The last time I clearly remember saying a non-VR game was “worth the price,” it was 2013. The game was The Swapper, and I remember because game developer Jon Blow went on a Twitter rant about the turn of phrase soon after, which may or may not have been directed at me. Regardless, I figured he was right: people were more than capable of reading my work and calibrating it to their own spending habits. If film and TV critics didn’t have to judge a work’s aesthetic value against its dollar value, I shouldn’t either.
Three years later, though, I find myself checking prices just about every time I recommend a virtual reality experience. This is decent VR, I ask myself, but is it really ten dollar VR? $20? $40? This evaluation feels uncomfortable, as though I’m treating artistic critique like buying a toaster. But I don’t think, in this case, that the problem is me. It’s something everyone who works with virtual reality is grappling with: nobody has any idea what VR should cost, and it’s getting more confusing by the day.
Players and publishers have very strict ideas about what constitutes a fair price for most games, but virtual reality experiences are all over the place. Google’s new Daydream titles range from $5 to $20, a price that’s almost unheard-of for a mobile game. On desktop, $30 might get you a perfectly polished app or a rough Early Access game. A shooting gallery might cost $10 or $40. Things are so fluid that when $50 brawler Feral Rites got lukewarm reviews, developer Insomniac slashed the price nearly in half within a week.
There’s no such thing as the “standard” $60 AAA game in VR. That’s partly because even AAA studios that work in VR, like Ubisoft, are assigning small teams to limited projects. And it’s partly because all the normal standards we use to judge how much a game is worth make no sense. If games with “good graphics” can charge more, should we say all VR is expensive because it’s visually immersive, or cheap because the art is often simpler? If nobody wants to spend more than a half-hour at a time in a headset, should we still expect games to last for eight hours or more? If an experience blurs the line between film and game, should we sell it as the former or the latter?
Things get even more complicated when you start looking at mobile VR. Platforms like Daydream and Oculus Home discourage microtransactions, and developers have pushed their prices to the very upper end of the mobile game bracket, closer to indie PC titles. This makes some sense, since they’re very different experiences, but the impression is still that you’re buying a $20 smartphone app.
In some ways, it’s a great thing that VR prices aren’t locked at $3 or $60 or relying on the free-to-play model. VR is giving artists a chance to reset people’s expectations about how much their work is worth. The problem, right now, is that developers “figuring it out” can lead to players spending a lot of money on mediocre, unfinished work. Most existing VR is either generic, very short, a work in progress, or outright tortuous. It’s not just that lots of bad and middling games exist, it’s that there aren’t enough really good ones yet to make them ignorable — at a time when we’re rarely short on fantastic non-VR games, and it’s easier to get a sense of their quality through videos or the creator’s past work. Even with all the progress made this year, the overall bar for quality for VR is set at “not literally painful.”
Of course, it’s complicated for developers who can’t rely on selling games for cheap in economies of scale, since they’re working in a tiny market. But if you’re a reviewer, it feels almost irresponsible telling people to spend an unusually large amount of money on things only worth playing because there’s nothing better out there. If you’re on Steam, would you rather get yet another VR arcade shooter, or a competently designed, critically lauded non-VR indie title?
One of the ways forward, as developer Robert Yang pointed out in a piece earlier this week, is to step outside the format of game sales altogether. Yang proposed the concept of game bundle-like “mixtapes” for short virtual reality projects. The bundle/mixtape model could start giving developers breathing room to build the kind of experiments that VR needs, if we’re going to figure out what works in it — without having to pitch it as the start of a “real” game. It’s not a way to get rich off VR, but it can help people support themselves while producing short, high-concept projects.
In a more traditionally commercial vein, subscription services could reasonably support some VR experiences, especially more film-like ones. So could public arcades, like the ones HTC is promoting in China. So could add-ons to big games like Battlefront or Call of Duty. Just give me anything that makes the subconscious sticker shock a little less sharp — at least until VR is mature enough to overcome it.