I am Mortal Dictata, and I am a VR-sceptic.
This probably won’t come as a surprise for many readers around here given I have been vocal in the scepticism for years now as we’ve been promised the VR revolution that will change gaming for a long time now and yet here we are where it still remains a hobbyist niche. It is true the market may be growing but it’s still a tiny proportion of players, making up only 2% of Steam users at last count. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not the quality of the tech itself that has me sceptical, I am still able to remember the first time I tried a Rift devkit at Eurogamer Expo some years ago and since then its technological prowess has only gone strength to strength. VR headsets at the high end are now more than capable of putting out “AAA” quality game experiences when done at their best.
The problem is the same as every interesting tech idea has faced before, a fatal test that eventually kills nearly any product that fails it, and it’s one that many struggle to deal with. Is this more of a hassle to use than what I already have?
Recently the British Film Institute released the contents of its archive online including that of my county of Devon and one of the videos, that of the 1983 introduction of compulsory seatbelt wearing which had been voluntary for several years, stuck in my mind. The four minute clip displays the typical voxpop template by asking drivers in Plymouth about whether they wear a seatbelt or not and why that is with the majority of those included refusing to wear one for matters of convenience. These people know why they’re there, they’re in their cars, that they do save lives, yet because of the “fuss” of wearing it they choose not to. And this wasn’t an uncommon stance in the country, hence the need for legislation to force it to be worn.
Humans are a species that naturally seek efficiency or the path of least resistance as a priority. It’s why when you walk on a pavement it’s not uncommon to see little tracks now prominent at corners where people cut them, why we have to create “red tape” rules and regulations to have accountability and avoid people cutting corners in their work, why people won’t take the 30 minutes it actually takes to change utility provider to a far cheaper one, and why much of the modern world has been created to benefit or take advantage of that desire. Let’s look at another example, that of content piracy.
Netflix, and its equivalent LoveFilm in the UK, was once hailed as the solution to the piracy epidemic sweeping the world because despite all the various talk of the nefariousness of piracy the truth was simple in that if you had a decent internet connection it was easier to risk using decent enough quality ad-ridden hellhole to watch something than go down to Blockbuster or HMV. Netflix offered that same ease with higher quality video and with none of the risks for only a few bucks a month and people jumped at it going from around 10m users in ’09 to more than 100m by the end of the 2010s with piracy largely relegated to pay-per-view events such as sports.
Now however piracy is making a big comeback as more and more content creators want complete control over the revenue, with various products available now such Amazon Instant Video (LoveFilm), NowTV, Hulu, Disney+, AppleTV, HBO Now etc etc etc all splitting up the once great offering available. With all the various “must see” programming and the growing monthly cost to access services people are looking to increasingly user-friendly sites to access shows with none of the cost while traditional torrent sites are making a resurgence as well.
There, in black and white, is the clearest depiction of the internet age when it comes to the desire for ease. When streaming was simple and easy people didn’t mind paying for it because it made their lives that much easier to access entertainment. Now when you have to get NowTV to watch Westworld while also have Amazon to watch Outlander and also have Netflix handy to watch The Crown it’s no wonder these companies have been forced to effectively allow account sharing to avoid losing subscribers to the illegal streaming sites because those are easy to use and free. The silver-bullet of ease of use that streaming is formed around is exactly why Microsoft have so heavily doubled-down on it towards the end of this console generation, and that brings us to our final scene-setting example.
PC Gaming has come a long way fast in recent years from a niche hobby to making custom-rigs easier to put together than any before, with even the vaunted Xbox One X’s power more than easily capable of being matched at roughly the same price point (even without sales), while many of the most popular PC games can be played on the equivalent of a brick and yet Steam’s monthly active users of 95m is still beaten by Playstation’s 103m. Why? Because a console is still infinitely more hassle-free to the average consumer. There’s no component upgrades to worry about, interfaces to change, drivers to update, mouse and keyboard cables, multiple launchers. You buy a box, you plug that box into the mains, and away you go. It’s the entire reason why the console market continues to exist when they’re technologically inferior to even mid-range PC by year three or perhaps four.
So why have I gone through all this before getting to VR? Because like motion controls and 3DTVs before it VR at its fundamental level introduces massive levels of hassle.
First of all of course there’s cost. We can’t ignore it that while for some they’re willing to fork out another few hundred to a grand on a VR set most will never be willing to because it’s seen as non-necessary to gaming, more so in our current financial climate where that cost is the difference between rent and on the streets. VR still has an image of being a periphery and a very voluntary one at that which is not required to get the most out of a game, and the high-quality experiences built for it are still lacking even after various generations of headset.
Secondly we come to the issue of playspace, or rather the lack thereof that people have. To begin with there’s the need to set up sensors just right so that it registers the area you want to play in, older models still dealing with wires that you need to avoid tripping over, but the more fundamental problem is that while to the rich creators it may seem easy most people do not have a 4m x 4m space just hanging around free for VR use. What they will likely have is a lounge or office used for other applications that they can sort of fit a VR space into but means having to physically clear the space of every other item to make it viable. I for one have a loung big enough but I’m not moving my table and sofa into a different room every time I want to play Half-Life: Alyx. Yes there are sitdown experiences that are available but it sort of defeats the purpose of the device that you spent several hundred quid on if the best you can do is simply sit there with a controller in hand, and speaking of controllers we get to our third problem.
There’s a reason why outside ergonomics game controllers haven’t radically altered since the original playstation’s dual-analogue controller, almost all sticking to a dual thumbstick with triggers approach. Even Nintendo, who for years actively refused to follow that style in favour of gimmicks, have now begrudgingly accepted its ubiquity. Beyond that thanks to increasing ease of use of plug and play many within the PC crowd now use console controllers for many games that don’t require the precision of keyboard and mouse. And why is this the case? Because they’re simple, intuitive, and able to work in most games, and this extends to controller layouts as well. When was the last time when controlling a “character” the default wasn’t left stick to move and right stick to move the camera? Even these are now ubiquitous within genre with inputs common across games.
This ease of use has been taken for granted for years and VR developers are clearly struggling to make actions once effortless workable in their games. The impetus for this article was funnily enough watching a playthrough of Half-Life: Alyx and seeing how fiddly and frustrating even simple actions were. No longer do you press A or Cross to jump but instead have to awkwardly move to a certain location and hold an action for a second or two for it to accept you want to jump. No longer do you just press X or Square to pick up an item but instead have to grasp at it while holding the right button and hope it registers you want to pick it up. When everything goes right it’s no doubt immersion like no other but when it breaks, as it frequently does, you watch as players get frustrated in gesture. Almost unspoken about the issue in the world of VR the fact is the controls tend to suck at worst and at best are not as efficient as a controller.
For a few years many loved 3DTVs as awe-inspiring and immersive with big TV channels and games trying to implement that functionality, until people found it more annoying to set up the viewing angles correctly and wearing the headsets for long periods a chore. Now 3DTV is dead.
For a few years many loved motion controls as it made you feel part of the action with Microsoft putting a Kinect into the box of every original Xbox One, until people got sick of the poor detection and registration of actions. Now all those Kinects are scrap.
For the last few years many have said VR will revolutionise gaming and a few studios have made tepid plans to include that in their games, except already people are sick of the entry-requirements and hassle. Meanwhile Palmer Luckey, the man who can most be credited with the VR craze of the last half a decade, now works in an entirely different field, which just so happens to be the only one with the money to invest and potential to benefit from VR.