Zen Of Design

The design and business of gaming from the perspective of an experienced developer

I’m Still Skeptical about VR

The interesting thing about GDC was the fact that interest in VR is everywhere.  Monday and Tuesday had a VR summit, and lines were so long they have to use overflow rooms, and ultimately rearrange the conference to make room for it.  It reminded me a lot of GDC in 1996-1997, when the MMO talks and roundtables were being packed, despite the fact that no one knew anything about the field (the pre-EQ, pre-AC days where even I was considered an expert).

Back then, I had the benefit of being the subject matter in the thick of things – hell, the sheer lack of MMO designers at the time made me a world-class expert on the field.  Now, I’m just a cranky old man observer.  Still, I have a lot of hesitation – not so much about whether VR will conquer the world, but also about WHEN that might happen.  The issues are myriad, but only a couple do I see mentioned frequently:

  1. The vomiting issue.  The struggle is real and is well-known.  People have been telling me that it’s an urgent issue to solve for two years now, and I don’t know if anyone’s closer to it.  Most people that I’ve talked to say that this can be reduced by simply having games that have no movement in them.  Yay, Deer Hunter!
  2. The social virality issue.  The games with peripherals that do the best are highly social games that demo well at parties – think Rock Band or the Wii.  Both were compelling experiences that made observers immediately want to rush home and buy their own.  VR, on the other hand, makes you look like an idiot to observers.
  3. The cost issue & market consolidation.  Right now, we have 3-4 major players, vying to be the major player.  And getting into the space is expensive – matching or exceeding the cost of a modern console, but with vastly less utility.  This choice will end up causing market paralysis -players are going to wait until one emerges as a clear leader.
  4. The Harassment issue.  I’ll probably write about this issue in a seperate post, but this will be a much worse problem for connected VR games than it ever was for MMOs and LoL.  This isn’t going to be a huge issue in single-player and shared-space VR issues for a while tough.
  5. The Setup Issue.  Millions of people have hardware peripherals they’ve played once, and then put on the shelf and never touched again.  That even extends to things like 3D television, which requires the incredible simple setup of… finding the glasses.  3D requires even more setup for a simple session – putting on a lunky piece of hardware, positioning yourself in a place you won’t trip over the coffee table, etc.

This is not to say that I think that all VR games are bad – I’m quite fond of several experiences, especially puzzly games like SuperHyperCube that don’t try to be realistic.  But I do think there’s going to be a lot more resistance to these experiences leaving the realm of early adopters to become truly mass market.  Trying to guess which one will win is a fun exercise – if I had to guess, I’d bet on Sony’s Playstation VR.

  1. They have gravity from all the PS4’s that already are out there in living rooms.
  2. The fact that they are in living rooms means they are more likely to make a good living room social experience that can go viral.
  3. They have experience making kid-proof hardware, and are priced competitively for the field.

Note that none of this has much to do with the games or the hardware itself.  That being said, the single most significant thing that the VR companies can do is find an experience that sells as much hardware as Soul Caliber did in the 90s.

But then again, I’m probably being a cranky old man.  But at any rate, I’m much more entranced with HoloLens and Magic Leap.  So maybe I’m just looking slightly further down the road to Augmented Reality, and putting my undue enthusiasm there.


  1. Also, I’m worried about the long-term health effects of VR. Not just on the eyes, but also on the brain. Wouldn’t want to be a psychiatrist, to be honest.

    And frankly, there’s something creepy about VR. Surely you’ve seen that picture of Zuckerberg walking past people using VR with a sinister grin on his face?

  2. Personally I don’t foresee VR overcoming those issues sufficiently to become a huge hit. I see it getting picked up by enthusiasts and early adopters, and maybe it’ll have the same spike Kinect did at first, but I think it’ll go basically a similar route to 3DTVs or Kinect: an interesting gimmick, maybe best in class experience for one or two genres (again, like Kinect and dancing games), but not enough to hold a long term interest.

    I’m largely in agreement that AR is far more likely. Google Glass was probably ahead of its time, and possibly the wrong use cases to be picked up.

  3. Dave Weinstein

    March 21, 2016 at 4:10 am

    I’m personally much more interested in AR (HoloLens, CastAR, or Magic Leap), but not as much for games. More for the ability to do data visualization and representation.

  4. The biggest issue I’ve had with VR is not being able to find my cup of tea without knocking it over in real life.

    I think the psychological impact is one worth investigating. Medical research has looked at the use of VR for pain reduction (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0272735810001091)
    and found it largely positive, is there a relationship the other way?

  5. I forsee a lot of conflict as the immersive nature of VR runs head long into the old video game defence of “games only affect you in good ways, not bad ones”.

    If VR can truly start hitting the flight or fight response, it’s going to have solid emotional impact that could tend to the extreme, such as PTSD or phobia triggers. So you’ll have games that see players react to be being say, hit by a car, or eaten by sharks, and go through the initial emotional response of seeing this thing happen to “you”.

    The Video Game Defence Brigade will leap up to say, “It’s just a game!” but you can only keep upping the reality of something to a point before it can actually lead to harm.

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