Part 1: VR Gaming
The Boom that Cried Wolf
“The Virtual Reality Boom.” So read the title of an Op Ed (written by a source which I will not name to spare their blushes) that was originally published in the summer of 2016. Now, four and a half years later, no sign of that boom yet.
It seems at the start of most years since then, more than one source will have predicted that VR’s time has come.
I am sure I am not the only one who can recall seeing countless predictions that VR is set to grow by a factor of eight – ten – twelve over the next two – four – five years… Funny how charts like that always seem to be talking about what will happen rather than showing us such spectacular evidence for growth that has happened.
Of course, VR has grown and the past few years have seen significant improvements in the technology. But this progress is a long way from the “boom” we’ve been so frequently over promised. So why is this? And, perhaps more importantly, what does the future really have in store for us from this technology?
VR for Gaming
At present the primary (but by no means the only) application for VR remains gaming. In this first blog I will focus on VR in gaming but it is important to say that this technology has important applications in other fields as well. Part 2 of this series will focus more on other uses of VR but, to begin with, it makes sense to focus on the most widely used VR application.
However, even when we focus on gaming, it remains the case that VR remains very much a niche interest. The biggest success to-date in terms of VR/AR (Augmented Reality) gaming has undoubtedly been Pokemon-Go which took the world by storm in 2016/17. However, such a spectacular success has not been repeated since. Alyx was the big VR hit of 2020, eventually pushing its way up to 2-5 million Steam users. That’s good but compared to the 500 million downloads for Pokemon-Go in its launch year, it is small potatoes. So why is it that the success of the Pokemon game has never been repeated?
The answer to all these questions lies in understanding the essence of what it is that VR/AR has to offer – what is it about this technology that makes it appealing? Equally important is to understand its limitations – what is holding it back?
The Barriers to Adoption
We are all probably familiar, one way or another, with the reasons why some people don’t go for VR gaming. These reasons are mainly a function of the limitations of the technology as it stands today. But some of them may relate to a lack of choice and variety of different forms of gameplay experience within the category.
Cost is clearly one barrier. Not everyone is willing to pay for all the extra kit needed to enter into the VR world. Costs have come down but the fact still remains that you need to be prepared to put your hand in your pocket to join the VR universe.
Another limitation is the availability of a wide variety of different games to play in VR. There is definitely more choice than was once the case but the fact that VR still represents a niche area for the gaming world, has limited the availability of content. You could say it is almost a catch 22 situation. Many people are reluctant to develop content for it because it is a niche interest category but, on the other hand, it remains niche in no small part because the more limited range of content limits growth.
True, the equipment now is lighter in weight, less clunky and as wireless tech is more available, less awkward to use. But there is still some way to go as far as that is concerned. Most headsets are still fairly bulky and some people find it uncomfortable. Here, we can expect things to continually improve and there are some potentially interesting developments on the horizon such as Apple’s Smart Glass project. However, this still seems a ways off and it is likely we will need to wait until 2023 before we start seeing this new generation of technology really hit the market.
In fact you only need to look on gaming forums to encounter some of the key objections the technology needs to overcome. Here some examples of gamer comments that will sound familiar.
Space is an issue for games that aren’t made for sitting as you play.
Some people only have very limited space in which to play. So they need games that don’t require you to move around a lot – or at least they need the option to play a game in a mode that allows them to remain seated.
The other issue is that motion controls are not for everyone and to attract people who dislike motion control will require a significant amount of good quality non-motion control based content.
For me, motion controls consistently break the 4th wall and gameplay by not being as responsive or precise as I want them to be, so I actually feel more immersed when using a gamepad, but a lot of the VR games use motion controls
And some people still experience physical problems when using VR kit:
it has made my motion sickness go into hyper drive.
when I wear glasses, it is kind of a chore
To my mind one of the most significant objections raised was this:
VR games still seem like glorified tech demos to me.
Now there are some VR/AR games that have enjoyed a lot of success, so in these cases it would seem that we are dealing with games that have managed to evolve beyond being tech gimmicks into offering something else. But what is the secret of their success?
The Ingredients of Success
In a sense the success of Alyx provides a glimpse of what it is about VR that people like. However, some elements of its success have nothing to do with VR. In particular, it is part of an already established franchise with a ready made fan base that it could tap into (an ingredient that Pokemon also had). However, beyond that, it was able to tap into some of the strengths of VR technology and this was able to give it an appeal that other VR games perhaps lack.
Most importantly, Alyx was designed to be a VR game from the start – not a standard PC or console game that then gets retrofitted to suit VR. That has enabled it to make optimum use of what VR could do, rather than try to crowbar it in as an afterthought.
The result is a game that is suited to get the most out of the media in which it is presented. This is a key element it shares with Pokemon-Go.
Pokemon-Go is the ideal AR game. Why? Because the Pokemon universe is our universe (but including Pokemons!). Anyone who has watched the original cartoons with Ash and friends will know that the world of Pokemon is not some bizarre fantasy or sci-fi universe, but rather a form of contemporary fantasy. The stories all appear to be set in our world except that they also feature the addition of Pokemon. That means that an AR representation of our own world with cartoon Pokemon characters aligns perfectly with the concept.
The key ingredients of Pokemon-Go and Alyx that helped make them successful, is the ability to make the most of the technology in a manner that suits the game and the gaming universe. There has to be a fit and that fit has to be a seamless one.
The “Gimmick” Risk
When VR games are designed primarily to show off technical trickery, they run the risk of looking like glorified tech demos – superficially impressive, but ultimately unfulfilling (rather like the worst that ‘3D’ cinema has to offer). The further VR can get away from the gimmicky tricks and focus more on using the technology to deliver a truly immersive and engaging experience the more successful it will be.
Another successful game in the VR field worth mentioning is Skyrim. No doubt it owes much of its success to its devoted fanbase in the wider gaming world.
Skyrim, whilst not specifically designed for VR , nevertheless clearly had something about it that made it appealing. Why?
To answer that you only have to ask what made Skyrim so engaging in the first place, which you can answer by reading any gamer forum where that question is put to fans. One such response illustrates a key point about this game:
Blackreach was my favorite part of Skyrim. It captured that sense of wonder … in spades, mixing a unique aesthetic, with a fantastic ambiance
The wonder and visual experience of encountering a fantastically realised environment (like Blackreach in Skyrim) is an experience that can showcase the very best that VR has to offer.
At the end of the day, what makes VR better than ordinary gaming comes down to its ability to visually immerse you in a fantastic virtual world. If you are not using VR to achieve that then, at the end of the day, you run the risk that all you are offering is a technical gimmick.
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