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VR vs. Publishers

Up until now, VRFocus’ ‘VR vs.’ series has been focused on technical hiccups and issues with image. Virtual reality (VR) technology still had kinks to work out before we could be sure that it could catch on. Last week changed all of that. Big news poured out of the Game Developers Conference (GDC); not only did Oculus VR announce the second developer kit (DK2) for the Oculus Rift VR headset, but Sony Computer Entertainment (SCE) lifted the lid on its very own device for the PlayStation 4, Project Morpheus. VR is now entering a much bigger arena and with that comes a new set of challenges. Today we’re tackling arguably the biggest one of all; publishers.

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It’s easy to get ahead of yourself when thinking about the potential for the Oculus Rift and Project Morpheus, especially when associating it with the latter with the PlayStation brand. Think of what it could do for all of the franchises out there! Uncharted! Assassin’s CreedBattlefield! Call Of Duty! And the list goes on and on. The benefits for any of these franchises are obvious, but we have a long way to go before they’re a reality. Publishers, the companies that funded and, ultimately, have the last word on these titles need convincing before anyone else.

Ubisoft proved as much during last week’s show, stating that headsets would have to sell around one million units to make AAA titles viable. It was a statement that brought all of the hype and anticipation back down to earth for a moment. We currently don’t have much in the way of indicators of how successful these devices will be. Sure, an impressive 60,000 Oculus Rift DK1s were shipped and there were 12.5K orders for DK2 by last Friday, but these are orders from an enthusiast community and not nearly indicative of how successful the commercial products will be.

The fear is that, without publisher support, headsets will work themselves into similar situations that can be seen throughout the industry. Assumptions that certain consoles are lacking in must-have exclusives hold consumers back from buying them. Publishers need a large install base to make AAA development viable on the platform, which won’t happen without those big-budget titles already on there. It’s an exhausting stalemate of sorts where platform holders become mainly dependent on their own software to sustain a console. It would be frankly heart breaking to see the Oculus Rift finally launch after years of anticipation and not receive the kind of support needed to get consumers behind the device, but publishers needs as much convincing as consumers do.

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This is an area that SCE is already well-versed in. Its PlayStation Vita handheld, for example, is one of the devices currently stuck in the aforementioned predicament, currently relying on first-party support and a helping of indie titles to push the platform, with the likes of publishers such as EA barely acknowledging it. On the other hand, SCE’s PlayStation 4 console was launched late last year and has since seen the company stagger out its exclusive content, with Infamous: Second Son launching just last week. SCE understands it needs compelling content to drive sales and has utilised its own studios to give the system a boost. The company even showed off Eidos Montreal’s Thief running on Project Morpheus at GDC last week; it clearly understands the need for huge titles.

Oculus VR seems to get the picture too. The company has gone on-record about securing compelling software for the launch of the consumer version of its headset, including CCP Games’ EVE Valkyrie. Admittedly that’s no longer going to be exclusive to Oculus, although the differences between theirs and Project Morpheus’ launch dates and pricing will still play into its relevance.

Ultimately, what both headsets will need is a killer app, a title that’s so ground breaking or simply brilliant that it catches everyone’s attention. Halo: Combat Evolved is a common reference point, with many arguing that it single-handedly swayed consumers to purchase the original Xbox console at launch. If either Oculus VR or SCE could simply come up with the essential VR experience – and perhaps they already have – then they might well have an easier time getting publishers and developers on their side. Besides, it isn’t the case that developers don’t want to make VR titles. They’re undoubtedly just as passionate and excited for the technology as the fan community that already uses them. It’s simply about making it viable for big budget development.

VR’s success amongst the indie community is nothing short of enthralling. Day after day we see innovative and rich new experiences put out. But for the technology to survive in the long-term it’s going to need that support of mass market AAA titles. Give or take a few generous and risk-taking partners, it’s going to be up to both SCE and Oculus VR to solve this issue. Let’s hope they do, or these last few years might have all been for nothing.

‘VR vs’ is VRFocus’ weekly feature that takes an issue currently challenging the VR industry and discusses how to fix it. Looking at everything from the videogames in development to the strength of the technology, we highlight the problems and try to come up with the best solutions.