Quest May Lead The Charge, But Consoles Will Be Pivotal To VR's Future

Quest May Lead The Charge, But Consoles Will Be Pivotal To VR's Future

I don’t envy the companies looking to take on Facebook’s Oculus Quest in the next few years. Its head start in the standalone market will likely be remembered as a decisive victory in the ongoing race to establish an industry.

With its standalone design, Quest is finally talking to people in a way that PC VR headsets and — to a lesser extent — the PSVR never could. While we have no hardware sales figures, its first 14 or so months on the market have shown positive signs that there’s life yet in the VR dream and it’s difficult to comprehend any other standalone alternative arriving in the foreseeable future that would really give it a run for it’s money. That is unless you believe the latest Apple rumors.

Crucially, Quest doesn’t show signs of slowing down as Facebook readies newly-acquired game developers (including former PlayStation-exclusive developer Ready At Dawn) to bolster its kit with new content. There’s even rumors and evidence of an incoming iteration to improve the much-maligned comfort situation. It seems a sure thing that Oculus Quest will continue to dominate the conversation around VR for years to come.

But Sony’s PSVR, as far as we know, still holds the lion’s share of the VR market, especially with the impending demise of the Oculus Go/Gear VR ecosystem. With over five million units sold across four years, it’s unlikely any other device will surpass it in the very immediate future (though Quest will doubtlessly get there, even if Facebook is unlikely to tell us when it does). And that matters, because a new console and, hopefully, a new headset are soon to arrive to continue to build on what Sony started. Granted, a potential PSVR 2, will likely be a much more expensive proposition than an Oculus Quest when paired with the new PS5 and, launching as a peripheral, probably won’t dominate the VR conversation in quite the same way we’re currently seeing with the standalone.

But PSVR 2 still stands to be a hugely significant segment of the VR industry over the next few years. Here’s why.

Define ‘Success’

To understand why PSVR 2 will play an important part in VR’s continued establishment, you have to give context to what Sony and Facebook are both trying to do with their respective headsets.

The truth is that ‘success’ likely looks very different for Sony and Facebook. Sony is about to enter its fifth race to sell the most videogame consoles so that it makes the most money off of the subsequent software sales. Everything we’ve seen from the company since PSVR’s launch suggests that its VR ambitions are an extension of this. We haven’t seen Sony shift to provide new types of experiences for a new medium with PSVR (thank god there’s not been a Home 2); instead it’s doubled down on producing high-end exclusives like Marvel’s Iron Man VR and Blood And Truth. This is PlayStation’s bread and butter, and it’s not likely to change. I mean, it’s in the name.

With Quest, Facebook takes a more holistic approach to VR. Horizon hopes to lay the foundation for a metaverse and Quest’s first year of apps include a monthly subscription to a gym service, virtual trips to Machu Picchu and films featured at festivals like Tribeca and Sundance. Mark Zuckerberg talks of VR as becoming ‘the next platform’ and experimental features like hand-tracking help you catch a glimpse of what he means by that.

It would be tempting to label the Quest as the ‘Wii’ in this argument, with Facebook leveraging lower cost and accessibility to get ahead of rivals. But to argue that would be to mislabel the standalone as an end-to-end gaming system. We’re already seeing it start to become something else. Quest is on a path to establish VR as the next PC; Sony is on the path to sell more games. Both seem set for success as we dig our heels into the next decade.

The New High-End: Console VR Is About To Offer A Lifeline To PC VR

When PSVR launched six months behind the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive in 2016, there was already a very sizeable gap in the types of experiences they offered. Sony’s expertise in sustaining a software ecosystem — and squeezing the most out of its hardware — has gifted PSVR with arguably the best library of any headset. But its 180 degree controller tracking, reliance on dated Move controllers, and limited PS4 power have undoubtedly left a lot of ground to gain with a successor. That’s especially true stacked up next to the more recent Oculus Rift S and Valve Index; PSVR might be best labeled as a middle-ground headset.

But all signs are pointing to console VR’s future leaping that void and then some. The PS5 and Xbox One Series X (which, to be clear, currently has no confirmed VR support) are both powerful machines more than capable of standing up to contemporary gaming PCs. The hurdles that have riddled PSVR ports with blurry textures and long load times stand to be removed and, based on company talks, patents and research materials, the unannounced PSVR 2 could do away with the other common complaints too.

By closing that gap, along with offering a line of fresh new VR content, Sony stands to offer a renewed lifeline to the developers that have spent the past four years creating content for the limited PC VR market and can’t easily bring their products to PSVR and Quest. Plenty of VR developers, I’m sure, want to continue working in that high-end space. Hits like Boneworks and Half-Life: Alyx will doubtlessly benefit from access to a new market and will in-turn drive headset sales too, but I’m also thinking of the smaller studios and mid-sized teams that either have to devote significant resources to optimizing for more popular, less powerful headsets or can’t justify those costs at all. It’s a valuable resource for PSVR 2 to tap into as it looks to hit the ground running next-generation.

At the same time, there’s speculation, too, about Facebook’s continued presence in the high-end VR space itself. With Quest’s success, does it make sense for the company to keep commissioning giant VR games exclusive to the Rift when the headset seemingly hasn’t sold as many units as the original PSVR? Are the upcoming Lone Echo 2 and Medal of Honor: Above And Beyond potentially the last Facebook-funded, Rift-exclusive games? If so, it might be that PSVR 2 (along with continued work from Valve) sets the new bar for high-end VR in the years to come, only this time under far more consumer-friendly terms with inside-out tracking and an accessible console interface already installed in living rooms.

Quest Can’t Leverage The Existing Gaming Ecosystem As Easily

In an interview in May, Facebook’s Jason Rubin said that graphically-intensive experiences like Facebook’s own Rift-exclusive, Asgard’s Wrath, wouldn’t be possible on Quest anytime soon. Instead, he argued that Quest would see deeper, longer games arriving over the next year. We don’t doubt Quest is due some truly amazing native games, especially if rumors of Facebook’s partnership with Ubisoft for Splinter Cell and Assassin’s Creed VR prove true. But Quest’s lack of power also limits its appeal to a long-established ecosystem of traditional games development and more ambitious VR developers.

Meanwhile, Sony just held a PS5 showcase with stunning technical proficiency, some games in which may well end up supporting PSVR 2. Capcom’s Resident Evil Village is rumored to feature similar optional support to Resident Evil 7, for example, and Gran Turismo 7 seems naturally suited to build off of the VR foundations established in PS4’s Gran Turismo Sport. Just this week, a Rockstar Games developer confirmed that it was working on a ‘AAA, open-world’ VR game and anything that meets the GTAV-maker’s definition of those terms likely isn’t going to work on Quest.

Now, the VR industry continues to distinguish itself from the wider gaming industry and, in the long-term, other applications like social VR and workout apps will build out new audiences for headsets that go beyond gaming, but these things will remain primarily as gaming consoles in the nearer term. Perhaps more importantly, the most sought-after VR apps of the past few years, judging by the response on our website, are either ports of existing games or ones that feature optional VR support. No Man’s Sky VR dominated much of 2019’s conversation and Skyrim VR before that, with Star Wars: Squadrons seeing equal interest as we approach its October release date.

PSVR 2 stands to keep an existing ecosystem of developers connected to VR while Quest continues to grow in capability. The Elder Scrolls 6, whenever it may come around, almost certainly wouldn’t be possible on a standalone headset, but a PSVR 2 version may be a much more feasible prospect.

An Industry Of Two Halves… Roughly

Of course, none of the points I’m making against Quest are holding it back from success in the here and now, and they won’t in the future, either. In fact I don’t doubt for a second that whichever iteration of the headset that ends up going up against PSVR 2 will sell more units in its lifetime (again, not that we’ll ever know), and broaden VR’s appeal to millions more people. And it’s true, too, that PSVR 2’s attachment to PS5 will ultimately put a ceiling on the number of units it can sell; topping even PSVR’s five million milestone will be a tough challenge for Sony in the years ahead.

But VR is becoming an industry of disproportionate halves. More and more developers are finding success squeezing their apps onto Quest, but the thirst for high-end development and experiences is still very much alive; Half-Alive: Alyx ranked in Steam’s best-selling games, Boneworks made millions in  a few days, and The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners became the first game to topple Beat Saber from the PSVR charts in ages. The successes are fewer, but PSVR 2 stands to enable more of them.

Judging by VR’s position today, by 2030 we’ll be talking about how Oculus Quest was the true birth of the VR industry. Sony’s PSVR 2 probably won’t hold that same cadence but, by providing an avenue for developers to deliver high-end VR experiences on a platform more accessible (and, hopefully, more affordable) than current PC VR setups, it will doubtlessly play a big role in the legitimization of VR in the next decade.

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