Was VR a failure in 2016?

Wes Fenlon, features editor: It's a little surreal to look back at the end of 2015 and reflect on our excitement and expectations for VR then, before Oculus or HTC and Valve had launched their consumer headsets. Despite a ton of buzz and a ton of money being invested in VR, I think the rate of people buying into VR has seemed disappointingly slow to just about everyone. And for good reason: these things are incredibly expensive, and more than six months after launch it doesn't feel like many games have the depth of what you can play on your PC without a headset strapped to your face.

This isn't the first time the tech industry has gotten everyone hyped up about VR and had it blow up in their faces. Tuan, you've gotten to try out VR headsets dating back to the early '90s, right? What's your take on this generation of virtual reality?

Tuan Nguyen, hardware EIC: Back in the the late ‘90s, I was playing around with high-end systems from a company called Silicon Graphics. They were essentially leading the graphics industry but most if not all of the company’s products were for high-end customers—no home user was going to drop $10,000 on a system. Silicon Graphics had developed a virtual reality system that worked. It had head tracking, like what you see in today’s products but overall it was clunky. Despite being monstrous in size, it was cutting edge for the time. No one was going to buy it for any tangible use outside of military applications, but VR was there, nearly 20 years ago.

The old headset was literally a giant box over your head. I wouldn’t be caught wearing one today. The graphics, while cutting edge at the time, reminds me of what it would be like to play Nintendo’s Starfox today—polygonal, a little clunky, and flat. Everything felt choppy, and if you tried one of the headsets from that bygone era today, you might vomit very quickly. A lot of calibration was required to get the unit working properly.

Having tried those old systems, I genuinely feel that the current systems are somewhat of a miracle of technology. There’s this expectation that the Rift and Vive are suppose to deliver an incredible experience and if someone’s seen where we were 20 years ago, they’ll know VR as it stands today is an incredible achievement.

Because of how over-complicated VR was back then, it set a huge precedent. No one wanted to touch it. There was no real consumer interest and no company was willing to take the investment risk into trying to develop something for home use. The fact that a young, 20-year-old Palmer Luckey, was able to cobble together a system using commodity mobile phone parts that gave people a VR experience far exceeding what the $30,000 VR system from two decades ago could is incredible.

Wes: I think it's been easy for me to forget that part now that VR headsets are real consumer products. Before the Rift or Vive launched, it was still exciting technology with potential, not a thing I needed to pay close to $1000 for. I do think it's amazing technology. The first time I experienced presence in VR, with the Oculus Rift Crescent Bay prototype, is a moment I don't think I'll ever forget. I just wanted to say that before I get a bit more down on VR.

I haven't felt compelled to put on one of these headsets for months. That initial experience with VR, feeling presence for the first time, is genuinely incredible. And the technology has come far enough that in well designed VR experiences, most people won't have to worry about motion sickness. That's great! But the initial impact does wear off, and really interesting games have to be there to keep it interesting.

I just don't feel like there have been any must-play games since launch which have really tempted me to wear that headset. Both headsets are fairly comfortable for short periods of time, but it's still a nuisance to put on the headset, adjust it, take it off whenever I want to check my phone or take a drink or do anything other than play a VR game. Being a constant internet user for the past decade has really killed my attention span, and virtual reality demands single task focus. 

If there's one thing I definitely think the VR industry has failed at this year, it's convincing people that it has killer apps.

Granted, I haven't given every VR game a fair shake, and there are probably some games out now I'd really enjoy. But if there's one thing I definitely think the VR industry has failed at this year, it's convincing people that it has killer apps. I've bought Nintendo consoles to play Zelda games and built new gaming PCs anticipating certain games in the past, too. VR hasn't given me that compulsion.

Tuan: You’re absolutely correct, and that actually reminds me of something John Carmack recently said: that whatever the technology is, it’s not going to go anywhere without delivering value to the end user. And for us folks, the value will be in the content. Right now, I still see consumer VR as early in the development stages, especially if you look into the potential.

Many people felt like 2016 was going to be the year of VR, and while that’s true in terms of getting product to consumers, we’re still a little bit away from something mainstream. The main aching point for me is VR’s setup pain. It still requires significant effort, and as we’ve learned, having wires running everywhere isn’t a great consumer experience.

So here are two major hurdles: content, and consumer adoption. I reckon that it’s a chicken and egg issue right now. Publishers don’t want to invest too much into making content unless they can see that a platform will be widely adopted. Major hardware players won’t invest unless they know the content will be coming. Both the Vive and Rift really started out as hobbyist projects. Yes, even the Vive. I think HTC made a very bold move to support Valve on making the Vive, especially given how the VR landscape was looking in 2015.

For me, 2016 wasn’t the year of VR. It was more like the year where VR went through a resurrection.

Few VR games feel as complete as Zelda-like adventure Chronos.

Wes: Doing a SteamSpy survey of games with 'VR' in the title, I'm actually shocked by how many there are. Very few of these games, and mostly free ones, have 100,000 or more owners, which would mean a significant portion of the Vive owners out there have downloaded them. Many have 20,000 or fewer owners, and indie developers are already talking about how hard it is to make money in VR if you don't have the financial backing of a company like Oculus funding your game.

I honestly don't know enough about the business of making games to know if this is a failure for VR in its first year. It seems like a pretty good start for such an expensive technology. The early adopters have bought a decent number of headsets. But say those headsets don't get dramatically cheaper in year two of VR. What happens then? Do sales trickle down to nothing? Do developers and publishers look at the small install base and decide they can't afford to make VR games?

Going back to the Nintendo comparison I made, it really might take a killer app to push interest in VR to the next level. Most of the VR games on Steam are small novelties you won't want to play for much more than 20 minutes. No one's going to spend $800 for that. But Half-Life 3 in VR? Or an even more high profile Oculus-funded game like Chronos, which is still the most fully realized VR game I've played? That could get some real attention, and might be what it takes to keep VR vital after the novelty wears off. Get the headset prices down to $500, and throw in a killer app, and things might start really happening. 

Tuan: In terms of content, I think the initial wave is going to actually negatively impact the overall VR experience, at least for the near term. Think of Apple’s App Store: tons of fart apps, and just absurd knockoffs of popular games. This won’t help VR for the mainstream. And I personally think that Oculus and Valve need to be very selective of what they allow to be promoted.

VR needs great content, and that’s the biggest near term battle right now. Oculus has the right approach in this with its Studio endeavor, encouraging publishers and funding them to develop quality games and experiences. A lot of what’s available now still feel like quick tech demos.

A little over three years ago I attended one of Valve’s Steam Dev Days in Seattle, and the key message there was that developers are still working on the subtles ways of developing a great VR experience. There’s an urge for developers to shoehorn “VR support” into games because it's the hot new thing, but this isn’t the right approach. Content needs to be developed from the ground up with VR in mind. But then the bottom line question came up: where do they get the resources to research and develop all the right content?

VR shooter Arizona Sunshine was sponsored by Intel, which helped make its development possible.

What it boils down to really, is money. Publishers need to make a profit to keep developing games. And right now, few want to really invest into making a triple-A VR game. From the business point of view, the risk is very high, and the return is thought to be weak. It’s a frustrating situation for the industry to be in, as well as adopters of VR. Because of this, Facebook buying Oculus was, in my mind, absolutely the right approach. The size of Facebook’s warchest allows Oculus to fund studios and games. Facebook mitigates the financial risks for developers, thereby driving more content, and ultimately creating demand.

I realize that there was an initial outcry from the community in Facebook’s acquisition of Oculus, but the people who made a big deal about it already didn’t like Facebook anyway. It’s important to see VR from a business perspective and what is required to scale it. Ultimately, we want VR succeed, and it for VR to do that it needs a whole lot of money—not just a guy working on prototypes as a hobby.

Wes: I never want to see VR become a closed ecosystem, so I'm glad that essentially any developer can get a VR game onto Steam, even if it's a glorified tech demo. But you're right that VR really needs strong curation and promotion to highlight the more substantial, awesome stuff. Anyone should be able to look at the VR games available and see several games they'd really want to pour hours into.

I think we both agree that VR technology wasn't a failure in 2016, but it did fail to sustain the momentum it had leading up to launch. So what happens in 2017?

Are there any games you know of on the horizon (or even available now) that you think will help push VR to the masses? Is support for PC VR going to continue to dwindle?

Here's my take: PC VR is going to limp along a bit, sadly without any really big, must-play games coming out in the next year. New hardware announcements will temporarily get people excited again, but won't push VR to a significantly wider audience. I think this technology is really going to be the loss-leading frontrunner for the VR that will actually end up being truly successful: mobile VR, aka the stuff John Carmack is working on.

John Carmack is all-in on mobile VR development.

Tuan: John Carmack told me that he wasn’t going to touch PC VR. And I think Oculus is heading in the same direction, albeit more quietly. The new untethered prototype Rift that I had the chance to play with was such a great experience—no wires! I was truly able to move around freely and enjoy being fully immersed, and I can’t do that with the standard PC versions of the Rift and Vive. Everyone’s still trying to figure it all out.

Some of the games I genuinely had fun with this year were BombSquad, Arizona Sunshine, and The Unspoken. BombSquad is a lot of fun with friends and is playable even on the Gear VR. Arizona Sunshine and The Unspoken are both tethered PC games and are really great in their own right as well. I also had a lot of fun with Fantastic Contraption, which utilized room-scale really well on the Vive. None of the above games are big hitters, and I share the same feelings that it’ll be a while before we’ll see some. When? I don’t know, but there are so many parts of the equation that need solving, and no single company is going to do that.

I do have a lot of hope, though. Only one giant entity has pumped billions into VR, and while this company may have non-gaming interests initially, it is the right approach into making VR scale down in price, scale up in adoption, and ultimately pave the way for PC game developers to dive in.

Wes: I have a sneaking suspicion I know why you really want VR to stay around for the next few years. You just want to play Star Citizen in VR, don't you?

Tuan: That’s the dream. I’m sure we’ll have a new Rift and Vive by that time, too.