Saturday, February 17, 2018

Virtual Reality, 2018 overview

The two-year anniversary of the current VR headsets is quickly approaching, so it's time to once again review the market situation.

As you might remember, back in 2016 VR was hyped beyond belief. The narrative was, by large, that VR is the future, and many people predicted that it would not only catch and surpass regular old gaming, but moreover actually make it obsolete. Not only would there be a plethora of new and innovative VR games, but in fact people envisioned and predicted VR headsets becoming their main display, to watch movies and TV series, browse the internet, and even play old games on a simulated giant cinema screen (after all, haven't you ever dreamed of being able to play your favorite games on a giant cinema screen?)

Even prior to that the hype train was strong, with lots and lots of game companies expressing their intent to create new VR games, and adapt many of their existing games to VR. The list of games with planned VR support was relatively extensive.

But even a bit prior to the launch of the three major VR headsets, and especially after, the illusion started slowly to crumble. The prices of the headsets were astonishingly high, demonstrations didn't really convince people in actuality (even though everybody was claiming otherwise), and announced VR ports of games were cancelled or abandoned one after another, until only a minuscule fraction of them was left. The massive amount of predicted triple-A VR games never became a reality.

Yet, almost nobody wanted to believe these signs of failure. It was just a temporary hickup. It was new technology, after all. Besides, VR isn't really good for existing games, they said. It needs its own dedicated custom games. Which game companies will surely start making in droves any time now. Doubters and dissenters were laughed off. In the initial months there was, in fact, a kind of arrogant attitude by some believers towards anybody who doubted the future of VR.

After all, both headsets sold hundreds of thousands of units in their first few months. That's a sign of a successful launch, isn't it? Except the vast majority of those sales were preorders, and the post-launch sales quickly died out, crawling to a complete halt in just a few months. After about six months after launch, according to Steam's own statistics, something between 0.3 and 0.4% of Steam users had any sort of VR headset.

And what do you know, now in 2018, almost two years after launch, that figure hasn't changed much. Approximately 0.4% of Steam users have any kind of VR headset, according to Steam's own statistics. That's an abysmally low number.

(Somewhat perhaps ironically, and tellingly, according to Steam statistics, about 0.66% of users have a 4k display, something that has also had a resurgence in the past year or two, and was almost non-existent two years ago. That's also quite a low number, but it has already bypassed VR headsets in adoption rates. It's rather telling because it goes to show that regular 2D displays aren't becoming obsolete after all.)

The number of VR games has steadily increased during these two years, but still the vast majority of them are little more than technology demos and mini-games. There are a few ones that can be genuinely called triple-A games, some completely new (such as Resident Evil 7), some being ports of existing games (such as Skyrim), but the library of triple-A VR games is still abysmally low. The number of "medium-sized" games (in terms of production values and gameplay length) has grown more significantly, but not many of them have had any sort of big impact in the gaming world. The "health" of a gaming platform can be measured by the size of its triple-A library, and it's still not looking very good.

For well over a year the major video game publications didn't seem to want to touch the subject of VR's failure, but in the past six-or-so months, they are finally daring to do so. Article after article, and video after video, is being made about the harsh reality of this failure, and what caused it.

One common theme is something I have been saying for a long time: Even though people get "awed" when they try a VR game for the first time... they still aren't "awed" enough to actually purchase the system. VR is a bit like a circus act, or a light show: Sure, it may be cool to see once of twice, but nobody would spend copious amounts of money to get to see it every day. It's a one-time experience, and it's not very practical nor enticing as an everyday thing.

(It's actually a bit hilarious in retrospect how the believers kept repeating the mantra of, paraphrasing, "everybody who has tried it loved it", when doubts about the success and future of VR were presented. That might be true, but perhaps ironically it might also be the problem, in a weird kind of sense. Everybody who sees a fireworks display for the first time also loves it, but they wouldn't start buying tons of fireworks themselves.)

But that's just one reason. In fact, I have not seen all the reasons being cited much, even though it's now generally admitted that VR was a failure. The other reasons for this failure are, in my opinion: Way too high launch price (which killed off the interest of 99% of people), the almost complete separation between VR games and regular games, rather than the merging of the two (which killed the size of the VR game library almost from the start), and the impracticality of the headsets. And it didn't exactly help that the hardware requirements were so steep.

Valve promoted the HTC Vive as the future, and spent tons of time and effort on it. Yet it failed. This seems to be a common pattern with Valve as of late: They stopped making great games, which is what they were good at, and started creating failed hardware. Project after project of mediocre attempts at new hardware, which ended up having a lukewarm response at best, and a complete failure at worst. People desperately want Valve to keep making games, but instead they insist in wasting their time and money on failed hardware projects.

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