Why John Walker is wrong about VR
Posted at 02:26 on 22nd June 2015 - permalink

Last week ace opinion-haver John Walker posted an editorial on Rock, Paper, Shotgun outlining why he thinks that VR Is Going To Be An Enormous Flop (in the context of PC gaming).

Walker’s argument isn’t entirely without merit. I think that it’s going to take a long time (2-3 years at least) for VR stand any chance of breaking through to the mainstream. However in that intervening period where it’s still clunky and expensive and substantial applications are thin on the ground, I think that the benefits will be sufficient to keep the major players on the hardware side pushing the tech forward.

We saw this happen with GPUs, smartphones and video streaming. In the year the first iPhone came out (2007), the most popular and critically lauded smartphone in the world was the Nokia N95. Until the iPhone hit its stride (around the time of its third iteration two years later), the state of the art was hopeless, an enthusiast novelty, and the key elements that make smartphones viable (lightweight, small and thin, good displays, accurate touchscreens, real OSes, fast CPUs, etc.) seemed like distant science fiction. Likewise, the advancements in VR we’ve seen so far are just the warm-up lap – once kit is on general sale that shows even a sliver of VR’s promise, progress will accelerate rapidly.

Most of the obstacles that Walker places in the way of VR’s success are pretty flimsy.

VR isn’t like 3D TV or the Kinect. (No invention that you can explain a beneficial use for is like the Kinect.) It’s not a peripheral – it’s a distinct platform and interface paradigm. (With applications far beyond gaming of course.) “3D” isn’t the point. Presence is the point. More versatile (and profoundly more intuitive and accessible – consider how many tech novices have been able to embrace touch screens and gestures) affordances for interation with the environment and other players are the point. The use case for VR isn’t (necessarily) sat on the sofa in the living room with a group of mates. It’s sat in an office chair, surrounded by a rig of relatively expensive and technical equipment… wait a minute, this sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

In fact, the ‘worst case scenario’ that Walker paints is literally what PC games have been for most of their history: an expensive niche appealing to hobbyists that have traditionally made up a fraction of the market reached by other formats. And as such, relatively few big budget games have treated the PC as the lead format.

It’s only this year that PC game sales are predicted to draw level with console, something that nobody would have predicted a few years ago when the conventional wisdom was that the PC was in a death spiral, soon to be completely eclipsed by smart devices. If PC games in general can survive for decades as a minor player, VR probably doesn’t have to take over the world straight away either.

VR headsets are (and so ever will be) heavy and uncomfortable, we’re told. “People don’t want to put things on their heads” is tabled, as it often is, as a universal law that doesn’t need to be backed up with any evidence.

“People don’t want to be reachable by phone wherever they go.” “People don’t want to wear seatbelts.” “Games will never be able to usefully fill a CD-ROM.” “Nobody wants a smartphone without a physical keyboard.” (Thank you Steve Ballmer for that one.) “Run for fun? What the hell kind of fun is that?” All things that sounded reasonable until one day they weren’t true any more – pleas for preserving the status quo dressed up as insights. ‘Common sense’ of the saloon bar kind.

As someone who has worn something over my eyes every day for about twenty years now I’m sceptical of this surety. VR headsets are going to become extremely small and light, Real Soon Now, and the attendant cameras and sensors are going to improve rapidly as well. What they allow users to do is going to change from the current few scattered experiments.

The weirdest part of all of this is that Walker works from the assumption that launching a new platform hasn’t changed much since the 1990s – as if you have to capture the entire games market in one big push, bringing EA and Activision under your thrall, and delivering a discrete killer app (naturally developed at vast expense by a giant multinational corporation) as your marketing spearhead.

Games are now such a broad church that they can support many niches simultaneously. PC gaming alone contains several smaller scenes with little or no overlap, then there are mobile, console, handheld and MMO games. VR already has one ‘killer app’ in the form of Minecraft (or whatever takes its crown in the next few years), and conversions of existing racing, driving, space exploration and non-shooty first person games will give it a good couple of years’ runway before the vocabulary of more ambitious VR-native games starts to be codified. Sony have sold over 22m PS4s without an exclusive killer app – getting to the point where you have a large enough userbase to sustain a platform is not the billion dollar moonshot it used to be, as long as you offer something to someone.

A “flop” to me means something like the Ouya (and the wider microconsole category), where the initial excitement was a mirage. I think the legitimate applications for VR are already being sniffed out, and short of all the major stakeholders independently flubbing their shots, I think the chance of VR becoming another vibrant pocket of the gaming ecosystem, and technologically another part of the furniture (by which I don’t mean a doorstop) are inevitable in the long run.

I don’t think I’ve done too much hand-waving to dismiss the legitimate technical issues with VR that exist today. I think there are other obstacles down the road, such as the potential for fragmentation, the lack of a single entity incentivising software development, or the market being flooded with cheap, low-quality, motion sickness inducing devices that sour public opinion.

I do think (as Walker suggests) that there’s a chance that publishers will hastily tack VR ‘modes’ to conventional PC games for a brief while before mostly stopping, but they’ll stop because we’re not just talking about stereoscopic 3D – games have to be designed specifically to take advantage of VR. But conversely, I don’t think the minimum budget for making interesting and commercially viable VR games is going to be in the $100m+ blockbuster range. I’d be very surprised if Ubisoft didn’t make a load of mid-budget VR native games just as they have for every novel bit of tech that’s come along since the Wii.

Walker seems to be railing against a conception of VR that hasn’t changed since the 1990s. In fact, lots of stuff of his I’ve read recently seems to gravitate towards that time as a golden age. I reckon someone slid the write protect tag on John Walker’s gaming opinions to read-only around 1998. See you in the metaverse gramps!

(Although probably not until ~2018.)

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