The launch of the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift this year began the virtual reality era. The fledgling VR ecosystem exploded since, with companies announcing new VR hardware or crowdfunding campaigns constantly. There are already 189 games organized under "VR" on Steam.
A lot of games should be a boon for a new platform like VR. In the console gaming world, the quickest way to sink a new hardware release is to launch with no games (I'm looking at you, Nintendo GameCube). The trouble is, a big chunk of these new VR games are terrible. At best, they're experimental prototypes put forth in good faith by inexperienced developers exploring new technology. At worst, they're shovelware, low-quality shit plopped onto Steam's doorstep and set on fire.
VR is launching into a huge, established PC games marketplace. After years of being a gatekeeper for the PC market, Steam overcorrected and became a platform with no quality control at all. It's stuffed with garbage, but PC gaming in general is big and healthy enough to withstand it—for now. Steam hosts great games made by great developers with long track-records of quality. New games have to be interesting enough to find a niche and grow a community in order to stand out in a deluge of unremarkable junk.
This world doesn't work for VR. It's a brand new ecosystem with a huge barrier to entry—hundreds of dollars for a Rift or Vive and a thousand more for a high-end PC. After dropping money on the greatest revolution in modern gaming, customers are motivated to buy some games, any games at all. It reminds me of the early days of the iTunes App Store: people want to screw around with their brand new tech, so they're cruising for stuff to try and they don't mind paying for whatever looks interesting.
This attitude has caused prices to rise as customers go to Steam to find…what?
- Sweet Escape VR is a racing game set on a climbing wall made of candy. It has one level, can be completed in two minutes, and costs $20. It's technically in early access, but it has only been updated once since it launched in April, and that update just fixed a few bugs.
- FATED: The Silent Oath is an animated exploration of a Viking short story. Many customer reviews complain that the camera's walking animation cause motion sickness, and even players who liked it were finished after a couple of hours. Fated costs $20.
- BUTTS: The VR Experience is a short animation about two characters in a low-poly landscape who dance, fart confetti, and hug. It used to be free, but now it will cost you a dollar.
VR is happening now because advances in computing and processing have finally made the hardware affordable. Buying a new headset is a decision that should be justified by great content, which isn't really here yet. That early adopters can get burned by shovelware so easily just adds insult to injury. Rather than telling their friends about all the latest, coolest VR games, early adopters have to warn them about heaps of trash.
Higher prices make it harder for players to experiment, which is crucial because this is an experimental time for VR. Developers are experimenting with movement and animation schemes that look good and don't make people sick. Players are experimenting with what VR will become. Will it be a full-body action like Fallout 4? Will VR be the home of the most immersive flight sims possible, like Elite: Dangerous? Or is VR just a new place to hang out, like SteamVR Desktop Theatre?
VR is a new genre and a new platform, and it needs careful cultivation. The original Xbox didn't launch with Halo by accident. It was put forth by Microsoft as the best example of what their hardware can do. Like it or not, the Steam shelves are every bit a part of VR's inaugural offering as Eve: Valkyrie and Lucky's Tale. Valve isn't likely to suddenly start practicing quality control for Steam. If VR thrives, it will have to overcoming this environment of neglect.