Virtual reality is officially the NEXT BIG THING (tm). You can tell because the Playstation is rolling out a major ad campaign for its new VR hardware with a Taco Bell promotion and everything (and as we all know, once Taco Bell gets involved, things get serious). More and more gaming platforms and developers are starting to explore this glorious golden new horizon of gaming, and we can expect that as the holiday season gets underway, that glorious golden horizon will be sold to us hard as the future of gaming. Oculus Rift, Playstation VR, and other virtual reality rigs will be must-haves for the discerning gamer who doesn't want to be left in the dust.
But is this new horizon in gaming really as golden as the ads want us to think? Is virtual reality truly the wave of the future? I have my doubts. The video game industry tends to get very excited about any and every advance in hardware and hard-sell it to their customers almost to the point of embarrassment. And this strategy is understandable; advances in hardware are easy to quantify and sell as provable upgrades, and theoretically they tap into that capitalistic impulse of needing to "keep up with the Joneses." However, the video game industry has a pretty shoddy record of predicting the "NEXT BIG THING." Take the so-called Bit Wars of the early 90's for example. Sega staked their status as Nintendo's main competitor on their consoles' superior graphics, and initially they won the battle with the venerable Sega Genesis. However as time went on and Nintendo developed a superior stable of games compared to Sega, simply producing new add-ons to upgrade the graphical capabilities of the Genesis proved to be a losing strategy (well, that and repeated mismanagement of development cycles). Graphics were important, and Nintendo did not neglect their hardware. But they didn't put all of their eggs into the hardware basket, choosing instead to focus on developing their stable of games and focus on solid gameplay, advertisement, and development schedules. That at least partially explains why Nintendo owns Sega today.
A more modern example of the video game industry's over-eagerness about hardware advances: motion controls. Motion controls are a fun idea and in theory they actually are a great leap forward for the ability of video games to immerse a player in the gameplay. In practice however, motion controls have proven less a giant leap than a small step. Motion tracking hardware simply is not responsive enough to support anything more than the most rudimentary gameplay (the type of gameplay represented by, for example, Wii Sports or dancing games on the Xbox). In itself this is not a problem and in fact is to be expected. Unfortunately, in their usual over-effusive way, video game companies promised the moon. Rather than allowing the technology to grow organically and test its limits gradually, games like Zelda: Skyward Sword and Star Wars Kinect tried to move motion controls forward before the technology was ready and were ruined by the rather severe limitations of the hardware. As a result, many consumers have relegated motion control technology to the realm of casual games permanently, and acceptance of the new hardware is so limited that Xbox Ones sold better when Microsoft removed motion control hardware from their console bundle. The motion control problem is especially relevant when talking about virtual reality because already developers are attempting to pair motion controls with virtual reality headsets to create a full VR experience. Again, this is great in theory, but if motion controls are unresponsive now when the player can actually see what they are doing, I shudder to think how frustrating motion controls will be when your head is ensconced in an Oculus Rift.
A final lesson that the video game industry seems never to have fully learned is the lesson that the majority of their consumers are not wealthy turn-of-the-century oil barons who light cigars made of hundred dollar bills with other hundred dollar bills. Highly priced hardware has never sold particularly well. High dollar consoles and console add-ons like the Neo-Geo, Panasonic CDi, Sega CD, and Sega 32X failed in part because the majority of gamers are not in upper class families who can afford to drop $600 on recreational hardware. Traditionally, $400 is about the limit of what most gamers will spend on any piece of hardware (e.g. the price of the original Playstation and Xbox upon release), and then only when they are fairly confident that there will be plenty of quality games being developed for that hardware. Quality virtual reality headsets are currently priced well beyond that pale, and just like with motion controls, consumers should expect that game developers will be limited by the hardware for the first few years that it is on the shelf. It is therefore reasonable to expect that consumers will be reluctant to spend so much on hardware that may not have many games developed for it, and that in turn developers will be reluctant to spend much time developing new games that integrate VR - a potentially vicious cycle.
Having presented all the roadblocks to the promised paradise of virtual reality in every household, I do think that virtual reality has a place in the video game market in the near future. Initially I think the price and hardware requirements will make virtual reality sets a luxury item, much like high-end gaming PCs and with much the same consumer-base. That is a solid foundation to work from of course, and could be a good way to experiment with the technology and improve it even as it becomes cheaper over time. This would allow VR companies to ease consumers into the technology and minimize the uncertainty of such a major purchase. During this proving period, VR companies could do things like work with modders for games like Skyrim and Fallout 4, games which many people already own, can readily mod, and which don't rely on motion controls, to incorporate VR into those games. This would allow the gaming community to get comfortable with the new technology with a smaller initial investment, and for the companies to work out any kinks that come with integrating VR into more complicated gameplay. That way when the price falls to the level at which VR could actually be consumed by the majority of gamers, the market would feel more confident about investing in the technology, developers would have a road map for incorporating the technology into a wider variety of games, and ideally most potential hardware and responsiveness issues would have been worked out.
Alternatively, if the technology simply proves too expensive to sell to a majority of gamers for their in-home consoles and PCs, VR could represent an opportunity for a revival of video arcades. I imagine that VR arcades would be less focused on eating gamers' quarters and more focused on a sort of timed experience, not unlike the increasingly popular Escape Room businesses popping up in major cities these days. A VR arcade could invest in top-of-the-line hardware and offer gamers an experience that they simply couldn't get from home consoles or PCs. If coupled with improved motion control technology (unfettered by the limitations of having to work in a living room), such an experience could be an attractive draw for gamers and non-gamers alike depending on what experiences developers could come up with.
All of this is speculative of course. The immediate reality is that video game companies appear to be poising themselves to push virtual reality out to the general public at prices that are too high, coupled with problematic motion controls, and with games that will treat VR as a gimmick rather than integrating it into the gaming experience. The future of virtual reality is not exactly bleak, but as with most highly touted advances in video game hardware, it is more limited than Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo would have us believe.