Later this year, Sony will launch the PlayStation VR. It is being billed as a pretty big deal- virtual reality is a burgeoning medium, and while Sony have been beaten to the punch by the Oculus Rift and the HTC Vive both, which launched earlier this year, they are also uniquely positioned to have the most (only) mass market high end VR solution out there- the HTC Vive is $799, and the Oculus Rift, $599, and both require high end PCs to run.
In contrast, the PlayStation VR is $399 for a base package, going up to $499 if you need the Move controllers and PlayStation Camera as well, and it can be paired with any PlayStation 4 console out there on the market- itself a pretty cheap machine to buy. The PlayStation VR, then, could be VR’s breakout moment, and if VR is to have a legitimate chance at mass market success, the PlayStation VR is it. Sony themselves have played up the importance of the PlayStation VR multiple times, likening the VR headset to a brand new platform launch, noting that they plan to support it as a second system.
On the whole, then, the PlayStation VR seems to be a Pretty Big Deal™, and it seems to have momentum on its side as it gets ready for mass market success. However, I find myself skeptical- skeptical about the PlayStation VR’s long term staying power, and of Sony’s larger commitment to the peripheral.
It is important to note that my skepticism is not based in the potential success (or speculated impending failure) of VR as a medium- whether or not virtual reality, which is being pushed pretty hard as the next big thing, and which is a legitimately exciting technology with the potential to offer some pretty exciting applications and developments, ends up being a fad or a paradigm shift is as of yet unknown, and an entirely separate discussion. I am not going to argue for or against VR’s long term feasibility here (for the record, I think VR is here to stay in the long term, albeit as a slow burn)- my skepticism for PlayStation VR is not skepticism for VR itself. VR will be fine. My skepticism for PSVR, rather, is based in a lack of confidence in Sony and their ability to support their product long term.
"Sony themselves have played up the importance of the PlayStation VR multiple times, likening the VR headset to a brand new platform launch, noting that they plan to support it as a second system."
It’s not an unfair concern to have, either. The history of Sony as a company, especially in the last decade and a half, is filled with failed ventures and products and initiatives abandoned just months after launch, after it became clear they weren’t going to be immediate successes. We could spend a lot of time going over everything on that list- but more pertinent to this conversation is the history of PlayStation, and their failed products and side ventures.
There, too, indications are hardly encouraging- the history of PlayStation is littered with the launches of failed peripherals and side ventures that saw a burst of initial support and enthusiasm from Sony, before being allowed to fall by the wayside, betraying the trust of millions of users who spent a good chunk of money on buying those products based on Sony’s assurances and promises. The most memorable, and most important from our perspective, are the PlayStation Move, and PlayStation Vita.
I can begin to hear the objections to this argument already- Sony is treating the PlayStation VR as their next major platform. There is no way they would let it wither on the vine, and just let it die out like they did with Move or Vita! And you’d be right… except you’re not. See, this was the exact sentiment that Sony expressed back when they first announced the PlayStation Move, too. ‘We’re approaching this like a virtual platform launch,’ Sony’s Peter Dille had said. Multiple companies and partners were announced, and Sony had hoped the Move would become the go to motion control platform for gamers. Sony swore support for the platform at multiple shows and conventions, including E3, promising Move support in most of their flagship products, and the Move was, in general, promised to fulfill the promise that the Wii had made to core gaming audiences.
And yet, all of this failed to materialize- the Move launched, and in spite of a marketing budget of $1 million (in itself a problem, and already indicative of Sony having second thoughts about the Move, which, they had promised,would be an all new ‘platform’ for them), it launched with a whimper. Game support for the Move never materialized, in spite of the fact that the peripheral was actually selling reasonably well. Sony promptly went on to lose interest in the PS Move, never supporting it with their products, and millions of Move controllers lay forgotten in households around the world, never actually used, a testament to Sony’s broken promise of their exciting new ‘platform.’
"This was the exact sentiment that Sony expressed back when they first announced the PlayStation Move, too."
The PS Move, however, is outdone by Sony’s biggest failure in recent times- the PS Vita is an even worse story- unlike the PlayStation VR or the PlayStation Move, it wasn’t like a platform launch… it was a platform launch. Sony was especially enthusiastic about the Vita, promising that it would become their flagship platform in Japan, and that they had learned from the mistakes of the PSP, hoping to have an even bigger success this time around.
Sony dropped $50 million on marketing during the Vita launch– something not evident at all when one considers that the Vita launched in a blaze of no glory, with no marketing, and that to this day, most people don’t even know that it exists. That wasn’t all, either- the Vita was supposed to lead Sony’s games strategy for three years. Sony promised that they would not drop support for it in favor of the console- “In the past we launched PSP and then shifted our attention to PS3 when that came on the horizon, which we now concede was a mistake. So with PS Vita we are working on this huge range titles and planning ahead for a constant supply of excellent games,” No less than Sony Worldwide Studios head Shuhei Yoshida had said.
This also turned out to be untrue- the PS Vita launched, and not only did it not lead Sony’s development (major games were still prioritized for the PS3 at the time), but as soon as the PS4 launched, Sony dropped the PS Vita like a hot potato, instead shifting all games to it. In 2014, Sony dropped major first party game support for the Vita, just two years after it had launched. In 2015, Sony officially labeled it a legacy platform– just three years after it had launched. And through all this, the 10 million people worldwide who had bought the PS Vita, an expensive $300 handheld, with even more expensive proprietary memory, on the promise of AAA gaming on the go, were left to a smattering of some localized Japanese games and a slew of ports of indie games from PS3 and PS4. That promised AAA game support never materialized. Less than three years later, Vita owners worldwide were left with a device that even Sony wasn’t supporting, with features for it being dropped rapidly, a device that may still see some use thanks to a slew of indie and low budget Japanese games, but that’s about it. A ‘major new platform launch’ had come to amount to absolutely nothing, except for a bunch of broken promises from Sony- again.
"Less than three years later, Vita owners worldwide were left with a device that even Sony wasn’t supporting."
My point here is, we have no reason to believe that the PlayStation VR will be any different- how do we know that Sony is not just using it as a jumping point for another cool technology, like they did with the Move, like they did with the Eyetoy, like they did with their 3D gaming ventures, and that they won’t forget about it so quickly? Sony is quick to call the PSVR a new platform launch- but they said the same for previous products, and they were only too willing to let them die.
You know how the success of a PlayStation product is decided, whether or not Sony calls it a ‘major platform?’ It is decided by the game support- I mean major in house first party game support. If Sony’s premier development teams support a new product, then Sony indeed views that product as a new platform on par with their flagship consoles. Basically, will Sony Santa Monica release a new game for this new product? Naughty Dog? The answer to these questions was ‘no’ for the PS Move, it was ‘no’ for the PS Vita, and so far, it appears to be ‘no’ for the PSVR, too. With Sony themselves unwilling to commit their best internal resources to the PSVR, it is clear that, no matter what they say, they do not view the VR headset as a major new platform launch, and that they will not support it like one, especially if things do go south, and it doesn’t do so well.
In which case- do you really have confidence that it will actually be supported by Sony? VR is a cool new frontier, and the sheer novelty is enough to sell people on these headsets- but would you actually be willing to drop $400 on a new ‘platform’ that Sony may drop support for just years later? Especially when not even a year ago, Sony dropped support for a $300 new platform just two years after it launched?
Personally, I would look at being careful with my money here- because for all we know, the PSVR turns out to be this generation’s Kinect. Not because I think VR will be gimmicky – I think it’s a long term gaming paradigm that is here to stay, whether detractors like it or not – but because I cannot say, sadly, that I have much faith in Sony’s ability to support any PlayStation product that is not their flagship console at the moment properly.
Note: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, GamingBolt as an organization.