Whenever I get together with other gaming professionals for an event, I'm asked the same question: "What do you think of VR? Are you a believer?" And I always answer the same way, "No, not really."
This opinion has led me to clash with some of my colleagues in the industry, many of whom are extremely enthusiastic for VR, but I've yet to find a reason to jump on the hype train. If anything, I've become actively annoyed by VR's dominance at events like GDC. I've played enough EVE Valkyrie already.
In my view, the rapid rise of VR in recent years has been more of a self-fulfilling prophecy than the result of any true merit. Sony and Facebook have poured millions into hyping their devices, their massive booths and outsized presentations fueling breathless media coverage from credulous tech journalists eager for a new gadget to play with. But even now, with a finished product just around the corner, they have yet to solve a few crucial problems.
The biggest, of course, is that they are much too expensive. Last week, Oculus announced that their headset would cost $599, adding that they "aren't making any money" on sales. Following the announcement, journalists wondered if Oculus might to be too expensive. My response: "Obviously." The public appetite for new devices might be bottomless, but the Rift is not a mobile phone or a tablet. To most people, the Rift is just a big, uncomfortable pair of goggles, and at $599, it's a luxury item.
Which brings me to my next issue with VR: It's uncomfortable. The goggles are worse than 3D glasses, which did more than anything to kill 3D television a few years back. They're claustrophobic, making it hard to play or watch anything for an extended period of time; they're heavy, and they're inherently solitary. They also require extra setup, making them feel like a commitment above and beyond just flipping a TV or turning on a tablet. I try to imagine one of these things sitting in the average family living room, and I just can't.
Part of that is due to VR's lack of a Wii Sports-type experience. As of right now, neither Oculus nor Rift have the one game or app that will get mass market consumers to buy in. Cockpit games like Elite Dangerous won't do it; and neither, I suspect, will Rez Infinite (though I'll admit that it looks pretty neat - a true audio-visual experience). Those games are unlikely to appeal to the casual crowd playing Clash of Clans and Candy Crush - the same people who bought a Wii a decade ago.
I'm not even sure mainstream gamers will buy into VR. Try to imagine the kind of person who mainly sticks to Call of Duty and FIFA going out of their way to spend a few hundred extra dollars on a VR headset. Without a true killer app, it's tough to imagine them investing the extra cash when they're only picking up a couple triple-A games per year. The more hardcore gamers may decide to jump in, but at that point, you're starting to leave the mass market.
That leaves the hobbyists - the people who have embraced VR from the start. They're the ones spending thousands of dollars on top-end gaming PCs so that they can max out Star Citizen, playing Fallout 4 on a treadmill, and modding the hell out of games like Trespasser. They're the natural market for a VR headset; and while it's nice to have an audience that will spend top dollar for the best possible experience, that market is pretty limited.
In five years or so, I imagine that there will be a small but thriving community of hobbyists who use VR headsets for first-person and cockpit games - the types of experiences that are the most natural fit for virtual reality. The Rift will be the final piece of the puzzle for those wanting the most complete sim experience possible.
Everyone else will just shrug and keep playing Crossy Road and FIFA.
Why is VR so enticing?
With all that said, VR isn't going away anytime soon. Multiple companies have made large bets that VR headsets are the consumer tech product of the future, arguing that it has the potential to transform everything from gaming to movies to the way we check out travel destinations. Sony in particular will do everything they can to get PlayStation VR in our living room, including selling it at comparatively cut rate prices and bundling it with the PlayStation 4.
Sony is pushing VR because it represents the clearest way forward for gaming; and if it succeeds, it will have a positive ripple effect across their entire business. With the current generation of consoles having leveled off somewhat in terms of innovation, VR could be a game-changer, encouraging mainstream developers to stretch out and innovate in a way that they haven't in a decade. From the perspective of a gaming enthusiast, that's actually pretty cool, even if to some extent I've seen it all before.
Motion controls, of course, were ultimately a failure because developers couldn't make them feel like anything more than a gimmick, culminating in Microsoft's rather disastrous decision to integrate the Kinect with the Xbox One - a decision that gave Sony a lead they've yet to relinquish in this console generation. I should add that Tetusya Mizuguchi's Child of Eden, the spiritual successor to Rez, was previously used to sell the Kinect, which resulted in some major deja vu when I saw Rez Infinite at the PlayStation Experience back in December.
VR, of course, has already demonstrated much more potential than motion controls, which is why it has been adopted so enthusiastically by the hobbyist set; but much will depend on whether developers can push it beyond its natural niche. Thus far, VR has only really been a series of gimmicks, tech demos, and cockpit games - not the sort of thing that would make me want to spend $599 for the privilege of sitting alone with a stifling pair of goggles for two hours at a time.
For now, VR's true potential remains elusive. It's certainly worth pursuing, but platform holders have yet to prove to me that it can be more than an expensive toy for hobbyists. If anything, mainstream game development is actually trending away from VR as Steam, PSN, and Xbox Live are flooded with minimalist, old-school indie games. You could argue that VR will be the 3D IMAX movie of the future - a premium experience for the biggest games of the year - but even the most expensive movie tickets will only run you about $30. It's much tougher to sell mainstream audiences on paying $599 up front for that sort of experience.
So I remain a VR skeptic. I'm not willing to write off VR entirely, but neither am I going to spend the equivalent of two consoles on potential, especially when that potential may have already been reached.