Is Valve making a mistake by getting into VR hardware?

Valve VR


Wes Fenlon

Chris Livingston, staff writer
Chris Livingston thinks that VR isn’t ever going to be an affordable mass-market product, and Valve should spend its money elsewhere.

Wes Fenlon, hardware editor

Wes Fenlon is wrong about everything. For instance, he was wrong in thinking he could trust Chris to write this blurb for him.

In Face Off, PC Gamer writers go head to head over an issue affecting PC gaming. Today, Wes and Chris argue about Valve’s recent announcement that it’ll be showing off VR hardware at this year’s GDC.

Chris Livingston: YES. As far as we know, Valve may not even have an aptitude for hardware.

After a beta testing a handful of Steam Machines and controllers, Valve pushed release dates back a full year and didn’t even attend CES in 2014, not a great sign that its hardware projects are bearing fruit. Meanwhile, Valve is long overdue with another much-anticipated project the internet can’t stop talking about: Ricochet 2. I know everyone else is getting into VR, but Valve should give it a pass.

Wes Fenlon: NO. The simple fact is, Valve has been experimenting with VR for years.

Michael Abrash, now at Oculus VR, was pondering and writing about virtual reality while doing research with Valve as early as 2012. And according to people who tried Valve’s prototype VR hardware in 2014, it was far more advanced than anything Oculus had created up until that point (Crescent Bay is apparently much closer). The big difference was practicality: Oculus has been focused on working towards a consumer product, while Valve was content to work on prototype stuff that would cost thousands of dollars. Clearly Valve has now changed its mind. And I think that means Valve has a VR solution that’s good enough, and now affordable enough, to be a real competitor to the Oculus Rift. And if it’s that good, I think gamers will want to use it.

Chris: I have no doubt VR is cool to use. I’m not even saying I don’t personally want one. But as a consumer product, it’s strictly going to be for enthusiasts with deep pockets. A recent hardware survey conducted around my desk concluded there are four PCs sitting here, and all of them, including the one I’m using, are outdated. Now all these companies think a set of VR goggles that become obsolete a few months after buying them is going to become a common household product? Not gonna happen, and all the money being sunk into VR is not going to be recouped. Valve has the money to spare, I’m sure, but should spend it elsewhere, maybe on some other crazy project, like making a video game.

Wes: I don’t like having to say this, but I think it’s the truth: Valve is no longer a company that makes games. And I don’t mean it’ll be like that forever, that we’ll never see Half-Life 3 or another Valve game. But it’s been four years since Portal 2. Most of what Valve does now is built around growing Steam and making money. SteamOS was a direct reaction to the Windows 8 App Store. Dota 2 is their current big game project, and it’s a cash cow. We all know Valve is famous for its “no bosses” work environment, and I think what we’re seeing with Steam Machines, the controller, and now SteamVR is a result of that environment. The Valve employees passionate about Dota 2 are working on Dota 2. And the Valve employees passionate about hardware are working on VR. There could be a big group of designers working on the next Half-Life and Left 4 Dead 3, or their employee makeup could be heavily skewed towards hardware experts right now. If that’s the case, isn’t it better for them to be working on VR than writing dialogue for funny robots?

Chris: That’s not the argument I’m making. I’ve seen that argument before, on forums: why is Valve making more hats for TF2 instead of working on Steam functionality? It’s two different departments: the hat-makers and the Steam-fixers. I’m not saying Valve should spend its VR talent elsewhere, I’m saying Valve should spend its VR money elsewhere. Admittedly, this is tantamount to suggesting Valve fire their entire VR staff, which is incredibly mean of me, but if Valve is a company about making money, as you say, it should wise up to the fact that VR isn’t the way to do it. Facebook ain’t gonna see their $2 billion again because most people aren’t going to want to strap a computer to their faces. Remember Google Glass? Me neither. People want computers on their desks, in their pockets, in their cars and starships, and maybe on their wrists. Not on their faces!

Valve Oculus

Wes: Maybe I’m just an optimist when it comes to VR, then. I suppose a lot of people are: we want to believe that it’s the Next Big Thing. But I think there’s a really big difference between something like Google Glass and something like a VR headset for gaming. For one thing, Google Glass had a real social stigma problem—it was designed to be used in public, but it looked goofy, and a lot of us don’t particularly want our photos taken in a public bathroom. Valve’s VR headset may look goofy, too, but VR is really meant to be used in the privacy of your office or bedroom, wherever you keep your PC. Most of us laughed at the Nintendo Wii, too, until we played Wii Sports, and then everyone and his grandmother bought one. I think it’ll take just one killer app to sell the immersive power of VR, and all of a sudden, we will want computers on our faces.

Chris: Happy to hear you and your grandmother are still enjoying your Wii. As for the rest of the world, we played with it a couple times and then quickly got over the novelty of it, because that’s what it was: a novelty. VR is no different. Just like a controller you have to wave in the air, a VR headset just isn’t a practical device for everyday gaming. What else do you do while playing a game? Reach for your coffee? Grab a snack off a plate? Plug in a set of headphones? Turn your head to see what your dog is chewing on? Glance at someone speaking to you? Look at your phone? Fire off a quick text? Jot down a note? Good luck doing any of that when you can’t see anything but the game you’re playing. Fanciful devices are cool to think about, but ultimately we want convenient devices. A camera built into a phone is convenient. An opaque computer screen strapped to your cheekbones ain’t. Hell, half the reason Steam is so popular is because Valve made it so convenient.

Wes: Okay, you got me on the Wii’s motion controls. And the Kinect was the same—it sold incredibly well at first, and then everyone hated it. But I don’t think it ever had a killer app, either. Your point about convenience actually brings up what I’m most curious to find out about SteamVR: is it just hardware, or is there a special version of the Steam software designed for VR, too?

I think you and I look at VR in two different ways. You talk about it like a replacement for your monitor, an inconvenient way to play games while trying to do other everyday things. Looking at it that way, using Steam in VR would definitely be a headache. Who wants to try to type in a credit card number with a headset strapped to their face? But I see VR hardware as an avenue to totally different types of games, or new ways to experience the genres we already love. Maybe that’s a hard sell. Gamers are excited about the Oculus Rift, but almost everyone has faith in Valve. Maybe their involvement in VR is the very thing that will legitimize it, and give it the legs to survive that initial “do we want this?” period until developers learn how to make incredible VR experiences.

Chris: That’s a good point. I have an admittedly narrow concept of VR, and I do tend to think of it as a replacement for the way I play games instead of as an additional way to play them. And you’re right, its success may just hinge on someone making the perfect game for it. I also admit that Valve probably knows more about the best way to run Valve than I do, considering they have a billion dollars and I only have a few hundred million. I just remain generally skeptical of VR ever entering the mainstream, and that it’ll ever be as affordable as some think, even with Valve involved.

I think this argument can only be settled over a round of Wii Tennis. Winner plays grandma.

Wes: I challenge you to a Cosmic Smash contest instead. Once someone ports it to VR, anyway, where it was clearly meant to be.

Chris: Weirdly, that video not only sold me on VR but on Wii controllers. Let’s do this.

Christopher Livingston
Senior Editor

Chris started playing PC games in the 1980s, started writing about them in the early 2000s, and (finally) started getting paid to write about them in the late 2000s. Following a few years as a regular freelancer, PC Gamer hired him in 2014, probably so he'd stop emailing them asking for more work. Chris has a love-hate relationship with survival games and an unhealthy fascination with the inner lives of NPCs. He's also a fan of offbeat simulation games, mods, and ignoring storylines in RPGs so he can make up his own.