E3 2016: Why VR Games are an Easier Sell than VR Tech

Sony’s E3 press conference marked the first time that I’ve been genuinely excited about Virtual Reality as a home gaming platform, and it happened precisely because Sony didn’t waste any time talking about tech. The company instead delivered footage of cool games that look like they’d be fun to play, promising VR versions of evergreen franchises like Resident Evil, Final Fantasy, and Call of Duty. It was a lot like any other E3 presentation, except that it made me realize that a VR X-Wing game is something I didn’t know I needed.

Some of that enthusiasm ebbed later in the week as it emerged that many of the VR demos weren’t terribly good – the Resident Evil VII demo, in particular, was blamed for high rates of nausea – but the fact that Sony spent the week at the front of the VR conversation is significant. Though I’ve long believed that VR offers unique experiences, those experiences often seemed better suited to experimental art installations than the home consumer market. PlayStation VR is not as technologically impressive as the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, but it may resonate more strongly with general audiences because it will integrate seamlessly with a popular gaming console. PSVR is being marketed as a platform that supports the kinds of games that audiences are already familiar with, making it an easier sell than VR as an abstract concept with undefined possibilities.

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Microsoft’s press conference offers an apt point of comparison. Microsoft closed its presentation with the reveal of Project Scorpio, the next iteration of the Xbox One. The new console contains much more powerful hardware that allows for faster processing, better graphical resolution, and makes the Xbox One compatible with high-end Virtual Reality headsets.

The problem is that I still don’t know what Scorpio is supposed to be or what I can expect to do with it. Is it a regular game console? Is it a VR PC with Xbox branding? How is Scorpio different from the existing Xbox One, and why should I bother getting the former if I already have the latter in my household?

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Scorpio isn’t slated to launch until late 2017, so Microsoft has plenty of time to answer those questions. However, it’s difficult to generate buzz when casual fans don’t know what it is you’re selling. Microsoft didn’t announce anything for Scorpio, instead throwing out a series of buzzwords to prove that the device will be more powerful than the competition. I’m not in a position to argue the point, but Project Scorpio is still a collection of numbers without context. It’s like sitting down for a consult for a home renovation with a contractor who spends the entire meeting talking about how he has the biggest sledgehammer. That information matters because tools are important and I expect the contractor to know how to use them, but I’d really prefer to talk about the design plans for my home. I only care about the size of the hammer insofar as it helps the contractor accomplish those goals.

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Of course, people more tech savvy than I am want to know about Scorpio’s specs, and I don’t blame Microsoft for bragging. The company is proud of what it’s accomplished and it’s earned the right to boast. The point is that technical specs aren’t enough because a lot of people take a utilitarian approach with game consoles. Like hammers, they’re tools that are only as useful as the end result. In the case of Project Scorpio, I don’t know what a teraflop is, nor do I particularly care. I just want to know what kinds of software experiences it can support, and on that front Microsoft’s announcement was sorely lacking. The company seems to be hoping that I’ll think technical jargon is impressive if I don’t know what it means, but that approach rarely breeds excitement. It breeds confusion, and a shrug of the shoulders as people move on in favor of more comfortable entertainment.

I don’t want to valorize ignorance, and there’s a case to be made that people should know more about the technology we use. However, there’s a difference between knowing how to unclog the toilet or use cloud storage and knowing the inner workings of a luxury product that’s supposed to make it easier to relax. I don’t want to waste my valuable leisure time doing homework, which is why I’ll gravitate towards tech that’s more readily accessible and places fewer steps between startup and recreation.

Sony achieved that with its E3 presentation. Prior to E3, I was on the fence with regards to the major VR platforms. Now I want to see what Resident Evil and Battlefront look like in VR, and I may find myself shelling out $400 for the privilege. Sony sold not just the concept of VR, but the tangible reality of VR, and that salesmanship makes a difference.

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I don’t know how the VR marketplace will evolve, and it’s entirely possible that PSVR will become obsolete relatively quickly. At the same time, an accessible headset that looks familiar to gamers could help normalize VR as a platform, which would in turn make it easier to sell more abstract content once people have more firsthand experience and are more comfortable with the idea of virtual reality.

Either way, this year’s E3 offered an enduring lesson for game developers and publishers, especially in the wake of previous fads like motion controls that failed to meet the early hype. Gaming peripherals are exactly that – peripheral – to core gaming content. People get more excited about experiences than they do about tools, and VR won’t catch on with the wider public until hardware manufacturers do a better job of convincing buyers of its value as entertainment.

 

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