Stephen Totillo over at Kotaku penned a post entitled “Okay, Seriously, Maybe VR Gaming Is About To Have Its Big Moment” which I’d usually scoff at, as an early adopter of VR technology. I’ve already experienced some pretty big moments, like the very first time I tried 21st-century consumer-grade VR, or when I played my first non-arcady VR game, or that I keep going back to certain VR games when I could be playing the latest AAA titles for PC or console. But these are personal moments and don’t mean anything to anyone but me, and besides — Totillo’s article shows us that there are bigger fish to fry.
The Kotaku post talks about three games that were seen at this year’s E3, and while the games aren’t specific to this post, Totillo felt that they were impressive enough for a jaded journalist to put his stamp of approval on not just the potential of VR, but to suggest that the technology is on the cusp of breaking out beyond niche hobbyists and early adopters.
It might, but if it does it won’t do so in a healthy way. Aside from the entrenched views that VR has always been DOA, the three games that were under review were all exclusives to the Oculus Store’s “walled garden”. These games were encouraged or funded by Oculus, giving Oculus incentive (or mandate) to keep them all to themselves in order to make their hardware the most attractive on the market. While there are sneaky ways to access the Oculus Store from other headsets, it’s not like these games are seeing a wider release on Steam or through a third-party outlet (or maybe they are “timed exclusives”, but that seems unlikely).
Oculus is probably the surrogate term for VR headsets, like “Kleenex” is the surrogate for facial tissues, but Valve has released its Index HMD this year, and despite being patently ignored by every single story on general VR, Windows Mixed Reality isn’t out of the picture, as HP has recently released the Reverb HMD. The PSVR itself, which I’d argue is the #2 VR HMD in mindshare if not in the market (I don’t have those numbers) is potentially getting a refresh for the PS5 if patent filings augur Sony’s plans. All of this hardware and all of these developers are jockeying for position to be not just the household name in VR, but to be the ambassador for the technology to the masses, and because we are now in the End Times, the pattern is to segregate content and keep it close to one’s vest in order to offer it for the betterment of one’s own position. First came the cell phone app stores, then the console wars, and now the VR shop silos. Each is designed to attract you, and then lock you into your choice forever, lest you abandon all of the software you purchased from that now-inaccessible store should you decide to switch allegiance.
This division tactic has always been derided by console players, and thank Cthulhu we’re finally seeing progress on knocking down those artificial walls in 2019 to allow players to play together regardless of the platform of choice. The animosity between Apple and Google and even Amazon is so thick that I doubt we’ll ever see platform-agnostic purchasing (although third party server operators seem to be allowed to mix platform participants in many cases). The thing is, though, that consoles and cell phones have been around forever, and over the years we’ve slavishly accepted our indentured servitude because we wanted the cachet of flashing the Apple logo or wanted people to know how tech-savvy we are by choosing Android. We have sealed our own fates and set the practice in stone for established technology that has become de rigueur, and the template for how new hardware and software should be offered.
This is bad for the nascent VR market. Good for Oculus, yes, but bad for the consumer. The VR hardware alone is a paperweight. At least consoles have apps like Netflix and Plex and Spotify, and cell phones can do all kinds of Swiss Army knife-level stuff, but VR has one purpose: display the output of stereoscopic software. It is the software that will drive adoption, so the walled garden approach, in this case, is pretty anti-consumer…maybe even anti-competitive. I’m not shouting from legal grounds here; I’m only saying that as the hardware and even the concept struggle for acceptance with consumers, setting up a fiefdom may benefit individual providers but it drags down the whole ecosystem by removing consumer choice. It also puts a lot of eggs into the Oculus basket; if they screw up a hardware generation, or enact some balls-out-crazy policy — remember, they are owned by Facebook — then that’s it. We’re stuck in that garden, forced to dance to whatever the hell that sole provider is playing.
It’s Oculus’ prerogative to take whatever steps they deem necessary to not just be an also-ran but to push their product to the front of the line when it comes to household name recognition. I’m sure that company talking-heads and Oculus fanchildren would shrug and suggest that this is all good for the VR market overall, because “VR market” is synonymous with “Oculus” in many people’s minds. It doesn’t help that PSVR is the only other hardware with their own market and their own development arms; WMR has a lot of absolute garbage filling the void of no-support for WMR, and their flagship product Minecraft is available on the hardware-agnostic Windows Store that comes with Windows 10. Many games available through Steam work with Vive, Index, Oculus, and WMR (although the last one needs “bridge” software to work, courtesy of the perpetual anti-Microsoft sentiment circa 20xx). The Oculus does, because it can and because the strategy has worked for Facebook in the past. Ultimately, I think that it’s a massive disservice to the technology because while it provides some pretty exciting incentives to finally dive into VR, it ties us all to Oculus’ mast in this particularly turbulent sea of early adoption.