A common hypothesis is that the only thing truly standing in the way of virtual reality's success is the lack of a 'killer' app or game - something that will have universal appeal and help the medium propel itself forward. A year ago, I wouldn't have agreed with this statement. However, with more compact and affordable headsets to be released in 2019, it could really be the last barrier to overcome. Could a franchise bringing its fanbase be the way to go, as Pokemon GO did for AR? In my opinion, the VR industry should look no further than the indie game scene instead.
Back in the day, Halo was the 'killer app' for Xbox - a triple-A game which helped the console explode in popularity. However, more recently indie games have captured the attention of both critics and consumers. In 2016, for example, Stardew Valley - a one-man project inspired by the Harvest Moon series, outsold Call of Duty on Steam.
There's a reason for that - time and time again, innovative and compelling gameplay that turns genres on their heads comes from the independent scene. Games like Braid, Super Meat Boy, Undertale and Limbo are among the best examples. They are not only challenging - they force players to think differently. They tell compelling stories through visuals and game mechanics, and help players completely immerse themselves into their world. And what better platform for a truly immersive experience than VR? Virtual reality is the only medium that provides a true first-person perspective - it has immense potential to tell stories in ways never possible before.
When Braid came out, it became an indie sensation. / © Jonathan Blow
Of course, there already exist quite a few popular indie VR titles. However, as is with any new medium, I feel that most developers are still testing the waters. A lot of indie VR games are safe bets - showing off flashy visuals or the technical capabilities of the platform (and motion controls), rather than experimenting with more abstract ideas.
This is why I don't agree with those who have already handed the 'killer app' trophy to Beat Saber. Yes, it is an indie title, which has impressive sales and it's a satisfying, action-heavy game. However, it can get repetitive very quickly, unless you are really into honing your slashing skills. SUPERHOT VR is another popular indie, which is definitely clever and captivating, but I still feel there's something missing.
In my opinion, what the virtual reality platform needs instead is a game that transports you into a new world and truly makes you feel like you are there. And I know what you are going to say - the current tech isn't capable of providing such graphics. But there's no need for true-to-life visuals. All we need is a game that provides a truly visceral experience.
Let's go on a Journey
Let's take another indie title as an example. Journey is a 2012 game, developed by Thatgamecompany and released for the PlayStation 3. In it, you take the role of a cloaked figure in the desert. In the distance, you see a large shining mountain - your ultimate destination. There are no annoying text tutorials or constant interruptions by expositional dialogue - just the breathtaking landscapes and the ruins of a lost civilization. The story of the game is told wordlessly and is often left up to your own interpretation. Journey understands that less is more, which is something I hope we start seeing more often.
More interestingly, however, at some point in your journey (pun intended), you meet other travelers on the road. If you played around the game's initial release, these were often real people playing the game just like you. Yet, in the style of Journey, you couldn't voice chat or write to them. You had to figure out how to communicate with each other by 'speaking' musical notes. Strangely, instead of frustration, many players felt an unspoken bond with their teammates, a longing to stay with them just a little longer. All of this was achieved thanks to the subtle details of the game and its immersive and mysterious atmosphere. This is why I think a game inspired by Journey, but tailored to the virtual reality medium, could be the sensation the platform has been waiting for.
Of course, if these dreams of an indie VR smash hit are ever to become reality, we have to recognize the challenges facing developers delving into virtual reality. The first and most obvious issue is that independent studios do not have the time and resources of bigger games companies. Therefore, it's a huge risk to invest time learning how to develop for virtual reality. Not only that - even if you do already have the necessary knowledge and a concept in mind, developing the actual product still takes time. Virtual reality's popularity is not great either - why go for this new platform when your game will certainly have better sales on PC, consoles or even mobile?
VR's future is still uncertain. / © HQuality/Shutterstock
This leaves us with a chicken and egg situation. VR is not popular enough to attract many new developers, but VR's popularity cannot take off without more and better apps and games. A possible solution is for hardware manufacturers to offer incentives to devs. However, that could be problematic, as these incentives often come in the form of purchasing exclusivity for their platform. This, in turn, could lead to further fragmentation of the market. There seems to be no easy answer at the moment.
I personally hope that upcoming headsets like the Oculus Quest open up more doors and that the VR medium matures sooner rather than later. It would be a shame to see it go down in history as a gimmick, since it has immense potential.