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Versions is the essential guide to virtual reality and beyond. It investigates the rapidly deteriorating boundary between the real world and the one behind the screen. Versions launched in 2016 at the eponymous conference dedicated to creativity and VR with the New Museum’s incubator NEW INC.

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The broken promise of virtual reality

Working Title/Artist: Dust Breeding
Department: Photographs
Culture/Period/Location: 
HB/TOA Date Code: 
Working Date: 1920, printed ca. 1967
mma digital photo #DP109642
The broken promise of virtual reality

You don’t need a fancy games writer to tell you how few VR games are trickling out into the world these days. A quick perusal of the 2016 release calendar can give you that. Once the luster fades from the Oculus and Vive launch lineups, new converts to VR will find that there aren’t many games waiting in the wings until PlayStation VR arrives in the fall.

This is not the end of the world. The games are coming eventually, as many of the VR developers I spoke with assured me, hinting at secret projects that could cause a stir at E3 or get an announcement trailer closer to the holiday shopping season. But for the time being, early adopters are left asking, “So, uh, now what?”

This is a perfectly fair question for someone who just dropped a large chunk of change on a first-generation headset. But the thing about VR as a medium, a technology, and a concept is that it is indefinitely a work in progress. As the German film director Werner Herzog told The New Yorker, “We have a technology, but we don’t have any clear idea how to fill it with content.” As for VR games in particular, one reason the shape and form of the content remains opaque is because there is so darn little of it.

The reason, predictably, is money. Unless a project receives backing from a big player, say, an Oculus, developing an original VR game makes almost zero financial sense. This is a refrain I kept hearing from creators. The lead on one of the top selling Rift games, who wished to remain off the record, told me that sales numbers “weren’t that hot.”

sales numbers “weren’t that hot”

Sarah Northway of Northway Games echoed this sentiment, saying how the studio was well aware of the chance they “might not recoup [their] dev costs if VR flopped or room-scale turned out to be a pipe dream.”

Other VR developers, such as Nick Pittom of Fire Panda studio, scrape by on contract work from institutions with an eye towards hip tech, such as the Royal College of Surgeon’s VR ER sim. “VR development is one of those places where, even with games out, even with actual products, it doesn’t actually make any money,” he said.

Suddenly, the lack of new games on the calendar is starting to make a little more sense. Despite the evidence that VR is the next big thing, there’s little money to be made in the VR game space. (And perhaps that’s why we’re seeing projects made with game engines but under the banner of “experiential storytelling,” where they can find funding from the film industry.)

But then again, what about all those 80 VR launch titles? Where did they come from?

A 21 year-old Luckey with an early Oculus Rift prototype
A 21 year-old Luckey with an early Oculus Rift prototype

To truly understand the current climate, we have to take a small step back in time to 2011 when Palmer Luckey created the first Oculus Rift headset. It’s important to remember that, during the first few years of the VR revival, the early legwork was done entirely out of love for entering other realities.

This holds true even today, a month after the headsets have become commercial products: the majority of the games are still created by holodeck fanboys and Tron devotees. “Almost every single one of [the developers I know] are working on a project purely because they believe in VR as a medium,” Pittom said.

While Luckey may have struck the match that caused VR to blow up, far more people than him were instrumental to the hotness and volatility. According to E McNeill, the developer of the Rift title Darknet, the zeitgeist was fueled by “a community of enthusiasts, early adopters, and true believers”—in short, people who embraced an open-source ethos and owned a dev kit.

The history of the Oculus Rift from top left to bottom right
The history of Oculus Rift Dev Kits from top left to bottom right

“There was definitely a ‘Summer of Love’ era, where everyone made grand gestures toward openness and love for the whole VR ecosystem,” said McNeill.

To an extent, even the big dogs shared in this “doing a solid for the good of the universe” mentality. CCP Games’s aspirations, for instance, are a holdover from old VR dreams of the ‘90s that never materialized. Their CEO Hilmar Pétursson and several other founders worked on less than remarkable VR technology before doubling down on EVE. And while Tilt Brush may have Google’s name attached, the app was conceptualized by two ex-Double Fine employees whose favorite hobby was hacking together all sorts of wild experiments from motion controllers and Kinects.

As you can gather, many of the launch titles were pet projects that were born of faith, polished the shit out of, and then put on the marketplace. From one perspective, the big push at launch can be thought of as a communal pitch to convince big studios, large publishers, and everyone else that VR is worthwhile. “It was never in much doubt whether big commercial games would arrive. The question was when, and just how cool it would be,” McNeill said.

pet projects that were born of faith

With Sony joining the fray (and likely funding some projects), these instincts seem correct. And yet the grassroots origins of VR has put the medium in a precarious hurry-up-and wait position. The same anonymous developer mentioned earlier told me that they doubt there are more that 10,000 Oculus Rifts in the wild. Not to venture too deep in the weeds, but if we assume that the Vive has a similar install base, it will be a good long while before there are enough units in production for studios to take a calculated risk.

When I spoke with Michael Goodman from digital research company Strategic Analytics, he told me that the current situation is incapable of supporting the deep, original, and non-tech-demo-y VR experiences that players are craving. When asked if that might change, he replied, “You can’t say anything. There is no track record.”

Tl;dr, hope you enjoyed those Rift launch titles.

Header Image: Detail from Dust Breeding (1920) by Man Ray via Met Museum

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