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Sony's VR commitment must be about software, not hardware | Opinion

Will Sony's interest in VR go far enough for the company to commit its most treasured IPs to the medium?

Sony's announcement that it's working on a VR headset for the PlayStation 5 -- however far off that new device may be -- gives a definitive answer to the question of whether its interest in the emerging space would outlive the original PSVR.

As Christopher Dring pointed out in his column earlier this week, that was absolutely an open question. PSVR's installed base is only about one-twentieth of the PS4's reach, and VR seems to have slipped well down the priority list in terms of both Sony's marketing and communications, and its software strategy. Selling five to six million headsets isn't anything to sniff at, of course, and many companies in the VR space would kill for those kinds of numbers -- but it's such a small fraction of the PlayStation business that it was far from impossible that Sony would write it off as a worthy but ultimately unsuccessful experiment and move on.

Perhaps that's why the responses to news that it's actively developing a PS5 headset all seem tinged with a sense of relief. For all the strides that have been made in the quality of the VR experience and the innovations coming from dedicated VR developers, there's no doubt that the sector is going through a rough patch at the moment. The initial gleam of novelty has worn off and the broad consumer appeal hasn't bedded in just yet, which is cooling the ardor of some publishers and investors. If Sony, the company behind the most successful consumer VR headset, were to bow out of the sector at this point, that cooled ardor might turn into outright cold feet -- finding investment for VR games could suddenly get very, very tough indeed.

It's very easy to overstate the degree of commitment represented by Sony releasing this device

It's great that PSVR2 will exist, then -- and even better that it'll only require one cable, hopefully the USB-C port on the front of the console, making it a dramatically better headset than the original even before any other improvements are considered. Let's not get ahead of ourselves, though; it's very easy to overstate the degree of commitment represented by releasing this device.

Certainly, releasing any hardware product requires some degree of confidence and commitment, especially if you're going to slap a valuable brand like PlayStation on the box. But the simple existence of PSVR2 doesn't necessarily mean that Sony expects it to perform much better than the previous headset, or that it's any more willing to back it up with high-profile software than before.

The original PSVR effectively stands as a proof of concept, the concept being that if you launch a VR headset for the PlayStation, around 5% of your users will probably buy one. That means you get to sell several million of them, which is a decent little side business, and Sony has never been averse to a decent little side business. Bear in mind that we're discussing a company that spent many years flogging $2000 robot dogs, and once made a wireless speaker whose unique selling point was that it rolled around the floor as it played music. It recently launched an entire smartphone designed around the concept of being an excellent viewfinder for video cameras, a niche product with an addressable market that surely measures in the hundreds at best.

A much bigger commitment would be for Sony to throw some of its first-party software muscle behind VR

At heart, Sony remains a hardware company -- the hardware company. If you point it at a market niche that's pretty much a guaranteed multi-million seller for a device, then hell, there are probably teams there who can design a world-beating VR headset in their sleep with one arm tied behind their back.

I'm not saying that's what's happening here -- at least not for certain. Of course it's not just about flogging a few million new headsets. There will also be a calculation here about the degree of prestige and differentiation that VR support gives to PS5 at the high end, plus a general sense that the company ought to have a dog in the VR fight in case we do suddenly hit a moment where the sector goes stratospheric. However, the mere announcement of a new headset equally does not mean that there's been some Damascene conversion to the wonders of VR within SIE.

Bear in mind, after all, that the company has launched camera peripherals for every console since the early success of EyeToy, which shifted quite a lot more units than PSVR. I'm not even sure what the PS5 camera is actually for at this juncture, but it exists, because manufacturing a PS5 camera peripheral is a piece of cake for Sony and it knows it'll sell enough of them to be worthwhile.

Sony will make a new VR headset, but will major IP like Horizon make an appearance

Sony will make a new VR headset, but will major IP like Horizon make an appearance

The point of this isn't to dump on the PSVR2 announcement, but rather to point out that a much bigger commitment -- a commitment that would be vastly more meaningful to the VR sector as a whole -- would be for Sony to throw some of its first-party software muscle behind VR. During the PS4 era, the company was warmly supportive of other creators making games for PSVR, especially indies, but the company's own development efforts were conspicuous in their avoidance of any of the firm's more valuable IP.

Capcom's Resident Evil 7 remains the biggest AAA game to fully support PSVR, and that was pretty early in the lifecycle. Arguably the only real AAA-scale game Sony directly published for PSVR was Iron Man VR at the other end of the device's lifespan. None of the firm's own headline IPs have made a PSVR appearance.

Look at the games that moved the needle for VR in 2020 -- a Half-Life game, a Star Wars game, a Marvel game

This is especially significant because, if the past year has taught us anything about what the VR market needs to move forward, it's that IP matters a hell of a lot -- perhaps even more so than it does for a traditional gaming platform like a console. Making the leap into VR is a big commitment for a consumer, not just financially but psychologically. Convincing people to put on a dorky helmet -- no amount of lifestyle photography of hip young things in Marie Kondo approved apartments is ever going to make the headsets look anything less than dorky -- to play a game demands a pretty serious hook. In games, that hook tends to be IP-related.

Look at the really impactful, meaningful games that moved the needle for VR in 2020, a year when the "cut yourself off from the real world and go play somewhere else" pitch was way more attractive than usual -- a Half-Life game, a Star Wars game, a Marvel game. Innovation and new IP is important of course, but the reality is that you're not going to get people interested in buying and wearing headsets without a touchstone of familiarity. Boneworks may be a better VR game than Iron Man in almost every conceivable way, but I know which one of them will have shifted more headsets.

If Sony really is as committed to VR as a core part of its platform as we'd all like to believe, that commitment is going to have to be reflected in software, not just hardware. For PSVR2 to be more than just another side note in the PlayStation ecosystem, and for Sony to make a truly meaningful contribution to the development of the VR sector overall, the movement has to come from its approach to development and willingness to dip into its treasure chest of IP.

A real commitment here would see VR being considered, if not as a play mode for the full game -- as in Resident Evil 7 -- then at least as a side dish for the major titles in Sony's line-up. Swinging through New York, battling robot dinosaurs, creeping around Clickers in the post-apocalypse; there's at least some aspect of each major title in Sony's arsenal that seems like a dream fit for VR, if only the budget, the time and the commitment were there to make it a reality.

This is, of course, a big ask. There will be games that just don't suit VR at all, no doubt, not to mention the risk of VR features being strapped on as an unloved afterthought just because they're required by internal rules, and not something to which developers actually want to devote time and effort. But if the company's commitment to VR really does extend this far, it would be an unalloyed positive thing for the medium and the industry as a whole.

Sony is arguably the only company on the planet that's actually positioned to push VR forward in such a significant way -- by making it not just a key part of the PlayStation strategy, but a key part of the PlayStation consumer experience. It's probably a pipe dream, but if the company is really serious about VR forming a core part of its offering in the future, starting to lay the groundwork for a shift in its software and IP policy would be a step in that direction that's even more meaningful than the PSVR2 headset itself.

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Latest comments (3)

Pablo Ariznabarreta Business Development Manager, Ark One Studios5 months ago
I completely agree that Sony's commitment must be by providing novel, attractive and engaging experiences to its VR platform. I just want to add that Sony's new VR must be wireless in order to achieve the appeal that Oculus Quest 2 achieved, or they may better hold their horses until they can provide that.

Gaming with cables and sloppy UXs are not what audiences want.
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Andrew Mehta Director, United Games Limited5 months ago
Remember how Nintendo said it was its software considerations with Mario 64 that informed its approach to Nintendo 64 hardware (console and controller)? Doesn't Apple state one of its key advantages are that its hardware and software are designed in unison? Hasn't Sony had fantastic success by using first party software like Astro's Playroom to showcase the PS5 technology? The point on recognisable IP is taken - Half Life Alyx was a killer app for VR, that grabbed headlines, attention, and showed what VR could be. I do not believe brand name recognition is enough however. As Steve Jobs once said: "You've gotta start with the customer experience, and work backwards to the technology. You can't start with the technology and try and figure out where you're going to sell it....What incredible benefits can we give to the customer, where can we take the customer?" - and I would argue that in the games industry, a great experience, means developing some great games, =), and I hope that's what Sony does, for it's PSVR2, =).
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Bob Johnson Studying graphics design, Northern Arizona University5 months ago
nintendo will be the ones to popularize VR. Switch form factor is the trojan horse VR platform.
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