So, the much awaited virtual reality system Oculus Rift will be $599 before tax and shipping. If you’re from Europe, like me, you’re even looking at a total price of about $750. That includes the Rift and its sensor, a wireless Xbox One controller, and two games: the space sim Eve Valkyrie and the platformer Lucky’s Tale. That does not include a triple A title like, say, Uncharted or Assassin’s Creed. That does not include the specific Oculus Touch motion controllers, due later this year.
Seriously, what is wrong with these guys? At this price virtual reality will certainly not become a mass market, at least not anytime soon. We’re looking at a price that is double of what the PlayStation 4 cost at launch. You can buy a year’s worth of full priced games for that sum. Imagine the pile of cinema tickets you can buy with that? Wait, just think about how far you could actually travel with that kind of money. Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey explained that Oculus/Facebook is going to sell the gear without making a profit, but they can’t expect the casual gamer – the main group that fills Call of Duty servers – to jump on that. Sure, around 300-500k hardcore early adopters will pre-order immediately and own the system from the get go, but what game studio would be interested in developing something not even a million households can enjoy? Just think of the recent Rise of the Tomb Raider which has sold about a million units since November and as is seen as a major bomb. Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag meanwhile sold eleven million units – now that is a number studios wish to cater to.
I’ve followed the development of Oculus and of all of its competitors for some time now, and the announcement of the price was a major disappointment. Personally I don’t care that much whether it’s $400, $500 or $700 (although that is undeniably steep), but in case Sony and HTC decide to demand similar sums for their PlayStation VR and Vive systems respectively, it’ll slow down the overall development considerably. For years.
Have you already tried out one of the systems? I had the first developer version of the Oculus Rift (DevKit 1) and it was an absolutely amazing experience. Sure, the early version had only terrible resolution, no sound, and head tracking wasn’t really developed, but the effect of entering a virtual world is mesmerizing. I tried out almost all of the demos available at that time and while most of the consumer developed demos lacked in most regards, it’s just stunning, and at times so effective that your brain gets fooled. In an underwater level I really hesitated to trigger a shark attack. On a rollercoaster I felt the rush of actually using one. Plus, there was one demo of digitally scanned humans, and it felt incredibly lifelike. The possibilities are endless. I know that it’s not the first time virtual reality tried to appeal to the mass market, but only now has consumer tech evolved far enough to make it worthwhile.
Fact: This is not just a short lived trend. This is not the Wii Balance Board, or Kinect. This is not 3D, it’s a whole new chapter. It won’t kill gaming, but it’ll enhance gaming like nothing before it. It probably won’t change watching movies, but you’ll witness the rise of so-called experiences. Imagine climbing Everest. Walking the Pacific Crest Trail. Walking around in ancient Egypt. Be part of a sports event that is on the other side of the planet. Imagine walking through the places of your favorite movies. These experiences will be so good that they won’t need typical game components. Nothing to beat, no enemies. It’ll be a great possibility to try out things you’d never do in real life, and it’ll be a great way to chill. It’s almost impossible to mention the following without coming off as a creep, but think of “adult entertainment”. Whether you’re into stuff seen in The Notebook, Shades of Grey, Magic Mike, or Society, you’ll be able to experience that in a whole new way. I’m not saying I’m an advocate for any of that, but if your most intimate fantasy is having Ryan Gosling lift you up in the rain – it will soon be a possibility. And it will probably secretly be a driving aspect of making VR a mass market.
You know what’s probably my biggest disappointment of all? Palmer Luckey was asked about backwards compatibility, whether Oculus was working on making your existing games playable in VR. Which, you know, would be some kind of excuse for not having any AAA titles at launch. It’d obviously be amazing to play titles like The Witcher 3, Fallout 4, Far Cry 4, or Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Or Shower with your Dad Simulator. His answer?
Q: What kind of 3D support can we expect for traditional, non-VR games? If I want to play Overwatch or Heroes of the Storm or Counterstrike on my Rift, can I use it as a dummy 3D display? If not, why?
Palmer Luckey: This may be enabled via 3rd party applications, but it isn’t something we’re focused on for Rift launch.
Coming back to my own experience: back then I tried a modded version of Half Life 2, to experience that in VR. I’m tired of boasting already, but it was really great. An amazing enhancement. But, as it was a modded version and nothing official by either Valve or Oculus, it made me nauseous to no end. I never had any problems with any of the official demos, but this mod version made me sick to my stomach. It was so bad that the sheer memory of having tried that made me sick, for quite some time.
From a technical point of view, the Valve/HTC collaboration is almost identical to the one of the Oculus Rift. But Valve obviously has a big asset: Steam. Valve would pretty much kill Oculus as a competitor if they’d find a way to make the gamers’ Steam libraries playable with VR. It would also make the Rift a lot worthier if you could re-use the money you already spent on games with that new piece of hardware. If that new hardware only works with new games, you really need big launch titles. As a partner of Microsoft, Oculus could still be the exclusive VR service for the Xbox One and future Xbox versions, but unless they get to make deals with both Ubisoft and EA for supporting Uplay and Origin games, the PC market will belong entirely to Valve. Also, compare the unit sales of both Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Right now the Xbox isn’t the most attractive platform.
What about Sony, you might say? It might currently be seen as an underdog in this, as the PlayStation 4 might not have that much technical power for the long run, and pretty much every teased Sony PlayStation VR game looks incredibly underwhelming and not on par with last year’s AAA titles, but you can bet that that the PlayStation VR gear will be cheaper to get, and Sony will make sure enough games will support it. Overall, they can’t ignore what will possibly be the main focus of the next generation of consoles.
Let’s just hope that 2016 won’t go down as the year virtual reality came and slowly died once again. I know I said VR won’t just be a trend, but in the end it comes down to the content availability. If there are many awesome games and experiences to look out for, it could be a great new chapter, but it depends on game studios to create such content. And they obviously depend on consumers owning the hardware to experience said content. Maybe we’re looking at a way cheaper consumer version for Christmas 2016. Maybe Vive and Sony will pressure the price down. Something needs to happen, because we all need to be able to fully experience Johnny Mnemonic to its fullest.
By the way, if you’re interested in the topic, read the (bland, but somewhat entertaining) novel Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Steven Spielberg is going to adapt that into a movie, and it’ll show a possible future of VR use.
What do you think? Will you be an early adopter?