How virtual reality gaming is blowing its big chance in 2016

The year's biggest games show put every headset's weak points on display

79

This year’s E3, the gaming world’s annual marquee show, was virtual reality’s chance to shine. Two high-end headsets — the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive — are on sale already, although they serve only a small market. We’re four months from the launch of PlayStation VR, which will open up the medium to potentially tens of millions of PlayStation 4 owners. And Oculus is supposedly releasing its Touch motion controllers by the end of the year, making the headset significantly more attractive. All three platforms are established enough that developers are starting to take notice, but they still desperately need games. There’s never been a better time for a blitz of good VR news — or a worse time to get bad news.

There certainly was some good news at the show, including a release date for PlayStation VR, which will hit shelves October 13th. Ubisoft announced a Star Trek game for all three platforms, complete with a decently fun demo. And Oculus promised details on Touch this fall. But E3 also laid bare each platform’s glaring weak points, just as VR gaming is supposed to be getting off the ground.

PlayStation VR: VR's best hope, and its worst hardware

Sony stole the pre-show at E3, announcing an incredibly exciting-sounding list of titles: Arkham VR, a VR-compatible version of Resident Evil 7, and a VR add-on to Final Fantasy XV. It’s the cheapest tethered headset, and it runs off a popular console. If anyone can make VR mainstream, it’s Sony.

But its version of VR so far is a nascent and lackluster one. Sony’s headset has the benefit of being comfortable and easy to clean, but running on a lower-powered machine in a slightly lower resolution, its virtual worlds can feel jagged and muddy compared to the Vive and Rift’s. And PSVR’s big-name titles, at this point, mostly look like underdeveloped tech demos. Resident Evil 7 actually nauseated me and several other people at the show — perhaps partly because as Engadget points out, the 60 frames per second that Sony requires is significantly lower than what PC virtual reality targets.

There are several interesting indie projects on PSVR. We’ve also gotten to try some solid demos for bigger games, like competitive sports game Rigs, Crytek’s Robinson: the Journey, and the return of critical darling Psychonauts. But the most exciting thing about the platform isn’t any specific game, it’s just seeing a huge console maker support virtual reality, even if the initial results aren't thrilling. And Sony’s more powerful upcoming "Neo" console could make everything look and feel better, although that won’t help people who don’t want to buy a new console alongside their headset.

Insomniac The Unspoken

Oculus Rift: all the best games you can't play

Sony’s PC-based competitor Oculus has exactly the opposite problem. It arrived with a handful of titles for the new Touch controllers, and they’re some of the best looking games in VR — they’re simultaneously polished and creative, from the thriller Wilson’s Heart to a motion-based version of Crytek’s rock climbing title The Climb. Oculus has also secured temporary exclusive rights to things like the virtual reality version of Superhot, a critically beloved stop-motion shooter.

But the Rift, which launched without motion controllers, still has a lot of catching up to do. An unspecified component shortage made it all but impossible to get a Rift at launch, although at E3, CEO Brendan Iribe said backorders should be filled by the "end of July or earlier." The Touch launch will hopefully be smoother, but that’s not a sure thing. "We are expecting a pretty large volume of orders; we're also making a large number of units for the launch," said Iribe. "We're hopefully going to time that and predict that pretty well, but you never know, depending on how many people order. But we are expecting to ship with a large number of units right at launch."

Oculus head of content Jason Rubin, a firm supporter of the Rift’s current Xbox gamepad, said shipping without Touch was the right call. "I don't think having them [shipping separately] will make a difference a year or two from now," he said at E3. "Everybody will be playing with hand controllers, and there will also be a lot of gamepad games." Still, for ordinary consumers, the Vive offers more unique experiences and a bigger "wow" factor right now. And Oculus’ focus on exclusivity has generated ill will, especially after it cut off access to a tool that let customers buy games and play them on Vive.

Oculus might be more invested in pushing substantive VR gaming forward than any other hardware company, but it’s in a position where almost nobody can appreciate the results. That’s especially true because the company still hasn’t given us a date for its Touch controllers, suggesting that we won’t see them until late this year. Microsoft’s upcoming Scorpio console is widely expected to support the Rift, potentially broadening its appeal, but neither company has formally confirmed it.

HTC Vive: device not found

Where was the Vive in all this? Not as many places as you’d hope. HTC set up a booth to show off the Vive’s mixed reality tech, and the company was offering private demos of games like its World War II shooting gallery Front Defense. But it was most visible at Bethesda Softworks’ booth, which hosted Vive experiences based on Fallout 4 and Doom. These were intriguing, but far from finished. Fallout 4, which is set to become a full VR game, would need significant reworking to deliver a good experience, and it’s unclear that Bethesda is ready to invest in that.

It’s true that the most interesting games being released right now are for the HTC Vive, be it standalone titles or "VR additions" to ones already sold on Steam, but if Touch performs well, most of those games would be easy to adapt for Rift. Meanwhile, Oculus is snapping up as many exclusives as it can: Superhot was announced as one last month, and we learned at E3 that former Vive title Giant Cop will now launch first on Rift.

As evidenced by Front Defense, HTC is certainly interested in Vive gaming, and HTC’s virtual reality vice president Dan O’Brien thinks that bigger titles will arrive on their own. "What's probably happening at this point, from what we can share, is that a lot [greater] depth of experiences are in development now, but they just take longer to create," he told us at E3. "You can't create those in six to nine months."

Still, O’Brien reiterated that the Vive is a high-end product, not a mass-market one. "It's really important that the Vive brand represents the best of VR," he said, and future versions will still try to integrate the absolute cutting edge of VR tech, potentially including larger walking spaces or eye tracking. Someday, we could see separate tiers of Vive hardware — the company is "definitely thinking about that for the future" — but that would be a big step that might not happen for some time.

That said, there’s one place that Vive might reach before anyone else: arcades. Because the hardware is so niche, it’s easy to imagine high-end VR gaming thriving outside the home, and the Vive is already making inroads in Chinese internet cafes. "We've actually had a lot of interest in the US and Europe for arcades," said O’Brien. "I think the return of the video game arcades is a really interesting model."

HTC isn’t the only company looking at VR arcades or theme parks. Gaming studio Starbreeze came to E3 with its super-high-end StarVR headset, which it’s planning to install in special IMAX entertainment centers by the end of this year. StarVR has one big advantage over home headsets: its 210-degree field of view, which gives you remarkable peripheral vision. But my demo experience felt strangely laggy — it wasn’t enough to make me sick, but it was slightly disorienting, and it belied the promise that StarVR is virtual reality at its best.

We’ve spent a lot of past E3 shows cataloging indie hardware experiments, and these gloves, glasses, and haptic feedback systems still appeared in 2016. But things like custom input devices were more attractive when major headsets didn’t have their own motion control systems, which are usually less buggy and more fun to use. The most obviously useful piece of hardware was a backpack computer — a useful complement for headsets, but not as weird or flashy as a cyberglove.

So what did E3 2016 mean for VR? It was a show where Sony, high-end VR’s great hope, over-promised and under-delivered. Where Oculus showed us genuinely great-looking games, but didn’t say when we’ll have the hardware to play them. And where HTC’s Vive, widely considered the best system currently on the market, actually lost a game. There’s a positive way to interpret this: all the practical problems are finally getting shaken out as virtual reality gaming nears a breakthrough. But if you were looking for reassurance that VR is a sure bet in the near future, E3 wasn’t the place to find it.

The best of Verge Video