I don’t believe in the Oculus Rift nor Sony’s Morpheus, nor whatever Microsoft has been hinting. These are all virtual reality goggles that allow you to experience video gaming in a different way than every before. But I just can’t get behind them. The Oculus Rift was a successful Kickstarter project that has had a lot of tech geeks and gamers salivating. Nearly every hands-on impression I’ve read has been overwhelmingly positive for the machine, therefore, I acknowledge that I may be wrong in my distrust of the new technology. However, despite Sony and Microsoft jumping on the bandwagon, I can’t see how VR sets like the Oculus Rift will have any impact on the industry. My reasoning for saying this is historical, the application to gaming and economic realities.
Gimmicks are not new to gaming. Every once-and-awhile something comes along that proclaims it will change the face of gaming forever. Most don’t. Just last generation we were witness to two major gimmicks that attempted to make headway in the industry – motion controls and 3D. Both failed and for similar reasons. The general problem of both 3D and motion controls is that no developer ever really tried to do anything with them. They were interesting tools, which could have opened up serious gaming applications, but they simply went ignored.
It’s a problem of under-utilized hardware. In the end, hardware is meaningless if developers don’t make interesting software for it. Years after the release of the Wii, when both Kinect and the Playstation Move launched, they were still using the Wii Sports model without any thought to innovation. At the same time, none of the scores of 3DS developers have proven to me that 3D improves the gaming experience more than superficially.
This is the problem with the Oculus Rift. It can be the best piece of hardware ever made, but if developers don’t make interesting and innovative games, and lots of them, for the machine, then nobody will care. One or two showcase games aren’t enough. It has to really explode with interest and garner the same level of support that new consoles do. Otherwise, it might was well be the Wii Motion Plus. Moreover, I don’t believe developers will rush to support this machine, and the reasons for this are found in my other two points.
2. Gaming Application
As far as I see it, the Oculus Rift only offers anything when done in the first person. Third person games and the like simply don’t benefit from having a mounted screen for immersion. If it did, then maybe the Virtual Boy wouldn’t have been such a failure. Therefore, I’m restricting this analysis to first person games because they are the only type of game I can see possibly improved by the machine.
Firstly, there is the problem that there are comparatively few first person games. First person shooters are a major genre, but first person adventure games have been in the decline for years. While it’s possible the Oculus Rift may revive this genre, it still wouldn’t be enough to justify purchasing the machine. The genre I see the Oculus Rift being integrated in the most is the racing genre because it relies on very little head movement.
Let’s be honest for a moment. All the VR machines do is map the left analogue stick to your neck movement. Yes, they add immersion by cutting off the rest of the world, and can improve gaming through sound the same way a headset can, but, realistically, it’s primarily a button reassignment. How does this improve gaming? First person shooters, for example, generally don’t live and die based on their immersion factor. Most survive on their addictive and, more importantly, competitive multiplayer. VR users are instantly put at a disadvantage as a quick flick of a button is considerably faster than constantly craning one’s neck around.
The only case I can think of where this may improve gaming on the first person shooter front is in huge single player games such as Bioshock, where the environment is a major player in the game and immersion is worth its weight in gold. However, games like Bioshock are not the norm, and fiercely competitive games are far more common. Adventure games, or first person RPGs like Skyrim have certain applications because they are primarily non-competitive so you don’t have to worry about the inefficiencies of the system, but is the Oculus Rift going to change gaming, or is it simply going to provide another way to experience a game? If the latter, I doubt many developers are going to waste the money.
3. Economic Realities
In an IGN article from earlier this month, they quoted the Oculus Rift founder that he wants the system to be affordable to the average consumer. The same article states that they hope to have it cost $300 when the commercial models role out. I put forth that even at $100 this is a very hard sell to the average consumer. It is true that tech junkies love the newest and most interesting piece of tech, but how many people are going to be willing to toss $300 on a controller attachment. Because that’s all the VR headset is. It doesn’t play games, nor does it introduce any new features not found in standard controllers. In order to convince the ordinary consumer to cough up almost the price of a PS4, there has to be a lot of incentive.
More problematic is that lack of consumer attachment directly impacts how many developers are willing to work on the machine. Let’s put it this way. The PS4 has sold at least 6 million units from last we’ve heard. Let’s bump this up to 10 million for when Morpheus launches (totally made up number). The Morpheus would be extremely lucky to be able to sell a third of the total number of PS4s, leaving its sale numbers around 3 million if we’re being very generous. How many developers are going to allocate resources to cater to 1/3rd of the user base? Why would you waste the money? While the Oculus Rift will be working on PCs which have a higher user base than the PS4, the question is still the same. Why would you spend critical resources to develop for a much smaller base?
The only way these VR helmets could impact the industry is if they were able to obtain a massive base in a very short amount of time. Not only that, but developers have to be willing to really push the envelope and make it a peripheral that people feel they need. Microsoft increased the attach rate of Kinect to 100% when they included it as part of every Xbox One. But, even with this high number, very few developers have wasted their time trying to figure out ways to use it, and gamers continue to dismiss its applications. Unless VR systems are able to show that they will make developers money, and that they are worth putting down an immense amount of money for consumers, I see no way these peripherals will be anything more than a gadget for the rich and bored, or go further than industrial application where cost isn’t as much as a barrier.
I could be wrong. The Oculus Rift, Morpheus, and whatever Microsoft is planning could hit the industry by storm and amazing, innovative games built entirely with the technology could be developed. This seems extremely unlikely to me, but it is a possibility. Gamers see a lot of potential in the headsets, but unused potential is no better than no potential at all. Gamers could see a lot of potential with motion controls as well, and it simply wasn’t to be. I wish the Oculus Rift and its brethren well, and I hope they prove me wrong as I’d love an innovative new way to play, but I just don’t see it happening.
– Mistranslations for the Modern Gamer