It’s no surprise to anyone that’s been paying attention to this space for the last couple of years, but VR was once again a big focus of this year’s E3. For those of you who don’t know what E3 is, it’s basically a giant trade show where everyone in the video game industry gets together to show off their new wares for the year. New games and hardware are announced, anticipate projects are revealed and basically the video game hype machine goes into overdrive.
And this year, a lot of that hype was about virtual reality.
Ubisoft had the Star Trek bridge experience. Sony had a gigantic whack of stuff, including Batman, Star Wars and Resident Evil VII. And Microsoft announced that their next console will be 4K and VR ready out of the box.
This echoes a trend that was seen at GDC as well. Valve’s HTC Vive was released in March and has been selling like gang busters, despite meager game offerings. The Occulus Rift also launched their commercial version around the same time, shocking some with it’s $600 price tag and intense minimum system requirements, but they still managed to sell out in less than 15 minutes. Sony won’t be releasing their VR package until October, just in time for the holidays, so their E3 presentation was all about making sure consumer knew they would have games to play at launch.
And yet, despite all this hype I remain unconvinced about VR as a legitimate consumer trend in video games. Sure, everyone and their monkey is excited to get to try out virtually reality in their own homes, but I just don’t see this as the next big technological leap that is really going to move video games forward. Certainly not yet.
Here are a few reasons I think this way:
Experiences need to be short
VR isn’t great for your brain. It confuses your senses and disorients you in pretty serious ways. For that reason most VR experiences currently available are relatively short. That’s a big part of why studios are hesitant to call these things games, using the much more ambiguous “experience.” “Experience” sets you up for a shorter, less active form of entertainment than “game,” and the studios know this. “Experience” also emphasizes the aspect of novelty that is still central to the appeal of VR right now. It’s a neat thing to show your friends when they come over. But not much more for the moment.
The barrier to entry is too high
While I wasn’t surprised about the $600 Oculus price tag, I think it does reinforce the fact that we are still in very early days with integrating this technology into the consumer market. The early adopted phase, if you will. However, considering most of what you can get game wise for VR is mostly passive “experiences” or casual puzzle type things, we’re going to be in this phase for a while. With the cost of the basic hardware the same as a new console, it’s going to take a generation or two (technology wise) to lower the price and build the user base that will convince studios to pour hundreds of people and millions of dollars into developing a AAA VR game. If the technology sticks around in games for that to happen.
Two words: motion sickness
While I’ve only tried the Oculus Rift and the Sony VR, my experience so far with virtual reality is one that inevitably ends in pukey feels. I will say that the Sony VR was a much more pleasant experience, the headset is better weighted and they cheat the 3D a bit to make it easier on the brain. The Oculus on the other hand, has been such a consistently stomach churning experience that it’ll take a lot of convincing and a promise of the latest specs for me to even consider trying it again. But, it turns out that could just be because I’m a lady.
All those things said, I do think that there is enormous potential for VR in spaces outside of video games. The applications in medicine, science, education and rehabilitation are incredible and totally make sense to me. Training surgeons complicated procedures in VR or putting students smack dab into historical settings are things that are already happening and will provided tremendous long term benefits to lots of people, not just those interested in video games. This is probably where the long term growth of this technology will be and the money being poured into these ventures will undoubtedly yield tangible, positive results.
Virtual reality in video games is, however, too much of a gimmick at the moment for me to really get excited about. Maybe I’ll be proven wrong in the future, but for right now the implications of augmented reality seem much more applicable to video games, to me, at the moment. Likewise the recent emergence of VR arcades. Virtual reality experiences need space and specialized equipment that most people just don’t have at home. An arcade full of a variety of VR experiences would likely be much more enticing to the average consumer than a $400 – $600 add on that you might not even be able to run at home.
While I definitely squeed a bit watching Levar Burton giving commands in Star Trek Bridge Crew, I do think it’s important to temper the hype around VR, especially where video games are concerned. The possibilities for storytelling in VR are really, really exciting. I’m just not sure we’re gonna see a lot of that in video games.
At least not for a while yet.