More than just ports: VR devs on bringing PSVR 1 titles to PSVR 2

With less than a month until the launch of PlayStation VR2, there’s a nervous anticipation.

Early impressions with the hardware itself have been positive, but it’s hard to shake concerns over the expensive price tag, and the fact that only two titles out of the 37 confirmed for its launch window – Horizon: Call of the Mountain and The Dark Pictures: Switchback – are actually new and exclusive to the platform.

Among the existing ports coming to VR2, some are remasters of games already available on PSVR1, including Song in the Smoke: Rekindled, Moss, Moss: Book II, Pistol Whip, After the Fall, Tetris Effect: Connected, as well as that platform’s original launch title Rez Infinite. Of course, remastering older titles for new hardware is nothing new, but it also feels like a repeat of the first year of PS5 and Xbox Series X|S where the dearth of new exclusive releases meant developers were sprucing up their existing titles to take advantage of new hardware features.

“The awesome thing is that it’s kind of the excuse we needed to go back and do a full PS5 version”

Mark MacDonald, Enhance

But while PS5 owners can take those upgrades as a nice bonus, upgrading VR games to VR2 is essential because the headset is not backwards compatible with VR1 games. It’s difficult to square when PS4 games can be played on the console, but any PS4 game that has a VR mode, such as Resident Evil 7, Gran Turismo Sport, or Rez Infinite, won’t work on the new headset.

So how do VR developers feel about having to port their old titles to VR2 lest they get left behind on the old platform? It may be disappointing to not just be able to have an installed VR1 title loading up on VR2 but Josh Stiksma, design director of the Moss series, also appreciates how fundamentally different the two headsets are.

“To the best of our ability, we always want to bring players with us when we can, but I think there’s just a lot of technical changes that go into the new hardware,” he says. “The obvious big one that comes into play is now it’s a game that involves two hand-tracking controllers, rather than a single DualShock. Fundamentally, the input needs to change in order to handle that.”

Indeed, Moss is an example where even compatibility with VR1 headsets on PS5 isn’t straightforward, as these games were designed to use the light bar from the PS4’s DualShock controller, not present in the DualSense controller.

The situation does, however, vary from developer to developer. Vertigo Games’ co-op shooter After the Fall isn’t just coming to VR2, it also fully supports cross-platform play, including VR1 players.

For 17-Bit’s CEO and creative director Jake Kazdal, whose prehistoric survival game Song in the Smoke originally released at the end of 2021 (one month before Sony officially announced VR2), it was more of an opportunity to really make the best version of the game the team had envisioned. Kazdal and co were previously hampered by the constraints of VR1, in particular its reliance on the dated PlayStation Move wands for motion controls, which lacked the control sticks that VR2’s Sense controllers have.

“You literally point where you want to go and push the accelerate button to move around,” he explains. “I think the team was pretty proud of [the original], even with the limitations in front of us, but it’s just so much better with a dual stick setup. It’s a totally different game.”

The new inputs for PlayStation VR2 mean PSVR 1 games simply cannot be ported

Enhance producer Mark MacDonald adds that he’s actually happy about VR2 not being backwards compatible – to an extent.

“The awesome thing is that it’s kind of the excuse we needed to go back and do a full PS5 version,” he explains. “We’re really excited because ‘superficial’ things like resolution and framerate really matter in games like Tetris Effect: Connected and Rez Infinite, where sound and visuals sync and the crispness of it are extremely important and a big part of the experience.”

One could consider these on par with the ports already existing on other high-end PC VR headsets; for instance, designing for two hand-tracked controllers was already necessary for Polyarc when porting Moss to other platforms. But the overall consensus has been to not just make a quick port so that VR2 owners can play the games they had on VR1 but to play the very best version that also makes use of the headset’s new features.

“Because the PSVR 2 version would be a clean, single thing, we could go all in and exploit the hardware in a way that we weren’t able to before”

Jake Kazdal, 17-Bit

“We had one build in the Unreal engine that we would export to high-end PC all the way down to Quest, so we had to take into account all the different settings because everything had to come out of the same basket,” Kazdal continues . “But because the PSVR 2 version would be a clean, single thing, we could go all in and exploit the hardware in a way that we weren’t able to before.”

Exclusive to VR2’s headset is eye-tracking, where the hardware only needs to render what the eye actually sees, allowing the team to add dynamic shadows in Moss and make its characters more part of the world. Meanwhile, Tetris Effect: Connected lets you enter the Zone, the game’s unique zen ‘flow state’ mechanic, by closing your eyes.

As well as improved haptics, developers were also keen to exploit the adaptive triggers, naturally a fit for the rhythm-based gunplay of Pistol Whip. “Our team tuned the haptics to the PSVR 2’s greater range and sensitivity, and the new headset haptics will give players a bit more of a jolt when they’re hit,” explains game director Tyler McCulloch. “Adaptive triggers add different levels of trigger resistance when the clip is full or empty, provide more realistic firing vibrations, and those distinct satisfying clicks when you reload. It’s great.”

On the adaptive triggers, Stiksma adds, “If you think about just how many interactions we have across both Moss Book I and II, there’s a lot of different textures and different feels that you can actually accomplish using that feature. It’s pretty amazing when you start to play with it, so that’s something that’s going to feel really, really new.”

The Sense controller’s haptic controllers means PlayStation VR2 shooters can feel more realistic

Will it, however, feel new enough for existing players to buy it again? One might argue that there is added pressure for developers to make use of all VR2’s features to justify the cost. While free upgrades have largely been the case in this new console generation, Polyarc has confirmed both Moss and Moss Book II will be sold at full price (on parity with their pricing on other VR platforms), while Enhance is offering a discounted price for players who previously bought Rez Infinite and/or Tetris Effect: Connected on PS4.

“We had to go back and really dig deep into the game design itself to really optimize for the platform, from haptic feedback, increased graphics, field of view, eye-tracking to controller setup, really fundamentally changing the experience to be better and more immersive,” explains Polyarc’s publishing director Lincoln Davis. “We’re a small team working on this, and if we want to keep creating worlds like this, we can’t just give stuff away for free.”

MacDonald adds: “We spent a lot of time, and time is money, working on these new versions. You also need to factor in internal testing and platform testing, so in the end it’s a lot more time and effort than people probably think. ”

“We’re a small team working on this, and if we want to keep creating worlds like this, we can’t just give stuff away for free”

Lincoln Davis, Polyarc

Some developers, including Cloudhead Games, Vertigo Games, and 17-Bit, are still providing a free upgrade path, which Sony helped facilitate easily. “We decided upon the free upgrade to acknowledge the commitment PSVR1 players have made to the game and the community,” says After the Fall producer Alastair Burns.

There are other factors to consider; Kazdal admits that Song in the Smoke sold the least on VR1 compared to other platforms, in part due to releasing it when the platform was already in its twilight. The hope is its new Rekindled VR2 version would bring in more of a new audience.

For players who will already be spending a significant sum on this new headset, it will no doubt be disappointing to have to pony up again for games they already own on the same console, even if Davis reasons that VR2 is a separate platform to VR1 in the same way the Meta Store is to Steam. It’s nevertheless to the developers’ gain that they are sure to attract a new audience just by virtue of being part of the launch line-up.

“So many more people get to play these tried, tested and proven titles now and a quality line up on launch will only attract more curious gamers to VR,” says Burns.

Stiksma adds: “My hope is that the launch titles, us included, make a really strong showing of welcoming people to the platform. Sony can then further prove how great the platform is by getting their new titles out.”

But until we hear of more VR2 exclusives from first party studios beyond Horizon at launch, it’s easy to wonder whether Sony will also go down the remaster route for its acclaimed VR1 titles like Blood & Truth and Astro Bot: Rescue Mission to fill the gap. Following the controversy surrounding the upgrade path for Horizon: Forbidden West last year, it’s unlikely that any upgrades coming from Sony will be free.

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