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Editorial: Why VR Is Going To Be An Enormous Flop

Virtually Pointless

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VR isn’t going to succeed. It doesn’t matter how many companies jump in, how technically competent their VR goggles might be, nor even if they can figure out a way that wearing them doesn’t make your face melt off and slide down your neck – VR gaming will never be more than a niche interest, and a lot of money is about to get wasted.

You know the 3D TV in your living room, right? Right? Oh wait, you didn’t buy a 3D TV? But everyone was going to buy a 3D TV! They would replace regular TV! In fact, so dramatic has been the flop that is 3D TV that most major manufacturers have stopped making new ones, and the very short-lived 3D channels such as Sky Sports 3D are being switched off forever. And why? Because people just want to watch TV. They don’t want to sit at the right angle, wear the special pair of glasses, and then sit transfixed at the screen lest their eyes wander to the clock and the effect be lost. People just want to watch TV.

People just want to play games.

The first time you have a go on VR goggles you likely have a moment of excitement – a moment of realising that if you look to the left, you see what’s happening to the left in the game. A moment of understanding that the game is surrounding you, that you’re inside it. A moment. Then you stop noticing and get on with playing the game, except now to see what’s happening to the left you have to remember to laboriously swivel your entire head, rather than twitch your mouse a bit. A little longer and you start realising, “Hey, when I’m playing a game on my screen and I want to see behind me, I turn the view around and look behind me, and it kind of feels like I’m inside it.

The clamour for 3D has always been generated by tech companies, then carried by an excited audience right up until the first time they try it. And then people realise, “Oh, you know, I was doing a perfectly good job of perceiving 3D on my own, thanks.” It’s perhaps possible that the last time you watched a film on your flat television screen, you didn’t start shouting, “BUT HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO KNOW WHO’S IN THE BACKGROUND AND WHO’S IN THE FOREGROUND?! THEY’RE ALL JUST ONE FLAT IMAGE!” The same is true for VR. When you play a game, very little of your mental effort is dedicated to reminding yourself that you’re not actually in the jungle, or surrounded by dinosaurs – you just sink into it, embrace it, and your imagination takes care of the rest.

VR replaces the role of the imagination, and for a while that feels like a bonus, a boost. But then once your eyes are stinging from sweat, you’re head’s exhausted from carrying the gear, and your dizzy as fuck from constantly spinning about trying to see everything, the idea of a chair and a monitor suddenly becomes very appealing.

And that’s not even the real reason VR is doomed. Think about price. It’s extraordinarily unlikely that Valve or Oculus are going to release their tech at under $200. It would be a huge surprise is Microsoft or Sony did it even on their production scale. A massively expensive peripheral that the vast, vast majority of potential gaming customers won’t ever buy. And without a considerable customer base, any games created needing goggles to be played is never going to see the sales to justify the development.

If you doubt this, consider the Kinect. £130 at launch, with Microsoft spending half a billion dollars on advertising, and… where is it now? Sure, they sold a ton of them, but not nearly enough to make it worth a developer’s time to switch their big franchise over to the device. Microsoft’s disastrous decision to bundle it with the Xbox ONE was quickly reversed, as people were bemused as to what they’d ever want one for. Sure, if you got one, you played that one dance game on it on 360, but then what?

VR goggles will sell a lot too. All of the big four manufacturers will report great numbers in the first couple of weeks, and then go quiet about the steep drop until the next Black Friday/Christmas. Enthusiastic pre-orderers and early buyers will excitedly try out the tech, muck around in whatever gimmicky software is bundled, and spend another £50/$60 on a big brand game that’s designed to work with them. They’ll rave on forums about how thrilling it all is, because it will be thrilling for a bit, and then things will get quieter.

But the price and lack of a large enough user-base isn’t the issue either.
The issue’s not even that most people won’t want to stumble around in their extremely confined space filled with sharp-edged furniture wearing a cumbersome blindfold, trying to stave off motion sickness long enough to shoot an alien.

The issue is the games.

There will be a few high-profile games build for VR to accompany the launch of the rival systems. After this, publishers will not want to waste hundreds of millions on further VR-only projects, but will support a VR mode for their larger games. At that point players will be in the same situation as cinema-goers are now, where major movies are filmed and released in 2D, with a skew-whiff 3D version created in post-production and given a higher entry fee. Given the choice, the sensible film watcher recognises that the film was designed and intended for 2D, so sees it in 2D. And game players will get savvy to this too – they’ll realise that if a game works fine on a monitor or TV screen, then the VR version can’t be much more special. Eventually developers will stop wasting time putting the VR mode in (much as the brief dalliance with 3D modes for games quickly went away), and games will go back to how they’ve always been, and how everyone has always wanted them to be.

There just won’t be the games to make it worth owning one.

There will be, just as was the case with the Kinect, some fascinating indie projects. There’s already SoundSelf that brilliantly subverts the purpose of the goggles. There will be others. They will be superb novelties, darlings of game shows, and well received by other developers who already own VR kits. They will not sell goggles, but at least will give the owners of the dust-gathering tech some consolation.

VR is a lovely idea. It’s been a lovely idea since the early 90s, and has persistently failed to get off the ground ever since. This time out things are certainly going farther than usual, but it won’t break through. Because until it can work without a giant headset, making you look like a lost robot tourist, people will always prefer to sit at their screen. People like TV like TV, they like game controllers like game controllers, and they like videogames like videogames. Until something comes along that genuinely improves the experience without limiting it (black and white TV to colour TV, joysticks to console controllers, 2D graphics to 3D graphics), it’s doomed. Sorry about that.

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John Walker

Senior Editor

One of the original co-founders of Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I'm now a senior editor and hero of humanity. Old and special.

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