Sometimes you need buttons and knobs.
VR gaming has opened a lot of eyes recently, especially when it comes to really feeling like you're in the game. Immersion is the key right now, and most developers have really latched on to that system and are doing incredibly well with new concepts to pull you in. Flight games, though, flight games remain mostly the same. Grab your gamepad or reach out to your mouse and keyboard, look around at the incredible universe on display in front of you, and whatever you do don't look down at the virtual arms using the super cool futuristic flight panel in front of you. Those aren't your arms, even though they're coming out of your body. Kinda sucks, right?
The answer to this particular conundrum is a piece of tech PC gamers have had access to for well over a decade, and in VR it really takes flight games to that immersive happy place.
Hands On Throttle and Stick (HOTAS for short) controllers are just about the farthest thing from a new idea you can get in PC gaming. They've been around forever, it seems like almost nobody uses them, and they're often prohibitively expensive for the one or two games that actually support the hardware. HOTAS controller manufacturers know their audience, and focus on delivering more and more realistic-feeling controllers every year. Controllers that resist when you encounter turbulence in the game, that feel like they were ripped out of an actual fighter jet, and seem impossibly complicated at first glance. These are not toys for the casual gamer, they're tools for totally immersing yourself in the game you want to play. When combined with a VR headset, that immersion is more complete than ever.
The big VR title that supports HOTAS controllers right now is Elite: Dangerous, the massive space game with a development team that is probably still laughing at No Man's Sky. Elite supports a ton of different HOTAS controller setups, making it possible for you to spend $50 on a Thrustmaster T-Flight or $400 on a Warthog depending on how invested you are in the game. Like any controller, you can map the buttons in Elite to whatever you want on the massive controllers, and then you put on the VR headset and get ready to game. Since your vision is replaced with the virtual world, you need to make those button configurations as simple and friendly as possible. This is easier on the HOTAS controllers with more options, but those options also make the price go up.
HOTAS users are always going to be the niche inside of a niche, but these experiences are something worth getting excited over.
Playing Elite: Dangerous in VR with a HOTAS setup is incredible. You look down and your arms are actually where they're supposed to be. When you slam the throttle forward and pull the stick back, your pilot avatar is doing basically the same thing. The animations sync up with your activities in ways that aren't possible with a gamepad or touch controllers, and it makes a huge difference in playing the game. It also means you come much closer to wetting yourself when you drop out of supercruise and find yourself entirely too close to a star, but that level of immersion is what flight games have been aiming for this whole time.
We're going to see more VR-friendly flight games moving forward. Eve: Valkyrie is currently an Oculus exclusive and has limited support for HOTAS controllers, and with games like Star Citizen in development there's a lot to look forward to. We're still going to have games like Star Trek: Bridge Command that can't really support anything other than touch controllers or gamepad due to the game design. HOTAS users are always going to be the niche inside of a niche, but when it comes to VR these experiences are something worth getting excited over.