One of our team’s biggest observations from this year’s GDC was that VR was everywhere. Based on the event alone, it felt like VR is set to be the next big thing in gaming. VR hardware giants Meta and Pico faced off against each other with two huge booths in prime position.
But stepping out of the GDC bubble, the hype around VR seems to diminish.
So, is the hype around VR gaming real or is it simply just that - a lot of hype? I’m still on the fence but I’m going to be paying much closer attention to the space this year. Here’s why; starting with the biggest barriers to the hype.
Just before GDC, Reggie Fils-Aimé, former president of Nintendo America tweeted some insightful but pretty bleak statistics about the VR gaming market.
This year, only 1.3% of global users will own VR hardware.
By 2027, ownership will have stabilized at 1.7%. In the same time period, the number of people playing video games is set to increase from 45% to 51.3%.
That’s a global penetration rate increase of just 0.4 percent in four years for VR hardware. What is holding back greater growth for the VR market?
The responses to Fils-Aimé’s tweet provide some insight into the answer to this question. They cited the need for more full-length games like Half-Life: Alyx because “a lot of people think length means value”, as well as the “cumbersome nature of VR in its current form” and issues with motion sickness making it uncomfortable to play a VR game for any length of time. Many also commented on the cost of entry for VR, with one stating that it is “really high, to say the least”.
The last point around cost of entry is perhaps one of the biggest concerns for VR in gaming. The PSVR 2, which was launched earlier this year, retails at $549.99 for the headset but you also need to buy the PS5 console as well (if you don’t already own it) which is $499.99.
And then there’s the VIVE XR Elite which retails at $1,099.
These are big numbers.
As we already discussed in a previous blog, gaming is a privileged hobby. And it’s only getting worse as the cost of games increases. Then add to that the cost of VR hardware and you can see why it’s currently prohibitive to mainstream adoption of VR in gaming.
Bringing those costs down has to be a big focus for the hardware companies in VR gaming. And they recognize that. Meta already announced price drops not long ago, with $500 coming off the price of a Quest Pro (originally $1,500) and $70 from the Quest 2 (originally $399).
Affordability isn’t the only issue. There are also concerns around investment in VR gaming.
Only recently, Meta declared that it would be shutting down its VR game Echo VR in August, citing a drop in playerbase to the “low ten thousands”.
You may also have seen that Tencent has scrapped plans to build VR hardware saying "under the company's new strategy as a whole, it no longer quite fit[s] in".
Equally as concerning was the launch of a mod for popular VR game Half-Life: Alyx called Half-Life: Alyx NoVR which, as you can probably guess, gives fans the opportunity to play the game without the need for a VR headset.
As TechRadar put it “the fact that this mod has to exist is a sad indictment of the state of VR gaming. Incredible experiences are available, but only to those willing to pay. The very existence of Half-Life: Alyx NoVR speaks to the prohibitive nature of the investment and the need for affordable forms of VR hardware”.
This all sounds pretty negative for the industry. And yet, there are glimmers of positivity.
In the GDC 2023 State of the Game Industry report, 23% of developers said that they are most interested in developing games for VR headsets.
Oculus Publishing, Meta’s support program for Quest developers, has 150 new titles in active development.
Let’s also not forget that while Echo VR may have ceased, Meta is still planning to release Quest 3 later this year. Sony has only just released PlayStation VR2 and HTC also recently announced the Vive XR Elite. And of course, the rumors about Apple entering the market may have some truth to them.
In contradiction to the Statistica research that Reggie Fils-Aimé tweeted, IDC predicts that AR/VR headset shipments are expected to grow 15% in 2023.
Who to believe?
In a talk by nDreams CEO Patrick O’Luanaigh at GDC, we learnt that there is lots of new technology coming to VR in gaming which will help lower the barriers to mainstream adoption, including:
Smaller, lighter headset
Higher resolution displays with wider fields of view
More powerful graphical processing
Eye and body tracking as standard
Enhanced design and comfort
All designed to significantly lower the friction that players experience with the current headsets to deliver a better, smoother user experience.
Patrick also believes that free to play VR will be out in around 2-3 years’ time, which will certainly go some way to help with the prohibitive cost.
And it’s not just hardware providers impacting the growth of the market. I recently stumbled upon a YouTube video titled “Is Roblox the future of VR gaming?”. The video previews the development of Ares VR – an upcoming VR stealth combat game developed entirely on Roblox – and showcases some incredible looking mechanics that give the additional level of realism that VR games promise.
Then of course there are the games themselves. There are a few big VR game launches expected this year. Back in 2022 game journalist Tom Henderson leaked details about VR spin-off Assassin’s Creed Nexus which is rumored to be released in September (the same time as Meta Quest 3). And if you’re a Stranger Things fan (who isn’t?) Netflix and developer Tender Claws are working to release a Stranger Things VR game this winter, giving fans the opportunities to play as Vecna and “enact revenge on Eleven and Hawkins”.
Stranger Things isn’t the only well-known pop culture franchise coming to VR. Prepare for Peaky Blinders, Ghostbusters and Jurassic Park to make their VR debut this year.
With plenty of new headsets, new games (only a fraction of which we know about) and new technology, will 2023 finally be the year that VR breaks out of its plateau and sees significant growth?
Here’s my perspective. I think the continued commitment the big headset providers are showing this year, alongside pop culture franchise VR releases, will ramp up interest in VR gaming more so than other years. I also agree with many others in the industry that if the rumored Apple headset turns out to be true then it could have a huge impact on the popularity of VR in general, not just in gaming.
But, I think it’s going to take longer than just this year for the impact of these investments to be seen. As a competitive first person shooter addict on controller, I’ll admit that VR gaming hasn’t been high on my priority list to try out. After the hype at GDC and a bit more research into what’s going on in the industry this year however, I’m more interested than ever to give it a go. And perhaps the same could be said for other gamers.
What side of the fence are you on? Is VR going to go mainstream this year?
Jarrod Palmer is our gaming industry specialist. He knows the issues our customers face and how best
to help them. He's also a great Warzone player and is the UK office FIFA champion.