VR has arrived (again), and it brings with it a new set of challenges for developers. However, this time not all of them have to do with HMD-friendly UIs and motion sickness. Because the push into VR over the past few years has been largely been a shotgun effort, with numerous different manufacturers throwing their entries into the ring at drastically different price tiers, VR as a medium has found itself highly stratified and generally niche. At any of the three available price tiers ($20, $100, >$400), consumers have an abundance of options. While this might seem like a good thing through the lens of the free market, it has the potential to confuse new buyers who "just want to try this VR thing" Direct comparison of these various options yields more questions than answers; why is the Vive so much more expensive than the GearVR? What about PlaystationVR? What's a Cardboard? While VR adoption numbers are climbing, they're still not spectacular, and I would argue that it is in no small part due to this sort of first-time user confusion. What happens next then? A glance back at history would suggest that the answer lies in the software; hardware manufacturers sell their wares by gesturing to the experiences that users can have on their platforms. You can only play Halo on an Xbox; Mario lives on Nintendo consoles (though ironically, both of these statements are looking less true by the day). These are the kinds of appeals that justify the significant financial investment for a new piece of hardware to consumers. So then, when we look back to VR, it seems evident that once again the task falls to developers to create those selling points. If VR's retail landscape were as simple as Sony vs. Microsoft vs. Nintendo -- 3 competing boxes to put by your TV that all cost about the same -- consumer choice likely wouldn't be so difficult and I probably wouldn't be writing about it. But it's not that easy.
Because those different price tiers of VR equipment offer dramatically different experiences, the question of buying the best piece of hardware for your home becomes much more difficult. The Vive represents a massively larger financial investment at its $800 pricetag (not to mention the cost of a capable PC) than does the GearVR at $100. And this makes sense: the two systems are clearly targeted at different markets, with the Vive vying to be the headset of choice for enthusiasts and the GearVR targeting the uninitiated mass market. However, this discrepancy creates a significant bottleneck for first-time consumers to overcome; many consumers are unwilling to invest in enthusiast level headsets like Vive and Oculus sight unseen, such that many of the great experiences created for this tier of headsets go underpurchased and underplayed except by a small fraction of VR aficionados and early adopters. Combine this with the increasing cost of creating the kinds of AAA experiences that these kinds of enthusiast consumers are wont to expect, and you have a recipe for the medium burning itself out in a very short timeframe (not to mention the walled gardens that represent the development ecosystems for the 3 big headsets, but that's another post). As such, I would argue that if VR as a medium is to succeed, there need to be more definitive experiences for the lower price tier of headsets that justify that tier's existence. While more great games is always a good thing, it is key that a case be made for VR's validity as a worthwhile concept, rather than a fad, at all possible tiers of investment. Inexperienced buyers need to be convinced that VR is worth their time, and they are not likely to buy a Vive to figure that out. If a case for VR's worth can be made on the smaller, cheaper headsets, only then are inexperienced consumers going to be willing to buy the bigger, more robust headsets for the bigger, more robust experiences.
So again, the task falls to the developers, right? Well, yes, but here's the thing. Mobile VR (and VR in general, consequently) will never escape the prison of fads without those definitive, meaningful experiences, and this means that developers need to make it their prerogative to create those kinds of games. There exists a kind of strange elitism in many of the game development communities with which I've interacted vis-a-vis mobile VR. Many seem to view mobile VR as an unnecessary and uninteresting counterpart to the "real VR" experiences offered by bigger box headsets; a low-power alternative pushed out by the big phone companies looking to cash in on the excitement. And this is the attitude that will cause VR as a medium to fizzle and die; as a quick return to the sales-verse, do you know the highest selling VR headset right now? I'll give you hint: it's not one of the big three. It's the Samsung GearVR at over 5 million units, and when considering the mobile VR space, that doesn't even factor in Google's Cardboard, whose sales are harder to estimate but are expected to far exceed even Samsung's numbers. Yes, the Vive has amazing tracking capabilities and screen resolution far exceeding anything in the mobile space, but if no one is around to player your game, do the technical specs even matter? Developers have to focus on making compelling and essential experiences on smaller and more accessible platforms if they truly want VR to succeed.