A rumored PS4 virtual reality headset needs to be treated like a console, not a peripheral

Opinion

A PlayStation 4 virtual reality headset, created by Sony, has been rumored to appear at just about every major trade show in the past year.

Vague reports circulate that it will be shown to the public for the first time at [NAME OF NEXT EVENT], but it somehow always fails to materialize. The latest stories claim that we’ll see it during the Game Developers Conference in March.

It’s an exciting idea, made more so in the wake of known virtual reality hardware such as the Oculus Rift and the STEM system. 2014 is going to be filled with headsets, controllers and equipment that is both functional and relatively affordable, at least in comparison to the historical prices of such equipment. The most challenging aspect of this business may not be hardware, however.

It’s games.

If Sony wants to get into the nascent world of retail virtual reality it has to treat any possible product as a console launch, not a peripheral.

Virtual reality for its own sake

"They’re definitely not going to be the kind of experiences that define VR as a platform," Oculus CEO Palmer Luckey said in a speech at Steam Dev Days, an event with a heavy focus on VR. He all but dismissing ports of existing games to virtual reality; the slide on the screen at the begging of his talk stated that most games simply don’t work when ported to virtual reality, with few exceptions.

You have to build with virtual reality in mind, just like mobile games excel when they’re built for mobile devices. No one wants to play a game that was designed for physical controls on a touchscreen. The best games use the strengths of that screen, and sidestep the weaknesses. These issues are multiplied when a bad port is not only unenjoyable, but can quickly make the player sick.

Luckey’s entire speech is available to watch, and it’s worth doing so. He knows this subject much better anyone else. Oculus is also co-publishing EVE Valkyrie, the upcoming space combat title from CCP that fits into the Eve universe and is designed from the ground up for virtual reality. Oculus isn’t just going all in with the hardware, it's working with developers to make sure the platform has diverse and strong launch titles.

The dev kits that were sold via the company’s Kickstarter have allowed a healthy and maturing indie scene for virtual reality experiences; it’s a rare week when there isn’t a new demo or game to try. You don't need to worry about developer support; the number of teams working on virtual reality projects with the Oculus Rift as the target platform are varied, and are already showing promise.

The retail Oculus Rift hardware will likely launch alongside a variety of polished, enjoyable virtual reality experiences, and there are multiple teams working right now on projects that will only exist in virtual reality. The Kickstarter wasn’t about raising money, it was about creating a development community among developers who are ready and able to devote themselves to working in virtual reality.

"A fast-paced shooter simply doesn’t work well on the device. The device is so game changing that the experiences built for it need to be custom, unique and designed from the ground up FOR VIRTUAL REALITY," ex-Epic design director, and Oculus investor, Cliff Bleszinski said in a blog post.

"The experience needs to be much more like swimming through water or hopping around in low gravity as opposed to being an Olympic hurdler. Even horror games will need to be re-thought," he continued. "Instead of jump scares and intense Outlast experiences horror on the Rift will need to be the super subtle type otherwise your average person will only last 15 seconds in any given jump scare title before tearing the headset off."

This is the first lesson anyone thinking about a PlayStation 4 virtual reality headset needs to internalize: The fantasy of connecting a headset and jumping into the world of Killzone is exactly that, a fantasy. Existing games simply don’t work in virtual reality without an enormous amount of work, adjustment, and changes to the game’s design.

The PlayStation 4 may have some games that would be functional in virtual reality, but I’d argue that no console has any games that would be great in that environment.

Don’t worry about the hardware, worry about the software

The challenges for virtual reality hardware are well known, and anyone can reverse engineer the existing Oculus Rift hardware and add their own spin on the design. Sony has shown wearable screens before, and the company is no stranger to consumer hardware.

There is little stopping them from creating and releasing a PlayStation 4 virtual reality headset. It would also present another advantage over Microsoft, and if virtual reality takes off in 2014 the first entrants that release for an affordable price will have a massive advantage. The idea that Sony is entering this market isn’t farfetched, and the repeated rumors about a system being shown suggest that the company is at least testing hardware internally.

Vague reports about possible hardware shouldn't get you excited about virtual reality, however, seemingly innocent stories like this should get your blood pumping. This could be nothing, but it's a multi-million dollar investment in a developer for software that "will drive support for the partner's own hardware and technology eco-system." This is what you look for if you're searching for the possible seeds of a virtual reality strategy from a big player.

No console has any games that would be great in [this] environment.

The hardware may be the least important piece of a possible Sony play into virtual reality. To do it well, it would have to be investing in games, in multiple studios, and indie teams that know and understand virtual reality, and how to deliver games that take advantage of the platform without making the user sick. These games would have to be in active development now if the hardware was anywhere close to release, and it's hard to keep that sort of effort silent.

The Oculus Rift will grow due to the dedicated, decentralized, and passionate crowd of developers who are are already openly working on virtual reality games. Rift titles have already made it through the Steam Greenlight process, they're being discussed in the press, or they're being co-publlished by Oculus itself. The track has been laid for a successful retail launch with multiple killer apps, and there are many other native virtual reality games ready for the Rift's launch.

This is the war they're going to be fighting if Sony wants to enter this market. Virtual reality devices need to be treated like a console, not a peripheral, and Sony had better be fighting for exclusives if it hopes to make a dent in the Rift's still largely theoretical retail business.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, Polygon as an organization.

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