Sony’s PlayStation VR seems to be picking up steam, but is this the way to roll out new console innovation? Today on The Anime Harvest, I’m going to say no.
Earlier this week Sony showed off some of the capabilities of the PlayStation VR headset they’re working on, and while I haven’t touched the thing myself, or any Virtual Reality equipment, it does seem like a pretty impressive machine that probably could work as a good gaming peripheral. They headset works in conjunction with the PlayStation 4 and several controller options.
While I, as a gamer, am excited to hear about another bit of good innovation, I can’t help but fear this will eventually be a commercial failure when it comes out in the first half of next year. Why do I say that? Well, because it is a peripheral, which generally isn’t the way to go with game changing technology like this.
The PlayStation 4 was released late 2013, meaning there will be roughly two and a half years between it and PlayStation VR. We’ve seen something similar before with Sony, when they released the EyeToy, a fairly innovative for the time peripheral for the PS2, three years after the console it was made for. And who can forget the Kinect, released a whole five years after the Xbox 360. These peripherals were pretty big failures, partly because the technology at the time just wasn’t good enough (a problem which the PlayStation VR probably doesn’t have), and partly because no one bought an Xbox or a PS2 to dance in front of their TV. The reason this peripherals didn’t catch on was because they were peripherals; they weren’t something the consumer had in mind when making their original purchase, they aren’t something he consumer bought their machine for, and they typically aren’t something a consumer will be willing to invest in to improve their machine.
One of the biggest differences between console and PC gaming is that improvement over time. PC gamers will often by new parts and better pieces for their machine to keep up with technology or just improve their gaming experience. Console gamers, however, don’t do this. They by new games and new controllers, but not new hardware. This isn’t because console gamers are just less interested in new ideas in gaming, but because they tend to wait things out more to make sure there are games available using the new technology.
In PC gaming, there is never a threat there won’t be enough creative devs. The market is open enough that every peripheral will have someone designing for it, so there isn’t much risk in buying it. But on consoles there is a higher barrier to entry. Consumers are more hesitant to buy a peripheral, until games using that peripheral actually come out. But developers are hesitant to design for the peripheral, until enough gamers actually by it and there’s a market for their games. This is why innovation through peripherals, in the console market, does not work.
How could it work? Well, just look at how Nintendo has pulled it off. They made motion controls a commercial success. And while the WiiU still isn’t selling as well as they hoped, it has effectively proved that a core gaming experience can be had on a gamepad device. It did this not by offering these things as add-ons to an already complete gaming experience, but by necessarily tying them to the consoles they serve.
While the Wii did have other playstyles, such as the Classic Controller and GameCube Controllers, anyone who bought it was fully aware that they were buying a motion controlled gaming platform… or just a way to play Super Smash Brothers Brawl. And anyone developing for it would have to consider that people wanted motion controlled gameplay. Because of this, the Wii succeeding in making motion controls a normal part of people’s gaming experience. Had the Wii not had the initially, and released the sensor bar, Wiimote and Nunchuck a few years down the line, they probably would have been a commercial failure, and only be getting a second shot now.
Similarly, Nintendo made the Gamepad the primary method of controlling the WiiU. This was a bit rockier, as developers considered it a pain to work with and just didn’t make WiiU games. In fact, the smart thing for Nintendo to do back then, from a business standpoint, would have been to patch the console to work with a more standard controller and forget about the Gamepad. But they kept it, and I at least think find it a great way to play games. I never would have bought something like the WiiU gamepad had it come out years after I was already comfortable with the WiiU, but now I would be willing to buy something similar from Microsoft or Sony if I have an Xbox One or PlayStation 4.
So what does this say about VR on consoles? Well, you can’t do it now. Not in the middle of console generation. Not because it’s not good or because it’s only going to work on PC. If anything, consoles are actually the better platform for VR because the uniformity makes it easier for both consumers and developers to play with. But you need a new console for it. One designed the VR in mind, and controlled primarily using the headset. You can’t expect the market to pick innovative peripherals up willing; we’ve seen time and again this it doesn’t. It needs to be tied in to the PlayStation 5, or the Xbox 7½, or Nintendo’s NX; in fact, the NX and Nintendo’s history actually put them in the best position for this. Not saying that because I’m a Nintendo fanboy; I’d be just as happy to see this from any console developer.
VR needs to be sold as gaming, not as a side-project to gaming.
Don’t Lose Your Way