Specialist VR studio Survios expanded its catalog last year to include non-VR games, but the developer behind Creed: Rise to Glory and upcoming cross-platform title Aliens is still optimistic about the future of VR.
During a featured session at Megamigs in Montreal last month, Survios product manager TQ Jefferson was also raving about his show.
Jefferson gave a lecture titled “Is VR Still Five Minutes Away?” The name comes from a Polygon article from 2020 in which it was stated that the VR revolution had been “five minutes” away for eight years.
Talk with GamesIndustry.biz prior to this presentation, Jefferson acknowledges that the current VR push has had some growing pains. Helmets were bulky and difficult to install. VR experiences were often added as an extra mode to a traditional game rather than built from the ground up to take advantage of technology. And of course there was motion sickness.
It didn’t live up to the hype surrounding the technology, Jefferson says.
“The first expectations were unreasonable,” he says. “From an analyst’s perspective, they were coming out of mobile games and saying, ‘Fuck sliced bread. It’s gonna be amazing.
“From a consumer perspective, they wanted the Holodeck. What they got was goofy glasses, a wall partition separating them from other people, and wires everywhere. They wanted the Holodeck, and VR wasn’t not the Holodeck. And I don’t know if it should, to be honest with you.”
But Oculus had the Rift, and companies like HTC and Sony started moving the needle with their own headsets, especially with the introduction of PSVR into the PlayStation ecosystem and the sale of millions of units. But Jefferson says the real “game changer” was the Meta Quest 2, a wireless headset with better resolution and controllers than its predecessors and a (since-raised) $299 price tag that made it far more accessible than its high-end counterparts.
Quest 2 also launched just a month before Polygon posed that “five-minute” question that stuck with Jefferson.
“Is it still stuck in the future,” he asks. “My answer to that is no. It’s here, right now. Quest 2 topped Xbox sales last year. To me, that means it’s arrived at consumer scale.”
Although neither Meta nor Microsoft offer unit sales for the hardware, Daniel Ahmad of Niko Partners set X series sales | S to 12 million at the start of this year, while IDC’s Francisco Jeronimo had Quest 2 approaching 15 million sold in June.
Beyond unit sales, Jefferson points to the diversification of experiences and uses of tech. Fitness games have created a secondary market beyond pure entertainment experiences, and he believes the Meta Quest Pro signals growth for the technology in other areas.
“Billions and billions of dollars are being poured into virtual reality through business, automotive, transportation, military, telecommunications and healthcare…”
“Billions and billions of dollars are being poured into virtual reality through business, automotive, transportation, military, telecommunications and healthcare in terms of virtual reality viewing, therapy of exposure and all of these different vectors,” says Jefferson. “So now you have this platform, this medium, which is entertainment on one side and business and healthcare on the other. To me, it’s not a dead platform. It’s not a failed platform.”
And that’s to say nothing of film production, where Jefferson says virtual production techniques using VR technology have become commonplace behind the scenes with shows like The Mandalorian and The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power.
Despite this, these initial expectations have not been met. And while it’s generally wise to manage expectations, Jefferson doesn’t think it was necessarily bad for VR as a whole to set the bar so high in the first place.
“There’s always the intense initial investment followed by the trough of disillusionment,” he says. “I don’t think it’s a bad idea that there was so much interest and investment from the start, because it allowed the teams to start working and building in the space, and to go far enough that when the trough of disillusionment hit, there was still enough momentum to pull through.”
Failed attempts and a few bad actors aside, Jefferson says, “people who stuck it out and were passionate about it were able to ride those waves and keep going.”
If we measure passion in dollars, few VRs have been as passionate as Meta. And while it has the Quest 2 to show for its efforts, it’s coming under increasing pressure from investors over continued multi-billion losses at its Reality Labs AR/VR division.
So what if the biggest player in virtual reality decides that his plan to create a metaverse on AR and VR technology is no longer viable?
“I don’t think it does anything to virtual reality,” says Jefferson. “Although VR is a component of the Metaverse and a building block, it’s a separate business. You can have VR without the Metaverse but I don’t know if you can have the Metaverse without the VR. So if Meta decides to change its name to Facebook and no longer pursue the metaverse, there’s still incredible activity in VR apps and hardware, and we’ve seen it in the Quest 2 numbers alone.
“If you have a company as big as Meta, the money from Quest 2 VR is probably a rounding error for them”
But even a successful VR company might not catch the eye of a massive company betting on it for so much more.
“If you have a company as big as Meta, the money coming from Quest 2 VR is probably a rounding error for them,” says Jefferson. “So if they pulled out of space completely and stopped doing virtual reality, I think that would be a blow to the medium. But I also think there’s Apple, there’s ByteDance and other players in the space. Sony isn’t backing down. There are companies that would keep pushing it forward, that believe in it enough.”
Regardless of what happens with the VR efforts of Meta and other companies, Jefferson doesn’t think VR is going to be put back in the closet like it was when the VR push of the early ’90s faltered. faded.
“Anything can happen, but I think now it’s proven enough that it’s not just locked down,” Jefferson said. “That diversification of purpose gave it enough touchpoints and use cases that I didn’t just see it pushed aside. In the 90s, it was super nascent and a lot easier to put genius back into the bottle. Now I think the genie is quite big, to continue the analogy, and the bottle is rather small at this point.”
Beyond virtual reality, Jefferson has a strong background in licensing. At various points in his career, he handled licensed games for both sides during stints for Pixar, Marvel, Telltale Games, Skybound, and 20th Century Fox. Since the past and fundamental presence of virtual reality in many metaverse visions is being pursued by companies, we ask for his perspective on the trend.
“When you watch things like Ready Player One and all that, they make a point of showing Batman, Captain America, MechaGodzilla, Gundam, etc.,” Jefferson says. “Everything falls into place. From an IP licensing perspective, it’s a much trickier problem to solve.”
He singles out Fortnite as a game that apparently solved this problem and explains why it – and some other popular titles for the links – have been accepted by licensees.
“There’s a layer of abstraction from an IP continuity lens that makes it okay for them to be together in this world,” Jefferson says. “Because it’s not the actual character, it’s a simulation of the character, a hologram of the character. And as a projection, it avoids the narrative and licensing baggage that always comes with licensed IP.”
It also helps that Fortnite exists as a precedent that other people can show that allowing characters to cross paths isn’t the end of the world, but Jefferson warns that it gets trickier once you start having a narrative or characters that interact in a deeper way.
“I predict that would be a problem for a lot of these licensees,” Jefferson said. “Who has more lines? Whose story is it? Is so-and-so portrayed in an appropriate light? All of these things become considerations.”
“Watching Thanos do ‘The Running Man’? It would keep me awake at night, if it was still my responsibility to worry about those things.”
He adds that licensees would also likely be concerned about their own popular characters elevating competitors’ lesser characters simply by teaming up with them in a game like this.
“It’s a consideration,” he says. “I’ve personally seen games not happen because of this branding issue.”
As for his thoughts on the trend of brand crossovers in games like Fortnite, Jefferson has some reservations.
“When Thanos came to Fortnite, it was a surprise to a few people at Marvel,” Jefferson said. “I think the Russos did. But then Thanos dances? As the person who licensed these characters, you pay a lot of attention to how this character will be portrayed in the world and what he’s going to do. Watching Thanos do ‘The Running Man’? That would keep me awake at night, if it was still my responsibility to worry about those things.
As to whether Fortnite means these kinds of massive license crossovers are another genius too big to go back in the bottle, Jefferson is skeptical.
“I think it’s pretty easy to keep some control over it. When something is as big as Fortnite, you make peace with it.
“But it has to be something this big and super compelling where eyeballs on your IP outweigh other considerations.”