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"VR is going to yield this staggering orgasm of the new"

Unity CEO John Riccitiello on the company's role in building a market for VR software, and why he's no fan of the "sour grapes" offered by the cynics

The entire market for game engines has started to look an awful lot like Unity Technologies. Companies like Epic and Crytek have pushed for more diverse platforms, more open pricing models, and more accessibility for smaller teams, but always two steps behind the pace-setter, behind Unity. Indeed, one gets the feeling that every major player in the market would rattle on about "democratising game development" if David Helgason, Joachim Ante and Nicholas Francis hadn't adopted it as their mantra a decade ago.

However, Unity's own trajectory shouldn't be ignored, either. The iconoclastic company has been open about its desire to support AAA game development for a long time, using the stage at its annual Unite conference to showcase the increasingly impressive results of its labour. Ultimately, it seemed there was a danger of the big engine companies were heading towards the same ill-defined middle ground, shedding their distinctive qualities in the process.

"It's interesting that a company like Valve, which makes its own engine, is showing demos for VR, and all but one is built with Unity"

David Helgason, who stepped down from his role as CEO of Unity in October last year, was generally evasive when it came to questions about the competition. John Riccitiello, the former CEO of EA and Helgason's successor, is a little more game.

"We're putting more energy and more engineering into this business than any [competing] company by a wide margin," he says when we meet following his first ever Unite keynote. "So I actually think the advantage we have expands over time. I don't see any meeting in the middle, because that's not the vector we're on.

"Engines are growing as a percentage of the total industry, the total industry is growing, and Unity is gaining share. We have a triple wind at our back, if you will. We're not losing customers, and if they're winning any customers at all it must be people who are new to game engines, because they're not coming from Unity's core base."

Regardless of how much Unity's network of tools and services has improved, that progress has been underpinned by the adherence to a handful of core values. "Speed, the ability to iterate quickly, and to save money," Riccitiello tells me, pointing to Glu Mobile as a good example of the sort of company with which Unity has been typically associated. A less typical example is Colossal Order, the Finnish developer behind the breakout hit Cities: Skylines, whose CEO, Mariina Hallikainen, shared the stage with Riccitiello only a few hours before.

"Look at what Mariina was talking about with the development of Cities: Skylines," he says. "Two programmers. Two programmers and eight team-mates. I know of another city-building game that, starting from scratch, employed nearly 100 engineers for three years. I mean, yes, perhaps there's a little more to that other game, but not 50 times more. Colossal Order got a lot out of very little. It's inspiring."

”The VR we had in the Nineties is as close to the VR we had in the Nineties as the Flintstones car is to a Tesla"

And yet while Colossal Order may be attracted to the very same qualities as the company's first customers, Cities: Skylines still represents change. Unity's engine would not have been able to support that fidelity and scope as recently as a few years ago. Today, it can help a development team of ten people to create a product that rivals - and some would say surpasses - EA's SimCity. At the start of his keynote address, Riccitiello emphasised that Unity's users no longer need to identify as separate from the world of AAA games. With version 5.0 of the toolset, the resources are already there to realise that ambition, and Riccitiello insists that there is much more to come.

"What we're doing now with heavy investments in rendering and graphics and VR - areas that one might have associated more with other engines - I think that's going to take most of the air out of the room," he says, looping back to the various companies generally considered to be Unity's rivals. "We're not just doing that to take the air out of the room, but it will help our developers get where they want to be."

Evidently, Unity's developers want to be working with virtual reality, at once a brave new creative frontier and as blue an ocean as the games industry has to offer. Virtual reality - and to a lesser extent augmented reality - has been a major point of discussion at this year's conferences and trade shows. Unite Europe is no exception to that trend, and with good reason: in VR, the company clearly sees a major opportunity to dominate a potentially vast new market, stealing a march on companies that, even three years ago, would have seemed a more natural fit for the demands of the hardware.

In the keynote, Riccitiello claimed that Unity already has, "the best system for creating content for VR." In the interview that follows, he makes the even bolder claim that it is already the dominant player.

"We have the highest market share [in VR] right now, so we're already there," he says. "It's interesting that a company like Valve, which makes its own engine, is showing demos for VR, and all but one is built with Unity."

"We have recognised a break in the road relative to what's now possible, and we don't know where that's going to lead"

Given that the consumer VR market scarcely exists yet, Unity's position relative to the pack is less relevant. However, it's easy to recognise how core values like rapid iteration and lower costs will find favour among developers attempting to solve some of the toughest design problems since they first encountered a touchscreen. Failing fast and failing cheap will be vital if VR is to become a sustainable new market for gaming, and it's safe to assume that the industry's biggest companies will be hesitant to take that risk. Between Unity's technology and its one million monthly-active developers, however, VR might already have the generously supplied software pipeline it will inevitably need.

The VR headsets preparing to launch over the next year are, Riccitiello says, "as close to the VR we had in the Nineties as the Flintstones car is to a Tesla." But this hasn't stopped a clutch of veteran game developers from using E3 as a podium to speak out against its likelihood of success. Riccitiello mentions nobody by name - and certainly not Warren Spector, who was less than encouraging about VR on this very website - but it's clear that this backlash-in-earnest has touched a nerve.

"In the last 48 hours I've seen a lot of sour grapes interviews coming out of E3," Riccitiello says, with entirely credible frustration. "Notable industry luminaries have come out and said VR is no fun, or VR's not going to be interesting. I tend to think it's sad when all people can think is whether it would be fun to play Call of Duty in VR. I mean, for God's sake, too many people are still answering the wrong question.

"Each successive generation of technology has yielded different kinds of experience, and the games have fundamentally changed. VR and AR are going to deliver fundamentally different experiences. They also try to make the analogy to 3D TV - it's a bad analogy. 3D TV wasn't really that different. VR is really different, and AR is really different from VR. We don't know what's going to come out of this. We have recognised a break in the road relative to what's now possible, and we don't know where that's going to lead yet."

"What's that software experience going to be? I don't know, but I do know that, in ten years, we'll be doing this interview by hologram"

If Riccitiello has any doubt about the commercial future of VR, it certainly doesn't show. There are now too many people working too hard for the answers to remain elusive for long. In the near term, meaning headsets like the Oculus Rift and Sony Morpheus, he doesn't expect VR to build a "meaningful" audience outside of the games industry, let alone the consumer games market. On that count, he admits, the cynics might deserve just a little credit.

On every other potentially fatal problem, though, from hardware specs to motion sickness, it will simply be a matter of time.

"Right now, if you really want 90 frames a second and to do all of the things that are possible you're going to need a new PC. But I think that's okay for now," he says. "It's actually going to give some new life to the PC makers who we thought were long-lost and dead. Moore's law has continued apace, but there hasn't been a good reason for the consumer to care for a while.

"Well, VR is a reason to care, and it's going to yield this staggering orgasm of the new. I think the PC makers and the VR companies can rise to the occasion, but nobody ever buys hardware, really. What they buy is a conveyance for software.

"What's that software experience going to be? I don't know. What I do know is that, in ten years, we'll be doing this interview by hologram."

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Latest comments (23)

Jim Charne lawyer A year ago
Spoken like a man whose company has made a huge commitment to VR -- a product category that could end up being only a niche three years from now. The Atari 2600 was also the Flintstones car (or less) to the systems of today -- but that did not stop it from capturing the imagination, passion, and dollars of gamers worldwide. Earlier VR systems enjoyed no such success.
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Chris Payne Managing Director & Founder, Quantum Soup StudiosA year ago
Well, that's a...striking...headline :)
Obviously Riccitello will talk up Unity, but I think he's pretty much on the mark. And he hits on one of the points that Warren Spector raised about VR being an "isolating" technology - exactly the same criticism that some tabloids level at ubiquitous mobile devices. Yeah, people stare at their phones in silence a lot, but they're not isolating themselves. They're engaging with people via a different medium, without having to be in the same room. Multiplayer VR that conveys body language will be *incredibly* social, much more so than pushing an avatar or a camera around a virtual world using buttons and joysticks.

Bring me my hologram Skype unit!
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Robin Clarke Producer, AppyNation LtdA year ago
Indeed VR may only be a niche in games in three years.
VR won't only be a niche in dozens of other applications (that also require robust 3D development tools) in three years.
And VR certainly won't only be a niche in games in ten years.

The *idea* of the electric car, VR, and the tablet computer existed in the 1990s. Falling into the trap of "tried it, didn't work" would have people discounting the iPad based on the Apple Newton. VR hardware and the uses it's put to will be unrecognisable in a few years time.
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Klaus Preisinger Freelance Writing A year ago
What does it mean when John Riccitiello believes in one technology (VR) so much that he predicts being interviewed in another technology (holographic projection) in ten years?

The orgasm of the new? There recently was an entire convention dedicated to twenty sequels and ten remakes. If they had onyl known.....

As for the Flintstone car and the Tesla. If I recharge a Tesla in Germany, the CO2 emissions that were caused by the production of the power amount to roughly the same a modern car would emit over the same distance (61kg). Does that mean that VR is also a thing that gets branded as being something (eco friendly) that it isn't to the degree that is suggested?

Questions upon questions....
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He is right, VR and AR are about to change everything in this next upcoming decade. Of course many status quo thinkers are going to be late to the boat, but so what, the boat is leaving with or without them.

Staring and playing on a smallish 2 dimensional flat screen is going to seem archaic in less than 10 years time. Flat screens will still have its uses for business since flat screen mimic paper and data spread sheets and so forth well enough, but for everything else, its all about to change.
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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! A year ago
I dunno. I think the side effects of too much VR and possibly AR need to be studied in depth if it's going to be "replacing" current entertainment options as some think it will. I can stand maybe 45 minutes to an hour at best before I need to sit down or take those goggles of and that's pushing it. Then again, everyone is different.

Still I can see some "Opti-Grab" style lawsuits coming down the pike if people start getting all wobbly because they spend too much time on their fake holodecks thinking nothing of what *could* happen from overuse. "What's an Opti-Grab?" you ask? Well:

https://youtu.be/qaz2hxZLycY

There you go :D
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Gary Davies Lecturer in Computing (Games/Programming), St Helens CollegeA year ago
VR worlds augmented with machine learning algorithms, to track and control real space movement of the player. The games industry is no longer a virtual interaction it's a physical one.
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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design A year ago
@Jim
The Atari 2600 was also the Flintstones car (or less) to the systems of today -- but that did not stop it from capturing the imagination, passion, and dollars of gamers worldwide. Earlier VR systems enjoyed no such success.
That is kind of a silly thing to say. You are comparing apples to oranges here. Back then the Atari 2600 worked, it was playable and it didn't have many problems for it's time. VR back then simply wasn't VR, it lacked everything that makes VR what it's suppose to be. It wasn't playable, it wasn't fun, and it was trash.

Back then, VR was a good idea, but long before it's time. Some of the first computers ever designed would have gotten the same sort of reaction and failure if they tried to over exaggerate them and release them to the public. Any technology released before it's time would face the same sort of failure. VR simply was not doable back then.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.A year ago
Staring and playing on a smallish 2 dimensional flat screen is going to seem archaic in less than 10 years time.
So we're all going to be wearing tethered HMD's and wiping local multiplayer from existence in 10 years?

Do you mind explaining "smallish" to me? That large wall mounted panel that my family and I all use is confused by "smallish".
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.A year ago
John will obviously be aware that he is putting his own and his company's reputation on the line here. As a long time VR enthusiast I find this and the fact that so many of the heads of this industry are willing to do so very encouraging. With the kind of information that they have access to I don't think their views can be ignored. I would think many game devs are salivating at the prospect of having the option to apply their skills to all the non-gaming applications VR offers.
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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design A year ago
@Jim Webb
So we're all going to be wearing tethered HMD's and wiping local multiplayer from existence in 10 years?
I am pretty sure there is no reason to expect that you couldn't do local mutliplayer using VR.
Do you mind explaining "smallish" to me? That large wall mounted panel that my family and I all use is confused by "smallish".
When you wear a VR headset, it makes your wall mounted panel look small. We are talking about a screen that is on a wall, compared to a screen that surrounds almost your entire field of view as if you where in a real life world .. actually in the game.
I think calling 2d screens small during that time, seems fair. I mean we are talking about 10 years from now.
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Paul Shirley Programmers A year ago
I am pretty sure there is no reason to expect that you couldn't do local mutliplayer using VR.
Virtuality shipped local multiplayer VR systems in the early 90s. Took up huge floorspace, partly for player safety in the upright pods. I'd hope we have wireless headsets soon because it solves a lot of problems (including some safety worries), whether it would be safe to try squeezing multiple players into typical european rooms for multiplayer is a whole different problem.

And of course there are games most of us wouldn't want to play in VR - something as fast as Quake Live would be a vomit fest even in perfect zero latency VR.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.A year ago
Brook, I'm going to predict that in 10 years, very few games and households will utilize HMDs for local multiplayer. Can you honestly see a family of 4 wearing HMDs for Mario Kart? Fighting games? FPS's? I'm just not seeing it. To say nothing of the increase in performance you need to render multiple VR images or the resolution standards in 10 years.
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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design A year ago
@Jim
You said wiping local multiplayer from existence.
I am only pointing out that you are over exaggerating. I really don't care what you predict, because that statement is absurd. Try to make your predictions a little more reasonable. Will VR have local multiplayer? Yes, most certainly. Will it be less than say a console ... Yes ... no duh. Will it be wiped from existence? Ehhh I seriously doubt it.

@Paul
Virtuality shipped local multiplayer VR systems in the early 90s. Took up huge floorspace, partly for player safety in the upright pods. I'd hope we have wireless headsets soon because it solves a lot of problems (including some safety worries), whether it would be safe to try squeezing multiple players into typical european rooms for multiplayer is a whole different problem.
Entirely depends on the sort of games you are playing. There are plenty of sitting down multiplayer experiences you could have.
And of course there are games most of us wouldn't want to play in VR - something as fast as Quake Live would be a vomit fest even in perfect zero latency VR.
Not even sure why the heck you mention this. No where did I ever imply you would be playing anything remotely like that.
VR is an entirely different medium then what we are used to when it comes to designing video games. 10 years from now, most VR games I would assume be made specifically for VR and for that not to happen.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.A year ago
Jim, I could imagine a more interesting version of a spinning class at gyms, or as a way to get school kids to enjoy physical education classes, or for LAN parties.

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Julian Williams on 1st July 2015 4:50pm

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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design A year ago
@Julian
My thoughts exactly. For gaming in particular I imagine LAN parties could be very fun with VR. However, in 10 years I can even imagine being able to do local VR even with one machine. Yes, it's intensive, but people seem to forget how quick technology progresses.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.A year ago
Oculus suggested a couple of years ago that they envisaged the HMD itself running Android and the Hololens will run Windows 10, so it may not need to all run on one machine
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.A year ago
Julian, in less than 10 years?

As for hardware, that's my field. We're not going to have HMD's compact enough to be stylish (as a broad consumer product, we all know this is needed), light weight and wireless combined with a single rendering system to support an entire class.

People look to mobile as a reference for advances in technology and that's a mistake. Mobile was an immature technology 10 years ago. It advanced so quickly because it was so far behind to start with. Now that it is mature, that performance increase over time curve has started to flatten and fall more in line with other mature technologies. 3 TFLOPS is barely enough for one VR today (at current resolution standards). We just are not on a trajectory to have that kind of rendering muscle in a smaller form factor with less heat and power requirements in less than 10 years. To say nothing of the cost of that kind of set up.

Will this eventually happen? Oh certainly. And I can't wait to see it too. But we can't let our fervor for new tech overtake reality.
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Julian Williams Founder, WIZDISH Ltd.A year ago
True, although you can have pretty compelling experiences with less resolution than is currently possible. Good to give pause for thought because its easy to assume too much. I'm a bit puzzled by the single rendering system. Is that different to the distributed system of a normal LAN party?
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.A year ago
For local multiplayer it's normal (see consoles). LAN parties are a mixture of elements found in local and online mutliplayer. It's more or less online multiplayer just with the WAN connection between NICs removed. With large LAN parties, you may never even see or meet most of the other gamers you play against (just like online). However, each player would still have their own rendering system.

Lowering the resolution may be ok for non-gamers (the spin class example) but that goes back to my original reply to Todd in that reducing resolution will have a negative impact on that perceived TV size in front of your eyes. In fact, the bigger the screen (real or apparent), the higher the resolution needs to be to prevent pixelation and aliasing.
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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design A year ago
@Jim
Take a look at gaming 10 years ago. Take a look at hardware 10 years ago and compare it to today's hardware. Go even 10 years further and we are talking about only a 20 year timespan. What did we have back in 1995?

I am sorry, but technology is no where as slow as you seem to be making it out to be.
As for hardware, that's my field. We're not going to have HMD's compact enough to be stylish
An appeal to authority I see. Also, who said anything about stylish? How small do you think you can make a VR headset? You need a screen that is always going to have to be at least a certain size to cover your field of view. The only sliming down you can really expect isn't much. It's not a fashion show either, so why does it have to be stylish. No one is going to walking around wearing them as some sort of fashion statement.
Also .. stylish is an opinion. What you may not find stylish someone else might. Personally I think the VR headsets look perfectly fine for what they do. Not really sure what else you would be expecting here.
light weight and wireless combined with a single rendering system to support an entire class.
It's already pretty light weight now. So 10 years from now .. to act like it wouldn't be is silly. Wireless isn't needed as it depends on the game type. However, if you really need wireless .. they are already pretty much working on that with cellphones. Also . .why does it need a single rendering system .. what is your reasoning for that exactly? It's like you are trying to impose you own rules on what is local multiplayer lol.

Local is local. When you are playing in the same room. Or would you consider connecting 2 xbox's together as not local multiplayer?
People look to mobile as a reference for advances in technology and that's a mistake.
I look to all technology actually. I look to see how things in general tend to progress. I can see the beginning of single machines being able to render at least 2 headsets no problem. It will not be completed technology, but in my defence I never once said it would be. I just suggested that it would be possible.
Will this eventually happen? Oh certainly. And I can't wait to see it too. But we can't let our fervor for new tech overtake reality.
Again .. you are the one who seems to be assuming way to much in my opinion.
For local multiplayer it's normal (see consoles). LAN parties are a mixture of elements found in local and online mutliplayer. It's more or less online multiplayer just with the WAN connection between NICs removed. With large LAN parties, you may never even see or meet most of the other gamers you play against (just like online). However, each player would still have their own rendering system.
Local area network. It's called that for a reason. Regardless of how it's connected together. It's still local multiplayer.
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Jim Webb Executive Editor/Community Director, E-mpire Ltd. Co.A year ago
Brook, I pointed out my hardware background because I have one. It means I know how far hardware has come in 10 years. I've been a part of it for that 10 years. That means I'm familiar with processing performance then and now and have a pretty solid grasp of what will be possible in 10 more years.

I said wireless because Julian mentioned gym exercises and physical education at school as a suggestion regarding our comments about local multiplayer. Wireless can be done but now you're looking at adding a battery so bulk goes up and time use goes down.

Single rendering system...because how many applications do you run that are powered by multiple sources? Is a school or spin class at a gym really going to have a wireless rendering farm for VR? And don't say the cloud. The latency as a natural phenomena of the electromagnetic spectrum prohibits the cloud from being a suitable rendering source.

Some machines now can render 2 headsets. But you are looking at machines with 6+ TFLOPS. Likely much more in fact. nVidia GTX 980s in SLI or AMD r9 290 X's in CrossFire all pushing over 10 TFLOPS with 500 watts of thermal dissipation to consider.

You are right. LAN parties are still local. With each one of them being a tech head with high end systems to render their own instance of VR with. By the way, few call LAN parties local mutliplayer. They call them...LAN parties. If we're going to get semantic on it, let's at least consider the terminology in the context of who uses it and how. Local multiplayer is still very much a living room console domain. And is most certainly the domain originally in question. No one that plays local multiplayer on a console on a TV in a living room is going to buy 4 VR sets in 10 years and PC powerful enough to handle them to replace their console local mutliplayer experience. Console local multiplayer and LAN parties are largely separate markets. It might also surprise you that those that go to LAN parties tend to enjoy the face to face camaraderie. Something VR would remove.
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Brook Davidson Artist / 3D design A year ago
Brook, I pointed out my hardware background because I have one. It means I know how far hardware has come in 10 years. I've been a part of it for that 10 years. That means I'm familiar with processing performance then and now and have a pretty solid grasp of what will be possible in 10 more years.
That is still an appeal to authority. Do you have any idea how many people in the hardware industry make predictions and end up being wrong? All the time. I don't care how long you been working in hardware, times change and predicting what hardware will be like is probably one of the most harder things to predict due to the way tech progresses.
I said wireless because Julian mentioned gym exercises and physical education at school as a suggestion regarding our comments about local multiplayer.
Ah, well that is my fault then. Misunderstood somewhere.
Single rendering system...because how many applications do you run that are powered by multiple sources?
I don't see how what we have now is relevant to what we might have in 10 years. Just because something isn't common today doesn't mean it will not be common tomorrow.

Then again I could very well be misunderstanding what you even mean here. If you have VR headsets powered by cellphones like they are doing today, each cellphone is a separate rendering system.
By the way, few call LAN parties local mutliplayer. They call them...LAN parties.
Don't really care what people call them. I simply call them what they are. It's still local multiplayer.
If we're going to get semantic on it, let's at least consider the terminology in the context of who uses it and how.
Looking it up on google, most people seem to define local multiplayer, as playing in the same room, which is exactly how I view it as well. There are even some pc games that have local multiplayer. Some you can play on the same machine, others you can use a LAN.

If you where in separate rooms, is when I would start to say it's no longer really local mutliplayer per say according to how people use the term. It would then no longer fit.
No one that plays local multiplayer on a console on a TV in a living room is going to buy 4 VR sets in 10 years and PC powerful enough to handle them to replace their console local mutliplayer experience.
Ya I doubt it would happen either. But again your original statement was presumptuous. Especially since VR has only begun. Again, trying to predict the future of tech is never the easiest thing to do regardless of your background experience. So to say that it would render local mutliplayer non existent to me is over the top. It's a pretty bold statement that I would say is likely not going to be the case.
Console local multiplayer and LAN parties are largely separate markets.
Ya, now that you specified you where talking specifically about console local multiplayer, and not all local multiplayer in general.
It might also surprise you that those that go to LAN parties tend to enjoy the face to face camaraderie. Something VR would remove.
VR does not remove it. It only removes it during game play, and even then .. in game you can be face to face. That is one of the biggest factors that makes VR seem so amazing. To have face to face experiences with people whom are across the planet as if you are in the same room together. Clearly you don't get VR if you think it eliminates the face to face experience. If anything it expands on it.
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