I have owned a VR headset since October 2020, a purchase that I largely made on a whim, the Valve Index. It was roughly 900 quid, a previously unthinkable amount of money for PC hardware until you remember that graphics cards are starting to go for that, and the headset came in a very nice box. Setup was actually quite easy, but I’m blessed with a relatively bare living room that I could fit the base stations into for a comfortable 2 metre by 2 metre playing space. I actually built my rig (in early 2019) to be “VR capable”, so I didn’t have any performance-based concerns that I would otherwise have if I was on my older rig, or a pre 2018/2019 graphics card. What I’m trying to get at here, is that my setup is probably not the most ideal that you could have for VR, as you can expand your playing space to 4 by 4 with an additional two base stations, but it’s pretty bloody close. I’ve only punched something, or a wall, on a couple of occasions. That’s a win in the VR world.
So what do I think? I was on team “it’s a gimmick” when it was first announced, and while I appreciate the irony that I ended up buying one of the bloody things, I feel somewhat vindicated in saying that. I thought it was a gimmick for a few reasons. Firstly, that it just wasn’t clear what sort of games could be good in the VR ecosystem. I think everyone could have called something like Beat Saber being a very good fit for the platform, but beyond that, there’s a lot of question marks. Beat Saber works because it’s a game where:
- You (largely) stand still.
- You aren’t playing for long periods of time.
- It makes good use of the 3D control plane that VR provides.
- It’s marketable as exercise.
I didn’t play Beat Saber because by the time I got a headset, it’d been acquired by Facebook, and I’d sooner impale myself on a spike than support that company financially. However, I did play Ragnarock, which, while not providing exactly the same experience as Beat Saber as it lacks the “cutting blocks in specific ways” element, was very much a simple rhythm game in VR. Does it work? Yes. Is it fun? Yes. Is it worth the price of entry into VR? Well…more on that later. I think that my fear largely came true with this one, as a lot of VR games are extremely homogenous. You’ve got your pile of arena-fighters, you’ve got your “wowsers you can hold guns!” titles, you’ve got your small, party-style titles. That’s essentially it. Oh, and VRChat, more on that later too. There are few titles that have strayed from these incredibly safe waters, but they are few and far between. It’s somewhat difficult to tell if VR titles are so homogenous because that’s how the games industry has traditionally been, or because they’re struggling to find ways to diversify play.
Aside from simply the gameplay, there were other good reasons to believe that VR would be a gimmick. The excruciating price of the headsets and the rapidity with which they were made obsolete led me to believe that the customer base for it would be so small, that no developer would ever commit resources into developing a title for it. Turns out I was only half-right on this one. Looking at the Steam hardware survey for October, you’ll see that users with VR headsets makes a whopping 1.85% of the Steam user base. I can’t see a way of getting this figure over a longer period of time, but while it has grown by 0.05% this month, I can tell you that it actually fell in September. For a new technology to actually have falling adoption, even if only for a month, is pretty shocking. There was this narrative that was peddled within the VR spaces, which is that they only needed the killer-game to be released, and VR ownership would explode. Developers would start hitching their wagons to the growing segment of VR owners, more titles would release, and its popularity would snowball. There was no game better positioned to do this than Half Life: Alyx, and it simply didn’t happen. HL:A sits at a feeble 16.5k peak players on steam charts, now declined into the low hundreds.
The reason I say I was half-right here, is because while AA-AAA game developers have near-completely ignored the VR space, the indie scene has been mildly successful. While a lot of these titles are total shite, trying to exploit the fact that a tiny market leads to much greater visibility than the roiling sea of nonsense which is the steam store, there are some gems among them. I quite enjoyed BattleGroupVR, a game that I will be playing again once it has fully released. Blade and Sorcery is another obvious callout, a game that I almost hesitate to call indie until I realise it’s simply a large name in the VR space, and utterly tiny otherwise. Ragnarock, as mentioned above, and the utter nonsense Gorilla Tag. Where large developers have not gone, the indie market has plumbed with determination. This tends to mean that a huge number of the popular VR games are early-access titles that may or may not ever see the light of day, but it has provided a vital lifeline to the VR market. If the indie scene hadn’t picked it up so readily, then I imagine it would have died on its arse in 2018.
Lastly, I thought it’d be a gimmick because of the play-space requirements. Needing a completely clear 2 by 2 metre space at a minimum completely knocks out a huge number of people. Basically every student is gone, because it’s going to be impossible to get that in a dorm-room or student lets. A lot of people who have children, anyone living in a high density area where square-footage is at a premium. Given that young people, who are the most likely to adopt new technology like VR are also the most likely to live in high density housing, this felt like a fatal issue to me. “Sit down VR”, where you have the headset on but are otherwise sat in a chair, was touted as a way that people in tighter spaces could still be involved. I thought that was total bullshit, and I think I was right on that. Sure, there’s a few people who bought a headset to play Elite: Dangerous in sit-down mode, but the number of people that are willing to drop the dollars for that is absolutely miniscule. I would add to this, that the most sick I’ve ever been in VR was when I played Star Wars: Squadrons as a sit-down VR title. A single barrel roll had me absolutely begging for death, even when a couple hours in Boneworks left me fine.
Limited play space means that you can’t rely on people’s ability to move around in the VR space, so you need to have other forms of locomotion such as teleporting, or moving with the analogue sticks. I thought this would lead to games sitting very squarely in the Beat Saber category, where traditional video game titles (that heavily rely on your character’s ability to…move) would be impossible. I was wrong on this, it turns out that smooth locomotion via the analogue sticks is actually alright. It’s not fantastic, and for some people it makes them horrendously motion sick, but it’s definitely a solution to the movement problem. Even multiplayer shooter experiences like Pavlov VR are surprisingly intuitive and playable. Control mechanisms in these games, and their usage of what VR systems allow for, have come a long way since the initial versions. I would go as far to say that the difference between titles released in the very early stages of VR, 2016/2017, and titles released or updated post-Index, is utterly colossal. This leads to a weird problem where if you’ve played a modern VR game, then it becomes extremely painful to go back.
Something that I should call out here as well, is how wrong I was when it came to the pricing structure for these titles. I thought that VR games would be prohibitively expensive because developers would need to eke every single penny out of their tiny userbases, to make the investment even remotely worth it. Turns out I was wrong, VR titles are actually shockingly cheap. Almost everything can be picked up at the £20 figure, with only a few titles coming close to full price games. Now admittedly, the reason I was wrong is because AA-AAA developers have basically ignored VR, meaning that we’re seeing the pricing structure of traditional indie titles over the absolute scalping you would otherwise get. Still worth mentioning though that, once the initial investment of the VR headset is out of the way, it isn’t too costly to get a collection of games to go with it (the main obstacle to that, however, is the fact that there are very few games worth any money).
So is VR still a gimmick? Or have enough games demonstrated that there is a space for the sort of control that VR gives you? I think even if I didn’t have quite a few titles in this post that I enjoyed, VRChat alone would demonstrate there is clear mileage to the VR idea. Now, I’m not a huge VRChat person — I’ve played it for maybe an hour or two, while dressed as a gigantic owl: maybe your opinions become more nuanced once you’ve spent the requisite hundred hours as an anime girl. However, I think even the biggest VR-sceptic can see that there is potential here; that clearly the Second-Life-ish nature of the game is a huge attraction to people. The fact that it can be played on even the most basic of VR hardware and it makes no extreme physical demands on the user are massive reasons for its success, but not the only reasons. I think most importantly, it taps into a dream. It’s the dream portrayed by Ready Player One (shudder), of an entirely online world where you control your own appearance, and a largely free to sculpt the persona you want. It’s a dream that many of us millennials have had since the earliest days of IRC, Ventrilo, internet forums and other online spaces.
Is it anything close to that Ready Player One portrayal? Not even slightly. It’s janky, it’s rough around the edges, and it’s nowhere near being mainstream because of how very weird it is. However, the foundations of the dream are there, and that is enough to make it something quite special. I would not be surprised if it only grew in popularity as time went on, subject to the success of the peripherals behind it.
So with all that said, and my acceptance that VR is not a gimmick, would I recommend that you spent your hard-earned dosh on it? No. What? I hear you say, but you just made me want one via that description of VRChat! That’s a single game, and absolutely not worth the price to entry right now. Sure, I’ll admit that there’s cheaper headset offerings in the Oculus line, but saying they’re a valid way of getting into this space would be suggesting that you should support Facebook. You shouldn’t, especially given they’re at risk of claiming the whole VR space altogether if other headset manufacturers aren’t successful. It’s just all too expensive, all too a bit “enthusiast grade”. There’s just nothing that has made me think “yes, this is the reason why you should be dropping hundreds of pounds”. Everyone I know with a headset uses it very sparingly, maybe once every few weeks, and mostly to play games that have been out for an extremely long time (Pavlov, etc). With the way things are economically, it’d be foolish to buy into VR now when its medium term future is somewhat up in the air.
For every game that I’d recommend, there’s fifty titles of absolute chaff. This ratio is probably much worse in the traditional gaming space, but when the whole VR market is only a few hundred titles, you absolutely feel it. I should note that the modding community for games like Pavlov VR have managed to throw some extra mileage on the tank. The most glowing review that I’ll give in this entire thing, is that VR TTT is one of the funniest gaming experiences that I’ve ever had, and is truly unique. Again, not worth the price of entry, but there is absolutely nothing like it in the gaming space. Ultimately, the question for yourself is, do the titles that sit in the VR category on Steam speak to you enough to justify it? Are you happy to be very much a “first-wave” adopter (though obviously we’re on the 2nd/3rd gen headsets). I would suggest that you are not, and that you should spend those hundreds of pounds on something else. I would also add that my VR headset is currently broken, and I am awaiting a replacement cable from Valve: if that doesn’t work, and they refuse to replace anything else, then I might be stumping up yet more hundreds of pounds to fix it. This, is a situation that I’m not particularly happy about.
It just isn’t there folks, but maybe it will some day. Sure, if we end up in the Ready Player One dream, it’ll be worth infinite money. As much as I shit on the film and the book from a great height, if that actually existed, then fuck me. Strap me into the matrix and give me the goddamned blue pill, because it beats doing the shopping in Sainsburys for the thousandsth time in this miserable covid hellscape.