Virtual reality (VR) actually has a pretty good shot at becoming a mainstream reality. VR has existed on the periphery of the tech world for years now, but the field is enjoying a surge of attention with the public release of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive. Everybody is curious to know if the devices are worth the hefty cost and, independent of that, if the field has any long-term potential.
Those who question VR’s future have well-founded concerns, as the game industry is still grappling with the aftermath of its multi-year fascination with motion controls in games, which have been all but completely abandoned – and for good reason. Some people feel that VR is nothing more than a natural extension of the motion control phase, and with this opinion comes the unspoken assumption that VR will be doomed to fail in the same ways.
So, how has VR been doing?
Following waves of media coverage focused on demoing and reviewing these devices, the main conclusion – and the one that gives me confidence that VR is here to stay – is "the hardware works." This statement immediately puts VR past the flaw that killed motion controls, as even after years of continued development, motion controls never became precise enough to create an enjoyable game experience. Indeed, most motion-control games were limited to the infamous "waggle," which still couldn’t guarantee accurate responsiveness.
The heart of the issue is that motion controls negatively altered the way that players interacted with a game world. After all, there's a reason why the design of the game controller has been changed so little over the last few decades. While it's perhaps bold to say that any one controller has perfected the design, the general method of using the controller as a means of input is difficult to contest
Instead, VR changes the way that the player experiences the game world. While some VR offerings are more experimental and require users to control the game with their heads, most are based on using the same tried-and-true controllers. The VR headset serves only to change the rules as far as how the game world is navigated. This is huge for VR – it opens up hundreds of new possibilities for immersive game experiences without turning the means of controlling into the experience. In short, VR has the capacity to be more than a simple gimmick device, and there’s room for real, full-scale games to be developed for the hardware.
That being said, the games currently available for VR aren’t great. But nobody's surprised about this, nor are they discouraged. While it's perhaps too much to consider any VR device as its own "platform," the Rift and Vive’s current situation is no different than that of any new console release. It’s just not common for a new platform to come out with landmark titles. Developers instead wait to see how a device is received – and even if they did want to start creating games early, they often can’t get access to development kits until later.
Due to the cost of the devices, the initial expected VR market is small, but the first VR “hit” will easily become a landmark title, which is undoubtedly drawing in more ambitious developers. At this point, it’s safe to say that VR represents more of an opportunity than a risk.