Dear games industry: If you're not for VR, you're against it
The big players in the gaming industry are still ignoring Virtual Reality. And why is that? Because they don't want to change.
The Playstation VR 2, one of the most significant VR headsets of the past few years, launched last week. Sony has largely eliminated the pain points and shortcomings of its predecessor. The new hardware is far more advanced than the first Playstation VR was when it was released, and all in all, is one of the best VR gaming headsets you can currently buy.
Since Playstation VR 2 is not backwards compatible, the VR system represents a platform reboot for Sony. The company has laid the hardware groundwork for success, now it just needs to provide the software to match it.
And that brings us to the starting point of this opinion piece. Looking at the list of launch titles for Playstation VR 2, one thing stands out: Of the more than forty VR games, not a single one comes from one of the top ten publishers. Except for Sony, of course. Isn't that remarkable?
A self-fulfilling prophecy
Seven years after the Playstation VR, Sony launches a promising new VR platform, and just about everyone in the games industry decides to stay away from the party.
The main reason seems clear: the Virtual Reality market is still in its infancy. Even the most obvious target audience, the gaming community, has proven surprisingly resistant to the medium's innovations. The vast majority still prefer the couch or the gaming chair and are unwilling to embrace the new, spatial way of playing. They are content with the good old style of 2D gaming.
Investing in Playstation VR 2 carries risks for publishers. For major investments to be worthwhile, the VR platform would have to have tens of millions of users, and it's questionable whether PSVR 2 will get to those numbers anytime soon given the relatively high costs of the VR system. The majority of the gaming industry simply doesn't expect virtual reality to take off anytime soon, and that alone creates the conditions for a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Virtual Reality could be perceived as a threat
Would demand for VR increase if the big players got in on the act and reinvented their games for virtual reality? Probably. But why should they? The gaming industry is still one of the fastest growing markets despite the current economic crisis. Why invest in a risky niche right now?
Publishers also have more to lose than development budgets. Virtual reality represents a new gaming paradigm that challenges established ways of playing and developing games, as well as existing business models and distribution channels. Just as the smartphone did fifteen years ago, only more profoundly, as virtual reality represents an even greater technological disruption within the tradition of gaming.
In the worst case, the game industry would have to reinvent itself. The old order would be threatened as a new hardware base controlled by Sony, or worse, Meta, would take hold.
Waiting until Virtual Reality is gone
"VR represents a possible existential threat to the multi-Billion dollar AAA gaming industry" wrote Denny Unger, CEO of VR studio Cloudhead Games, in a Twitter thread, as one of the reasons, why there are no AAA games in VR. "Ultimately requiring new outlets, skillsets, & fundamental changes to how they approach their business. Like Big Oil vs Renewables, there's an old guard here that isn't a fan of VR."
14. VR represents a possible existential threat to the multi-Billion dollar AAA gaming industry. Ultimately requiring new outlets, skillsets, & fundamental changes to how they approach their business. Like Big Oil vs Renewables, there's an old guard here that isn't a fan of VR.
— Denny Unger @Cloudhead (@DennyCloudhead) January 12, 2023
From this perspective, one could argue that the major publishers have good reason to be not only indifferent, but suspicious or even hostile to the new medium.
The lack of investment and commitment in this area, as seen recently with the Playstation VR 2, has a rather passive-aggressive vibe to it. Maybe there's a hope among the big actors to sit it out, until virtual reality disappears again.
Meanwhile, the costs and risks will be borne by hardware manufacturers and independent VR studios, who will need a lot of perseverance on the road to a self-sustaining VR ecosystem, which could no doubt be shortened with the help of established gaming giants. When virtual reality gets there, the former will be the winners and the latter will have a lot of catching up to do.