Check Your Hype: Virtual/Augmented Reality Will Be a Short-Lived Fad in Gaming

DevinRogersBack in 1994, I was fortunate enough to be selected from the crowd and try out Walt Disney World’s Aladdin’s Magic Carpet Ride at Epcot.  This was my first Virtual Reality (VR) experience (even before demoing Nintendo’s horrid Virtual Boy at Blockbuster), and it opened my eyes to what games could be like.  Super Mario 64 had not yet been released (nor had the Nintendo 64), so this was also my first experience with a game built in a 3D engine.

Fast forward a few years and I was able to try the ride again, this time at Disney Quest.  By then I had played through the likes of Super Mario 64, Ocarina of Time, GoldenEye, Final Fantasy 7, and countless other legendary games from the N64/PSX era.  As I slid on the massive VR helmet and excitedly began the experience, I immediately realized my expectations were too high.

This… isn’t as good as I remember” were my exact thoughts.  Having been on many polygonal adventures on my consoles at home, ones that offered total control to the player in fully realized and immersive worlds, I was very excited to relive how VR took things to the next level.  But it didn’t.  The Aladdin ride, set in the movie’s city of Agrabah, was more-or-less an on-rails game with branching paths, similar to that of the Gummi Ship from the original Kingdom Hearts.  However, the only goal was to catch a flying beetle before anyone else.  It was a simple, casual experience meant to be accessible by any visitor that came to Disney Quest, and not something built for the hardcore gamer.

Now here we are in 2016, and since my last visit to Disney Quest the gaming landscape has changed quite a bit. We’ve dropped countless souls through death to dark armored knights.  We’ve explored the underwater ruins of a city run by madmen who don’t take to intruders too kindly.  We’ve stopped alien covenants from activating ancient technology that would have destroyed all life in the galaxy. We’ve discovered the joy of creating our own worlds by mining for resources amid creepy explosive stalkers.  We’ve bought, sold, crafted and looted countless weapons, armor and other cosmetic items in massive worlds with warring factions.  We’ve even discovered our favorite store on the Citadel.

With all of this and more under our collective belts, we’re on the verge of multiple Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) devices hitting the market.  There is a frenzy for this technology among some hardcore gamers unlike anything I’ve seen before (second, maybe, to new console releases).  The large majority seem to be blindly all-in as if this were the next evolution of gaming after polygons and high definition.

Unfortunately, I foresee VR/AR becoming a fad akin to that of the Wii’s motion controls.  While the technology itself is unequivocally impressive, there are three main obstacles it will have to overcome: pricing, nausea, and lack of a meaningful software line-up. One of those is a problem for casuals, another a problem for hardcore gamers, and the third an issue for everyone.

PSVR

The price of this technology is going to be quite steep initially, and potentially even for a long time to come. The leading VR helmets range in price from $400 to $800, and AR helmet development kits are going for $3000.  In addition, any headset you buy will require the purchase of additional hardware, be it a powerful phone, a gaming console or a PC, not to mention controllers. Many hardcore gamers (and even some casuals) already have one or more of these items, but not everyone. Phone-based headsets have the best odds at capturing the casual market, but phones aren’t strong enough to appeal to the hardcore.

Nausea, another issue, will always prevent a minority of players, casual or hardcore, from experiencing the technology. Like roller coasters, some people just can’t handle the experience. It’s up to the game developers, though, to ensure they design their games in such a way that nausea won’t wash over the majority. Unfortunately, this limits the kind of games that will “work” with this technology, especially VR.

Though price and nausea are issues to overcome, if the platforms have a well-developed software lineup to back it up, then VR/AR can weather the storm.

But there isn’t a lineup worth championing at all, due in part to the limits caused by nausea, and with no games the cost of entry isn’t worth it for casuals or hardcore. These three issues all affect one another, but the software lineup is the most important factor.

VR is not going to change games like Dark Souls or Final Fantasy in any meaningful way. No one would be able to play Call of Duty or Fallout VR without throwing up. Very few traditional games that hardcore gamers are looking forward to in 2016 and beyond would work in VR.

Valve can claim the entire Steam library will be VR compatible. Sony can announce games like Driveclub (Evolution just closed, so maybe not) or Tekken 7 will have VR options. But either it won’t be integrated in any meaningful way, or it will be slapped onto games not built for VR which in turn will cause illness.

Until you’ve put a VR helmet on and seen what happens when your “head” is moved in a direction that your unmoving body isn’t expecting, don’t underestimate the potential for you to go green in the face.

It’s fantastic technology. Everyone is going to want to try it. I had a great time playing through the PSVR demo at the Unity conference last year. I have been off and on developing non-gaming applications for Oculus since 2014. But I don’t see how VR can bring anything more to a game like Skyrim other than “Whoa, I can look all around!” It’s a gimmick like Wii motion controls that will get very old very quick. No one is asking to return to a Zelda play style where they could aim the controller like a bow to shoot arrows.

And as for AR, millions of gamers already have an AR device at home: their 3DS. How often are its AR features used? And sure, the concept of Pokemon Go is awesome, but as we’ve seen from recent news the execution is not at the level our imaginations expected.

I get it. I get why people are excited.  VR/AR has such vast potential that having the opinion I have seems a bit short-sighted. I do believe this technology will revolutionize the world. The cost savings and efficiency jumps in the medical, defense and manufacturing industries, among others, will be one of the biggest leaps forward since the personal computer.

But in the gaming space, all the casuals will go back to their phones and tablets before long, and I don’t feel there will be enough meaningful content for hardcore gamers to sustain a market.

Until they invent a true holodeck, gaming VR/AR will be just another gimmick.

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