“A lot of the high hopes that we had actually crumbled to pieces around a week before launch.”
Edi Torres, creative director at Mixed Realms, was faced with a hard choice. Despite her team’s intentions, the PlayStation VR2 version of Hellsweeper, a frenetic roguelike shooter, would not have the graphical fidelity of its Steam VR counterpart at launch. When Sony first announced the PS VR2, Mixed Realms was excited about what the headset's hardware specs would allow them to achieve. But toward the end of production, which spanned over three and a half years, Torres tells Inverse an unexpected barrier prevented them from fulfilling that dream.
"We were left with this choice, like, oh my God, are we gonna unravel everything and risk breaking everything?"
Foveated Rendering was the main culprit. The feature uses the headset's eye-tracking to display a sharp image where the player is looking while lowering the resolution elsewhere on screen to preserve processing power. Mixed Realms received a devkit for Sony's new headset in September 2022 and spent the first few months tackling early performance issues. Closer to launch, it became clear they would not be able to meet performance expectations without Foveated Rendering. But it was too late. The Standard Render Pipeline offered by Unity, a video game engine popular with small studios, didn’t support it. Unity’s Universal Render Pipeline, which would later support features like Foveated Rendering, wasn't stable when Hellsweeper started development.
By then, Mixed Realms was close to the finish line for PS VR2, Steam VR, and Meta. Since Hellsweeper supports co-op with crossplay, all three versions largely share the same code. So making a drastic change in one would affect all of them. Alternatively, delaying the PS VR2 version meant compromising the crossplay feature the studio spent years working on.
Ultimately, the team went ahead with a simultaneous release on September 21st, sharing a roadmap shortly after detailing plans to move the project to the Universal Render Pipeline after launch. They've since released updates to resolution and textures.
"It was one of those cases where if we had a magic ball and somebody told us hey, in three and a half years from now, there's gonna be this amazing feature that's gonna make your game more performance friendly, we would have made a different choice," Torres says.
This is just one example of how the PlayStation VR2 is, both directly and indirectly, holding video game developers back. First-party releases such as Resident Evil Village VR and Horizon: Call of the Mountain showcased early promise in the launch lineup back on February 22nd, 2023. Since then, over 130 games have become available for PS VR2, from ports to new experiences. But not all studios were safe from obstacles along the way.
Inverse spoke to the developers behind The Light Brigade, Hellsweeper, Paper Beast, Among Us VR, and Vampire: The Masquerade - Justice about experimenting with the capabilities of the PSVR 2, how Unity is holding projects back, and the trials and tribulations of being approved by Sony. (Sony did not respond to a request for comment by the time of publication.)
PS VR2’s Resolution Issues
Éric Chahi, creative director and game designer behind Paper Beast, thought going from PS VR to PS VR2 would be an easy move. It wasn’t.
Since the $549 headset doesn’t support backwards compatibility, studios need to manually port their games. This gives developers a chance to make use of features like higher resolution, lightning effects, and better performance. But the process can also be a trial by fire.
"The pixel count of the headset is four times higher, and we add a lot of rendering improvement, such as dynamic texture to observe the flow of sand and water, light shaft effect, sharper shadows, so that the quality stands out on the PS VR2," Chahi tells Inverse. "So more pixels, and more complex shaders means a lot more calculation."
This is in response to the game's blurry resolution. The main difficulty came, once more, from Unity. The team at Pixel Reef, which gained access to a devkit in "mid-2022," did upgrade to the new version of the engine. Due to working on a custom rendering pipeline, however, the transition to Unity was "a pain," even if the added features were worth the effort. Chahi says the team is working on a patch aimed at increasing resolution to "get the best of both worlds."
The hardware specs of Sony's headset, alongside the PS5's horsepower, allow developers to use the high-fidelity Steam VR versions of their games as the base for ports. This was the initial intent for Hellsweeper, as mentioned, but also the starting point for The Light Brigade.
"We had the Steam version of the game with effects like shadows, bloom, and HDR turned on, and we brought that version onto the PS VR2," says Eddie Lee, designer and co-founder of Funktronic Labs. "So, technically, it was a matter of massaging it so it passes VRC," the latter being a virtual reality checklist of technical requirements that each game must pass.
Despite having no shortage of power to draw from, meeting the necessary performance and visual thresholds without the help of rendering features is a challenge. On launch, The Light Brigade used reprojection. But the first major update replaced it with a native resolution of 90Hz instead.
Many PS VR2 games use reprojection, a rendering technology that artificially generates frames to boost framerate. With it, 60 FPS can be reprojected to 120Hz, for example, but this results in blurry images, especially when looking at objects up close (like bringing an apple to your face in Horizon: Call of the Mountain to recover health). It can also cause dizziness. Fast Travel Games, the developer behind Vampire: The Masquerade - Justice, acknowledged this issue in November with the intent of addressing it on a later patch.
However, a studio spokesperson told Inverse a few weeks later via email — sent minutes after sharing the same statement on X (formerly Twitter) — that this was a "miscommunication." The game targets 120Hz, but sometimes uses reprojection to reach said target. As of now, the studio doesn’t have the bandwidth to work on delivering other refresh rate options.
Keon Van den Steen, game producer of Hubris, said in a Reddit AMA that there are future improvements on the headset's reprojection system in the works. But for the time being, developers are faced with hard decisions.
It took Martin Griffiths, engine programmer for No Man's Sky, around four months to enable Foveated Rendering. A patch released in July for Switchback VR had a similar result, introducing Foveated Rendering (as well as Flexible Scaled Rasterization and Temporal Anti-Aliasing) to increase resolution. Both games were part of the PS VR2's launch lineup.
Hectic Feedback From PlayStation
Other projects have been ever trickier. Games like Phasmophobia, Madison VR, Behemoth, and Bulletstorm VR are just a few of dozens of delayed titles throughout 2023. While it's hard for studios to share specifics, some reveal general insight into what VRC with Sony entails.
"It's super annoying to do these VRCs because it's a bunch of scenarios like, with your left controller, hold X while plugging and unplugging the headset 20 times while holding start," says The Light Brigade's Eddie Lee. "All these crazy scenarios that no normal gamer would do. But then you have to make sure that your experience is solid against the stuff a consumer would do. PlayStation doesn't want users to have a bad experience, right? Because it represents the brand."
Lee says Sony has been nothing but supportive. The company included The Light Brigade in the PS VR2’s release lineup and promoted it ever since. Lee is also grateful his studio can hire a porting engineer who's dedicated full-time to going through all these requirements, a privilege not every small studio has.
Robert Gordon, principal engineering manager at Schell Games who worked on Among Us VR, says Sony did add some additional steps to the certification process. Given the studio's experience with both PS VR and PS VR2, these steps weren't as crucial, but still require consideration, especially for newer devs in the space.
"Sony is very focused on player comfortableness, maybe even more so than other platforms," says Schell Games' senior engineer Michael Lee. "You can't have framerate dips in VR, you have to avoid locking things onto the UI, make sure movement is consistent, avoid weird sudden camera movements that are outside of the player's control. Those are all parts of that VRC process."
Paper Beast was able to get approval in two submissions after spending a considerable time optimizing the game to hit a stable 60 FPS. The team behind Hellsweeper had to request a waiver in regards to somersault, a signature feature of the game that was flagged by Sony as it could cause discomfort to players.
"What we had to do was turn it off by default and then communicate with Sony that this is a player's choice,” Torres says. “We have it in the game, they just have to turn it on if they want it. So we passed certification this way."
The Hellsweeper team also had to adjust some related trophies, including one that rewarded defeating a certain amount of enemies while somersaulting. I asked if turning off a signature feature of the game was disappointing. "It's both a yes and no,” she says. “We designed Hellsweeper to be an intense action game, and the core tenet is all the somersaulting, wall running, being able to perform these superhero-style movements. But at the end of the day, we want accessibility for players. We don't want them to play Hellsweeper and say, Ok, I hate virtual reality, I don't want to play more games because this one gave me a bad experience."
What’s Next for PS VR2?
As the PS VR2 life cycle nears its first year, studios continue to experiment. For Among Us VR, the team couldn't decide on a clear consensus around headset vibration from a design perspective. Some early ideas involved a vibration when people voted during an emergency meeting or whenever an imposter murdered another player. They say that Sony does share some helpful "negative examples" of what not to do, such as subjecting somebody to overly long vibrations, but it's up to each developer to find an actual use for them.
Looking to the future, there are elements, both inside and around the headset, that could be improved. Tracking, which is done automatically whenever you boot up a game, can be hit or miss depending on how much light is around the player. Weather can also play a big factor if you’re gaming near a window.
Torres would like to see PlayStation allow beta access to upcoming builds, a feature already available on Steam and Meta. That way, developers can get early feedback from the community before deploying a potentially polarizing patch. Guo An Wong, producer and 3D technical artist at Mixed Realms, wishes Sony had a QA team to help small studios.
"The moment we start testing, it means we stop our work," he says. "It requires a lot of time to go through different scenarios."
Others, such as Funktronic Labs' Eddie Lee, hope Unity deploys a fix so the Standard Render Pipeline supports features like Foveated Rendering, as opposed to teams dedicating time and resources to move to the Universal Render Pipeline. Lee sees this as the equivalent of "a tide lifting all the boats up."
Over at Schell, the team sees the VR market at an interesting inflection with the PS VR2, Meta Quest 3, and the upcoming Apple Vision Pro headsets. There's a sense that VR is no longer a Wild West. Studios are being more deliberate in how they develop games, but development times aren't getting any shorter or more streamlined.
"Unfortunately in VR, it's a space that takes longer to develop, to test, it takes longer to QA anything," Schell Games' Michael Lee concludes. "And then you often need to double or triple that if you're working across multiple platforms and multiplayer. We're fortunate enough that our studio has done this a lot and has experienced QA staff. I think we were able to do this port as quickly as we were only because of all of the studio advantages we had already built in it. But it is hard."
Editor’s note: This article was updated on January 17 with additional details about the PS VR2 launch of Hellsweeper and subsequent updates to the game.