PlayStation's Big Virtual Reality Gamble

By Keza MacDonald on at

At this year’s Game Developers Conference, virtual reality was a mania sweeping the place. Everywhere there were new VR game projects, being shown off on questionably-hygienic headsets by developers who have, in some cases, left 20-year careers at big publishers to make something with this new technology. It’s understandable, given that game devs are always very enamoured with new technology - but it’s also surprising, because as of right now, not many people in the world even have a PC capable of running VR games. Both Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive have been released since GDC, but nether launch was unproblematic. Many people who spent £500+ on a VR headset are still waiting. The user base for VR remains miniscule.

PlayStation VR is the thing that might change that. At £349 (or £390, if you need a camera too) and with a ready-made potential audience of more than 35 million PS4 owners, it’s the first experience that a lot of people are going to have with VR. Sony has spent a great deal of time and money on this technology, with around 230 developers reportedly working on games for PSVR. It’s a hell of an investment, and a bit of a gamble on technology whose mass-market appeal is as yet unproven.

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Sony Worldwide Studios president Shuhei Yoshida assures me that Sony is at least not going to be selling these headsets at a loss. “We are not going to lose money. We are able to at least recoup the cost of goods - so we can spend money on promotion and developer support,” he says.

“We knew we wanted high quality first, and then our target was around the same price range of a new console launch - specifically, around £399, which was the PS4’s launch price. We were very happy that the hardware guys were able to make it happen. [But] we didn’t set out from pricing first because we knew that getting VR right was going to be a big challenge. We had internal technical milestones that we wanted to hit, like resolution and field of view. We knew that if we waited, we could get the right tech.”

One of the big added costs that emerged during the development of the PSVR hardware was the additional processor that it uses to render different images for the PS4 and for the headset, for multiplayer games that involve both. “Our team in Japan came up with this social screen idea and the company embraced it - we didn’t want people to see VR as antisocial,” Yoshida says. “There is often negative bias with new technology. We wanted to show that when you have PSVR, friends and family can play together. This functionality added cost, and is custom made for PSVR.”

It was easy to deduce from one look around this year’s Game Developer’s Conference venue, where talks and panels on VR tech were so crowded out that there was often not even space in the overflow rooms, that it doesn’t take much to persuade developers to make something for VR. Many video game creatives have been desperate to embrace it; hence, perhaps, the 230 developers that Sony is currently supporting on VR games. The way that PlayStation is working with these developers mirrors how it has supported independent teams for the past five or ten years, Shuhei says.

“We don’t just wait for teams to come up with ideas - we tell them what we are excited about, and then it’s up to teams to come up with things they might want to make,” he says. “We always start from the ground up with developers: what do you want to do? What idea do you have? And we try to match that, because I believe that is the only way that a great thing can be made. Nobody ever tells a team to do something and ends up with a great outcome, because making games is so hard - it’s so hard that people really, really have to be passionate about what they are making. Only with that can we expect a great outcome. People work hard when they believe in what they are making.”

Yoshida’s enthusiasm for VR is infectious. I played about 40 different VR games back at GDC and after a couple of days I was kind of longing to just look at something on a normal screen, but he seems unperturbed by acclimatisation, singing the praises of the developers - both young and experienced - who have brought their interesting projects to San Francisco.

“We’ve being doing lots of demos, and consistently the biggest weapon to turn skeptical people into believers has been London Heist,” he says, of Sony’s own first-party VR game development. “People forget it’s not real. There’s also RIGS, which is impressive because of its networked, sports-action nature. Summer Lesson is the last one: it’s Bandai Namco’s Tekken team’s game. You play a tutor for a young female student. It’s an amazing experience, to feel the presence of a digital character in that way.

“All that said, the most amazing experience I have had is Rez in that suit,” he laughs, referring to the insane full-body synaesthesia suit that has been on tour with Rez and its creator Tetsuya Mizuguchi. “I felt like a character in a sci-fi anime, all tangled up in the cables.”

The problem, Shuhei explains, is getting publishers on board. Developers are enthusiastic, but their employers are more risk-averse. “Third-party companies tend to go where the install base is,” he says. “But our role is to go earlier, go to riskier places, before other independent publishers can feel comfortable.” This is especially challenging in Japan, where rapid changes have really shaken up the country’s game development scene in the past ten to fifteen years.

“VR is still relatively new and low-key in Japan, I believe because there’s almost no PC gaming culture,” he explains. “That’s the biggest problem. Where there’s a PC development community, people buy an [Oculus Rift prototype] DK1 or DK2 and start making something - but that didn’t happen as much inside Japan. There are people inside developers, like Harada-san from Bandai Namco, who are so passionate. But in all these cases, they are fighting really hard internally to try and get management to support them.”

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Shuhei Yoshida

Until very recently, Sony itself resembled the kind of slow-moving Japanese company that would have struggled to stay a step ahead on a new technology like VR. Stories from the firm’s PlayStation 2 and early PlayStation 3 days paint a picture of a corporation that was frustratingly slow to change - like many multinationals. From the outside, it looks like things have improved dramatically in the past 5 years, as reflected in the PS4’s success. The merging of Sony Computer Entertainment and Sony Network Entertainment earlier this year was another step towards enabling Sony to be nimbler and make quicker decisions, Yoshida explains.

“We still feel that we have to be quicker,” he says. “Merging sub-companies reduces the complexity of communication and decision making. By moving people around, we are attempting to be able to react quicker to changes and needs of the markets. If anything, we [at PlayStation] have always behaved as a separate company from Sony, and we pride ourselves on it. We have grown compared to ten years ago, as a company, but we still have a small number of people who can make decisions quickly. We have been able to maintain that culture internally.

“Andrew House, Sean Layden, Jim Ryan, myself, all of us have worked together for like 20 years. We know each other and we don’t have to pay any political games. We can just meet, discuss, and make decisions. That’s great. Like any industry where you grow up together from when you’re young, you tend to work together when you become more influential. We have that internally on our management team; we all feel ownership and commitment to PlayStation. We have more commitment to do what’s best for PlayStation, rather than personal agendas. Naturally, we are rewarded for it.”

The million-dollar question - or maybe hundred-million-dollar question; who knows how high the research and development budget has been on PlayStation VR? - is how many people will buy into virtual reality on PS4. How many people does Sony need to embrace VR to make this gamble worthwhile? What are the company’s expectations? Will half the people who own a PS4 be playing in VR? A quarter? A tenth?

“That’s the hardest thing. I don’t think anyone in the company knows that,” says Yoshida. “The delay from the first half of 2016 to October was purely because the number of units that we want to make available for day 1. The hardware side of things was done and on schedule. But when we got together and our business people in all regions talked about what they expected demand to be, each region said “we need at least so many units”, and when we added it up it was more than we were thinking initially for launch. So the only thing we could do is delay and keep making units.

“On the plus side, we knew that by delaying, all the developers - including ourselves - can take that extra time to polish, because it’s so important that people are comfortable playing it. We know that all developers will use that time well, and that will benefit the consumer’s experience and eventually the system’s reception.”

A recurring observation in all the commentary on current VR has been that as cool as the technology is, there’s not currently anything that really makes it essential. The first few times you use a VR headset it feels revolutionary - but that novelty fades, and what you’re left with is a selection of games that have been designed primarily as impactful “first VR” experiences, rather than game-changers. But then, Sony works with some of the world’s most talented developers. If some studio is going to make the game that makes VR irresistible, Sony will be hoping it’s one of theirs.