Virtual Reality gaming might still be in its infancy but in a lot of respects it also feels like a lot of the excitement surrounding this new medium is starting to wane. Maybe its the high cost of entry or the lack of (very) compelling VR games but there seems to be a general ambivalence towards virtual reality. However, while the excitement seems to have been dampened somewhat, 2018 already has a lot of reasons to be excited to strap on your favorite set of goggles and head back into the world of VR but there’s a palpable sense that if you aren’t sold on VR by the end of the year then this will all go down in the annals of gaming history as just another fad.
If there’s any one truism that always holds up when it comes to gaming is that great games sell consoles and in a lot of ways VR is essentially a platform in and of itself, divided into three major players with Sony’s PlayStation VR taking the home console front and the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive existing in the PC space. And while we’ve already seen plenty of novel and fun VR experiences, it’s also true that there’s yet to be a virtual reality ‘killer app’. Oh sure games like Job Simulator and Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes are fantastic in their own right, but they also hardly justify running out and buying a headset (and accessories) that could easily top $1000.
So where are all the big VR games at? Well there’s a couple of roadblocks there. For one, the system resources required to run a game in virtual reality and keep it running at a steady 90 frames per second (so you don’t get motion sickness) are incredibly high, to the point where the standard PS4 has a big of a hard time keeping up with the PS VR platform. This means that to ensure their games don’t literally make you sick, developers have to make some concessions when it comes to graphical fidelity, textures, game world scope and the complexity of the gameplay itself. This means that many VR games typically end up being either side modes in larger games (Star Wars: Battlefront (2015)) or smaller, more focused experiences like the ones mentioned above. But all of the that is starting to change and in 2018 we have a strong lineup of more ‘traditional’ gaming experiences come to VR platforms. Titles like the recently released The Inpatient, Bravo Team and Golem looking to cater to more ‘core’ gamers and hopefully make a VR headset a standard part of a ‘gamers’ living room.
However there is one barrier to entry that automatically makes a virtual reality something that is out of reach for a lot of folks and that’s price. VR headsets aren’t cheap and neither are the systems that power them. So it’s a rather hard sell to convince anyone that just bought, say a PS4 to essentially double their costs to get in on the PS VR to access all VR exclusive titles or just enhanced virtual reality options in games they already own. Of course prices have gone down across the board and this trend will likely continue though only time will tell if the install base is strong enough to support the platform while it gets settled.
Another aspect to consider is the lifespan of these VR headsets and the technology powering them. Using the PlayStation VR as an example, it was specifically designed to work alongside the PS4 and play PS4 games. Will it be future compatible with a PlayStation 5? If so will it be powerful enough to play these new games or will you have to buy a second generation headset that can handle that system’s specs? There’s a lot uncertainty right now surrounding VR’s viability and future in the gaming space which is also leading to some people electing to hold off to see what the ‘next-generation’ of virtual reality will be like before taking the plunge.
So what could happen in 2018 that would make virtual reality exciting again? Well a big game or two would be a nice start. And I don’t just mean a VR mode in a big game but a VR exclusive AAA title. That would help immensely in generating hype for the platform and make people need to get their hands on a headset. The second thing is something that also plagued 3D televisions when those were the hot topic item – that VR can’t be properly explained / marketed without actually seeing it in action. I remember the first time I put a PlayStation VR headset on and the feeling of it being far beyond what my expectation were for the device and VR in general, so getting people to try the technology before they buy it in places like malls and store kiosks could help immensely in making folks understand what makes virtual reality so magical.
This year feels like it will be a turning point for virtual reality, though in which direction remains to be seen. On one hand, we might be seeing the platform reach maturity and become a mainstream part of gaming while on the other it could further fade into irrelevance and obscurity, a toy for the ‘rich kids’ but nothing more. I for one really hope it’s the former though as the prospect of true virtual reality gaming has been something I would dream about since my formative gaming years in the early 90’s. That being said, while the technology is there (or getting there) there has yet to be a proof of concept killer app that proves VR’s future is in gaming. Will that game release in 2018? I certainly hope so.