Sony’s 2017 E3 press conference would have you believe that the company sees real value in PSVR. But honestly, I’m having serious doubts.
Before we get into the meat and potatoes of that particular (and potentially controversial) sentiment, I should say that at this point in the VR game, I’ve spent a considerable amount of time with PlayStation’s premier headset. Back in May, I finally got my hands on a PSVR unit and wrote up some initial impressions, which were largely mixed, to say the least. Over a month later, I’m still wracked by occasional motion sickness when playing, but conversely, still enthralled by the technology and possibilities. What a strange, challenging dichotomy, one that has left me feeling a mixture of both disappointment for the current limitations of VR and wild anticipation for what technical improvements may lie ahead. If the platform lasts long enough to see such improvements, that is.
To gain some context, let’s talk numbers. PSVR launched in October 2016, and as of early May 2017, the platform had sold over a million units worldwide. Which, let’s be honest, is no small feat for a peripheral that retails for the bargain discount price of $399.99. Obviously, there’s a large group of people invested enough in VR to cough up that kind of cash, though in the grand scheme of things—namely the fact that over 60 million PS4 consoles have been sold to date—it's an undeniably paltry number, and conveys an even more miserly attach rate. Whether it’s the significant price investment or lack of attractive software, the evidence makes one thing clear: Most PlayStation gamers haven’t been compelled to jump into the immersive virtual waters.
Moss for PSVR
So the sad reality is (and overwhelmingly so) the majority of PS4 owners do not also own a PSVR unit. Such a discrepancy is often the kiss of death for expensive add-ons, mostly because developers who are actually interested in making games for such a device are looking down the barrel of a losing proposition; should they move ahead with VR development, they’re deciding to pour time and resources into a project that less than 2% of potential customers can even play, let alone purchase.
Besides the rare support in third-party titles like Resident Evil 7 and polished, Sony-published experiments like Farpoint, this could be why we’ve yet to see many (if any) exclusive AAA games on the platform. One would think that if PSVR was viable from a business standpoint, we’d have at least seen something massive from Naughty Dog or Santa Monica Studio (besides Bound and the middling Here They Lie). But for the most part, it’s been wind and tumbleweeds on that front. The lack of solid first-party support only further convinces people that they shouldn’t bother with PSVR, which then shows developers they should be spending their time and resources elsewhere. The cycle is constant and vicious.
Yes, the numbers are rather telling, but despite the ominous tea leaves at the bottom of the virtual mug, I still have a genuine interest in PSVR. From that perspective, I was eagerly looking forward to Sony’s 2017 E3 press conference, and I had plenty of questions: Would they double down on VR content? Would we finally see a flagship title for the headset, something that could convince apprehensive potential adopters? Would we finally transition from exploratory, limited software to deep, full-length experiences? Or better yet, would Sony introduce a new, more powerful version of the PSVR hardware? As it would actually transpire, the showing was disappointingly lukewarm with no significant surprises.
Farpoint for PSVR
First, there was Bethesda’s The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim VR, which looked like it could be fun, but let’s not fool ourselves here—it’s a gimmicky revamp of a 6-year-old game from last generation. And really, if you’re the least bit interested in Skyrim, you’ve most likely played it a hundred times over already. On the other hand, The Inpatient, a first-person psychological horror title from the makers of Until Dawn, looked spooky and promising. It takes place inside a mental hospital and seems to make good use of the up-close-and-personal nature of VR. If it’s half as cool as Rush of Blood turned out to be, then it might be one to watch.
Futuristic sidescroller Star Child also seemed interesting, but from what was shown, it had no substantial reason to be a VR title. The same could be said of what I thought to be the most interesting PSVR game demoed at the conference: Moss. This 3D adventure stars a very Despereaux-style mouse that solves puzzles and trounces through various forest environments. And you know what? It looks great, like something I’d buy on day one. But here’s the honest question: Do I need to play it in VR? Truthfully, I’d be perfectly happy experiencing Moss in 4K and HDR on a proper television screen, laying back on the couch, and not having to deal with a stuffy face contraption surrounded by countless tangled wires. It just feels like devs are reaching for the slightest opportunity to implement the technology, and rarely does it seem necessary.
This notion is most evident in ridiculous half-games like Monster of the Deep: Final Fantasy XV (AKA Bro Fishing Hangout: Fishing With Bros is the Best). These kinds of shoehorned attempts delegitimize the platform and serve as flashing neon warning signs, megaphoned notices shouting that even the biggest video game developers are still having difficulty in creating relevant VR experiences. And beyond prohibitive price and inconvenience, isn’t that the biggest issue facing virtual reality? As it stands, there just aren’t many legitimate, meaningful, game-changing uses for these expensive headsets. But don’t just take my word for it (cue Reading Rainbow transition sound effect)—steal a passing glance at the live crowd reaction to most of these announcements. Tepid might be too strong a word.
Until Dawn: Rush of Blood for PSVR
To Sony’s credit, they did show a video in which Dominic Mallinson, Senior Vice President of R&D at SIE, spoke about the future of PSVR and possible improvements. These included things like gaze-tracking and, in an attempt to mimic what the human eye accomplishes in real life, realistic refocusing on in-game objects and characters. Supposedly, the team is also working on artificial intelligence and implementing something called “natural language understanding,” which is what you’re utilizing when you talk to Amazon’s Echo or Apple’s Siri. This could hint that a PSVR hardware refresh is on the way, which has the potential to improve the subpar display inside the current headset.
Yet in the midst of all this, we can’t forget Sony’s troubling tendency to outright drop hardware when it under performs, or worse, when the company has simply lost interest. Take the Vita for instance, possibly my all-time favorite handheld and shunned black sheep of the PlayStation family. Vita launched back in late 2011, and by the end of 2014, first-party support had all but dried up. For the past several E3s, Sony has basically pretended that the Vita doesn’t even exist, despite the fact that there are still plenty of quality indie titles getting released for the handheld. Vita TV (or PlayStation TV as it was known in the West), a miniaturized console Vita aimed at streaming PS4 titles and playing portable games on a television screen, lasted even less time before it vanished from store shelves. Don’t even get me started on the PSP Go or those 3D TVs that Sony was peddling some years back for games like MotorStorm: Apocalypse and Resistance 3—it was only a matter of months before I saw those screens getting clearanced out at Best Buy. Sony tends to have puppy love for new hardware, then cast it aside when it’s bored, so what’s stopping them from discarding PSVR at a moment’s notice?
Starblood Arena for PSVR
Have there been any definitive announcements regarding the discontinuation of PSVR? Not in the slightest, but there seems to be a stormy indifference gathering on the horizon, and if things don’t change soon for the console headset, Sony—or a flood of general apathy—might just wash it away. Granted, I’m still gunning for PSVR to pull off a huge turn-around, and I also want to try PSVR with PS4 Pro, a combination that supposedly makes for a much better overall experience. We’ll see what the future holds, but from this vantage point, it doesn’t look too assuring.