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The cost of a dream: Being priced out of virtual reality

After three days of positivity today was the day Oculus dropped the hammer, attaching a $600 USD price point to the future of video games. While early adoption has never been cheap, being priced out of virtual reality particularly stings.

The virtual reality hype machine certainly did its job on me. From indie experiences on the PAX show floor to experimental full body simulations, I am completely on board with the experience virtual reality can offer. Yet, even as somebody who is happy to spend $1,000 AUD or more on a PC upgrade every few years, I have to balk at spending that again on a single piece of hardware that will rely on bite-sized and novelty experiences for several years. Perhaps, for good.

At this point I see big budget game development taking a more 3DTV approach to virtual reality, tacking on support at minimal effort and cost unless heavily subsidised by the headset manufacturers. Dedicated experiences at the quality of The Witcher 3 or Rainbow Six: Siege are a pipe dream at this stage. While hacks and mods will probably allow any first person game released from this point to be experienced in virtual reality from personal experience it requires more than just a quick “split images” mod to make an engaging VR game, not to mention one that allows you to retain the contents of your stomach.

The cruelty here is that nearly three years after Oculus Rift kickstarter dev kits shipped, three years of media extolling the virtues of VR and show floor demonstrations with lines hours long; the vast majority of gamers are suddenly finding out that they will be waiting that long again before the technology is affordable. Virtual reality has been sold as a home experience but with a $2,000 AUD outlay for a Rift and a PC capable of supporting it there are few out there who will get to experience this revolution outside of special demonstrations at conventions. It may have been naive to think we could get into VR on the cheap but just how prohibitive a price tag this technology would wear has been well buried underneath positive impressions and ‘future of gaming’ headlines.

I’m not going to declare virtual reality dead on arrival but I do think we have been boiled up into a frenzy about technology that is nowhere near ready for mainstream consumption. Oculus founder Palmer Luckey has already claimed the company won’t make any profit on hardware sales, even at this price, which makes it unlikely their competitors will get significantly under that price point without a drop in the quality of experience.

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With the limited enthusiast userbase that this price point assures we won’t be seeing much more than indie experiments and toe-dabbling from (likely subsidised) bigger developers. Even Facebook or Valve money isn’t going to change that. Dare I say even a bombshell like Half-Life 3 VR exclusivity won’t do much to overcome this barrier to entry.

The parallels to motion control are obvious and (considering where we ended up with on motion control) ominous. Even with the advantage of pack-in hardware the Wii, Kinect and Move never made a convincing case for motion control as an enhancement to the gaming experience, let alone as a necessity. Virtual reality hasn’t proven itself beyond a novelty at this stage and while Wii Sports’ bowling and tennis may have sold millions of Wii’s, virtual reality headsets won’t have the advantage of being so easily shared as a Wiimote being passed around the lounge.

The stage is now set for Oculus’ competitors to try and steal the show, but don’t hold your breath. HTC and Valve have positioned the Vive as an even more upmarket experience, at best they will match Oculus in pricing but more likely they retail for more and it still has the high end PC requirements. Sony knows what it feels like to take a loss on hardware sales but whether they want to take that approach with the PlayStation VR is another matter. Even supplemented by their existing technology (the PS4 and Move controller) it would be a surprise if Sony could get their headset to market at anything less than $400 USD.

We’ve been sold mansions on Mars with virtual reality, but today we found out just how much it was going to cost to build the rocket. I still hope virtual reality succeeds, but for the next few years the closest I will come to that Martian mansion is a few brief visits to a barren surface on the PAX show floor.



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About the author

Stuart Gollan

From Amiga to Xbox One, Doom to Destiny, Megazone to Stevivor, I've been gaming through it all and have the (mental) scars to prove it. I love local multiplayer, collecting ridiculous Dreamcast peripherals, and Rocket League.