Hi, I'm Ben Throop

This is my personal site about game development and emergent behavior. You can learn more about me here.

Why root for VR to fail?

John Walker of Rock Paper Shotgun published an editorial that argued the new VR movement is destined to fail. As a developer of a VR game I do not want VR to fail, obviously. My decision to build a launch title for PS4's Project Morpheus VR headset also illustrates that I don’t think it will fail. I’ve been making games for 15 years and I really do have high hopes for VR. 

However, I will also admit and even embrace that I don’t really know what will happen with VR. There are too many dynamics at play and so much we do not understand. We have not seen an invention as significant as VR since, well, probably the iPhone but more likely moving pictures. 

The reason I’m writing this though is because I think Walker’s article deserves a long form response from someone working in VR every day.

VR is a new medium. It begs for new creations to be made specifically for it. The ultimate failure of 3D Television is a point of comparison in the article. The problem with this is that 3DTV is not a medium but simply a new way of viewing an existing one. I am not aware of a single creative work that was fundamentally authored for only 3DTV such that it was not also viewable on a 2D TV. That technology is augmentative rather than transformative. Experiencing VR content on the other hand is fundamentally different and often mutually exclusive from standard TV. 3DTV and VR actually have little in common and the article’s point should be disregarded.

The line “VR replaces the role of the imagination” from the article is just as absurd as saying the same about photography, theatre, conversation and people. These are elements of experience that fall outside of a traditional screen and are quite comfortable there. The line in context gives games on standard screens exclusive domain over our imaginations. Nobody would argue that point in isolation and it doesn’t make any more sense as part of this article about VR.

Then there’s the point on price, which is deftly paired with the categorization of VR as a peripheral. You can say that all you want, but a VR headset is no more a peripheral than your television is. It is a brand new doorway through which you can step through. For that matter, many people will look at the headset as the focal point and the computer as the peripheral. That’s how much more important it is than what’s typically thought of as a peripheral like a Wii Fit. How much did your TV cost? 

And then we come to the crescendo of the piece — the complaint that despite all that was written, it is actually about the games. His logic is that there will not be enough AAA VR games because of risk, standard games will get half-hearted VR modes, and the medium will die a quick death because it never reaches critical mass. He says there will be small indie games but Kinect had that too and look what difference it made.

Well try this on then. Let’s say that critical mass actually does not come from AAA games. Let’s say it comes from somewhere completely unexpected. Maybe social VR ends up being unbelievably new and amazing. Maybe watching films in VR gains enough mass market traction. Maybe some indie does something amazing that gains critical mass (can you imagine???). It’s likely going to be a combination and interaction of all of these and more. 

The one thing that I REALLY REALLY believe is that VR is totally new and we are just getting started with it. Remember when the iPhone came out and multitouch screens weren’t completely understood? Then Angry Birds became a cultural phenomenon. This is like that times a hundred. Remember when the iPad was announced and everyone complained it was just a bigger iPhone? This is like that times a hundred. 

Most people cannot imagine what a new technology will bring them until it is demonstrated over and over again, often times refined and advertised and refined again. VR is so early. So if you want to say VR is risky, that nobody knows what VR is going to be like in 3 or 5 years… well I’m with you. We don’t. 

What I do absolutely know is that now that I am in the throes of developing in VR, the possiblities feel so vast and so interesting, how could you not want it to succeed? It’s as if we just discovered a new planet that could bear life. Why hope it leads to nothing? What’s the point of rooting against VR? That’s what I’d really like the gaming press to write about.