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PSVR: Losing Steam, or Gaining Traction?

If Sony really has lost interest in PSVR, it's a major strategic blunder from a company about to face tough competition for the first time this generation

How you feel about PSVR right now really seems to depend on who you've been talking to, since there are two radically opposed narratives about the platform doing the rounds at the moment. One of them says that PSVR is already going the way naysayers had predicted all along - joining other Sony peripherals on the neglected trash heap of history, with the company having lost interest in its new toy once it was out the door and software support withering even as supply of the hardware continues to falter. The other narrative is the diametric opposite of this; it says that Sony is enthused about the success of its new platform, which is comfortably the best-selling tethered VR solution, so it's ramping up production and preparing to unveil a lot of big new software titles from third-parties whose initial scepticism has been overcome by commercial success.

Both of these can't be true, obviously, and yet I've heard both of them from pretty creditable people - including people within Sony Computer Entertainment itself, some of whom reckon their company has left PSVR out there to hang, while others insist that there's tons of work going on behind the scenes. It's natural that in an organisation so large, not everyone is aware of everything going on; but again, both of these things can't be true, and if they're both coming from pretty creditable people, perhaps neither tale is entirely reliable.

"This narrative...implies that Sony's supply problems with PSVR hardware and the relatively poor support from major publishers...have their origins in the same place - a fundamental uncertainty about just how successful PSVR was going to be"

Let's look at the evidence presented, then. Those in the camp who reckon Sony is already giving the cold shoulder to its VR headset note that the last big AAA title to ship with significant PSVR support was Resident Evil 7 back in January. There has certainly been a major lapse in software releases since then - there's a reasonably steady stream of indie VR experiences, but in terms of system-selling titles, RE7 was the last thing that really got people excited. On the other hand, perhaps it's just as well that Sony isn't selling the system with software right now, since they don't appear to have very many systems to sell. PSVR hardware is in short supply in several markets, including Japan, where this year so far the headsets have largely only been available from price-inflating scalpers online.

The implication is that Sony's loss of focus - a pattern it has followed with new peripherals dating back as far as the PS2's EyeToy - is resulting not only in a drought of software, but in an unwillingness to commit more manufacturing resources to meeting demand for the hardware. This makes sense on many levels; if Sony knows that the future software pipeline is largely empty, then it won't be prepared to make the investment required to get new manufacturing facilities up and running, since it knows hardware demand will also tank in the coming months.

On the other side of the story is the claim that Sony actually is bringing manufacturing online (it's just not being felt in shipment volumes just yet), and that the current dearth of major titles in the pipeline is simply a matter of the company keeping its powder dry for E3 - where it'll have plenty of VR-related announcements to share. There's some pretty solid evidence to support both of those; for one thing, Sony has indeed suggested that it's currently bringing new manufacturing capacity online, with a view to getting supply issues sorted out within a few months. Moreover, as we get closer to E3 there have been a few promising leaks or statements regarding VR - with EA's Star Wars Battlefront 2 seemingly set to have PSVR support, and Marvel Games making encouraging noises about its future plans for VR. If a major Star Wars title and a major Marvel title were to be unveiled with PSVR support at E3, perhaps alongside some more convincing first-party support in Sony's own titles, it would certainly put the platform on a strong footing for the rest of 2017.

This narrative also has its own internal logic which is interesting to consider. It implies that Sony's supply problems with PSVR hardware and the relatively poor support from major publishers for the platform so far both have their origins in the same place - a fundamental uncertainty about just how successful PSVR was going to be. For all the grandiose statements and optimistic posturing that have surrounded VR for the past few years, the reality is that a lot of companies - including those with skin in the game - simply don't have the faintest idea how big this market is going to be or how quickly it's going to grow. Sony's PSVR launch, in the "optimistic" narrative, was deeply cautious; what's happening now isn't that Sony has lost interest in the platform, it's that it's taking a few months for it to get in gear and start delivering now that it's seen the platform actually succeed. Similarly, third parties weren't ready to get on board until they saw PSVR help to drive the success of Resident Evil 7, which has convinced them that they, too, should get their feet wet in this new market.

"The importance of this platform shouldn't be relegated to a simple calculation of how much income it can earn compared to PS4's broader revenues"

Whichever of those narratives makes the most sense to you, or seems the most convincing, the reality is that we're not going to know for sure what's happening with PSVR until E3. It's a little bit of a shame that we have to speculate around the platform like this at all, but there's no question that there's some smoke in the air regarding low shipment volumes and poor AAA software support, and Sony does really need to clear up what kind of a fire it's rising from.

The hope, of course, is that it's the latter of these scenarios that comes to pass; that Sony simply didn't hit the ground running with PSVR, has been slightly broadsided by demand and interest in the platform, and is now belatedly getting up to speed with hardware supply and software pipeline issues alike. If that's the case, E3 should showcase a pretty significant amount of VR content - which would make an enormous amount of sense, since it's an offering that will allow Sony to lay out a very distinct and attractive stall in Los Angeles, when otherwise PS4 would risk being overshadowed a little by Microsoft's undoubtedly bombastic Scorpio jamboree, and perhaps even Nintendo's basking in the glory of Switch's successful launch.

That, in fact, is the thread that underlies this entire discussion about where PSVR stands and what Sony's plans for the platform are. The reality is that PSVR, no matter how successful, will never be more than a niche within the broader PS4 market - potentially a large, thriving and profitable niche, but a niche all the same. Yet the importance of this platform shouldn't be relegated to a simple calculation of how much income it can earn compared to PS4's broader revenues. Aside from the fact that it's additive revenue (potentially both for Sony and for third parties), it's also something that gives Sony a genuine USP - an exciting, high-tech and genuinely new (for the vast majority of players) experience that no other console platform can offer. PS4 is about to hit the toughest part of its life cycle; it's no longer a new and exciting console, it's sold to all of the "easy" consumers who were interested from the outset, and it's about to be outclassed technically by Microsoft's new hardware (while also having the innovation and originality of Switch to contend with). PSVR's halo effect, balanced against the superb PS4 software pipeline the company has shown itself so capable of providing, could provide it with a serious competitive edge.

In short, while we don't know which way Sony is moving on PSVR for sure just yet, the reality is that if the company, having developed a successful and well-regarded VR headset and launched it into a market so enthusiastic that it can't keep up with demand, now drops the ball entirely then.... Well, it's madness. PSVR may never be owned by more than a fraction of PS4 consumers, but it generates huge interest and sets the platform apart from its increasingly aggressive competitors. Losing interest in it at this stage, before it's ever really had a chance to flourish, would be a terrible unforced error on Sony's part. With any luck, E3 will prove that this isn't a trap into which the company has fallen.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.
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