VR may not have completely revolutionized the gaming industry, or forever changed the way we interact with each other, watch movies and TV, conduct meetings, do our jobs, or any of the other over-the-top predictions that arrived when VR tried to go mainstream in the early-to-mid 2010s.
The hype, as often happens with hype, didn't match reality (virtual or otherwise). If anything, we're still probably a decade away from VR being truly affordable and convenient enough to be a mass-market item rather than a fairly niche interest.
But just because it hasn't taken over the world doesn't mean it's a failure, and it's clear VR isn't going away. The amount of money sunk into virtual reality, billions from Facebook and Valve and Sony and other companies invested in making VR gear and software, means we'll keep seeing more advanced equipment being released, lower prices, more comfort and ease of use, and lots and lots (and lots!) of VR games in the future.
Plus, with the right headset and the right game, VR is a complete blast and a wholly different gaming experience than you get on a traditional monitor. VR could still have a bright and exciting future—that future is just a bit further off than some people expected.
What's been happening recently?
2020 was a big year for VR! While there's arguably still not a single "killer app" for VR yet, we saw the release of some of the most impressive VR games ever made, as well as an excellent new headset from Oculus, the Quest 2. But the games and the headset brought along a few major disappointments, too.
Probably the biggest VR event last year was the release of Half-Life: Alyx, the full-length VR game from Valve and the first Half-Life game since 2007. Half-Life: Alyx was a fantastic game and a triumphant return to the series, with the only downside (a rather big one) that the majority of Half-Life fans couldn't play it because it was VR-only. And most gamers still don't own a headset.
The run-up to the release of Half-Life: Alyx wasn't without its problems, either. There was a heavy demand for Valve's expensive (and excellent) Index VR gear, which quickly sold out both online and in stores. And the Index is still pretty hard to get ahold of even today due to supply problems related to the pandemic. But those who got to play Alyx (even on a tethered Quest headset or a Vive) were immersed in a thrilling return to the Half-Life universe: many fans bought VR gear for the first time just to play it.
Alyx wasn't the only great VR game of last year: Phasmophobia's co-op ghost hunting game was a perfect fit for VR, The Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners is a challenging survival game with lots of brains, Population: One is a solid VR battle royale, Star Wars Squadrons has VR support, and Microsoft Flight Simulator added support in December. Somewhat disappointing, however, was Medal of Honor: Above and Beyond, another highly anticipated full-length VR game that, unfortunately, didn't quite deliver for critics or fans.
In terms of hardware, Oculus had a big year as well, though not all of it was good. The Oculus Quest 2 was released, and we've found it to be an excellent headset—lighter, faster, and less expensive than the original Quest (which itself is still great). The resolution, power, and fidelity isn't as advanced as Valve's Index or the Vive Pro, but The Quest makes up for it by being so dang easy to use, an absolute breeze when compared to the fiddly setups from other headsets. Just pop it on and you can be playing a game within seconds.
But Facebook dropped a bomb on that party back in August by requiring Oculus users to have a Facebook account to use the headset. This was extremely unwelcome news at a time when Facebook is facing heavy criticism for the spread of misinformation and hate speech, continued privacy concerns, and is under scrutiny by the FTC for anticompetitive conduct. (And that's just for starters. There's a damn long Wikipedia page about how much Facebook sucks in this regard.)
Needing a Facebook account just to use an Oculus headset for gaming hasn't been received well by the VR community especially since, even if you do have a Facebook account, there still might be problems getting it to work. That puts a big damper on what is otherwise a great and relatively inexpensive piece of VR hardware, and despite the uproar from the community we haven't seen any indication that Facebook is going to backtrack from that requirement. Booo.
Is VR use growing?
It sure looks that way. Even without factoring in Half-Life: Alyx, Valve says VR games sales grew 32% in 2020 (and you can add another 39% when you do include Alyx). Valve also reports it saw 1.7 million new VR users on Steam last year, and a total of 104 million VR sessions, which is an increase of 30% in total playtime over the year before.
It's worth pointing out that those VR sessions, according to Valve, only average about 32 minutes, which may be due to the issues of comfort and convenience that still remain while using VR. Typically, that's about as long as I care to use it myself before I need a break, and many users still experience issues with motion sickness or headaches after even short VR sessions.
Facebook isn't quite as candid with it's stats as Valve is, but the Quest 2 sold more than five times as much as the original Quest headset. The original Quest was still in demand this year, too, and at times it could be difficult to find in stock. The Rift and Quest 2 also experienced occasional delays for those ordering it around the holidays.
What's the next big thing for VR?
As for games coming out in 2021, nothing on the horizon is quite as massive or exciting as Alyx or Medal of Honor, but there are still quite a few cool games to look forward to.
A sequel to 2017's acclaimed VR adventure Lone Echo is due out in 2021, a Sam & Max VR game was announced, there's Crytek's The Climb 2, Sniper Elite VR, and plenty of others on the way, with more sure to be announced later in the year. (Hitman 3 supports VR on PlayStation, but not on PC yet—fingers crossed it'll get VR support at some point in the future, though). Not to mention the unending stream of smaller indie games, puzzle games, and VR experiences that flood onto Steam on a daily basis.
We're still waiting for the big breakthrough that will convince the majority of gamers to get a VR headset. And that breakthrough most likely isn't going to come in 2021, or 2022, or even in the next several years. It's not just the hunt for a killer app: cost, comfort, and convenience are the biggest hurdles for VR that keep it out of the mainstream and, while the technology is making steps in that direction, it hasn't yet made that one giant leap.