Virtual reality: for so long, it was seen as the inevitable, ultimate future of gaming. So many made promises of deep, lush worlds that you could explore just as freely as the real one, and much of the gaming world took to believing these lofty goals were possible. Then, in 2016, games utilizing the long-promised tech finally became available to the general public for purchase. But as it turned out, the arrival of VR wasn’t quite the revolution that everyone had hoped it would be. Instead, VR gaming began with a ripple, and is now fighting to survive.
A Lackluster Start
When VR finally became widely available in late 2016, the excitement around the long-promised “next step in gaming” was palpable. Consumers preordered their headsets, prepared rooms in their homes for gameplay, and followed all the news they could. But once VR actually launched, the enthusiasm petered out; the expansive, immersive worlds that had been promised were nowhere to be seen.
Instead, consumers discovered smaller, less impressive gaming experiences. Compilations of minigames, physics simulators and the like made up the vast majority of early games. In practically each one, the player was unable to move freely, and the few exceptions provided only clunky, point-and-click teleporting mechanics. Essentially, the games released for VR ended up being small distractions or fun proofs of concept – but for the launch of what was touted as “the future of gaming,” these games just weren’t good enough.
There were problems beyond the games as well. Most headsets were prohibitively expensive, costing around $600 dollars, and that didn’t include games. A large open space was required for VR to work, and VR tower equipment (also expensive) was needed in order for most games to recognize this open space. Thus, once the novelty of the simplistic games was lost, many early adopters were left with hundreds of dollars’ worth of VR equipment they couldn’t use, and large spaces set aside for something obsolete.
To say VR tripped out of the gate would be an understatement.
Since the fall of 2016, VR gaming has essentially been scraping by. The most prevalent releases have continued to be stand-in-place minigame compilations, and in some cases pre-existiing games have been given some sort of VR support. But for the most part, gamers have turned their attention back to standard PC and console experiences.
That’s not to say VR hasn’t made some headway though. For instance, one of VR’s most successful titles didn’t come into its own until well after its initial launch. VRChat was released half a year after the initial VR boomlet, but it wouldn’t be until later that the title would explode in popularity. With the incredibly simple premise of allowing users to make and upload their own content (such as playermodels and levels) into a world with full VR support, VRChat became one of the most popular titles on the medium. Even today, there remains a thriving community revolving around the game, and it doesn’t seem to be dissipating.
Another significant development happened even more recently. Nintendo, well known for being fashionably late to new trends, made its foray into VR just this year with the reveal of its Nintendo Labo VR kit. While it isn’t particularly impressive on a technical level, the incredibly low price of Nintendo’s cardboard-based peripheral caused a stir. Suddenly, decent VR became affordable for almost anyone. Still, the scope of the kit was limited, consisting of a handful of minigames and some minor additions to existing games.
Does VR Have A Future?
With all the medium has been through already, what does the future hold for VR? Does it, in fact, even have a future? This is a murky topic, but there are signs VR might have some life left after all.
For example, Sony’s PSVR peripheral has been surprisingly well cared for, receiving a steady stream of titles beyond just the bare minimum minigame collections. Additionally, the slow but steady rise of online gaming in the United States has led to some crossover between VR and online casinos. Essentially, the virtual medium can turn an arcade casino experience into something that feels like the real thing. And as a final example, the steady drip of already-popular games being remade or retrofitted for VR has, if anything, intensified.
These are just a few examples, but they speak to the lingering promise of VR should things go well from here on. The power of companies like Sony, the massive player base of online casinos, and gamers’ devotion to popular franchises could yet contribute to a foundation for a better way forward for the medium.
If VR is to attain the glory it once promised, however, more innovation, better games, and cheaper tech are still needed. It’s been a rocky road to get to a point at which there’s even some hope for the medium to succeed the way so many of us wanted it to. Where things go from here is anybody’s guess.