to, but still, the fact that the WizDish is so reliant on a piece of technology that is still developing so quickly and so unpredictably speaks volumes about its ability to provide a genuinely worthwhile addition to VR at this point. Once the Oculus is a refined and well established commercial product with its own solutions for the problems of dual-tasking that arise from demanding the player use a controller to move and their head to direct the camera, then the WizDish may prove a well-timed and exciting next step. But until that day, be very sceptical of these ‘advances’.

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If you decide to install the WizDish into your games room, you’ll have some fun, you might even have some pretty cool moments if you can find a walking simulator that you can calibrate well enough with the platform. At any rate, if you happen to find some promotional material that depicts players having a rip-roaringly good time with the platform, holding a controller and shuffling around in their croc-slippers, don’t trust it further than you can throw it.

Fundamentally, my advice for the time being would be to take the hype around omnidirectional treadmills with more than a few pinches of salt. The idea is evidently a cool one, and one that with the right tech might come about sooner than we think, but in its current iteration the WizDish is the VR equivalent of ROB the Robot. It’s nothing more than a woefully overpriced gimmick that will disappoint any user who wants to experience walking around in a game.

Mafia III: The Latest Frame-Rate Faux Pas

by Tom Colebrooke

Mafia III, after a long and impressive marketing campaign, has finally arrived. It’s a little broken, but never fear, it’s been patched, in the same way as a gigantic cruise liner is hauled back into the dry dock is patched hours after it’s been launched to sea because they forgot to add propellers.

The most immediately noticeable and pervasive visual feature of the game, its framerate, was locked at 30FPS on release for PC, leaving players at a loss, and more than a little irritated. As baffling as I find this, and despite the fix leaving yet more optimisation issues unchecked, I believe this to be just the latest in a long line of woefully inadequate displays from big-name publishers, with the majority of these instances occurring for PC.

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A vast majority of PC players are more than casual players, they are enthusiasts that have spent a lot of time and money building a powerful and comfortable gaming rig that suits their needs. Frame-rate is a PC player’s bread and butter, it’s the most vital factor that separates them from the console players. The ability to tweak and fiddle with a game’s settings alongside their hardware is what adds the element of achievement to setting up a game to run smoothly, quickly and with a gorgeous visual effect. Taking that away from them is ill-advised, to say the least, but to do it without advertising the fact before they buy the game is inexcusable from any developer, let alone from a triple-A publisher with a reasonably good track record of pumping out good titles year on year. Serving PC players what constitutes little more than a console port on the surface, and charging them full retail price for the privilege, is removing the justification for their investment in buying and building a powerful gaming rig.

Amidst the furore of the release, there has, true to form, been a passionate debate on both sides, with gamers corralling support for 2K on one hand, and for PC gamers on the other. If you’re brave enough to dive deep into the comment sections of YouTube or Steam, you’ll find that frame-rates are something of a religion to PC gamers, and, using the justification above, rightly so. I play most of my games on PC, because I do everything on my PC – for me, it’s quicker and easier and more comfortable. As such, I don’t appreciate it when publishers put backhanded efforts at PC optimisation on Steam and expect players not to notice. I find it frankly stunning that publishers and developers still think they can get away with shipping a product riddled with performance issues and not face a backlash. The spate of broken releases plaguing the industry, though somewhat calmed since the days of inexcusably appalling games such as Assassin’s Creed: Unity, has become more than a spate; it has evolved into an uneasy hum of poor productions that, time and again, require patches that fix basic, fundamental aspects of the game that should have been fixed prior to release.

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This isn’t simply a PC problem though, as much as the worst lapses have repeatedly been confined to PC. Halo: The Master Chief Collection, Dragon Age: Inquisition, Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare, Battlefield 4, Rome II: Total War, not to mention Batman: Arkham Knight, which displayed an outright shamefully flagrant disregard for quality, are some of the worst culprits of the last few years. And, most worryingly, their common factor is that they are all big budget, big team, highly anticipated releases.

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It almost seems as if developers and publishers are afraid of taking their time, which may be a symptom of videogames being whipped into shape by the insatiable commercialist machine, mobilising big name publishers and developers to produce as much content as quickly as possible to make a quick return at the expense of gamers’ loyalty, trust and love for their favourite franchises. I sincerely hope it isn’t, and I would encourage any developer or publisher to allow themselves more time – a rabid public may be intimidating at first, but in the end, if your product is good enough, they will wait and they will love you for it in the end. It has been five years already since the last Elder Scrolls chapter, and will no doubt be a few more years before we hear any more on that front, and goodness knows Valve are taking their sweet time with the third instalment of Half-Life, which at this point has become the stuff of ethereal myth. But fans are waiting, patiently, for these titles – because when they come, they will be everything they have been waiting for and, with the right creative minds behind them, a lot more.

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The current business strategy for games is as broken as the games it is ultimately responsible for. Pre-ordering, day-one packs, special editions, and, heaven forfend, the systematic abuse of microtransactions, are all components of the beginnings of corporate greed tampering with the end experience of videogames. Unlike literature, music and other art forms, games are not immune from these strategies.  Films are as vulnerable to this kind of abuse as games are (Suicide Squad springs to mind). When the prospect of a quick return or bigger paychecks begins to distract creators from producing their best work, or worse still, stops them caring for their own projects, it is time for radical change. This, among other things, is partly why the concept of the ‘indie darling’ has become so prominent in recent years – people are drawn to games made with passion and true intentions. Mafia III is simply another in a long line of industrial transgressions, but it is not the last. There will be more like it this year and in years to come. As other commentators have said, this trend of releasing broken games has become the new normal. I just hope that developers will, in the end, choose the creative route, and shun the chance to make a quick buck from trading in the trust of loving fans.