There is a moment of quiet before a tsunami hits, where the ocean recedes from the shoreline. To someone standing on the beach, it can seem like the water has disappeared completely, but it's an illusion; the water is being drawn into an onrushing wave, which will eventually sweep across the land. The wave's arrival is inevitable, but, looking outward from the beach, its size, its force, and the exact moment it will hit are nearly impossible to predict. You can't even see any water.
This vivid analogy was offered to me by a developer, a key member of a respected studio two years into its first VR project. For many studios, he said, there is a feeling of being on that beach, knowing that something vast is about to arrive, but seeing little evidence to indicate that it even exists. The market for consumer VR is now a year old, and while nobody seriously believed that such disruptive and expensive technology would explode overnight, I've met many people who flocked to the market with sensible expectations, and those expectations now seem optimistic in retrospect. For that VR developer and many like him, the time it takes for the wave to break will be the difference between survival and failure.
Earlier this week, Valve's Chet Faliszek questioned the importance of a "killer app" to the future of VR. Instead, he argued, it is the flexibility evident in the myriad use cases developers have already found - from interior design to medical training to, yes, playing games - that will prove the most important factor in VR's future. "What was the killer app for the App Store?" he said. "I would argue it was flexibility; the ability to become different for each person."
"When I say we're building three games, we're building three full games, not experiments"
Gabe Newell, Valve
This will likely prove to be true. Games are just one of the technology's possible applications, after all, but the key platform holders have all emphasised - over and again - the vital role of games in establishing the technology, and proving that solid businesses can be built with VR as a foundation. The broad view offered by Faliszek will offer little comfort to game specialists who heeded that call, some as far back as four years ago. What Valve co-founder Gabe Newell revealed yesterday, though, is a very different matter.
"Right now we're building three VR games," Newell said, in a press briefing attended by Eurogamer at Valve's offices in Bellevue, Washington. "When I say we're building three games, we're building three full games, not experiments.
That last comment is telling, because it was made to distinguish what Valve is now doing ("full games") from what Valve has done (smaller experiences like those collected in The Lab). These games, which will be made with both Unity and the Source engine, will be created with "mass appeal" in mind, using all of the lessons and best practices that Valve has picked up since it started working with VR.
"What we can do now is we can be designing hardware at the same time that we're designing software," Newell added, as reported by Gamasutra. "This is something that Miyamoto has always had. He's had the ability to think about what the input device is and design a system while he designs games. Our sense is that this will actually allow us to build much better entertainment experiences for people."
Newell continued: "It feels like we've been stuck with mouse and keyboard for a really long time, and that the opportunities to build much more interesting kinds of experiences for gamers were there, we just need to sort of expand what we can do. But it's not about being in hardware, it's about building better games. It's about taking bigger leaps forward with the kinds of games that we can do."
Early adopters will be pleased at the news, but all of those developers waiting on the beach will be happier still. Valve has been a fine custodian for VR, delivering best-in-class technology, preaching the value of an open market, and helping many developers to make sensible plans in uncertain times. But with Steam hosting such a large amount of VR content, and making money from each and every sale, the prospect of ambitious "full games" created by Valve is, perhaps, already overdue. Sure, the concept of a "killer app" may not fit very neatly with the full breadth of what VR might become, but one can't invoke the name of Miyamoto without calling to mind that deadliest of killer apps: Wii Sports.
A similar showcase from Valve may not be a necessity, but in a market where small studios like Survios and Vertigo seem to bear the weight of selling hardware it certainly can't hurt. The difference, of course, is that Wii Sports was available for the launch of the Wii, while the release of Valve's three games remains unknown.
Will it be this year? Maybe the next? For those waiting for the wave, I get the impression they can't come soon enough.