As I promised you in my latest Week Peek, I’m writing an editorial to share with you my thoughts about what has just happened with Onward, and why this may be a negative turning point for PC VR, that in the end may even disappear from the consumer market.
Let’s start from Onward…
Onward on Quest
Onward has been one of the first successful VR games, and one of the few ones that have succeeded notwithstanding their multiplayer nature. The game has always been in Early Access and a passionate community has kept it alive since 2016. All of this is impressive if we consider that it has been the work of mostly one single developer, Dante Buckley.
Dante has been willing to port the game to Quest, like all developers lately, and with the help of the publisher Coatsink has released the game on the platform some days ago. The launch on Quest has gone pretty well, and the game has had good feedback from the press (apart from some graphical glitches that can be solved in future updates) and very positive reviews on the Oculus Store. More than 1830 reviews have already been written by the users and this means that also the sales are being pretty solid.
Everything seems fine, if not for a little huge detail: the PC VR community is angry as hell. After having sustained the game all this time, PC VR users have seen their game have a huge graphical downgrade in the most recent version v1.8, the one that is cross-compatible with Quest. To ensure compatibility during cross-play of multiplayer matches, the developer has basically ported the graphics and everything else of the Quest on the PC version. So PC users have gone from a cool game to one that has the graphics of a Nintendo 64. Of course, they got angry. And since the game has trained them for a war scenario, they are also very dangerous.
Dante has of course apologized for what has happened, explaining that basically there has been no time to fix the graphics on PC before the launch date. He has published soon after a workaround to let PC users revert to version 1.7, and then it has started working on improving again the graphics on PC. I’m sure that the situation for Onward PC users will improve with time, and more or less the developer will manage to make everyone happy.
Yes, but… why should we care?
If you have arrived at this point in the article, you may ask what is the correlation of this story of a single game and its potato graphics with the Quest potentially destroying PC VR with time.
Nice question… and I think that the point is looking at what has happened: a developer of a popular PC VR game has preferred launching in time the version for Quest at the cost of making all its PC community angry instead of delaying the launch and make everything run flawlessly. I bet that Downpour Interactive knew that the new graphics would have made its userbase angry, but it decided to launch it anyway because launching the Quest version in time was too important.
And what is interesting is that it is not the only case. While reading an article talking about the great sales of Phantom: Covert Ops on Road To VR, these lines caught my attention:
While the Quest version may be impressive compared to other games on the headset, some Rift users assert that it came at the cost of underwhelming graphics on the Rift version of the game, highlighting the challenge of maximizing the potential of two headsets with vastly different levels of computing horsepower.
Basically, another game studio, nDreams, has preferred disappointing a bit its PC VR users to have a very beautiful game on Quest. And considering that they have grossed $1M pretty fast, they have probably taken the right decision.
The Quest and the elephant in the room
We are at probably at a defining moment in the VR market. PC VR users have just been delighted by an impressive game like Half-Life: Alyx; Oculus Quest is selling better than ever, and a new version is coming in the upcoming months; PSVR, the most successful headset, is at the end of its life, and a new version is probably coming next year, together with a powerful new PlayStation 5.
In the beginning, there were only PC VR headsets and PSVR, and PSVR was the most interesting market: we don’t have clear headsets number, but we can estimate that the PSVR market is at least 3x the market of PC VR headsets. PSVR is less powerful than PCVR, and making a porting from PC to PS has always given some headaches to the developers.
Now there is the Oculus Quest. The Quest is disrupting all the rules because it is incredibly less powerful than PC VR, but it is selling incredibly better. And even more important than the plain sales, it is the engagement of the users that is pretty high: people like playing with the Quest and they are willing to pay to play great titles on that. In these months we have read many successful stories of developers grossing millions of dollars on Quest alone, and some of them, like the ones of SculptVR, have claimed that they have earned more on Quest than on all the other platforms combined.
Long story short: Quest is a profitable market. And since as an entrepreneur you have to care about the survival of your company, if your game studio wants to survive, it must aim at making the most money possible. This means that at the present time, if you are a VR developer, your main target market should be the Quest, because it is the one that can give you more chances of sustaining your business. PlayStation comes second. Then, in the end, PC VR.
But the problem is that the Quest is just a very well-conceived GearVR, and it has the power of a phone (an S8 if I remember well), inside. And it can’t compete at all with the processing power of a PC, that maybe mounts and RTX20 graphics card that heats like a barbecue. So, if for a developer the Quest is the primary target, the graphics with which the game will be conceived will be the mediocre ones that are suitable for the Quest. If the developer wants, the game can be ported also to PC VR, but it will most probably keep graphics that have been designed for a mobile headset. And this is the root of all evil.
The obvious conclusion is that if the Quest becomes the primary platform for all developers, we must get ready for a new VR market where all titles have degraded graphics.
I know it well…
I’m not only writing this post based on the experience of other developers, but also because of situations I have experienced myself.
You probably know that my main job is being a VR developer (and consultant), and I have found myself in similar situations in the last year. When we developed our game HitMotion: Reloaded on the Vive Focus Plus, we have designed it to run in augmented reality on the Focus, that is more or less identical to the Quest. When we started doing a porting to VR for internal testing, we more or less kept the same game, and just added some graphical improvements. Of course, on a PC VR setup, the game looked overly simple.
When we create a world on VRChat for a virtual festival to be held inside the VRrOOm platform, if the customer asks for a virtual world that is compatible with Quest, we design all the graphics and the interactions to be at first compatible with the Oculus Quest, and then the PC world has just some improvements on the textures, object sync, etc…
You may ask me why don’t we make two separate versions with two different designs and performances, and the answer is not very original: time and money. Usually, there is not enough time and money to do two separate experiences for PC and Quest that are very different, and even if there was the time to make both, you should also consider the big hassle of managing two different projects, where every update/modification/improvement must be replicated twice. It is worth it only if there is big money awaiting you, but as an indie dev, I can say that this is rarely the case.
Since the Quest is the device with less computational power, you develop for it because you know that this way your application also surely works on PC, and so you can have a single version that works for both platform. If you have a bigger studio than mine, you can design a game that has some visible differences between the two, but usually to keep the budget low, at least the core things will be in common between the two versions. And this causes the effect that you have seen in Phantom: Covert Ops, where the game is good on Rift, but it could have been better without the Quest.
Half-Life: Alyx is so gorgeous because it has been designed with no compromises in mind. It has been made to showcase the full capabilities of PC VR. Talking about examples from my life, the concert that we did in VRChat for Jean-Michel Jarre had stunning visuals because it was not Quest-compatible.
If you want to work with Quest, most of the time you have to sacrifice the graphical outcome of your application even on PC. The only way to make PC express your full potential is to ditch away Quest compatibility. But since the Quest is the most profitable market out there, who is so crazy to do that?
What is the future for PC VR content?
After all this reasonings, it is clear that the most probable scenario is that the most VR content from now on will be designed for Quest, and most PC VR content risk not reaching its own full potential because of that.
You may say that I am not correct because games like Boneworks, Alyx, Asgard’s Wrath have proven that the PC VR market can be profitable. Yes… but remember that Boneworks and Asgard’s Wrath had been designed before the Quest proved to be so successful, and Alyx was made by a big coroporation like Valve explicitly to give weight to PC VR… and given today’s data of VR on Steam, it has been a successful approach.
PC VR to survive needs this kind of spectacular titles. As my friend (and pro VR user) Rob Cole says, these are the ones that give true value to a great headset like the Valve Index and a powerful PC with an RTX graphics card. When you are on a premium setup and you admire the landscape in Aircar, or in Alyx, you are even happy of having spent $4000 for your full VR setup, he says.
But if the titles that you buy are just an upgrade of a game for mobile, what is the point of spending so much money? What is the need of a RTX graphics card and a high-res headset just to enjoy “good” graphics? I guess there is not much. At this point, better saving money and buying a Quest and enjoy the game directly there.
The savior for PC VR could be an upcoming catalog of great games, but the greatest investor in VR games is Oculus, and we all know that Oculus is now all-in with the Quest and doesn’t care much of the Lil’ Lenovo headset. I think it won’t support future expensive PC VR projects. And talking about the games already announced for PC, Lone Echo II has been delayed to give precedence to Echo VR on Quest; Medal Of Honor is in an unknown state; the new Star Wars game has been announced for Quest, and its compatibility for Rift is still uncertain. It is not a reassuring picture.
A company like Valve has all the interest in keeping a healthy PC VR ecosystem because of Steam, but after the great effort with Alyx, it would need years for another great VR game. And it could be too late.
I‘m not saying that the transition will be immediate, it will take some time. But as soon as all the projects thought with PC VR in mind as the primary platform will be shipped, I think we’ll reach a state where all VR games will be designed for Quest, and will have the graphics that will be far inferior to the ones that we saw in Alyx.
“Content is the King” and the risk is that fewer developers will make games directed to PC VR users, and this will make fewer people buy PC VR headsets, and since the market will shrink, even fewer developers will develop for it, starting a death spiral.
And if the new Quest will really sell as well as 3-5 million units as someone says, will it still be worth for developers to care developing at all for the PC VR market that at that point could just represent a potential +10-20% of revenues?
What’s the future of PC VR?
So what’s the destiny of PC VR? If things follow the sad scenario that I have depicted above, PC VR headsets will slowly become a little niche, mostly dedicated to prosumers and business owners. People that wants the best quality possible, or the best comfort possible. And then of course companies that will run dedicated apps for training, military, psychology, healthcare, etc…
When I spoke with Robert Scoble, he told me that he thinks that in 2022 we could reach 10 million sold headsets, and I believe that most of them will be standalone ones. 10 million is the number that will finally trigger AAA studios to enter VR, and since AAA studios mostly care about money, they will target the most profitable platform, that is standalone. I think that 2-3 years is the timeframe in which PC VR headsets will become a niche product.
Standalone headsets will become hybrid: already now all the most famous standalone devices, Quest, Focus Plus, and Pico Neo 2 can connect to the PC to play PC games. This connection is still buggy, but in the next months it will improve and in the end, it will make even more useless to buy a premium PC VR device… because even if some studio would release an amazing PC VR title, it could anyway be played with the standalone headset. Remember that instead, the contrary is not possible: you can’t play a standalone game with your PC headset.
What can prevent that?
Will all of this happen for sure? Well, no. Nothing is certain in business and regarding VR, all the previous predictions about the XR space have always been wrong (2016 is the year of VR! No wait, is 2017… or maybe 2018, ah no, VR is dead… in 2019 there is the Quest, so VR will be mainstream! Ouch, what about 2020?).
I’m not saying that this is going to happen, I’m just saying that it is what I think is the most probable scenario. Honestly, I hope it won’t happen, because having seen how VR is beautiful on my PC, I would feel sad to downgrade to mobile again. But business is harsh.
IMHO, the only things that can prevent this from happening are:
- The upcoming PC VR titles will draw enough premium users to PC VR for this market to be valuable for the upcoming years;
- Many upcoming titles for desktop PC will have a VR mode and these will have the high-quality to please PC VR users (I’m thinking about Flight Simulator and Star Wars: Squadron, for instance)
- The PC VR users will prove to be willing to pay much more (even $60-100) for a single VR game if it guarantees to have the stunning quality that can be appreciated inside an expensive VR rig. My friend Rob Cole says that he will happily pay for that. If this happens, fewer users can create more profit for VR developers, making the PC market worthwile again;
- New dev tools will make super-easy to make different versions of a game with different qualities. OpenXR can enable developers to develop only once and deploy everywhere. The new Unreal Engine 5 lets you import graphical assets of whatever quality and they get downgraded on the fly on the target platform, depending on its horsepower. The two things combined could help a lot developers in making a single version of a game and then ship it on both Quest and Rift;
- PlayStation 5 + PSVR 2 will gain a very big user base. The new PS5 has the computational power of an RTX2070 Super or something like that, and we all think that the PSVR 2 headset will be incredibly crisp. If this happens, and PS5 sells very well, console users will want games that appear incredible in their headset and will want to pay for that. Sony for sure with Resident Evil 8 is going to blow their minds, and a new market for premium content can appear. If the market of PS5 will be more profitable than the one for Quest, developers will find more profitable to develop high-end content for PlayStation, and the situation can favor PC VR (and its high-quality) as well.
The last point is the most important one, IMHO. PS5 can scramble again all the situation, and make VR great again. I guess that next year will be determinant for the future of PC VR headsets. Let’s see what will happen.
After this long editorial, I am of course very curious to hear your opinion. Do you think that there is still market for PC VR headsets? Or do you think that standalone headsets will dictate a new generation of degraded content?