For early adopters of VR, watching E3 2017 must have been a conflicting experience. On the one hand, some great new titles were showcased – as well as a focus on the future of the platform. On the other hand, nothing truly groundbreaking was shown. virtual reality it seems is still seeking that breakout hit, the kind of game that must be experienced in virtual reality – and that’s a growing problem for the medium.
It’s not like VR didn’t get airtime during E3. There were a number of titles shown off during Sony’s PlayStation E3 Showcase, but I’d be hard pressed to remember any of them. Not to put the efforts of the developers involved down; none of the games shown particularly stood out. Ubisoft showcased Transference an interesting idea, and utilizes notable talent, but it was arguably overshadowed by the bigger experiences around it – and that’s part of VR’s problem
With so much focus on 4K and the future of gaming, virtual reality felt awkwardly like a side note to the main attractions. Where once VR dominated the center stage, it now feels like a side attraction; developers focus falling elsewhere. Perhaps Phil Spencer of Microsoft summed up this sentiment when he told the BBC;
“We are believers in mixed reality, and mixed reality on the PC is something we’re focused on.”
Microsoft’s lack of commitment to VR was evident throughout. Their Xbox Conference overlooked the platform entirely – the Xbox One X not even hinting at the potential for gamers to enter the virtual space anytime soon. Given that this console will likely form the backbone for the company’s console efforts over the next 3-4 years, it’s a sign that the Redmond giant just doesn’t see the future in the VR space.
Not that VR was overlooked by all the major developers. Bethesda squeezed Fallout 4 and DOOM into VR experiences, effectively handicapping the core experience to try and sell the VR dream. While I applaud the AAA developers ambitions, the reality is that neither experience will be optimal for the platform they’ve chosen. This was the big fear gamers had when VR began to take off a few years back – that AAA-developers would flood the market with awkward ports of their already existing work to try and cash-in.
This mentality ultimately means that when these experiences fail to engage users, Bethesda can walk away saying “we tried” – even though their efforts only served to harm the platform more than help. Yes Fallout 4 is a huge coup for VR – but if the experience is handicapped or inferior, gamers won’t bother.
The problem throughout E3 seemed to be that no one wanted to address the elephant in the room – virtual reality just isn’t where it needs to be yet. Watching Doom Guy warp around a room to fight monsters is awkward at best – nerfing the fast and furious game play that made DOOM 2016 so memorable. Transference seems nice, but where was the gameplay? It felt more like a movie experience than outright playable venture – and that’s not what people want.
The most exciting thing about virtual reality from the whole conference seemed to be the draw of esports. Intel’s bet big with its esports platform, with a few games seemingly positioning themselves as potential VR esports heavyweights. I worry though that the rush to try and commercialize the space will only serve to deliver a focus on multiplayer experiences; something 99% of gamers probably won’t experience in person. One of the big draws of VR as a platform is the ability to sell the single player experience; mudding the water with esports candidates seems like a dangerous trick.
VR I feel is at an awkward junction in its history. It’s not mainstream enough for major developers to commit huge amounts of floor time too, but many don’t want to bolt from the platform just incase it does eventually break out. But sooner or later – VR needs to find its focus. It needs something big to happen to get gamers back on board and bring positive press. Bethesda’s attempts to throw AAA games at the platform only serve to underline just how awkward the current situation is.
E3 2017 was a sobering reminder that just because something seems cool on paper, doesn’t translate to the big stage quite as well. There’s still a long road ahead for the platforms involved; and I worry that developers may not hang around forever if the interest drops off completely.