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VR: A Means or an End?

I’m currently making a launch title for the Oculus Rift, which means that I’ve been hanging out a lot with the VR enthusiast community. I’ve also always tried to keep myself well-connected to the game dev community. They’re similar groups, and they often overlap, but recently I’ve started to notice a subtle culture clash.

It seems to me that, for hardcore VR enthusiasts, VR is a longstanding dream that they want to see fulfilled. They’re certain that VR will revolutionize everything, and they’ve been waiting for the revolution for so long that every new experience is something to be celebrated. It’s just so cool! Even if your average VR demo is a little shallow in these early days, it represents one more step toward the fulfillment of the dream. It’s finally happening!

Game devs, on the other hand, often feel burned by motion controls and other potential revolutions, and they’re wary of the viability of expensive and unproven hardware. They’re impressed by the technology, but wonder what they could actually do with it. They’re concerned about cost, about nausea, about the perception of isolation or discomfort. They aren’t quite willing to give VR the benefit of the doubt. Not yet.

This, obviously, is painting with a broad brush. Both groups are diverse, and lots of people are a part of both communities. But it’s striking how differently my conversations go at a VR meetup as opposed to, say, the Game Developers Conference. Among the game devs, I’m a wide-eyed idealist. Among the VR enthusiasts, I’m an overskeptical buzzkill. I’m happy to play both parts, but it’s weird.

I think the fundamental difference is whether you see VR as a means or an end. If you see VR as an end in itself, then you’re not going to focus as much on the content. You just need stuff to fill your time in virtual reality. If you see VR as a means toward another end (like good games), you’re not going to focus as much on the medium. It’s just one more tool in your toolbox, with unique challenges and obstacles, with no existing market and little proven potential.

As you’d expect of someone who’s making a VR-exclusive game, I think that most game devs are being a little shortsighted. Yes, VR is a young, unproven market. Yes, most VR games are underwhelming so far. But that represents an opportunity, not just a risk. VR may not be the future, but it’s almost certainly a future. The technology is undeniably promising, and there’s a lot of hunger right now for great VR experiences. Indies especially should see promise here.

Yet, having said that, I’m ultimately more on the “VR as a means” side of things. I’m a game designer first and foremost, and I only want to use VR if it can help me make a better game. I don’t harbor that dream of a VR revolution, and before the Oculus Rift made it a viable target for development, my interest in VR never went much beyond curiosity. I worry that many VR enthusiasts blind themselves with their optimism; they want VR to work so much that they’re willing to look beyond flaws that the rest of the world would never accept. That's a danger of wanting something too hard.

I’m hoping that my position in between these two communities will give me a better perspective, but it could just be that I’m wrong and one of these groups is more right. Still, one thing that gives me comfort is that Oculus, like me, shows skepticism as well as confidence. They’re not afraid to say that some cool technology or software is not up to par, and they exhibit a healthy balance between enthusiasm and realism. For now, I’m happy to follow their lead. Whether or not the VR revolution is coming, I’ll just keep making the best game I can, and I can’t imagine that I’ll end up disappointed.

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