28 Aug

Gaming and the Future of Virtual Reality

               The virtual reality gaming experience of tech lovers’ dreams has always seemed to be just around the corner. In the beginning of 2016, VR developers’ long-term aspirations of making VR mainstream appeared to materialise. Yet, as the excitement of the initial launch tapers off, questions remain as to whether VR will live up to its promise as a gaming system.

              VR is not a homogenous entity. It is emerging distinctly from AR (augmented reality) products, such as Microsoft’s Hololens or the Pokemon Go app. Even within VR, a clear divide has emerged between the high-end (Oculus Rift, HTC Vive) and the low-end (Samsung’s Gear VR, Google’s various DIY Cardboard solutions). Vive, the only mainstream virtual reality device capable of providing ‘room-sized’ games, retails at over $800. Whereas an entry-level, no-brand budget VR headset can be picked up for just $15 at car-boot sales, supermarkets and discount stores. This split has been inflated by Facebook’s efforts to push VR into the mainstream. Mark Zuckerberg’s facebook posts, suggest that they are focusing primarily on promoting cheaper, more accessible VR experiences rather than the continuing development of their high-end experience, the Oculus Rift.

              This decision, apparently motivated by Zuckerberg’s desire to see VR flourish outside of gaming spheres (think sports matches, music concerts, family catch-ups, etc.), will likely have a detrimental impact on hardcore VR gaming; a marketplace intrinsically reliant on the continuing development of high-end VR technology.

              The relationship between the hardcore VR gaming market and high-end VR equipment is symbiotic. Each has a vested interest in the success of the other. VR developers need game developers to produce enough quality games to ensure VR’s continuing funding, publicity, and gaming credibility. If VR developers fail to persuade enough game developers that VR is going to increase in popularity, they become vulnerable to the same pitfalls that the Wii U encountered. They will have a very interesting gaming tool, but an insufficient quantity of compelling games to persuade the public to commit to its hefty price tag.

              The unrivalled success of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is evidence of how one excellent game can make a gaming system (the Nintendo Switch) successful. To some extent, Sony’s PSVR experienced this with Resident Evil 7, but it has not been as smooth sailing. Many gamers have complained that smooth PSVR gameplay requires the Playstation Pro, another expensive investment.

Resident Evil.jpg

Resident Evil 7: A Flagship VR Game. Credit: Rob Obsidian              

               Smaller game studios are providing a significant contribution to the industry. The untapped potential of VR suits game developers with creative and ingenious ideas for original games. As such, there has been a sharp rise in crowdfunded VR games by indie publishers. Despite this proliferation, there are several reasons to believe that these smaller games will not be the cure-all that hardcore VR gaming requires. Firstly, even highly popular indie games often fail to make a financial profit. Secondly, the appeal of these small-budget games lies in unique, novel ideas rather than high-end graphics, and therefore they do not need technologically advanced VR systems to play them. Nonetheless, they are developing fan bases while raising awareness of VR’s potential as a unique gaming system.

               If VR is to maintain excitement about this potential, then it must overcome several more challenges. First and foremost, head-mounted displays (HMDs) need to stop giving people motion sickness. This was especially problematic for users of the promising Batman Arkham VR game. Secondly, VR must become more affordable. Excluding the expensive price of the headset, high-end VR gameplay requires a very powerful computer or console. Many decent gaming computers are not powerful enough to run high-quality virtual reality. VR developers are constantly trying to improve the quality of gaming experiences, but this in turn makes them more expensive. For evidence of this, look no further than Oculus Rift’s Touch controllers. They allow for more immersive, interactive, and free-flowing gameplay. However, they come with a price tag of $200, therefore pushing Oculus Rift’s standard retail price of $600 to the same high price as the HTC Vive.

               It is a safe prediction to suggest that VR is not going to be for everyone. It is a hard task to persuade the average gamer to pay out thousands of dollars on a device that may well make them feel queezy. Which brings us to the question on the minds of VR developers and game developers alike, will VR gaming continue to be a niche industry or will it go mainstream?

               With the sharp growth of mobile gaming starting to level out, VR developers have a vested interest in promising ‘the next big thing’. That said, market forecasts appear to put faith in the industry and are optimistic about its future. Both AR and VR spending are set to double in 2017. Last year, worldwide spending on VR and AR reached $6.1 billion; this year it is set to hit $13.9 billion. By 2020, the outlay on both AR and VR is set to reach a staggering $143 billion.

               VR is unlikely to replace standard gaming set-ups, at least, not in the next decade. However, it is looking increasingly likely to carve out a lucrative chunk of the marketplace. To ensure it is not left behind by cheaper alternatives, high-end VR will need to maintain and expand its audience’s interest by ensuring the continuous release of exciting updates, games, and add-ons. With the help of indie publishers, this is exactly what they are doing. Oculus Rift are working on increasing their compatibility with a wide selection of games. Whereas HTC have promised to upgrade Vive’s ‘room-sized’ play area to a ‘house-sized’ play area. In addition, their impressive Tracker allows for the location of real world objects to be used in-game.

Samsung’s Virtual Reality.jpg

Samsung’s Virtual Reality MWC. Credit: Maurizio Pesce  

               These mini-upgrades will not be what brings VR gaming into the mainstream, but they will help move it towards its potential. And it is this potential, this promise, that leads us to believe that VR will, in coming years, become the gaming experience that so many people have waited so long for. The inevitable advance of gaming technology has to head in a certain direction. What better direction than a platform that allows you to directly experience doing, being, and exploring anything, anyone, and anywhere?

               Even though VR has been fantasised about for decades. As its potential is realised, new avenues and ideas continue to arrive in rapid succession. The gaming possibilities it enables have only just begun to be discovered. It is for this reason, that despite the obstacles and challenges discussed, that virtual reality gaming will become very much a reality. Yes, there are still wrinkles to be ironed out. Yes, there are plenty of ‘ifs’. But never have VR’s dreams looked closer.

For updates, industry news, more articles like this, and the occasional meme, follow our Twitter account. Alternatively, head to our website.