That’s the view of Andrew House, CEO of Sony Computer Entertainment, which has just revealed a £349 price point for its PlayStation VR headset, due out in October.
While VR’s future is far from assured, and while the rules of designing successful experiences are still being established (many conventional video game genres simply don’t translate to the VR world) there are, House believes, exciting new opportunities. “The most fascinating thing is how VR has rewritten the rulebook of what game design should be,” he said. “It’s levelled the playing field in terms of production values.
“What has encouraged me is that there’s an opportunity for smaller developers with simpler game mechanics that are very well crafted for the VR experience to have more of a significant presence than they would have on a blockbuster console. It’s intriguing.”
While many of the 100 or so games currently in development for the platform are from larger publishers like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, there are also more experimental titles, like the football heading sim Headmaster from Frame Interactive and the puzzler Tumble VR from Supermassive Games. The format is likely to support shorter more experiential titles that don’t require users to wear a headset for many hours – and independent studios have as much experience in this area as larger teams.
House stressed that, although they are rivals, Facebook, HTC and Sony must collaborate rather than compete in order to turn this new technology into a mainstream success. “Our aim, I hope, is to build a market together, rather than steal market share from one another,” he said shortly after making the announcement that Sony’s virtual reality headset, the PSVR, will launch globally in October, for the comparatively low price of £349.
It’s unusual for a peripheral that costs more than its host game console to be considered a bargain, but virtual reality is proving to be a pricey frontier for early adopters. HTC’s Vive will retail for $799/£689, while Facebook’s Oculus Rift, which will launch in April, costs $599/£499, a significant amount when you consider the additional cost of the formidable PCs required to run the hardware competently.
House explained that Sony has worked hard during the past two years to find affordable materials for its headset, which is perhaps the most attractive of the range, with its Stormtrooper-esque white and black colour scheme and blue growing lights. It is also less isolating than the other sets: it uses a single screen (the Vive and Rift employ a screen for each eye), which sits in front of the eyes rather than totally encapsulating the viewing field. And while Sony has had to compromise on screen resolution to keep the costs low, the PlayStation VR boasts a higher potential refresh rate of 120Hz, rather than the 90hz offered by the Oculus or HTC’s headsets. This could make for a smoother, more comfortable motion experience.
“We want to deliver good value, especially to people who have already invested in the system, without devaluing the experience,” he explained. Sony has managed to triangulate these requirements with profitability too; the company will, House revealed, make money on every unit sold – many predicted that the company would need to sell the device at a loss, which is common in the console industry, in order to boost interest and gain market share.
£349 is, however, only the price-point for the entry-level unit. House said there will be multiple bundles, including various configurations of the PS Eye camera, and the wand-like Move controllers, which can be used to further the player’s sense of presence in some games. He didn’t believe that this risks fragmenting the audience with different set-ups, thereby complicating the development process. “Games that require a controller will work with both the Move and the PlayStation’s Dual Shock,” he said. “That will be the default, while some games optimised for the Move controller as well.”
It’s a sensible decision. Sony’s great advantage over the Vive and Oculus Rift is the fact that the PlayStation 4 is a closed platform. The 36m PlayStation 4s that have been sold enjoy exactly the same specifications as one another, unlike PCs, which come in a vast array of configurations. While the PS4 may be underpowered compared to the current highest-end PCs, this drawback is offset by the console’s uniformity. “Developers can be assured the exact experience they’re working to create will be the same for all players,” said House.
When asked how many units Sony will need to sell in order to consider the invention a success, House remained philosophical. “Clearly there is immense interest from developers and creators,” he said. “That’s translated to enthusiasm from the press. But whether that transfers into massive day one consumer buy-in is another question. I count success as building a great experience for, initially, an enthusiast market who believe VR is a great experience and a next step in gaming. Hopefully, we build from there around word of mouth.” House said that, initially, PSVR’s buyers will be a subset of the PS4 audience, “a fairly enthusiast gamer who is looking for the next great thing”. They will be, House said, “someone who joins us almost in a spirit of co-creation, who wants to go on the journey with us.”
Many working within the broader field of VR believe that mainstream adoption won’t be led by video games but, rather, will come from applications that allow users to remotely experience a sports match, or concert, tuning in live at a fraction of the cost of a physical seat in the stadium or auditorium. One of Sony’s PSVR demos in San Francisco this week showed its interest in this kind of broader application: a recorded classical music performance by the American violinist Joshua Bell, which the viewer watches as if standing next to the musician.
When asked whether this work is a part of Sony’s long-term plan, House was unambiguous: “Undoubtedly,” he said. “There is no question that we are an entertainment company. We are currently having a lot of conservations both internally and externally about what the broader implication of VR could be.
“Our view is that this is early days for this medium. Our goal is to build this initially around great gaming experiences, and then, further down the line, explore these kinds of new opportunities that are capturing the imagination of a wide variety of people.”
This article was written by Simon Parkin, for theguardian.com on Wednesday 16th March 2016 10.52 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010