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Valve Index asks for innovation without incentive | Opinion

Platform agnosticism and high price may inhibit the innovative VR game development Valve claims the headset was made for

I'm an easy sell on VR anything. At a press reveal event for the Valve Index a few weeks ago, I had multiple developers stop me and cheerfully remark on how excited I sounded from across the room as I played Rock, Paper, Scissors with an ominous personality core robot in Aperture Hand Labs, or unceremoniously emptied a bag of chips on the floor of a beach house in Vacation Simulator.

With perhaps the exception of the seasoned VR critics in the room with me, I think my fascination is fairly emblematic of most people's rare encounters with the technology. That will likely increase tenfold once the Valve Index shows up at gaming events and VR arcades. Though I'm no expert on fill factors and subpixels, I've been in VR often enough to issue a ringing endorsement to Valve's claim that they've succeeded at creating a high fidelity headset -- hence my exuberant yelling during the demo.

Plus, the Index was the most comfortable headset I've ever worn; it didn't ride my giant glasses down my face as I moved, and it has those neat finger-tracking Index controllers. You can drop and pick up things in VR now! With your actual hands! The future is wild.

"You can drop and pick up things in VR now! With your actual hands! The future is wild"

But cool technology comes at a cost, and not just a hefty price tag. In presenting the headset to the press, Valve representatives outlined three core pillars they felt were necessary for VR's success as an industry. High fidelity, which I've already mentioned, was one. The other two were low friction and affordability. And then, in one of the strangest pitches I've witnessed, Valve told us that the remaining two pillars of low friction and affordability were problems for another day and not what the company was concerning itself with for the Valve Index.

Tossing out two-thirds of the VR equation is a weird move in light of how, over the last decade, the VR market has been making a valiant effort to keep all three in balance, a necessity for getting new users to buy into VR. And in recent years the major VR names seem to have somewhat managed it. Where Oculus and HTC Vive started with pricey hardware that was then "high-end," we now have headsets just as good or better that are also cheap enough to appeal to a meaningful amount of users. As a result, we finally have VR titles (indies, too!) selling one million copies. That's a feat that requires not just a good game, but also enough people who can afford the system to actually play it.

Aperture Hand Labs, which seems to be the only Index-exclusive experience, is a ten minute tech demo set in the Portal universe where a robot orb tries to be your 'friend'

Valve isn't blind to this. During the same reveal presentation, representatives acknowledged that the Index is not for attracting a swath of new VR customers. It isn't expecting to move piles of units. Rather, Valve says it is focusing on developers. It wants to eliminate the technological barriers for developers working in VR by making something that largely eliminates some of the worst issues other, cheaper headsets have.

The Index is supposed to alleviate troublesome problems like the screen door effect, text illegibility, motion sickness, and discomfort during long gaming sessions, and its Index controllers help connect physical motion with VR motion in the smoothest way we've seen yet. With the Index, developers who have ideas for games that require readable text, longer sessions, or lend themselves well to real hand motions can work on their projects without having to make concessions for weaker hardware.

"Unless Valve backtracks on its promise of platform agnosticism, then anything developers make for the Valve Index will come with concessions"

That sounds lovely, and in previews the Index seems to achieve all this. But there are some problems. Developers considering these kinds of experiences for the Index can't design exclusively for it thanks to Valve's otherwise laudable commitment to everything on SteamVR being available across all compatible devices. Unless Valve backtracks on its promise of platform agnosticism, then anything developers make for the Valve Index will come with the concessions the Index strives to eliminate anyway: games will either need to be equally functional on lesser quality headsets and just "enhanced" on the Index, or they will have functionality on the Index (such as individual finger controls) that they do not have on other headsets, meaning alternate functions will need to be developed.

Then there's the Index's camera technology and moddable front port -- or, uh, "frunk." The company was starry-eyed about the potential for these two features, but then seemed to put the onus entirely on developers to provide them with a purpose. The headset is moddable, but so far the only thing Valve has pitched as a potential use for that moddability is a quaint LED design for the front visor and a funny camera filter.

As much as Valve might insist that it isn't concerned about selling high numbers of units, and as much as millions of unit sales is hardly a marker attributable to VR games in general, the fact remains that games and experiences still have to be worthwhile for developers to make in the first place. This is where I think Valve's plans for VR innovation are going to stumble with the Index. Games don't get made for free, and VR is already a risky enough proposition without compounding it by asking developers to experiment with technology hardly anyone will be able to give them a return on.

The primary benefit to playing Vacation Simulator on the Valve Index is a selfie cam where you can make cute hand gestures

I imagine some developers -- particularly the AAA folks who have already started to look at VR -- will do this, but I don't think this brings us toward the end Valve is hoping for. Especially with its finger tracking technology and high visual fidelity, the Valve Index is a piece of hardware that invites the cool, weird, experimental kinds of innovation that we already see in other areas of the industry where technology is moving past standard controller designs and consoles hooked to TVs.

"Valve Index is probably the best VR on the market. But in terms of opening the doors to innovation, it's a baby step at most"

Not to be down on AAA developers, but if they're designing things for the Valve Index, they're likely to be closer to Skyrim ports where we can physically pick up and throw cheese wheels (not that that's a bad thing) than dramatic innovation. As with console, PC, and mobile development, we look to indies for experimentation.

But with little to no promise of solid financial return on experimental investments, there's not much room for independent developers to explore new possibilities with Valve's admittedly brilliant new tech. There will certainly be investors with money willing to support developers who are making innovative projects that will push the limits of VR. But I'm skeptical there will be enough of that for the Index and its promises to be much more than a sort of exciting demo product at gaming conventions for the next few years.

I'm not saying no one will take the risk of developing specifically for the Valve Index, nor that high-end headsets just shouldn't get made. High-end headsets will continue to exist and continue to push the envelope for what the tech can do, but it's odd for Valve to enter this market with a headset specifically for developers without some kind of announced exclusivity or investment plan to make that fancy technology worth the buy-in.

The Valve Index is fascinating technology and probably the best VR on the market. But in terms of opening the doors to innovation, it's a baby step at most. Products like Oculus Quest, meanwhile, are putting VR into the hands of more people and making it more profitable for developers to even consider creating new experiences for the technology, which in turn increases the likelihood that we see more innovation and more worthwhile games, which then again makes it more appealing for more people. It's a cycle the industry has been churning for a while now, but I think we're finally starting to see the returns.

I feel Valve could join the conversation and push VR forward without piling every possible expensive feature into a single headset that has cool technology but no exclusives. But it seems to be deliberately stepping out of that loop for the time being, despite its acknowledgement of those three "pillars" of VR. Sure, Valve has high fidelity down, but I'm not convinced that many developers will buy into a tripod missing two of its legs.

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Rebekah Valentine avatar

Rebekah Valentine

Senior Staff Writer

Rebekah arrived at GamesIndustry in 2018 after four years of freelance writing and editing across multiple gaming and tech sites. When she's not recreating video game foods in a real life kitchen, she's happily imagining herself as an Animal Crossing character.