Is the High-End VR Market Dead?

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Just over two years ago, two companies — HTC and Oculus — launched two different virtual reality headsets for the broad consumer market. This marked the return of VR to the PC and, with the launch of the PlayStation VR, console markets. It was, we were told, an event that would repudiate the terrible results of Nintendo’s Virtual Boy 21 years earlier. In that, at least, it succeeded. But gauging VR’s success past that point has been woefully difficult.

At CNet, Dan Ackerman argues that high-end VR based on PCs is essentially dead. It’s expensive, it’s bulky, and the battery power required to deliver seamless wireless VR is so high, the best solution anyone has come up with is a backpack PC with a utility belt worth of batteries that you buckle on. He argues that the PC-based VR concept has been killed by a mixture of hardware limitations and poor game design, writing:

The most damning thing I can say about the current generation of VR is that two years ago, I said the best VR game I’d found was a free, indie game about multiplayer paintball, called Rec Room. Cut to two years later, and the best VR game you can play is still a free, indie game about multiplayer paintball, called Rec Room.

You can argue for taking a different view on some of these points. The price of VR gear, for example, has come down markedly in the two years since the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive launched. The paucity of new GPU launches since 2016 and the impact of high cryptocurrency prices has made it harder to pick up any benefits on the GPU side of things as far as price is concerned, but hopefully future launches from NV and AMD will deliver some improvements there over the longer term. I’m not even as concerned about the weight of headgear or the idea of room-scale VR, since plenty of people who don’t want to run around in living rooms the approximate size of gymnasiums still could be interested in VR as a gaming capability.

The bigger problem he identifies is that VR isn’t just something you can jam into a game at the last minute. You need the game to be built for VR. And if you look at the companies taking major bets on the topic, how many top-drawer franchises have led with VR support? There’s Resident Evil 7 and… uh… well, that’s pretty much it. I don’t want to make things sound all bad for VR; there have been smaller titles that won good reviews and some of the aftermarket conversions, like Doom VFR, have been fairly well received. But what’s generally lacking is any consensus of a killer, must-have game for VR.

Doom

Consider this lack against, say, the early days of 3D acceleration in PC gaming. Then, as now, adding a 3D accelerator to your system was a significant investment. The original 3dfx Voodoo card, which debuted in 1996 for $ 299, was worth $ 482 in 2018 dollars. It was by no means certain that gamers would spring for these solutions or that 3D-accelerated graphics would win out, or that one specific type of 3D acceleration would win out (betting on the wrong horse nearly killed Nvidia out of the gate). With that said, here’s a short list of games that launched in 1997 and 1998 — within roughly two years of the appearance of third-party hardware accelerated GPUs:

  • Descent II
  • GLQuake
  • Half-Life
  • Hexen II
  • Quake II
  • Star Wars Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II
  • Tomb Raider
  • Unreal
  • Wing Commander Prophecy

Within a very short period of time, in other words, we saw 3D support being rolled out across the entire industry. Not every game on the short list above is a must-play title, but some of them are still excellent titles that hold up today. Unreal, in particular, was considered a stunning demonstration of how great games could look in its own era.

VR, two years later, has yet to launch a single equivalent hit. This undoubtedly reflects the greater difficulty of building games in which how the player moves and interacts with the wider world is so different, but it says something that not one major franchise holder is apparently willing to risk making even a demonstration title with a franchise logo on it. In 2015, EA included a VR level in Battlefront and Activision had one for Call of Duty: Infinite War. In 2017, as Ackerman notes, both sequels launched without any hint of VR support.

Ackerman is ultimately uncertain if VR has a future at all. He’s afraid the standard is caught between the low-cost standalone headsets like Oculus Go, which don’t offer a particularly great experience but are affordable and simple to use, and high-end PC headsets, which offer vastly better performance and capabilities, but are also significantly bulkier and more expensive. He writes that he believes VR will eventually succeed, but possibly not today — and he’s writing that as an early adopter who bought both a Rift and a Vive, alongside a PSVR.

I’m not even that enthusiastic. I think VR will always be technologically challenging because it’ll always be harder to maintain 90fps on high resolution displays compared with a traditional TV or monitor-based game, where 30fps is considered acceptable for mainstream markets and resolution targets can be lower without compromising image quality to the same degree. Game developers could have kept Xbox 360 / PS3 levels of visual fidelity and gone for a 60fps frame rate in the Xbox One / PS4 generation. Instead, they targeted the same 25-30fps they’d used before and improved visual quality. So long as hitting VR quality, performance, and UI requirements is perceived as being the non-standard, bolted-on option, VR games won’t attract much in the way of market share.

Ultimately, I’m even less optimistic than Ackerman. For all that I’ve been a proponent of VR technology, I’m not sure it has a future at all.

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