Since the release of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift, I've tested dozens of VR apps and games, from big-budget adventures to free indie apps made by lone programmers. I can safely say that the single best experience I've had in virtual reality to date is a free Steam app for the HTC Vive called Rec Room, and specifically the multiplayer paintball game that's included in it.
Rec Room's setup looks and feels a lot like another best-in-class game -- Wii Sports. Like Wii Sports, there are simple custom avatars with clothing and hairstyle choices, and a variety of familiar sports games that are easy to pick up and play with little to no instruction. If you can figure out how to hook up a Vive (or at least how to plug one into your high-end PC and launch the SteamVR app), you can figure out how to play Rec Room without reading the manual.
There's one part of the app that really stands out: paintball. You're transported to an outdoor paintball course for four-on-four capture-the-flag or team-deathmatch-style games. You can move around within your room-scale environment, depending on how much floor space you have (I have about 2.2m x 2.2m), but most of the game is spent teleporting around and hiding behind tires and wooden barriers, while shooting tiny virtual paintballs at the other team.
Rec Room was created by a few guys at small studio named Against Gravity. I asked the company's two Seattle-based founders, Nick Fajt and Cameron Brown, why paintball had captured so much interest. Via email, they told me, "Paintball is a really solid blend of the new and the familiar. Dodging and shooting in room-scale VR is something really new."
The game also brings a much-needed social element to VR, aided by the built-in microphone in every Vive headset. Fajt and Brown say, "There's sense of social presence coming from the avatars and voice chat. This is something that happens throughout Rec Room, and paintball is no exception. Something we love is the little two-second interactions between players who just splatted each other."
While the game is free for now on the PC gaming platform Steam, there's a chance it could move to a freemium model, where the base experience is free, but add-ons are available for sale. "To be honest, we're not 100-percent sure yet what it will look like. Social VR is a new platform, and like the truly new platform shifts that have come before -- like mobile or the web -- it'll take time to find the new business models that really fit," say Fajt and Brown. "We think some premium features, avatar items is an obvious example, will likely make sense."
What the game really does well is bring multiplayer shooting to VR in a way that's challenging enough to be fun, but simple enough to work with the complexities of virtual reality controls and spaces. With so many new games and demos coming to VR every month, I actually put off trying Rec Room for a long time, but as soon as I played my first game of paintball, I was hooked. There's literally nothing more fun you can do in virtual reality right now.
Editors' note: This story was published earlier with a slightly different headline.