The fate of virtual reality hangs in the balance
At the time of writing this blog (late November 2019) there have been 2 major announcements regarding Virtual Reality (VR) gaming, each monumental in its implication. One was great for VR, the other was not.
Let’s start with the great
Valve announced that the long-awaited new game in the Half Life universe would be a VR exclusive game. Called Half Life: Alyx, the game would be set between the first two games, a prequel as it were to Half Life 2. Valve have claimed the game would be a full experience of at least 6 – 8 hours gameplay. A very impressive trailer was released which showcased action and comedy. For many fans of Half Life this was welcome news as the game had all the hallmarks of a AAA experience, even if it was not the long-awaited Half Life 3.
Valve have had form in producing innovative games that have defined the shooter genre. The original Half Life (1998) created a substantive first-person perspective story-telling that had not been done before. Half Life 2 (2004), with its Source engine, redefined what a player could do with interactive physics in a game engine. With the release of Half Life: Alyx in March 2020, Valve have obviously eyed VR as the next step in immersive gameplay. Given the game is a VR exclusive some have said that is in a cynical attempt by Valve to push sales for its new VR hardware called Valve Index which released earlier this year in June, however, given the game can be played on almost all VR headsets for the PC (Valve Index, HTC Vive, Windows Mixed Reality, Oculus Rift and Oculus Quest) there is little merit to this theory. Others have argued that lovers of the Half Life universe have been forced to buy a VR headset. A move reminiscent when Valve pushed the installation of Steam for those who wanted to play Half Life 2. Those who do have a VR headset are cheering that this could be the “killer-app” that VR desperately needs. A reason to invest in VR is because of this game.
Time will tell if this game is the killer-app people have been waiting for. Betting against Valve is not a good idea because Steam today still dominates PC digital market sales and Valve made ground-breaking game innovations such as the free-to-play and microtransactions with Team Fortress 2. Valve is great at innovation. The issue this time around is that unlike Steam, which was free to download and install, there are barriers to entry for VR. Firstly, it is expensive. The Valve Index will set you back over €1,000, a pricey sum especially given it will probably cost more than the new PS5 and the new Project Scarlett Xbox, both slated to release next year. The second barrier is the lack of compelling titles that are already on the market. A quick search on Google for VR games comes back with either short game “experiences”, cockpit-based games or interactive puzzle games. Apart from Half Life: Alyx there are only a handful of compelling narrative driven games for VR. A third barrier could be the technology itself. Similar to the misfortunes of wearing glasses at home for 3D TV, people may not be comfortable wearing a headset, closed off from the real world, to play a game. The real possibility of tripping over wires, banging into furniture or other people and looking foolish (with waving arms) could be enough to dissuade most casual gamers.
This brings us nicely to the second major announcement regarding VR. In an interview with a website, Phil Spencer, Executive Vice President of gaming at Xbox, made this statement:
We’re responding to what our customers are asking for and…nobody’s asking for VR….the vast majority of our customers know if they want a VR experience, there are places to go to get those…[VR] that’s not where our focus is
In 2016 Phil Spencer stated that VR would come to Xbox One X, so something happened between 2016 and today that changed his mind. In March 2019 Sony declared that the PlayStation VR (PSVR) sales have been a success with 4.2 million sets sold. This is approximately 5% of total sell through for all PS4s sold worldwide. This conservative attach rate may not be the strategy Microsoft will want for its own VR solution. In response to Phil Spencer’s comments, Sony’s Shuhei Yoshida, head of their indie outreach program, tweeted:
sometimes we work hard to make things no customer are asking for
The question then arises is that the PSVR has been on the market for over 3 years now and has over 550 games released (which are either full VR games or games that support PSVR), this should be enough information for consumers to make a solid decision if VR is for them. So why the conservative sales? To give credit to Sony they have supported PSVR with a compelling consumer price, easy installation, accessibility and plenty of games and experiences. The issue could be that elusive “killer-app” is still currently missing for the PSVR. Consumers do not have the need to rush out and buy a VR solution.
Personally, I have a PiPlay VR headset for my gaming PC which I use sporadically for flight sim and car racing games. The installation is not long, but it does mean I have to plug the VR headset into the HDMI port at the back of my PC and recalibrate the headset every time I want use it. Once I am in the game, the initial buzz from playing in VR comes back. Nothing will beat that sense of awe when you are in a VR game. It is truly immersive. Then come the niggles. I suffer from the Screen Door Effect, which basically means picture quality is a little blurry and I am often fighting to get that sweet spot of visual clarity. Then I am often fiddling to find the right button on my controller as I cannot see it due to the headset. Then I begin to have less fun. I pack away the headset and forget about it for weeks at a time.
Before the general release of the Oculus Rift in 2016, the first VR headset for this current generation, there was a huge expectation it would change the landscape of gaming forever. It would herald a new dawn of gaming immersion and result with new game play innovations. In some respects, it succeeded and in others it did not. It did not set the world on fire nor is it a failure of commercialism. The problem is that it has become a niche product for the core gamer. It did not break into the wider consumer consciousness.
It will not be erroneous to think that the future of VR currently rests on the shoulders of two companies, Sony and Valve. It looks like Microsoft and Nintendo are bowing out of the VR race and many large third-party publishers are focused on traditional console, PC and mobile games. If Sony and Valve both fail to persuade enough people to buy into VR, it’s long term future in gaming is in question and VR gaming could very well go the same way as the Kinect.
By the way what ever happened to Augmented Reality and the HoloLens?