VR has come a long way in the past few years.
I had just been handed my biweekly paycheck at the digital advertising agency where I was still employed out of college. Sitting there in that office, staring at that paycheck, the only thought I had in my head was how long it’d be until those checks would stop coming. I’d been making good money working in SEM (search engine marketing), which technically fell under the field I’d majored in. But I hated that job. Most importantly, I hated the future that I saw for myself.
The date was October 11, 2017. I still weighed 215 lbs and, of course, a significant amount of that weight was body fat. I remember how much time I sat around thinking about finding not a solution to my problems—but an escape. I compulsively turned to video games, which took my stress away, but only while I was playing. Each time I finished hours later, I found myself drowning in thoughts of self-doubt. “If only I’d spent that time bettering myself instead of playing games, my life wouldn’t be such a wreck,” I often thought to myself.
Seemingly out of the blue, this ad appeared on my Facebook timeline:
I still remember the shivers it sent down my spine.
I’d been a massive gamer for my entire life, but the idea of being inside of a game blew my mind. To me, it wasn’t some stupid gimmick, and I didn’t care that many of the games were unpolished and unfamiliar. Everything I saw in that ad left me intoxicated with excitement. I craved the kinetic energy; I wanted to dodge and duck and swing weapons around and block laser cannons just as the actors were doing.
Seeing the price of the Oculus Rift cut in half was all I needed to go off of. I flew out of my house in a rush to the nearest Best Buy, where I bought one of the only two Rift units in the entire store, took it home, and converted my bedroom into what remains my designated VR space/home office to this day.
The very first time I experienced myself as a badass was in virtual reality.
While (unbeknownst to me) the VR industry was at the tail end of powering down from an arduous period of consumer projections gone awry and investment money drying up, I’d gotten lost in the experience. My Rift was a place where I could go and leave the real world behind if only for a few hours a day. I got to experience the thrill of scoring goals in Echo Arena before it was a league sport, while players were still trying to figure out how to navigate a 3D space in zero-g, let alone decipher the meta. I’ll never forget just how emboldening it felt to blast my way through SUPERHOT VR for the very first time, and the concept of playing dodgeball with another human on the opposite side of the world in Sparc was simply compelling.
“The act of immersing myself in VR was sort of like falling through a portal, into an alternate timeline where traditional games ceased to exist…“
Then came The Thrill of the Fight.
Growing up, I was not a sporty kid. Besides dancing at nightclubs and attending biweekly HIIT courses in college, I remained mostly unathletic into my early twenties. So when I first loaded in and received my royal day one comeuppance, I thought about quitting. But instead of going cold, I vowed to play until I was good enough to down my sparring partner without choking on the blood that’d pooled in my lungs. I made a point of obliterating that goal within about a day.
The act of immersing myself in VR was sort of like falling through a portal, into an alternate timeline where traditional games ceased to exist and the book of game design was begun anew. Going from traditional gaming to VR wasn’t just a matter of re-learning everything I thought I knew about gaming and computing, it was a literal excursion away from the established publishers and developers I’d spent my entire life feeling so intimately connected with. I grew up a near-religious Square Enix fanatic, so it felt weird coming to this new medium with nothing substantial from them besides the Final Fantasy 15 fishing minigame over on the PSVR, a platform which I did not own until over a year later.
2018 saw the content library dramatically bolstered across all VR platforms. But 2019 looks like it’s shaping into an entirely new beginning for the industry.
The landscape of VR right now is almost unrecognizable from when I first entered in late 2017. Even when I first began, things were already changing at a rapid pace. But I remember the discourse surrounding VR being, for years before I even picked up a headset, about how little there was to do inside of VR. I’ve come to notice that I no longer hear as much sentiment about poor content variation in VR as I did before. And I think it’s because we, the consumers of VR products, are finally showing developers of all sizes that there’s a reason to invest again. However, we can also eyeball industry growth by looking at how the AAA demographic behaves.
“VR isn’t just an idea anymore. It’s not arcane, and it’s not some future tech. Nor is it ephemeral. It’s here, it’s happening right now, it’s becoming a staple in peoples’ lives…“
I know that the phrase ‘AAA’ gets thrown around a lot in this industry, so before I continue, I’d like to define ‘AAA’ as any developer/publisher with an established track record among gamers that also has the capital to budget millions of dollars for game production. This means that Survios is a AAA developer despite being relatively new to the market and specific to VR. With a AAA production, there’s typically a larger team of people with more industry experience, fueled by a steady source of capital. Prospective returns are also more stringent for AAA entities who operate at higher stakes than maverick indie teams of 1-10 people, historically leading AAA entities to only dip their feet into or avoid VR altogether.
That said: Insomniac, From Software, Nintendo, Harmonix, Valve, Ubisoft, and Sony are just a handful of recognizable AAA developer/publishers now working on (or who have recently finished) VR projects. It’s evident that there’s more initiative coming from some of these larger entities than ever before. And without tapping into additional data, such as sales metrics, I believe that their involvement bodes well for the ongoing health of the VR gaming industry.
Coming from an era when investors and AAA publishers could still validly address VR as a primordial goop of ideas and mechanics, here’s the thing that strikes me particularly hard: VR isn’t just an idea anymore. It’s not arcane, and it’s not some future tech. Nor is it ephemeral. It’s here, it’s happening right now, it’s becoming a staple in peoples’ lives, and it’s working its way into the public lexicon. This video of Brie Larson playing Beat Saber on the Tonight Show is exactly the level of success that all developers of both traditional and non-traditional games would kill for, and it happened in our industry.
And, given what’s about to happen on the hardware side of the industry, I don’t believe that VR is still stuck in its classic ‘chicken or egg’ dilemma anymore either. The coveted critical adoption ‘egg’ is now hatching in front of our eyes (albeit still not as quickly as early consumer projections had figured) where, for a few years, there was no tangible ‘egg’ to speak of at all. Granted, it’s unlikely that 2019 will be the year that our aforementioned proverbial ‘egg’ hatches. In fact, I wouldn’t expect VR to integrate itself into popular culture with finality, where everybody and their mother owns a headset and important sociocultural things broadly happen inside of headsets, for at least another five years.
Here’s my point: a VR game has gained enough traction to boast over one million units sold. This means that there’s clearly an active install base which developers can point at when they pitch for project funds. Coincidentally, Oculus, Valve, and Sony are ramping up their platform wars just in time for the latest round of headsets to start rolling out. And, as a result, we’re beginning to see notable AAA developers tap into taller pools of funding and introduce more fully-featured games into our strange, alternative VR world.
Many Internet commenters like to say that VR is still chugging right around the ‘Atari 2600‘ phase of its overall lifecycle, and given the lack of a VR platform as impactful as the classic Nintendo Entertainment System was for traditional gaming, I’m practically inclined to agree with them. But 2019 is certainly looking to become the best year for VR games and experiences thus far. I gleefully await feeling like a badass for the first time all over again in AAA titles like Asgard’s Wrath, Boneworks, Blood & Truth, Dance Central VR, and many more.
Do you believe that it’s the perfect time for AAA developers to rejoin the VR industry en masse? Let us know in the comments.