As we near the end of a pivotal year for virtual reality, it's clear there is still a lot of work to be done. With the arrival of Oculus Rift, HTC Vive and PlayStation VR, consumers finally have access to the technology that has commanded much of the industry's attention and excitement for the past four years but only now can we gauge how popular it may become.
That's according to Aki Järvinen, founder of research and consulting initiative Game Futures, currently working at Sheffield Hallam University. Järvinen will be speaking about trends in virtual reality development at this week's Develop:VR conference in London. We caught up with him ahead of the event to find out his thoughts on the industry's next step after this year's long-awaited hardware launches.
"There is a definite need for VR to find its own voice," he tells GamesIndustry.biz. "We know very little about user habits with the headsets, for example. How does the isolating, solitary nature of current VR tech affect the frequency of use and thus retention with games? Early data shows that game time spent on VR titles is nowhere close to PC titles in the same genres.
"Kevin Kelly, the former editor of Wired, has talked about how the Internet has proceeded to its current form as streams and flows, from its 'newspapery' web origins. I expect something similar to happen with VR games; currently, it's about imitating existing genres with the added value of VR-enhanced sense of presence, but developers and designers should experiment with other paradigms.
"2016 has been the first proper year for developers to test the waters on if the market is profitable yet and learn about releasing games for the actual retail platforms. Strategic product decisions are being made as we speak, based on these early experiences."
Many developers have said that virtual reality tears up the game design rulebook, requiring completely new theories and practices when it comes to game creation. By now, studios have poured years into experimenting with VR games and it would be fair to argue that the early pages of that rulebook have been written - but Järvinen believes the conventions and best practices established so far are largely temporary.
"There is a definite need for VR to find its own voice. We know very little about user habits with the headsets, for example."
Aki Järvinen, Game Futures
With more changes expected from the headsets themselves, plus the accessories and controllers supporting them, Järvinen argues that the time span has been "too short for [findings] to stick" and that gameplay design solutions in use now will be almost irrelevant in just a few years.
"If one looks at games like Batman: Arkham VR, for example, the designers have clearly tried to turn the current constraints of the platform - lack of movement in particular - to their advantage, and design gameplay around the constraints," he says. "They've done this with very deliberately crafted, static setpieces that leverage VR's other strengths, such as experiencing the scope and scale of things in a more startling, life-like way. Yet, once those movement constraints go away, it's hard to see anyone designing in that paradigm anymore. So it's an agile rulebook in constant change."
The future of virtual reality will, therefore, be defined by its hardware rather than its software, and the Game Futures founder predicts significant evolution from the devices people are picking up in stores this Christmas.
"VR has enough momentum now that it will go along the typical development path of similar technologies," says Järvinen. "Headsets will become smaller, untethered, of higher resolution, trackers invisible, and so on. When these developments are able to coincide with lower production costs to the degree that retail price points become truly affordable, then we are on the cusp of a real breakthrough. Parallel to this, software has to evolve."
It's easy to argue that virtual reality software is already quite unevolved. With a handful of more ambitious or high-production projects being the exceptions, the vast majority of launch software for Oculus, Vive and PSVR is limited. Most current virtual reality titles offer a more immersive first-person perspective for long-established gameplay genres, with little more than the novelty of viewing the action through the headset to differentiate it from what has come before. Perhaps the most blatant examples are the waves of shooting gallery-style VR games, where players are restricted to either an on-rails experience, a gun turret or standing on the spot, blasting away at waves of enemies that appear in often scripted patterns.
Järvinen says the prominence of these games so far is "a concern" but believes that as the market evolves, both in terms of hardware and software, "the lesser formulas will wither out".
He adds: "So far developers have benefited from the rush of early adopters who basically purchase or download everything. This might lead to vanity metrics, such as bloated download figures, or bloated revenue estimates, as there has been lots of free promotions, bundles, and so on. But the VR market cannot be sustained with spikes from early adopters and therefore the more inherently 'VR' titles and game design aspects will eventually prevail.
"VR in its current form still has too many disabling contexts in play, such as retail price, PC requirements, and the fact that many people experience nausea. While finding the new genres is important, they do not matter much if enough enabling contexts are not yet in place, and that means also cultural ones - such as social acceptability in a living room, or in public places with mobile VR - rather than just technical ones."
The cultural challenges that virtual reality faces are by far the most significant. 2016 has seen VR find the audience it was originally intended for and would inevitably appeal to the most (that is, avid consumers of video games and emerging technology) but hopes remain high that the tech will grow to have mainstream appeal. Certainly, that seems to be the intention of Facebook, which acquired Oculus back in 2014 and earlier this year showed off new social communication functions such as virtual chat rooms at September's Connect event.
"While finding the new genres is important, they do not matter much if enough enabling contexts are not yet in place, and that means also cultural ones - such as social acceptability in a living room, or in public places with mobile VR - rather than just technical ones."
Aki Järvinen, Game Futures
Järvinen believes the social network has spent enough effort and money on virtual reality that "they've gone past the point of abandoning creating its mass-market appeal" but suggests future forms of the hardware will have more impact on the technology's attractiveness than the companies backing it.
"True mainstream appeal would require technological developments, such as miniaturisation, but also use cases where users see obvious benefits. Facebook seems to bet on the social dimension being the latter. Creating accessible tools for VR content creation could be the home run."
As such, we can expect to see more companies from beyond the games industry investing in the technology and those developing for it. While it might not reach the headline-grabbing heights of Facebook's $2bn Oculus acquisition, there is little danger of funding for virtual reality projects drying up any time soon.
"The wow factor with VR is strong enough that, when executed innovatively by a capable team, investors will get on board," Järvinen says. "Therefore I believe investments will stay steady but perhaps we won't see news about the more exuberant sums before the market finds its own Supercell."
Järvinen concludes by stressing that the non-games, even non-entertainment, applications for virtual reality will go a long way to not only broadening the technology's appeal, but writing more pages of that agile rulebook.
"We should not forget applications of VR beyond games and entertainment," he says. "I believe journalism can use similar aspirations for a heightened feeling of empathy, achieved by leveraging that sense of presence VR can produce. We are already seeing signs of this with 360 video pieces distributed via VR platforms.
"Lots of interesting stuff is also going on in medical applications and research, such as burn victim therapy via VR. Real estate market could benefit in a big way from virtual viewings. So VR will not have one end goal, but many."
Aki Järvinen will be discussing trends of virtual reality at Develop:VR in London on Thursday, December 1st.