It sometimes might not feel like that in the long stretches between significant releases in which headset owners are left to separate the wheat from the chaff. But, at a time in which PC VR users have few other outlets to turn to, when Facebook tightly curates who it lets onto its Oculus Store, crushing the hopes of many indie VR developers, and when getting a game onto Sony’s PSVR mean laboring through a lengthy certification and approvals process, SteamVR has never mattered more.
That’s what makes Steam Next Fest so vital and so frustrating at the same time.
The idea behind Valve’s week-long event, in which selected developers release demos of their games, is sound. It aims to fight back against the criticisms levelled at the platform in recent years as more and more shovelware further saturates the struggle for visibility. VR’s arrival on Steam over the past five years isn’t immune to this problem; a short scroll through either the recently released or upcoming lists of VR games reveals a concerning and unbalanced amount of low-quality trailers and vaporware.
Peppered among them is the good stuff; earnest indies, fascinating obscurities and the occasional big budget hopeful. That’s the stuff Next Fest wants to highlight.
And, at a glance, it does. There are great VR demos in this iteration, from the physics-driven action of Into The Darkness to the deliciously brutal Against. A quick look at I Expect You To Die 2 or Sweet Surrender proves there’s big things to come for the platform before the end of the year.
But Next Fest is also polluted with the same problems that plague Steam at large – products that don’t feel worthy of inclusion, mislabelled games sitting in the wrong categories, and even no show demos that were featured in a video highlights reel in the weeks leading up to the event.
I was personally very excited, for example, to see real-time strategy sequel, Carrier Command 2 sitting at the top of the VR page for this event’s demos. The first is a warmly nostalgic game for me and I had no idea that a sequel was happening, let alone getting VR support.
Except that it isn’t, as far as I can tell. The Steam page doesn’t list or even mention any VR support, I couldn’t get the demo to start in my headset and any mention of the game I’ve found across the internet has no acknowledgement of headset support whatsoever. So why is it listed in the VR section? The same’s true for this terrible-looking driving lesson simulator; there’s no mention of VR to be found. If they do support VR, why aren’t compatible headsets listed on their store pages?
Last week, we ran a story on what would be available during the festival based on a video Valve supplied to us. Other sites used this montage too. The video highlighted some of the best demos available this week but, weirdly, also makes mention of demos for zombie slasher, Undead Citadel and Joy Way’s latest VR prototype, Outlier. Again, neither page actually has the demo listed or mentioned on their pages at the time of writing (Monday, the penultimate day of the festival), and no one’s said anything as to why they aren’t here.
Fixing these issues wouldn’t take long. Non-VR games needs to either be removed to the category or Valve could kindly ask developers to at least clarify if there is any headset support planned. The above montage video could have been removed and replaced with more games that are actually now live in the selection. But instead it’s all just left the muddy the waters.
And so what we have is a microcosm for SteamVR itself; a handful of genuinely promising VR games fighting back against a storefront that pits them against inaccurate and low-quality listings that expects users themselves to do the research on what is and isn’t misleading them.
Next Fest was meant to feel like a bit of the revamp of this idea and hopefully clean up these past mistakes (every issue I’ve listed here I’ve also encountered in past Steam festivals). It’s also meant to highlight the best of SteamVR and, to some extent, it does, but it also brings the worst of the platform along with it. Steam Next Fest is another messy and confused effort that doesn’t instil confidence in a cleaner, sharper future for the platform anytime soon.