VR for the rich: High-end VR is massively overrated
Where is the next Half-Life: Alyx? Hopefully in the drawer for a while yet. Real virtual reality gold lies elsewhere.
The graphics fetishist war is as old as computer games: There’s always a very specific nerd faction – with the latest and fattest graphics cards, processors, near-industrial cooling systems, and most sophisticated overclocking techniques – that won’t be satisfied with computer game graphics until they’re sharper than reality.
The “true gamer” finds 60 FPS an imposition; after all, visual flow isn’t perfect until the game maxes out the 144-Hertz monitor. Edge smoothing is checked microscopically in the atomic range and if there are no “Hyper-Ultra-Individual-Overl0rd” settings, then the gaming refund is only a formality.
A similar hardcore pixel-counting community can be found for virtual reality, of course. Gamer godfather Gabe financed them the great Half-Life: Alyx (review) and added Valve Index (review) on top – which soon lost its appeal for subpixel sherlocks and field-of-view measurement specialists. Where is the next, even better Half-Life VR? Most likely with VR goggles that can harness the power of current supercomputers and particle accelerators: “What do Rockstar allow: I want GTA V in VR, or even better, GTA 6 right now – and you want to sell me ol’ San Andreas?”
Half-Life: Alyx is by no means the proof of God for VR
This exaggerated portrayal by many VR nerds illustrates a nonsensical shift in perception that tends to hurt Virtual Reality as a whole. The facts, after all, are this:
- High-end VR is absolutely unaffordable for most people: expensive VR goggles are joined by an expensive PC and space for external tracking as well as gaming space.
- VR games of a quality like Half-Life: Alyx are very expensive, require a lot of specialized expertise, and have a minimal target audience for the previously mentioned reason.
- VR technology is still decades away from Ready Player One – if we see anything comparable at all in our lifetimes.
This is why the clamor for the next Half-Life in VR, for big triple-A productions for the face computer, is harmful to the industry’s progress. Because under the one-dimensional bluster of the PC-VR fetishists, the true potential of VR is lost and drowned in the undifferentiated “better graphics, better game” claptrap.
I’m guilty of this as well, even though “form follows function” has always been a guiding principle for me. I constantly cite Half-Life: Alyx in my articles as evidence of THE VR game, as the game turned omnipotence, the proof of God of VR, so to speak. That’s shortsighted.
Walkabout Mini Golf takes VR further than expensive AAA games.
I realized this one-dimensionality the last time I played Walkabout Mini Golf with friends. I’ve long adored this VR diamond, but the last round on Quixote Valley finally opened my virtual eyes: The future of VR games isn’t in high-end VR, but in perfectly built VR worlds like the one in Walkabout Mini Golf.
This wonderful game offers only comparatively simple graphics, but the worlds are so coherent, so detailed, so artfully designed that it elicits an “Oh, wow” from me significantly more often than Half-Life: Alyx with its top-level graphics. On top of that, there’s terrific physics that barely rival real-world mini-golf and an intuitive multiplayer experience that puts various Metaverse dreamers in their place.
Walkabout Minigolf impressively shows how much is possible with simple means. The various courses, each with their own convincingly designed theme – whether Wild West or space station – would easily lend themselves to role-playing games. The view of the world in diorama format at the end of the 18 holes always leaves me with one question: Why aren’t there many more of these?
Higher, faster, farther – even if it means losing yourself in the process.
I suspect that due to the noise about the most realistic game worlds and high-end VR, many developers and publishers didn’t even consider games with simpler graphics for a long time. Add to that the fact that the few glossy productions dominate the entire VR discourse in the media: From Half-Life: Alyx to The Walking Dead to Star Wars: Squadrons – it’s always PC VR titles that are held up as shining examples of great virtual reality and take the air out of other VR games.
Part of the reason for this is our higher-further-faster mentality, but it’s mostly limited to form: We like to be dazzled by visual bling-bling in VR, too. This has worked reliably in flat games for a long time. The graphics and grandiose world of a Cyberpunk 2077, for instance, successfully disguise the fact that the game is nothing more than 20 years of rehashed gaming history. There are plenty of other examples of graphic dazzlers, such as Watch Dogs.
Now, of course, Half-Life: Alyx is none of these: there are few games that demonstrate the potential of virtual reality so well. But if we look at the cost-benefit equation, such productions are an exception and by no means the future of VR. Instead, that future lies with platforms like the Quest 2: wireless, quick to deploy, and with great performance potential for thoughtful applications. That opens up the market, that makes VR lucrative for developers and publishers, and more importantly, it opens up the audience from a narrow and relatively rich VR bubble to the much-vaunted mass market. The numbers bear this out, too.
Accessibility doesn’t necessarily mean lack of complexity
It’s not the lighthouse project that makes a port city successful, although it is undeniably important. It is the city, the port, the businesses, the residents and the accessibility that determine success. A second, third, fourth lighthouse doesn’t do much – but it does add more, stable docks where more boats land with passengers, who in turn get to town quickly.
We clearly need more such landing stages in VR. Simple, beautiful and motivating VR games that are a pleasure to play over and over again. Half-Life: Alyx I played through once, was flashed and then that was it again with high end VR. Walkabout Mini Golf I play regularly.
Sure I’m looking forward to the next PC VR graphics smash, but high-end VR is completely overrated in the big picture: it’s too expensive on all fronts and not comfortable enough to use. The real potential for virtual reality and parts of a future Metaverse lies on mobile platforms like the Quest 2, and GTA: San Andreas is a consistent step in that direction. Meta will remain the VR market leader for a long time to come because it has understood that accessibility does not have to mean a lack of complexity at all.
By the way, there’s an old post of mine on the net where I bash retro games (say, 8- or 16-bit games) and call them pixel junk. The reasoning is admittedly poor, I still don’t like retro pixel games to this day though. At the same time, I dig Minecraft and revere Quest 2 graphics.