Virtual Reality is an idea that has been kicking around in some form for decades. It has been popular in many disciplines, but the dream has always been to use this technology for gaming. Attempts at this have proven disastrous this far, largely due to limited technology, but in 2012, the Kickstarter for the Oculus Rift started and got big names in the game industry on board and talking about it early. Some of these people were John Carmack, who would go on to become the Chief Technology Officer of Oculus VR, and Gabe Newell of Valve. This kicked off a huge VR craze, with nearly every tech company starting development on their own headsets and environments. Today, there are quite a few tech companies with headsets in the market. Some of these are based around smartphones, and have to run entirely on the resources available in that limited environment, while some are designed for desktop computers or game consoles. With five big players on the market, and dozens of cheaper alternatives, it would seem that VR is here to stay. Whatever it may seem however, the simple fact of the matter is that the market for this has been made unstable, and very likely to collapse quickly. With the rest of the world wasting their time speculating about E3, let’s give a speculative postmortem on VR gaming. Yes, this has been talked about in several places, but this is a great case study in watching a trainwreck as it happens, so we know what to look for in the future. To clarify, it will likely be many years before we stop seeing headsets, if ever. The market is saturated with this hardware, and it’s possible it can be used better in other ways than gaming. This article focuses on VR gaming specifically. This being said, let’s dive in on this look at what VR has done wrong so far, and why it’s ultimately doomed to failure.
When investing the level of time and money required to create a quality gaming experience, a studio or publisher generally has to target the widest audience they can to ensure enough copies are sold to pay for development cost. While exclusives do happen, the platform holders often have to pay the studios millions to offset the loss in sales from restricting a game to one platform. One of the killer flaws of VR is the sheer number of headsets on the market, each demanding development time for optimization and QA. To target all of this different hardware with different architectures would be prohibitively expensive , so off the bat the developers have to decide which hardware they support to cut off as little of their audience as possible. On top of this, there are different setups for VR devices. The HTC Vive uses room scale VR, while others offer a largely stationary experience. It is also expensive to create completely different ways to experience a game. How does a developer decide which to target? Eventually, this will lead to two or three units that games will get developed for, and a lot of angry consumers who backed the wrong horses. This isn’t lethal for the game, it just makes it very niche. The next examples, however, are, especially with the market in a weakened state.
We, as humans, expect our actions in the real world to create some type of feedback to let us know we are doing what we intend. Using a hammer to pound in a nail is accompanied by a loud sound and a shock of impact through your arm. Video games can get the sound right, as it’s simply a matter of timing, but the latter is very important as well, and currently video games have no way to provide this feedback. This is the fundamental problem with motion controls in that, while innovative, it necessarily creates a dissonance in the player’s brain when their motion leads a character to punch a boulder, but the player’s arm encounters no such resistance. VR is often being paired with some type of motion controller, the idea apparently being that divorcing the player from the outside world will add immersion to the experience. The problem is that we also require feedback to know that we’re moving. When the eyes tell the brain it is moving, but none of the systems in place to detect movement are agreeing, the brain thinks it’s been poisoned, leading to motion sickness. Not only does VR not provide the immersive experience promised by the tech companies, it also actively harms many of it’s consumers. This is fatal for something once held up as the coming paradigm, but the final mistake of this market administers the final stroke
Much of the developed world that the gaming and tech industries rely on has been experiencing repeated economic upheavals for the past two decades. Austerity measures have been taken in dozens of nations across the world, and money has become very tight for the average household. Part of the reason that VR was so well received when Oculus made their announcement was the promise that the average household would be able to afford one. while there are many cheaper solutions, Oculus’ own Rift is currently $500, the HTC Vive is $800, and PlayStation VR is asking for $380. These are large sums of money for the average consumer to part with. This is money often better spent on groceries, cars, or just video games. If the games for VR were amazing, maybe the expense would be more justifiable, but they are the same limited tech demos every new tech is infested with, and few, if any, have gotten any universal acclaim. This is the final nail in the coffin for VR. While it isn’t dead yet, it is very likely this article will be close when this technology is abandoned.
Even though I am saying that the death of VR is a question of when, rather than if, it will still be bad for everyone when it happens. Astronomical amounts of time, money, and careers have been put into this, hoping the success of VR would solidify the market. Instead, it looks very shaky, fractured, and ready to crumble. Companies will downsize, developers laid off, and careers will be ruined. Of course I don’t want this to happen, but this was the logical conclusions of the decisions made years ago by the game industry. All we can do is be careful of hype in the future.