VR: The time for tech demos is over
Sony opens VR battle with powerful opening salvo in Star Wars Battlefront; Oculus and Valve must respond with high-quality software reveals
Sony has announced the price and release window for its PlayStation VR headset, which will be on shelves this October priced at $399. That's the headline news from its presentation at the Game Developers Conference in San Francisco, and probably the biggest news in the games business right now; it represents the final drawing of battle lines between the PC-based VR headsets, Oculus Rift and HTC/Valve Vive, and their console rival, Sony's PSVR. All three headsets will be available this year; Sony's will be dramatically cheaper, both in terms of cost of the headset itself, and cost of the hardware you'll need to make it work (a PS4 in Sony's case, an extremely high-end PC for both Rift and Vive).
The price announced by Sony, though, isn't the most important thing they revealed on stage at GDC. If the price had been a shock - ultra-cheap, or ultra-expensive - then this would have been big news, but $399 is pretty much the level most people had expected. Sony itself had set expectations some months ago by describing its pricing strategy as being more like that of a new platform than a new peripheral, so we'd largely expected that the PSVR headset would cost around the same as a new PS4. Admittedly, the $399 price point is ever so slightly misleading - you'll also need to spend $60 on a PlayStation Camera if you want to use VR at all, and many of the games for the system will seemingly work better with PlayStation Move controllers than with the PS4 pad you've got sitting on your coffee table - but it's still in the expected ballpark, and several hundred dollars cheaper than rival hardware.
Battlefield is the first confirmed VR title that answers the thus-far somewhat awkward question, "What will you actually do with your VR headset?"
What's much, much more interesting than the price being in line with everyone's expectations is a short, detail-free announcement tucked into the presentation - the news that EA is building a Star Wars Battlefront game for PSVR. Five months out from the launch of the hardware, this is the first confirmation of a major, full-scale title in development for VR. Lots of big studios are experimenting with VR and trying out their hand at building VR demos and short "experiences," and there are also a handful of full-size VR games from smaller, indie-style studios in the works. Many of these look very interesting, and there's enormous value to experimentation at this early stage of the technology - but if consumers outside the tech-obsessed early adopter demographic are actually going to buy and use VR hardware any time in the next couple of years, we need VR killer apps, not VR tech demos. Battlefield is the first confirmed VR title that answers the thus-far somewhat awkward question, "What will you actually do with your VR headset?" For a big slice of the market, "I'll play in a virtual reality Star Wars battle" is a pretty damned compelling answer.
Prices and tech specs are important, but only up to a point. There's plenty of debate raging about the relative quality and value of PSVR, Rift and Vive; for all that the engineering of PSVR is absolutely ingenious, it's ultimately connected to a far less powerful device than the PCs demanded by Rift and Vive, and will deliver a less high-fidelity VR experience as a result. This will be a pyrrhic, meaningless victory if PSVR turns out to deliver a VR experience that's "good enough" (which it does), and not only has a more accessible price point but also has a much more impressive, appealing library of software. Sony still faces a major challenge on that front; announcing Battlefront at this point is a great start which puts it out in front of the competition, but it needs to create serious momentum for its platform with a steady feed of software announcements and reveals over the next few months. As yet, though, it's the only VR "platform holder" to have demonstrated that it understands the need for this; the others remain content to push their platforms with tech demos, with the question of real, full-scale software support left hanging in the air.
Sony knows that it's got to push hard at the outset of a platform launch in order to fulfill its role as the "spark plug"
Of course, if you're a VR true believer, you take the "build it and they will come" perspective; great hardware will naturally attract great software, it just takes time. A more pragmatic view recognises that there's a chicken-and-egg problem. Developers and publishers can't commit the kind of resources required to build a AAA scale title for VR unless they're confident that a market exists to give them a return on investment. Consumers won't invest in hardware in the numbers required create such a market without a clear idea of what kind of AAA titles they're going to be playing. The platform holder's job is to act as the spark-plug, giving the initial burst of energy required to get the ecosystem to a point where it can self-sustain. That means expending a lot of time, effort and money on getting high-quality software - from either internal or external studios - onto a platform before it's actually commercially wise to do so; it means making investments whose risk profiles are higher than usual (i.e. making games for a platform that still has no market worth a damn) in the hope of a higher than usual reward (i.e. ending up in charge of a successful platform).
Only a platform holder can take those risks because only a platform holder receives those rewards if they pay off; why on earth would any publisher in their right mind take a huge, risky gamble on an unproven platform, when the success of that gamble would benefit the platform holder, not the publisher? You can be absolutely sure that the appearance of Battlefront on Sony's GDC stage represents a business partnership, not just an exercise in mutual admiration; Sony will be paying (if not in cash then in preferential terms and other ways) to cover EA's risk, because it's Sony that will reap the rewards if Battlefront becomes an early killer app for PSVR.
This isn't Sony's first rodeo; it's launched four home console platforms and two handhelds, of which only one - the late lamented PS Vita - failed to find a large, significant market. It knows that it's got to push hard at the outset of a platform launch in order to fulfill its role as the "spark plug"; when the company described PSVR as a platform rather than a peripheral, it wasn't just talking about price, but also about this approach to the launch. It's an approach, crucially, which has been lacking from Sony's previous peripheral launches - even if the likes of PS Move and PS Camera are finally getting their day in the sun as part of the PSVR hardware suite, it's undeniable that those peripherals were not treated as platforms at launch, instead being sent out to die with far less software support than would be needed to make them into a credible part of the ecosystem. That's a mistake Sony seems to understand, and seems very determined not to repeat.
Even if Sony does run away with the consumer end of the market in 2016 and 2017, which seems entirely likely, that's not the end of the VR story.
Does Oculus understand that? Does Valve? Even if they do understand it, do they have the resources, the know-how and the commitment to successfully spark a major ecosystem around their platforms - especially given that those platforms are even riskier propositions than PSVR, with higher entry costs and smaller potential audiences? It's tempting to give the benefit of the doubt; hell, it's almost impossible not to give the benefit of the doubt once you've actually spent some time in the VR worlds these companies' headsets make possible, but the cold reality is that even though Oculus and Valve are filled with talented people and backed by significant resources, neither of them has the experience of launching a platform, and neither of them has yet shown the same level of understanding of what's required of such a launch as Sony has.
All that being said; even if Sony does run away with the consumer end of the market in 2016 and 2017, which seems entirely likely, that's not the end of the VR story. The PC hardware required to run good quality VR will gradually fall in cost, and new opportunities will open up as mobile chipsets become more suited to running VR applications natively inside headsets, rather than connected to bulky PCs or consoles. As those changes filter through the market, and software developers start to really come to grips with the requirements of good VR software, there will be plenty of opportunities for new players to enter the market, or for early leaders to lose their footing. Besides that, there's a whole universe of potential open to Oculus and Valve's hardware that Sony will find harder to access; commercial and research applications for VR could quite easily turn out to be a much bigger and more important market than games, and it's not unreasonable to assume that Valve and Oculus have both had one eye on that side of the VR equation from the outset, whereas Sony's approach, intrinsically tied to a game console, is all about entertainment.
It's going to be quite a few years before VR becomes the mass-market revolution that the hype around the technology at GDC would suggest, but the shape of the early years, at least, is starting to become clear. The next few months are crucial; if Sony continues to execute in a software-led way and proves its willingness to properly invest in a launch line-up, that will comfortably negate any hardware specification lead its opponents may have. If Valve and Oculus step up to the plate and start to show off a hand of software that rivals Sony's, though, then things get really interesting. Sony will still have a more appealing mass-market play; but great software on all platforms would be an amazing coup for VR in general, and just as a rising tide lifts all boats, that kind of competition between the VR players could truly boost the sector as a whole. Fingers crossed, then, that the coming months see Oculus and Valve rising to the challenge Sony has laid down at GDC, and starting to explain the most pressing question VR still faces; sure, you have the tech to send us to new places - but where are we going to go?
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