Perhaps the most exciting gaming innovation in recent years is the realization of immersive virtual reality. VR isn’t some sci-fi pipe dream anymore. Oculus Rift has earned mass acclaim, and Sony’s tossed their hat into the ring with Morpheus. We could see gaming change completely over the next couple years. This could usher in a new era of gaming, but it could just as easily become an expensive fad that we all forget a year or so after buying our headsets.
While virtual reality has existed since the late 80’s in arcades, it’s never taken off at home. After the Virtual Boy’s implosion in the 90’s, VR fell off the radar. It wasn’t until Oculus Rift appeared that it entered the gaming zeitgeist again. Developers and Youtube personalities alike have flocked to the headset. Games like Alone provide unique gameplay to fit the VR experience, while older games like Team Fortress 2 have begun to add Rift support with updates. Before even hitting store shelves the Rift has become a resounding success, though it isn’t without competition. Sony’s Morpheus headset has stepped up as a challenger, and enthusiasm for the device has waned a little since Oculus was bought by social media giant Facebook in March 2014.
Virtual reality has become a big talking point in game development lately. So many new things can be done with VR; it makes sense that Sony is pushing Morpheus so much and Oculus Rift was offered so much money by Facebook. Immersion is what defines VR, and from what we’ve seen so far from both Oculus and Sony, there are some great experiments under way in that regard. Not only does that sense of presence make single-player games more engaging, it also makes multiplayer feel far more real. VR could be the future of gaming.
It all sounds a little too familiar though: a new peripheral that promises the evolution of gaming as we know it, built around ambitious technology. “Motion controls” were two of the biggest buzzwords of the last decade thanks to the Wii’s success, and there was speculation that they could supplant standard digital and analog inputs. Microsoft’s Kinect was praised for its “hands-free” gameplay. However, motion controls didn’t quite catch on as some thought they would. Rather than having dedicated motion devices, the Wii U and PS4 integrate gyroscopes into more traditional gamepads. The Xbox One tried to make Kinect 2.0 stick, but in the last six months Microsoft has begun to quietly abandon it. Motion controls are here to stay, but now they’re just another feature instead of a dominant force.
This explains a lot of the skepticism toward VR. For many, the tech isn’t appealing enough yet to justify buying the product. It’s likely that the Morpheus headset will be expensive (the newest Oculus Rift dev kit alone costs $350), and when combined with the $399 price tag of the PS4, that’s not an easy sell. To justify that price point, Sony would need to provide a continuous stream of support for the headset. Tech demos and extra game modes won’t cut it. A lack of support is a big part of why motion controls never caught on as intended. Kinect-focused games became rarer and rarer as time went on, and the Move collapsed right out of the gate. With any peripheral, unless you keep getting new reasons to use it, there’s no point in buying it. That sort of support is why the PS1’s DualShock is one of the few post-launch peripherals to ever really catch on.
The future of VR as will depend on two things: developer support and launch price. Both Oculus and Sony have the potential to make fantastic VR headsets (and sell them at decent prices), but if developers don’t get behind them it won’t be worth pursuing. Oculus must make their tech integral to not only games, but to whatever Facebook has planned. Similarly, Sony will likely use their headset to promote their various brands, while also pursuing tantalizing Morpheus exclusives (P.T. is especially ripe for VR support). At this stage, VR is just as likely to flop as it is to hook the public. There’s one simple axiom that both Oculus and Sony need to understand if they want this to take off: no matter how cool your tech is, people won’t buy into it if you don’t make it worth their money.