£530. That’s how much it cost RPS to order an Oculus Rift to one of our distributed offices in the UK*. While I didn’t pay directly as such, it’s still a blood-chilling sum to spend on what, for now, still feels more like a peripheral to use with a select few experiments than a brave new age of PC gaming. I’m not going to write about whether it’s ‘worth it’ because I don’t know and won’t until the thing is strapped to my face. But I do want to chew over what that high price – which importantly is significantly less in the US, though more still in other territories – means.
For a start, it means that there’s no way VR is going mainstream just yet. The price limits this to early adopters even more than its first-gen status inherently would already. And not just early adopters – relatively well-to-do nerds and people who work in the software industry. There’s no shortage of those – otherwise the high-end graphics card market, the Lego Star Wars Ultimate Collector Series and top-tier Kickstarter pledges wouldn’t exist – but it won’t even begin to make Oculus mass market. I doubt this is accidental, as they’re looking into that side of things with the $100 GearVR (the next generation of which I pray is loosed from its Samsung-only shackles). You get the low and you get the thing, or at least so the PC gaming hardware market has traditionally had it.
Question is, will there be a middle? And will it come from Oculus or from someone else? There’s a certain image quality threshold necessary for VR to be usable for long periods and a wide array of software, so it’s not like they can just bang out a lower-res headset, but if Jeremy’s on the money about this year meaning a massive jump in graphics card power, perhaps in 2018 or so a combination of affordable GTX 980-equivalent cards and manufacturing costs dropping means VR headsets for the average PC gamer will be plausible.
Of course, Valve or Sony could both wreck any Oculus plan if they subsidise their impending headsets enough that they come in massively cheaper. Both have existent manufacturing and market pipelines to call upon in a way that Oculus, even with its immense Facebook backing, does not. Sony already makes a vast array of hardware and sells it internationally, while Valve have partnered with long-time smartphone manufacturer HTC. Those elements alone could mean a significant drop in tax, shipping and other costs. But with Oculus setting a precedent, they may feel that they don’t have to go too low. We shall see.
A good $200 headset would truly blow open the doors of consumer VR, but I do suspect that’s not plausible for at least a couple of years. And, in turn, it means it may be some time before there’s a healthy spread of full-fat games to use my Rift with (not that it’ll be here until June, dammitall). Oculus claim 100 games will be available by year’s end, but I’m not yet expecting many of these to be more than simple things and experiments. But hell, the experiments are half the reason I want this – that’s where the ambition will come in, not from VR shooty-bang games.
Something that’s concerned me almost more than the price is the widespread sneering I saw directed at people who were disappointed about said price. Time and again, Twitter belched refrains upon “so you’ll spend $600 on an iPhone but this is too much?” or “if you’re a PC gamer clearly you can afford this.” Never mind comparing apples to oranges – or systems to peripherals – there are some wild misconceptions about the mainstream of PC gaming and indeed smartphone ownership there. Yes, there are people who buy a high-end new graphics card and, in fewer cases, processors each year. But most of us don’t. We can’t. Or, at least, we can’t comfortably.
It’s a big deal to spend £300 every couple of years to get a newish mid-range card so we can keep up with the Joneses – it’s something that has to be prepared for. (And I did prepare for the Oculus, having carefully budgeted around Christmas to keep £350 free, hence feeling shocked and let down when the final price was much higher. I was only able to do this because we need one on RPS, so the company helped out).
As for processors, the lack of serious competition to Intel means there’s been no actual need to upgrade for over half a decade. While there are a significant number of people spending £1500 on a whole new PC or components thereof regularly, they are not the norm for that millions-strong playerbase. The reality is that the average PC gamer is spending less than £500 every two to three years, so to argue that another £530 on top of that is no big deal is insulting. Don’t judge us all by that small group who wear ‘master race’ badges with discomfiting pride.
Smartphones too – I don’t know if it’s a bit different in the US, but over here we have two-year contracts that cost us around £30 per month, or a lot less if we go for an older or lower-spec model. Some buy the new iPhone outright every year, but most of us are making small, manageable (if ultimately higher) payments – £500 off the bat is not an easy ask, especially not on top of that.
I’m not saying this to argue that Oculus is necessarily too high for what it is and what it promises, but simply to state that it is not entitlement or tightness that has dissaused many people from jumping right aboard the Oculus train. The technology is still unproven, it’s dependent on having the right PC hardware already, competitors are looming, and ultimately almost no-one knows quite what they’re buying, and whether it’ll be something they use every day or for five minutes a month until it starts gathering dust. That was certainly the case for my DK2, though I remain hopeful that the consumer model will be far more comfortable for long-term play, as well as a bit more widespread.
Still, no-one can realistically argue that your average gamer could or should just slap down £530 on spec, but nor would I argue that Oculus has done this blindly. They’re seeding rich early adopters with the best hardware they could make, in the hope they will then become evangelists which, further down the line, will help sell lesser hardware to less wealthy people. That’s how the graphics card markets works, after all: the enthusiasts lionise the top-end, which shares a partial name with less powerful but more affordable mid and low-range cards.
But it’s ifs and maybes, and not the opening salvo I was hoping for. The age of VR has only just begun, and if someone doesn’t come out with something cheaper within the next few years, it’ll die like 3D TV did. I don’t want that to happen. I think VR is great. But it’s not going to work long-term if only a select, affluent few can have it.
Save us, Gabei-wan Kenobi. You’re our only hope.
* I.e. my study/bedroom/box storage room. We is professionals.
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