You may remember the Stereoscopic 3D boom that we had around 15 years ago, how it got stronger thanks to films like Avatar and Tron: Legacy, to the point we had 3D TVs, 3D gaming monitors and all that, just to go away some time after. While we still have 3D films, we rarely hear about how X or Y movie should we watched in 3D, and pretty much nobody is talking about 3D TVs or 3D gaming anymore.
Why am I talking about this? Because VR launched around 10 years ago, and I have been wondering if VR gaming is now a viable alternative, or still a niche market. I can somewhat-accurately answer that question if I go to the Steam stats website. The Steam stats website is where you can see all sorts of information from the platform, including the top games, hardware configurations and information about VR headsets. If you check the website you’ll see the headset that has the biggest chunk of the market is the Oculus Quest 2, with 48% by April 2022, followed by the Valve Index and Oculus Rift S. However, another important number to look at is the total number of Steam users with VR headsets, and that’s barely 1.9%
For those who don’t know, the Oculus Quest 2 (now called Meta Quest 2) is an all-in-one VR headset that can stream games from the PC to the VR headset. The other two are PC-powered VR headsets, meaning you need a computer powerful enough to run the game, and render it twice so every image stream is sent to every eye. While the Oculus Quest 2 is fairly inexpensive ($300) the Valve Index is a very expensive high-end VR headset, and the other one is not even available anymore.
Judging from the numbers, when only 2% of users on Steam have a VR headset, you could easily say “well, VR is too expensive” but I don’t think that’s the only answer. For example, while the stats site also show there’s around 25M concurrent users every day, they don’t show info about players by genre, gamer types, etc. Maybe there’s a lot of Steam users that play smaller, casual games (including 2D games) that don’t really benefit from VR, or maybe the majority of gamers in general don’t care about VR.
If you ask me, I fall into the second category. I play a wide variety of games, but I never think about how cool it would be to have that game in VR. On one side, because I think VR is too expensive to play and produce (more about this in a bit); on the other side, because I personally can’t play VR without getting sick.
When I attended GDC, I tried almost every VR demo I could find, because I wanted to check out the technology and how it could be used. In many demos, VR worked pretty well, but in other demos I felt sick after playing. Specially those games that tried to do “two in one” experiences (meaning you can play either on your monitor or in your VR set. On top of that, most VR demos were more like tech demos, not mini-games. To give you example, if you see Unity’s X or Y demo, they focus on graphic fidelity and VFX features (Adam, The Heretic, Enemies). Likewise, a lot of VR demos I saw back then focused more on the technology and less on how it could actually be used in games. The lack of experience or practical examples make it difficult to get into VR.
Back then, VR headsets were expensive, but now there are more affordable sets. Also, the Oculus Quest 2 shows it is also possible to just stream the game to the headset, which is a lot more financially accessible than buying an expensive headset that needs to be connected to an expensive PC. I think more options like this are needed.
However, as I said before, producing VR games can be expensive. Making VR games is not just about adding a VR camera and calling it a day. You need to think about how the VR is going to affect the entire game, including menus. You could say VR has its own design philosophy, so you can’t just add a “VR mode” to your existing game. I have seen different discussions in game development groups where they talk about how they don’t get into VR because the audience is small, and I have to agree. Getting people to play your game is already difficult, and limiting yourself to the subset that has a VR set is going to make things even more difficult.
I don’t know if those virtual reality worlds (like Omniverse or Metaverse) are going to drive VR adoption. Personally, I am not excited about those, because I don’t see the point on spending a lot of time in a virtual world. Assuming they don’t drive adoption, VR will have to slowly grow, but will remain a niche market for a while. Of course, this is just what I personally think, and if you want to get into VR game development, or content creation for the VR worlds, you should definitely do it.