Immersion isn’t a headset
What a time it was to be alive in 1995! The Cold War was over, the dot com cycle was not too far away but far enough that we didn’t need to think about it yet, and we were all still pretending that strapping a monitor to your face was the future of gaming. It’s been nearly two decades, and now people are once again holding up the notion of VR headsets as a game changer that will totally alter the way we play games because it’s like you’re actually in the game now, guys!
These people are also baffled as to why everyone else doesn’t recognize the brilliance of these devices, which kind of seems like a self-defeating cycle.
I’m not saying that the Oculus Rift is going to fail; I don’t have a crystal ball, I can’t predict that. I don’t imagine it’s going to make the impression on release that everyone backing it seems to assume it will, however, and I think the reasons are pretty obvious. Yes, it’s very interesting to sit down and play a game with it, but there’s a lot more going on than just “is it pretty and 3D.”
Immersion is not hardware driven
The VR advocate crowd uses this exact argument over and over. I mean literally over and over, like it’s the only thing they can think of to say about the technology. “It’s so immersive, it’s going to change the way you get lost in games!” For bonus points, you might get that rant followed by a diatribe about how games used to be more engaging and this is going to bring it back!
Of course, if you’ve ever been deeply engrossed by a game and lost yourself in that world before this hypothetical VR revolution, obviously you didn’t need the headset then. But let’s avoid low-hanging fruit for a moment and simply note that hardware has never been what drives your ability to get lost in a game or anything else. For that to work, you’d need to also have some new and more engaging ways to experience books for them to truly transport you away, something that books have been doing quite consistently with nothing but markings on paper for a long while now.
Immersion isn’t about hardware, it’s about personal investment and shutting down outside influences. You can easily find yourself lost in a game played on a tiny screen without so much as a pair of headphones when the environment is right. Meanwhile, I remember the first time I saw a game in full 3D on the floor of PAX East. It was pretty as hell, sure, but I couldn’t lose myself in a game when I got thrown in partway along and was surrounded by screaming people, not to mention having a PR rep talking up the tech to me.
This shit is inconvenient
I got a new headset not too long ago, and I like it. The sound quality is good, the microphone is solid, and it’s an improvement all around – except for one nagging problem. Because of the way it’s set up, the main control element is a little box that’s meant to clip to my shirt so I can adjust volume and mute my mic or whatever. This is kind of necessary, since it’s got five different volume controls on it with five different functions, but damn if it’s not annoying. Sometimes I don’t even bother if I’m not going to be playing for all that long, or if I think I might need to get up.
This is a thing that clips to my shirt.
When you have to strap on more crap to get something done, you get disinclined to bother. If every single session of gaming involved me strapping on a headset, adjusting it to a snug fit, putting on headphones, and so forth, I’m never going to do it unless I know I’ve got a good long play session ahead of me. God help me if I’m in the middle of that play session and something happens requiring me to get up from my seat, since I’ll have to take half an hour just to disconnect myself.
By all rights, I’m in the ideal market for this sort of thing. I don’t have kids or elderly family members in my household that require me to get up suddenly and unexpectedly. You can forget about ever selling it to a new mother. If you somehow manage to, she’s not going to use it much, simply because every use is such a habit that it becomes more irregular until it’s not worth fucking bothering with. She can just play Skyrim on a screen, she doesn’t need to strap hardware to her face.
This is also assuming that you’re just using a headset. More elaborate version of this technology involve taking up more space in your house, draining more energy, and make getting ready to play a game even more of a goddamn chore. If I have to suit up to play a game, that game better allow me to march around the entire world to destroy stuff in a Jaeger in real-time, because anything less than that makes this a waste of energy. I can play a browser game in two seconds.
Viewports don’t change anything
Let’s just pretend that none of the above matters. Let’s pretend that everyone in the world is perfectly fine with the inconvenience of having a headset on their face all the time and that you can’t get engaged in a game without having this contraption blocking your view of everything but the game. While we’re at it, we might as well pretend that all human beings have wings, but whatever. The headsets still don’t change much.
Why? For the same reason that the Kinect didn’t usher in a new era of gaming and the Wii basically forgot its motion controls existed toward the end of its lifespan. Hardware is only as good as the software running on it.
It’s not enough for the technology to exist. For it to be worthwhile, it has to do two things, both of which are actually kind of difficult. It has to have games that work with it that people actually want to play, and it has to provide a function in those games. I don’t just mean “you turn your head left and your viewport moves left” in terms of functionality, that’s sort of bargain-basement crap. If you’re selling me a fucking headset that I have to wear on my face just to see your game, it had damn well better track my head motions. No, I mean you have to provide enough functionality in your game that I go out and tell my friends that you just couldn’t play this game with any other hardware.
This is, really, what VR gaming has always failed on. We already have tools and interfaces that allow you to navigate strange, surreal dreamscapes; we call them controllers and keyboards and mice. They work really well. They’re efficient. Trying to convince people to spend more money on new tools to do the same things with less convenience is a really silly idea. It’s why Microsoft not-so-quietly removed the Kinect from the Xbox One when it turned out that rather than shouting at their screen and punching at the air to get something to work, people would rather just use a controller, the same way that they’d been doing for years. Developers would rather program for a controller. The big thing standing between us and our swooshy Minority Report interface controlled entirely via gestures is the fact that waving at a screen all day is a lot more exhausting than just clicking a damn mouse.
Maybe the Oculus Rift will finally change the fortunes of this technology, but it doesn’t seem likely. It’s an avenue that we as a species have been collectively exploring for a long time now, and while VR does have some great practical applications, playing games just doesn’t seem to be one of them. And for good reason.