For the past year the game-o-internet has been running wild with rumors of a Sony VR system. So far no conclusive proof has been forthcoming. We'll just have to wait and see about the latest whispers of a GDC unveil.
But one thing is certain: Sony will have to make a VR system no matter what.
Their only options are whether to make a good VR system or a bad one, and whether to release it in time or too late.
You may think of console VR as a neat side project or even a distraction from the 'real' console business. But it's a much bigger deal than that.
In fact, I would go so far as to say that the question of the Sony VR system is currently the most vital question facing not just Sony, but the nascent VR industry, the whole console game industry, and gaming as a whole.
Let me explain.
It's clear by now that PlayStation will be the main leg of 'core' console gaming in this generation. PS4 is beating Xbox One hands down in practically every measure and it's hard to see how Microsoft can ever come back - it's fundamentally a lot worse than the PS3 situation. It's quite possible that the Xbox will simply stall out and the whole division will be ingloriously canned. In any case they will lose to PS4 by at least 2:1 or 3:1. In other words, the console game industry depends on Sony.
But Sony's not doing that great either. Just look at their finances. They're on the verge of collapse if they don't get a killer product soon.
PS4 itself is decent but not good enough to save the company. It's the only competent 8th gen console, but that doesn't count for much with the terrible pressures on the traditional console market. PS4-
-has the least added value beyond games of any PS so far - no new "CD", "DVD" or even "Blu-Ray", and you can get Netflix anywhere.
-has the least obvious graphical improvement of any new generation.
-is launching into a market disrupted by mobile and PC, both of which are poised for a direct attack on the TV space...
-...in a global recession.
In short, PS4, like every other high end console, is facing the disruption of the long tail. It will hit 10 million easily, and even 20 million, but the 50-60 million after that will be much, much harder than before. What we've seen with traditional consoles this generation is that sales are good at first, but fall off a cliff as soon as the hardcore fans are satisfied. Since PS4 is actually a well made console, this will happen slower than with the others, but I'm willing to bet that it will happen. Anyone who claims otherwise is welcome to explain why the points I listed above will not slash tens of millions from the PlayStation market.
No, under these conditions, people talking about the return of PS2 or whatever are kidding themselves. Even with re-cannibalization of the Xbox userbase, the thing will be lucky to ever hit PS3 numbers... unless it expands the market like Wii did. Unless it gets a new killer USP to offset the dramatic losses in USP from disruption.
And VR is such an unbelievably perfect fit for that.
The killer innovation that PlayStation needs, that Sony needs, is VR. There's nothing else in sight.
And consoles are now the optimal VR platform. Mobile VR is still too weak and PC VR is, in my opinion, too janky to ever be mainstream. If Sony plays their cards right they can become the go-to VR device and PS4 could actually approach PS2 numbers.
Sony has the graphical power, the developer support (AKA indie support) and the dynamic leadership to make console VR a mass market reality and get Wii-level profits, innovator's glory and stabilize their company. They have an open goal.
But they still need to hit that goal.
Frankly, what I'm most afraid of is that Sony will miss the open goal from not paying attention, and then they'll half-ass some me-too piece of crap that will only poison the well for everyone else. And then they'll go bankrupt.
So here's what I think Sony needs to get VR right.
1. The optimal headset
A 1080p OLED headset priced around $300, that works with PS4, PC, and eventually mobile. Yes, mobile: People will probably want to plug headsets into their phones on planes, the Tokyo train and so on. Yes, PC: This gives Sony a competitive advantage over Oculus. Rift works with PC and mobile, SonyVR works with PC, PS4 and mobile. In other words it's not just a PS4 peripheral but a separate yet highly synergistic product.
2. The optimal interface
When you put someone inside a Rift they typically say three things.
1. «Holy shit!»
3. «So where are my arms?»
For VR, you don't need control over your legs, but you definitely want control of your arms. Arm control offers such tremendous added value that not embracing it as the platform holder is a really bad creative and business idea.
However, up to now motion controllers have had a big problem: They reduce input bandwidth compared to gamepads and thereby make it hard or impossible to freely navigate a 3d environment. This is also the main reason why so many core gamers dislike them - they don't add to the mother platform but build a new, less immersive motion platform separate from it.
The optimal VR controller is a motion controller that gives you control of your arms, but also gives you all the inputs of a gamepad - two joysticks and a bunch of buttons.
A motion controller that does not segregate the mother platform like Move or Kinect do. And therefore does not alienate hardcore gamers.
Fortunately, this is quite easy to pull off. Sony even has a patent for it. All you need to do is:
Split the DualShock down the middle and give each half Razer Hydra style motion controls.
I believe this could not just set the bar for new interactivities to put the Wii to shame, but actually obsolete the DualShock. For a VR game you can move your hands freely, enabling a revolution in immersion. For a non-VR game, you still have all the inputs, but now you can keep your hands anywhere, not just hold them up like a chipmunk. As a bonus you also get two high tech Moves for basic motion games.
Call it the MotionShock.
3. Unified, utility-focused customer experience
This is currently the consoles' only significant USP over PC gaming. And the hamfisted PC-ification of consoles has even diminished that. Nonetheless, here's the main things you need to make console VR a pleasant ride.
-Integrate VR Cinema in the firmware. This is how you enhance a modern console with non-videogame media - make it a super-advanced Blu-Ray and streaming media player. Not this nonsense with a Halo TV show.
-Carefully think through the logistics of the thing. Don't let it become a mess of cables. Might people start to use their consoles without the TV? Plan for that if you can.
-Strongly encourage developers to add a VR mode with significantly less world detail if necessary to render stereoscopic 1080p 60fps. VR is a 100 times bigger selling point than a few extra polygons. Only the ultra-core really cares about that.
As the last generation was won by PS2 graphics with motion controls, so this generation could be won by PS3 graphics with VR.
-Try to somehow get local multiplayer through an HDMI splitter. If single-box multiplayer is technically impossible, at least make it easy to LAN with a friend's console.
-VR Minecraft. Nuff said.
4. Mass market software
Hardcore games are not enough to make VR take off. In fact, it's doubtful whether Battlefield and Call of Duty will be significantly improved by it - Rifters tend to get sick when playing such fast paced games.
Furthermore, the hardcore gamers are likely to buy a PS4 anyway, so for Sony the main business purpose of VR would be to re-expand the market to those casual and semi-casual console gamers lost to mobile. In other words:
The killer app is casual simulations.
Tourism sims, safari sims, sports, diving, climbing, driving, caving, flying, rollercoasters, haunted houses.
And let's not forget narrative sims like Proteus and Gone Home either. (Although they could use more mainstream content - read the link for an in depth discussion.)
Console VR is the new Wii and it needs its Wii Sports. That means a pack-in Blu-Ray with dozens of quality casual sims.
Launching PSVR without such a title would be like launching the Wii with only Zelda and Mario Galaxy. A suite of casual sims has a higher potential ROI than any other first party software. It's a no brainer. Sony should put their best people on it ASAP.
5. Mass market branding
This is what the ads need to look like.
Except with mass market VR scenarios instead of mass market motion control scenarios. Two lovers holding hands on a virtual beach, an old woman looking down from a virtual Eiffel Tower, a guy in his thirties driving a racecar and looking around, kids building stuff in Minecraft, some young guys piloting a virtual attack helicopter/being a soldier on the ground, and then a hardcore gamer getting mesmerized by a fantasy/sci-fi world. Not just hardcore hardcore hardcore, but hardcore together with every other kind of game and gamer. Because VR is neither hardcore nor casual, it's for everyone.
If Sony can pull this off, they will get the gold and the glory. They will stabilize their company, and everyone will know that Sony's back at the forefront of consumer electronics.
But if they screw it up, they will have screwed up their best chance at a killer product. Their future as a company will be seriously in question.
Let's hope the good folks at Sony can pull it off.