As popular as it is, there’s no denying that the PlayStation 4 is a safe console. It’s a far cry from its predecessor, PlayStation 3, which utilized proprietary CELL technology and released at the expensive price of $599. In comparison, the PS4’s PC-like components and acceptable starting price of $399 make it seem like a concerted effort. Not that that’s a problem for Sony, with a tidy 50 million units sold in just over three years on the market.
But all the shrewdness Sony has displayed in the past few years makes the risk of PlayStation VR all the more baffling.
People see PS VR as a bright hope for the industry in 2016 and 2017. It’s easy to see why; the headset costs $200 less than an Oculus Rift and the console that runs it is much cheaper than a VR Ready PC, as well as being far more accessible to new users. Could this be the headset that proves VR has mainstream market potential here and now?
The reality is that it’s still a big gamble on Sony’s part: $399 is still a lot of money, especially when it also requires a console, and gamers are worn down from failed promises of motion controls and 3D TVs in previous generations. It’s going to take a lot on Sony’s part to convince the masses to adopt VR; did it do enough in 2016?
The Price Is Right
PS VR’s year didn’t really start until early March, where Sony kept its annual tradition of updating everyone on its headset at the Game Developers Conference (GDC) in San Francisco. We’d previously been told the headset would arrive in the first half of 2016, though by the time GDC rolled around there was a sense of delay in the air and, sure enough, we got an October release window at an intimate press gig with Sony Interactive Entertainment (SIE) President and CEO, Andrew House.
The date wasn’t surprising given the long delay in news, but the $399 price point came as a big relief to many in the industry. Just weeks ago we had learned that the HTC Vive would be an astonishing $799, crushing hopes of mainstream adoption, while the Oculus Rift had come out at $599 a few months before that. These massive price points had many worried that Sony would be asking for something extortionate even if PS VR was a comparatively limited system.
Still, it’s easy to forget that we view these things in a bubble, and $399 was a big ask for a console peripheral, especially considering so many people were still yet to be convinced that VR even worked and that you had to buy a PlayStation Camera separately. Unlike its previous efforts with PlayStation Move and even is EyeToy augmented reality camera for PlayStation 2, this was to be a product that would be aimed squarely at the PlayStation faithful at first. Indeed, with Sony’s track record of peripheral support for Move, you need a lot of faith to pre-order PS VR at this point, let alone buy one now.
Sony had its work cut out if it was going to get the ball rolling, and E3 was only a few months away.
E3 Elations And Concerns
Even based on presentation alone, Sony’s E3 2016 press conference will be fondly remembered as the years go on. Instead of the massive arena it had occupied in years past, it returned to a smaller, more intimate venue, and brought in a live orchestra to perform all the music from the night live. It had major announcements like the reveal of the new God of War and Hideo Kojima’s new project, but we also knew the company had to show a lot on the VR side.
Fortunately, it delivered in spades.
Arguably the biggest reveal of the night was Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, a huge surprise from Capcom made all the more exciting by the promise of being able to play the entire game in PS VR. The reveal gave way to a star-studded unveiling of new games and experiences including Batman, Star Wars, and Final Fantasy. There was also the announcement of one of the system’s most promising upcoming games, Farpoint.
These were the kinds of reveals that VR fans had been dreaming of for the past few years: big developers with beloved IP committing to VR, and it was happening faster than some had anticipated (no doubt spurred on by Sony’s pocket book).
But once the initial excitement had worn off, some concerns set in. Reports from the show floor suggested that Resident Evil 7 was making some players sick. Star Wars‘ X-Wing VR Mission was confirmed to be a short experience and not a full game, as was the (lengthier) Batman: Arkham VR. Final Fantasy XV‘s VR minigame, meanwhile, appeared to be just plain terrible. Those paying close attention began to worry that these games, while exciting to reveal, might end up doing more harm than good.
The jury’s still out on many of these experiences; Resident Evil 7 seems to have improved its comfort options ahead of launch next month and Final Fantasy XV‘s VR piece hasn’t yet been released, but there were still some important lessons to take away from Sony’s E3 showing. While we wanted Batman in VR, maybe we needed to wait until the technology or design rules were there to make it a truly thrilling experience. We’ll see if developers learn those lessons in 2017.
A Solid Start
PS VR’s October 13th date put just a few months between E3 and release, and in that time Sony solidified a promising launch line-up of games that it had announced over the past few years. Hype around the headset began to build as reports started coming in that the last pre-orders were selling out fast, though it seemed you could still find one with a bit of shopping about.
Over 30 games were ready on day one, and apps like Invasion! added to that number. It was a promising list of games including titles already proven on Rift and Vive like EVE: Valkyrie [Review: 9/10], Job Simulator [Review: 8/10] and Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes. Famous franchises like Batman, Rez [Review: 8/10] and Until Dawn [Review: 7/10] were ready and waiting, and a host of indie titles like Thumper [Review: 9/10], Volume: Coda, and Wayward Sky [Review: 6/10] added to the numbers. There were a few first-party titles too, like RIGS: Mechanized Combat League [Review: 8/10].
One thing was for sure: you’d have a lot of play on launch day. Though stiff asking prices for games like Battlezone and RIGS might have been a little much for people that just laid down so much on a headset
In the end, PS VR might have had a little too much in terms of launch content, which is a good problem to have but still a problem. The two and a half months that remained in the year were far from barren, but could have used some of the bigger launches to keep the conversation going. RIGS, for example, could have perhaps surrendered the multiplayer launch crown to EVE: Valkyrie and released earlier this month with its Winter Update content included on disk, making it a more complete package out of the box.
In some ways its eerily reminiscent of Sony’s PlayStation Vita handheld, which had a huge launch before quickly being forgotten about by most of the industry. We’re hoping 2017 games like Resident Evil and Farpoint keep PS VR in the spotlight long enough for more announcements at next year’s E3 and beyond.
VR isn’t the only big risk Sony is taking in 2016. In fact, it’s made that safe PS4 a whole lot riskier with the introduction of a new, more powerful model, something that had been unprecedented in the modern console landscape until Microsoft announced its VR-ready Project Scorpio earlier in the year. PS4 Pro, as it’s called, is designed to support 4K gaming, but it also offers visual and performance bumps for PS VR titles.
We’ve seen a noticeable difference in games running on Pro over the standard PS4, and those that care about graphics will probably be happy with the upgrade. But Pro’s very existence comes with its own problems, many not specific to VR, like confusing the market. When it does come to PS VR, we’ve seen many asking if they need to Pro to run PS VR (they don’t), and if some PC VR games that it might not be possible to bring to the less powerful PS4 might come to Pro (they won’t).
This fragmentation won’t be of great concern to Sony I’m sure, though there are other tech issues we do wish it would address. PS VR’s single camera, for example, does a decent job of tracking, but it can be hard to calibrate it accurately enough to avoid drifting, where the camera or your tracked controllers might move, even if you don’t. The existing community has learnt to tackle these issues on their own, but we’d welcome more options to improve the experience, even if it meant paying a bit more.
With the advent of inside-out tracking looming, and even implemented into Microsoft’s Windows 10 headsets that may or may not work with Project Scorpio, Sony will have to think carefully about how it keeps PS VR from looking dated as we move further into the future.
We definitely still have concerns about PS VR heading into 2017, but it’s hard to deny the headset has had a promising start in 2016. For most people, this is the only option to get access high-quality, position-tracked VR right now, and we’re optimistic that Sony is going to keep giving you reasons to get involved in the New Year. Based on marketability alone, PS VR might be the most important headset of 2017, and we’re rooting for it to win people over.