Opinion: Virtual Reality’s Uncertain Future, its Challenges, and Potential Solution
Virtual reality is poised to be the next big thing in video games since motion controls. Remember those? The goofy sticks everyone was waving around in front their TV’s. Those were huge… but they’re also pretty much dead. The problem with being the next big thing in video games, and technology in general for that matter, is how fast something can catch on and how fast it can fade into obscurity. It’s nearly impossible to say how the technology will be adopted and used over the next few years. Arguments for and against VR’s potential in the gaming industry make valid points. I for one am optimistic. Virtual reality has the potential to truly change and shape how play and experience the medium. For that to even happen, this technology has to stick around for the long haul: overcoming its high price point and creating long term value for gamers.
Despite ever advancing technology such as graphics cards and sophisticated system architecture, the only thing to truly change how we play games was the universal and widespread adoption of the internet. Last generation’s motion controls were limited to a single console generation. PC gaming didn’t even bother with the tech. Now, VR technology is being adopted by both PC and console gaming, by companies both inside and outside of the industry, and will likely be incorporated into other industries as well.
Right now we don’t have any clear indication on whether VR is here for the long haul or a passing fad. That’s a bit of a self-explanatory, ‘well duh!’ statement, but it still needs to be said. Why? Due the amount of money, time, and resources companies are putting into VR. Quite literally every major player has jumped into the ring (except Nintendo); Valve & HTC (HTC Vive), Sony (PlayStation VR), Microsoft (HoloLens), Facebook (Oculus Rift), Samsung (Samsung Gear VR), and Google (Google Cardboard… it’s literally cardboard FYI). Even Apple who, according to Time Magazine, is ramping up their own VR R&D if their recent hiring practices are any indication. But will gamers actually buy into VR, both figuratively and literally? It might live on and thrive outside of gaming, but never be more than a piece of fancy tech on the shelf next to the Virtual Boy. Is VR fated to go the same route as motion controls? Will it be a one-generation wonder?
It’s often said that the only way to understand virtual reality is to try it yourself. As luck would have it I had the chance to slap an Oculus Rift over my eyeballs two years ago at PAX. I came in a skeptic and walked away a believer (cue The Monkees). Despite only being able to play two games with it, both were able to convey why VR had potential and why it was a technology to pay attention to. Even now, I wholeheartedly agree that the only way to ‘get’ VR is to try it for yourself. So… I’m going to do the only logical thing I can do… explain my experiences to you with words.
The first game I got my hands on was a steam-punk golf game Vertiginous Golf. Golfing through VR was different in a good way, it was different and it was fun. However, it wasn’t the main point I took away from the experience… and it wasn’t because I was terrible at golf (spoiler: I was). Before the golfing portion, you’re able to walk around a room, do minimal interactions, and sit in a chair. This minor segment drove home the potential possibly that developers can harness VR and deliver some truly powerful first-person games. It’s a bit of a stretch, but if the first thing I thought of in a VR golf game was future first-person applications, that says a lot about the technology. It’s not just FPS either, but something more simplistic (gameplay wise) liked Gone Home or Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture. This also opens the doors for adventure games, puzzle games (i.e. The Witness), and more. It is a different way of experiencing the game, emphasizing you as a character more so than it can do on a television screen.
The second game I was able to demo was another indie title called Aztez from Team Colorblind, a black and white (and red) a side scrolling beat-em up from a third person perspective. Aztez gave me insight to how VR doesn’t have to be used with only the first-person games. A third person view didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the demo and with VR effectively cutting me off from everything but the game (excluding the cacophony of show floor hullabaloo) added a layer of immersion I haven’t had before. All I had was the game and my visual experience of it. VR effectively eliminated the buffer zone between the game’s display and my face. Playing games on a television means you need to sit a certain distance away. Maybe you have posters behind the TV, maybe you like to play in the dark but it’s never quite pitch black in the room, or maybe your cat just wants attention and sits in front of the TV. There’s no such distraction when VR cuts off that visual excess and plunges you into the game’s world. For the first time, you can actually be there.
So where does that leave us? Right now may companies both inside and out are throwing their hat into VR ring. The technology has wider applications and will certainly end up in other industries as well, especially with Facebook calling the shots for Oculus. Movies, television, next-level Skype calls, military use, the inevitable adult feature film, or even used for education are all viable paths VR could take outside of gaming. Even if the technology doesn’t catch on and resonate with gamers, it’s not going anywhere. Regardless of how it’s applied, these headsets have major problem right out the gate. Unsurprisingly, it’s their high prices. If Ocular is any indication VR will set you back several hundred dollars. In terms of gaming options you’re looking at probably somewhere between $400 to $600+ dollars.
I’m not here to discuss which the better buy is, or the most advanced tech, or speculate on the exact prices. When talking about $400 and up, the semantics don’t really matter. The point is that price is going to be a major issue going forward in how fast, or how extensive the technology is adopted by gamers… which will ultimately determine VR’s success as a product. Let me put it to you this way: if the PlayStation Vita flew off shelves during the first year of release, would we have gotten that Bioshock Vita game? The issue for VR, like its distraught forefathers the PS Move and Kinect, is that this isn’t a console. But it’s priced like one. At the very least the hardware will be as expensive as their console brothers. For PC gamers, it will be cheaper your fancy rigs… if you already have one. Price still becomes a big factor for PC gaming as well, since Oculus won’t be able to be used without a high-end PC. Sorry regular PC gamers, but I suspect the HTC Vive will also run into the same problem.
This is the first barrier to clear, but how do we do it? Companies are aware of the situation and understand they need to price it as low as possible. The new technology, with new manufacturing, and all the other aspects to creating a radically new hardware product is expensive. Understanding their situation doesn’t make the problem go away for either the company or the consumer. Why would I buy a $400+ PS VR, when I can buy an Xbox One? Or Nintendo’s NX? Or upgrade my PC? What would sway my wallet towards VR versus any of the other options? It has to be done through adding more perceived value to the VR headset. Gamers get more bang for the buck and companies get a faster and higher adoption rate. That begs the question, how can additional value be added to VR?
Consoles have generally followed the razor-razor blade model when it comes their products: where they sell a console at a loss (or close to even) and make the profits based on software sales, similar to how razor blades make the money and not the razors themselves. The worst decision to facilitate early adoption and continued use of the product would would be to only create, or only allow VR specific games and software to run on their products. They cannot follow the razor-razor blade model with VR… at least not exactly. If so, VR will end up like motion controls. What would work is a pairing between the existing libraries of Steam, the PSN, Xbox Live to their respective products. Buying a game (i.e. blade) that can be used with multiple devices (i.e. razors). They need to pair it with existing games. That’s the added value.
The first thing that may come your mind is, “That’s impossible. They would have to go back in and provide support to enable VR use.” Well that’s not necessarily true… they don’t have to. Fallout 4 doesn’t have to support the motion aspects of VR, it just has to be Fallout 4. If companies can create the technology that enables their VR devices to display a game… any game, on the headset as seamlessly as it can on the television… virtual reality will replace the television for gamers. Not every game is going to be a VR game, because not every developer wants to make a VR specific game. Finding a way to enable the transition of a game to VR, whether it incorporates motion or not, would make every game a VR game. There is your added value, there is your selling point.
This makes sense when we determine why gamers are excited for VR in the first place. Is it to play games in new and interesting ways? Yeah, probably. Is it excitement behind brand new technology… technology we’ve all dreamed about but never thought we’d actually get to play? Yeah, probably. Is it the increased level of immersion that VR brings? Yeah, probably. Two of those reasons affect our actual experience of the games; immersion and new experiences. Both are tied closely together: playing a game in a way we’ve only dreamed about is a direct result of both the motion aspect and increased immersion acting in tandem. It’s a bit of a cop-out to say we’ve excited about VR because of the whole package. However, that’s’ not truly the case.
I stated earlier that with the exception of the internet, nothing has radically changed how we play and experience a game. The all-encompassing immersion has the potential to do that. Strip away the motion aspect of VR and you have greater visual and auditory immersion. Strip away the immersion aspect of VR and you have motion controls… we’ve already done that. Therefore, I’d argue that the immersion is the main draw to VR.
Gamer’s love their freedom. Just look at the massive popularity of open-world games at the moment. We also love to play how we want to. This may mean playing with or without motion controls. I understand that motion is a major aspect of why VR exists and that VR is a natural evolution of the motion controller technology. However, when looking at why someone would want the technology, at the most basic level, increased immersion is the bigger factor. To further state my case and to draw a parallel to VR’s current situation, I want to bring your attention to a different piece of gaming technology: the 3DS.
3D was the initial draw to the Nintendo DS successor. Before hitting the market, it successfully established itself as something different. Their 3D technology worked surprisingly well for a handheld device that didn’t require any peripherals or wacky 3D glasses. Did every single gamer love the 3D? No, probably not. Did everyone always use the 3D? No, probably not. The beauty of Nintendo’s choice to allow the 3D to be enabled or disabled was the gamer could experience games in the best possible way that suited them. Some gamers decided that they loved 3D and while others didn’t. Maybe it hurt their eyes after longer play sessions, or maybe they just wanted to play their games without it. Some gamers might just flip between the two depending on what game they were playing. The point is that even if they hated the 3D, really and truly despised it, they could still use and play the games on that system with no problems whatsoever.
Virtual Reality headsets should be the same way. Virtual reality should support the next step of gaming immersion, without the need for to be used with motion control head-tracking or peripherals. It should give the player the freedom to experience what they want to, how they want to. I’m not here to demean head-tracking, use with other motion peripherals, or the use of motion controls at all. The most immersive experiences may in fact be those games that fully utilize all the motion control wizardry at the developers’ disposal.
However, I believe that limiting the headset to a select sub-section of games specifically for VR will hinder the success of the technology in gaming. It can potentially hinder sales… which means developers won’t want to waste resources to make VR specific games… which means gamers won’t get a Bioshock VR… which means without those big titles many gamers won’t want to buy one in the first place. It’s a vicious cycle.
Providing the additional value through existing games played in deeper, never before experienced immersion will convince consumers to purchase more units early on. This can only be done by providing gamers with the freedom to play how they want to; enabling or disabling the motion aspect: flip it on to play a VR specific release, flip it off to play Fallout 4. Right now, HDMI cables are needed to be hooked into a PC or a console to use the 3D. We just need the technology to take that existing game and translate it to fit the viewing angles and differences in display of a headset versus a television. Human beings can smash atoms together, I certainly believe translating video is within the realm of possibility.
It’s unlikely, with the devices so close to launch, that this will occur. To my knowledge, I don’t believe these first generation VR devices will be able to do convert existing games and format them for the device’s viewing range/angles. However, it is something that needs to be looked at for future iterations of the devices. Incorporating these devices into their respective eco-systems in this fashion makes them a part of the razor-razor blade model, instead of separating the product with specific software. It will only help ensure the success of the product in the long term and give gamers a better experience, more freedom, and added value. It’s a win-win.
Virtual reality’s success is still shrouded in mystery. No amount of tea-leaf readings will be able to tell what is going to happen five years, or even one year from now. Will VR stick around for the long-haul or will it be a one-gen wonder? The technology faces a common hurdle often seen in hardware launches: high price points. A slow start may be bad for its future in gaming. PC gamers who don’t have high end PCs may be out of luck anyway, unable to use the Oculus Rift, and quite possibly the HTC Vive. For VR to be a success it has to sell and be adopted by gamers. At the same time it has to provide a value to them that meets the price of admission. That’s the challenge. The solution is both simple and complicated. Leveraging the existing libraries is the simple answer (more games, duh) but the hard part is creating the technology that allows for it to occur. Incorporating on-off motion controls enables VR to be more of a 3DS and less of a PS Move or Kinect. The existing games, even with the lack of motion controls, are likely to be more immersive on a headset than on the big screen. It also avoids the potential pitfall that developers may face; having to shoe-horn in VR controls in their games to be VR compatible. The ultimate end for gamers is the VR headset replacing their televisions… and every game becomes a VR game.