Following the launch of Half-Life: Alyx and subsequent spikes in virtual reality (VR) adoption rates (more on that later), there’s a real buzz around VR at the moment which is highly encouraging but tempered slightly by one key omission: the lack of AAA videogames in VR. As with most new technologies, game development to date in the VR industry has been almost exclusively the preserve of small, independent studios. The reasons for that are clear: small studios can operate off reduced budgets and so are more willing to experiment with new technologies and game design techniques.
These indie studios have done an incredible job, but it’s undeniable that as the VR space matures and grows the lack of large, highly polished AAA titles, particularly from key third party studios, is a notable weakness in the overall offering. Anyone who’s recently finished Half-Life: Alyx and then craves a similar experience will know that feeling only too well. However, I would argue that now is the perfect time for AAA studios to take the plunge. The key reasons being:
- Flatscreen AAA game design has largely stagnated and gamers are desperate for a proper ‘next generation’ experience when the new console generation begins.
- Core VR game design principles are now well established and have been successfully implemented in a large range of titles.
- The VR install base is now at a healthy, profitable level and is growing quickly.
- Unlike in the over-saturated AAA flatscreen space, there is not much competition in the AAA VR space – any new AAA game is a big event.
AAA flatscreen games have lost their sense of wonder and excitement
I’ve been playing a lot of Assassin’s Creed Odyssey during lockdown as I managed to snag it cheaply on Steam during a sale. It’s the first AAA flatscreen game I’ve played in a long time. Its a fun videogame and I’m enjoying it, but I find that it just washes over me and that it very much feels like a game I’ve played before. The incredible amount of polish and craftsmanship on display is impressive, but it can’t help but feel generic and similar to any number of other flatscreen open-world titles. There’s no moment of genuine excitement when I discover a new area, enemy, weapon or mission. There’s no sense of wonder as I’ve seen variations of what it has to offer many times before, just at a lower resolution and graphical fidelity. This is not an issue specific to Assassin’s Creed Odyssey. Look at any AAA flatscreen videogame released in the last three years and it’s hard to escape the thought that there really hasn’t been much progress – outside of improved visuals and scale – since the PS3/Xbox 360 days.
It’s a well-recognised problem in the AAA space that developers have been struggling with for many years: how do you make the latest iteration of a game feel new and exciting when the input method – a gamepad or mouse and keyboard – is essentially the same as it has been for two decades. How do they make a videogame feel truly next-gen outside of improved graphics? VR is the answer. Half-Life: Alyx demonstrated how powerfully new an established franchise can feel when it leverages the potential of VR. It absolutely felt like a Half-Life game, even down to having a very similar, linear structure to previous outings. However, by being in VR, and leveraging what VR does best (and notably by not taking any big risks with VR mechanics – most of Alyx’s mechanics have been seen before), it is elevated far beyond a typical sequel. The ability to actually stand in City 17 and manipulate objects in that environment with virtual hands while shooting and reloading a gun and using real-world objects like you would in real life instils a sense of presence and wonder into an existing template that is fresh, fun, immersive and feels truly next-gen.
Just imagine what Ubisoft could do with Splinter Cell or Assassin’s Creed in VR, or Rockstar with Grand Theft Auto or Activision with Call of Duty. As discussed further in this piece, the building blocks are already there. In many ways, it’s the simplest way for the big studios to breathe new life into their existing franchises.
Core VR game design principles have now been established
Crucially for AAA developers, many key VR mechanics have already been discovered and tested with a sizable player base and so they wouldn’t be starting with a blank piece of paper. Movement in VR can be implemented effectively via smooth locomotion or teleportation. There are well-established comfort settings for those who suffer from motion sickness. Climbing is huge fun in VR and numerous videogames have been built around that core mechanic. Gunplay in VR is realistic and intuitive and games like Boneworks, Pavlov VR and Hot Dogs, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades have shown how immersive it is to use a virtual gun just like you would a real life gun. Inventory systems, physics simulations, hand interactions, throwing and sword fighting have all been implemented in numerous videogames and so there is a blueprint for how to successfully incorporate these mechanics into a VR experience.
Hell, one really simple way for a AAA studio to effectively implement VR into their franchise would be to buy an existing VR engine and use that as the foundation for their game. Imagine a Call of Duty that is built off of the Boneworks physics engine and gunplay. That’s a mouth-watering prospect. The key point here is that we’re now several years into VR development and a lot of the significant design barriers to entry have been removed.
The install base is already sizeable and growing at a fast pace
As has been widely reported, the latest Steam survey pointed to some highly encouraging VR adoption figures during April 2020. Even with coronavirus supply shortages making it difficult to buy a headset – the Valve Index has been sold out for months and Oculus headsets have only just come back to the market – the launch of Half-Life: Alyx saw almost a million additional VR users connecting headsets to Steam VR over the previous month and overall the userbase has been growing rapidly month on month over the past year.
This huge spike in users now means that it’s estimated that 1.91% of Steam users actively use a VR headset which equates to roughly 2.7 million VR users on Steam (and it’s worth noting that a considerable amount of Oculus PC VR users don’t use Steam). Sony has sold over 5 million PlayStation VR headsets and while Oculus has never been forthcoming with sales numbers we know the Quest has been a big success – Mark Zuckerberg recently stated that “Quest is selling as fast as we can make them”. All of this is to say that across the various platforms there is a significant amount of existing users and crucially the install base is growing rapidly month-on-month. With the next generation of consoles around the corner and with Sony reportedly committing to a PlayStation VR 2, Oculus seemingly about to bring out a new headset and Valve fully supporting VR, not only is there a sizeable market already but it looks highly probable that it will be an exponentially bigger one in the coming years.
Any AAA VR release will be a BIG event
As of today, we’ve only really had one proper AAA title in VR – Half-Life: Alyx. Lone Echo, Asgard’s Wrath, Blood & Truth and Stormland come close, but in reality the scale of those projects and the teams that worked on them were relatively small compared to a flatscreen AAA project. I’m also not including AAA titles that have been adapted for VR – such as The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR and Fallout 4 VR– as while enjoyable they weren’t built from the ground up for VR and so don’t fully take advantage of what the technology has to offer.
As such, and as seen with the release of Half-Life: Alyx, a AAA release is a big event in both the VR space and in the broader gaming community as players react (sometimes not so positively) to seeing a beloved franchise in a new medium. The VR community were hyping Half-Life: Alyx for months before its release and the gaming community is still talking about it now, mainly due to how it’s unlike anything anyone’s seen before. With so many AAA games releasing in the flatscreen market – most have annual releases – gamers find it hard to keep up with and play each AAA release and they have in many ways lost that ‘big event’ release buzz.
Half-Life: Alyx has reportedly sold over 1 million units since its launch at the end of March, it was played by over 40,000 players concurrently on Steam just after launch and was also watched by 300,000 Twitch viewers on release day – by far the most viewed VR title ever and comparable, and in many cases surpassing, AAA flatscreen games. Furthermore, the amount of press coverage and articles written about Half-Life: Alyx has been huge. Sure, some of this has been down to the return of a gaming franchise that hasn’t had a release for over 10 years but much of it is due to the decision Valve made to make it in VR. There has been a big and enduring buzz around the game and it has felt like a real video game milestone event.
VR as part of the AAA space
This is all not to say that somehow AAA VR videogames should replace indie VR titles or that we should no longer have flatscreen AAA games. There is, of course, a place for both of them in the wider gaming ecosystem – I’ve enjoyed Assassins Creed Odyssey and find it relaxing, and we need indies to keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible – but it’s undeniable that flatscreen AAA games have lost some of their wonder and excitement and a bump in resolution and fidelity will not be enough to provide that crucial next-gen experience. Whilst at one stage developing in VR was a daunting prospect, the core mechanics have now been worked out and there’s a healthy and rapidly growing user base that’s craving AAA content. It’s time for the big studios to get involved.