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Is PSVR Sony's quietest launch ever?

PSVR launches next week, but it's a quiet affair compared to Sony's usual bombastic launches. Why is the company holding fire?

In a week's time, what is arguably the first truly great commercial experiment of the new VR age will begin. For the first time, consumers will be able to go out and buy a VR headset that's (relatively) inexpensive, that doesn't require a costly hobbyist PC to operate, and that provides a "good enough" VR experience for gaming and other applications. If there's to be a sweet spot in the virtual reality market, Sony will be planting its flag firmly in it next Thursday.

Reviews of the device have started to appear and are pretty much what you'd expect. It's good; we've known that from the countless demos and trade show appearances PSVR has made this year. It's not as technically accomplished as the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, but it's a far more comfortable, well-designed piece of hardware, and its technical shortfalls are far fewer and less noticeable than you'd expect from such a cheap device running on such comparatively low-powered hardware. It's certainly an entirely different class of experience than any of the "toy" VR experiences currently offered by mobile tech like Samsung's Gear VR, a situation which Google's newly announced Daydream headset seems unlikely to change.

So yes, this is the sweet spot, if such a thing exists. Good enough to actually want to use, unlike current mobile VR devices, cheap enough to be accessible to a wider audience of gamers and enthusiasts, and with common sense (if occasionally frustrating) trade offs between complexity of setup and physical arrangement, and accuracy of control. If a VR headset is to rescue this putative Year of VR from the somewhat disappointing launches of HTC and Oculus' consumer devices - both of which saw interest plateau in the post-launch period - then it's going to be PlayStation VR.

"It's not unreasonable to expect that PSVR will be for all intents and purposes supply-constrained through into early 2017, making it comfortably the most commercially successful of the tethered VR platforms"

Is that what Sony has in mind, though? One peculiarity of the PSVR launch is that beyond the specialist press, it's something of a non-event. Marketing support for the launch is minimal; there's far less hype and visibility around the product than there would be around, for example, the launch of a major game. Here in Japan, PSVR barely warrants a mention in Sony's current barrage of advertising, which is promoting PlayStation 4 with TV and streaming site commercials that highlight the launch of games like Persona 5 and Yakuza 6, the arrival of new console hardware, and oh yeah, PSVR is a thing too.

One could argue that Sony would be foolish to push PSVR too hard given that pretty much the entirety of its early shipments are spoken for by pre-orders. We still don't know how many units of PSVR will ship for launch, or how many are projected to ship by year-end, but every indication is that the numbers are relatively small, at least by comparison with the PS4's installed base. It's not unreasonable to expect that PSVR will be for all intents and purposes supply-constrained through into early 2017, making it comfortably the most commercially successful of the tethered VR platforms - regardless of whether the company spends a single cent on further marketing.

However, the slightest glance back over the history of hardware launches in the games business and beyond would demonstrate that companies generally do not row back their marketing budgets just because of being supply-constrained; if anything, this encourages them to redouble their efforts. That's because supply constraints act as a multiplier on marketing budgets. When demand is outstripping supply, every extra notch that you can ratchet up that demand through your marketing efforts guarantees more media coverage, more word of mouth and more visibility for your product, creating a halo of desirability around the platform which can give a long-term boost to sales that lasts for months or even years after the initial supply constraints are lifted.

"A huge marketing push, widespread coverage of shortages and the resulting desirability halo that would build around PSVR would be great for the VR headset, but might negatively impact the now overshadowed PS4 Pro"

That Sony has seemingly decided to eschew that strategy for PSVR is interesting, but probably speaks to a confluence of a number of different factors. For a start, it's rare for a platform holder to be putting not one but two major new pieces of hardware on the market at once, which is what Sony is doing with PSVR in October and PS4 Pro in November. A huge marketing push, widespread coverage of shortages and the resulting desirability halo that would build around PSVR would be great for the VR headset, but might negatively impact the now overshadowed PS4 Pro. That would hurt all the more if, as is likely, PS4 Pro is not supply constrained while PSVR is. That's definitely a factor playing into Sony's decision making here.

There's something else in play too, though. Lots of software is on the way for PSVR, and there's actually a pretty respectable line-up at the outset - but reviews of the system are fairly blunt about the extent to which much of it feels more like it's demoing the hardware, and the concept of VR itself, rather than being a proper, full-strength VR game experience. The games aren't just short, they expose kinks in the PS Move control system (which may be fixable or may be an innate problem PSVR just has to work around forever) and sidestep major issues instead of tackling them - for example, the Batman VR title's decision to make the player jump from location to location, rather than walking between them, to avoid motion sickness.

In short, while there's interesting and even accomplished stuff in there, it all sounds rather like the kind of thing that you play to show off a new system's capabilities, rather than the kind of thing that makes you say, "you've got to go out and get PSVR so you can play this game". The enthusiasts and the VR faithful don't need a killer app - they just need enough of a taster to convince themselves that the killer apps will come, given time - but the general public absolutely does. It's easy for enthusiasts - a category which, if you're reading this, probably encompasses you - to underestimate the psychological barrier VR needs to overcome. For many consumers, the prospect of strapping on a headset that looks like a Daft Punk cosplay prop, isolating themselves from the world around them and potentially looking like a complete tool as they flail around with objects nobody else in the room can see is a pretty big ask.

"It's important that when the majority of consumers start to experience VR, their experience of it is fantastic, not just a demo or a proof of concept but a game that makes them want to own this technology right now"

A great killer app game that gets the world gushing will overcome that barrier. That may be on the way; all eyes are on January's Resident Evil 7, which could potentially be VR's first truly huge AAA title. Until that kind of game is available, though, Sony may be well advised to focus on the VR faithful and keep its marketing powder dry. That's certainly what seems to have happened so far; this is entirely anecdotal, but I've been surprised at just how few people have asked whether I'm getting a PSVR (and if they can bring an offering of beer around in order to have a go on it). Far fewer people have asked me about PSVR than have asked about PS4 Pro, or even Xbox One S. Enthusiasts know about it; the average gamer simply doesn't seem to care yet.

Given the hurdles facing mainstream VR adoption, that may be for the best. It's important that when the majority of consumers start to experience VR, their experience of it is fantastic, not just a demo or a proof of concept but a game that makes them want to own this technology right now. Saving the marketing blitz and letting PSVR's software library mature first could be the best way to prevent the so-called Year of VR from ending with the Winter of VR Discontent.

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Latest comments (10)

Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona UniversityA year ago
Do we really have to ask why they aren't marketing this as much as they could? IT's the same obstacles VR has seen coming for years. Expensive price point. Lack of games. And questionable desire of the consumer to routinely strap a box to their face.
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Because the supply wont be able to keep up with demand as it is. The demand for preorders overwhelmed the select retailers in less than a day back in march, and havent been able to preorder or should I say prepay since. This will be the "hard to get" xmas item this year no doubt.

Hell Best Buy is doing the special midnight opening for SONY VR in many of it stores, you really think a big Box retailer is going to do that if the sky high demand isnt already there?

Edited 1 times. Last edit by Todd Weidner on 7th October 2016 4:27pm

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Greg Wilcox Creator, Destroy All Fanboys! A year ago
Todd, GameStop is also doing a midnight launch. Midnight launches are also great PR stunts more than anything these days, but I live near 4 GameStops, so I may take a ride between all to see what lines are like. Personally, I'd wait to get one of these, as even if I did pre-order, no way in hell am I trotting home in my area with an expensive peripheral. That said, lol... we also need to see what the return rate is on this particular unit, as hype goes one way, but reality for some users goes another.
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Show all comments (10)
Midnight launches are also great PR stunts more than anything these days,
but these only work with products with a great deal of demand, and that is my point.
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Andrew Jakobs Lead Programmer A year ago
I think, as mentioned, it's the amount of units they have which just aren't available for a big widespread campaign.
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We have to realize that internally SONY is drawn on how VR will play for them. There are a number of SONY executives that are still gun shy from the collapse of their aspirations for 3D gaming - also the issues of VR being a thing they can control - the stories of the internal nicknaming of PSVR as "the sick machine" offers ominous shadows of VR sim sickness stories appearing in the media.

The other issue is the need to manage marketing and media - the whole need for PSVR not to overshadow its main job os selling PS4 and in that role also sell PS4 Pros! This is a SONY gamble and they are playing their cards close to their chest.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing A year ago
The real issue is that they placed their orders for components long before they knew there would be this many orders.

You can't just snap your fingers and make a million screens appear, the production line space in China that is already clogged with Christmas items, etc etc. This is the same sort of problem Nintendo encountered with Wiimotes, except without the part where anyone with a half a brain would have said "second controllers might be popular" well in advance.

Pretty much the door shut on making significantly more back in may or June, tops. Look at the trouble Bethesda had with extra pip boys last year, which was exponentially easier to manufacture.
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Paul Jace Merchandiser A year ago
Besides for the possible supply constraints there's also the possibility that Sony realized they don't have a killer ap to put their full marketing power behind. This could change once the game reviews start coming out in more abundance including stuff that's launching later in the year and early in 2017.
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Jeff Kleist Writer, Marketing, Licensing A year ago
@Paul I seriously doubt they really have a killer app. The PS4 is too underpowered to drive one. That's why everything significant is on rails. What they need to judge and quickly is whether interest will last long enough to where a PSPro exclusive makes economic sense. People are going to want something with more meat fairly quickly.
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Sandy Lobban Founder, Noise Me UpA year ago
Probably best to proceed this way. It's not like those who need to know don't know about it. Wider VR marketing at this time wouldn't really increase their impact.
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