When will virtual reality finally take off? This is the burning question gaming publishers have been asking for years. And while the mid to late 2010s saw significant advancements in VR gaming, mainstream success has proved elusive. Fortune Business Insights valued the market at $5.1 billion in 2019—quite a nice sum, but the entire global video game market was worth $151.1 billion. The VR gaming marketplace is projected to reach $45.2 billion by 2027, according to the Fortune report. It’s a mighty optimistic forecast for the niche field, and game publishers have plenty of incentives to jump in, but many setbacks could be keeping them on the sidelines.
This may not seem like important news for book publishers, but VR is increasingly eyed as a way to engage with readers of comics and graphic novels—a kind of ultimate motion comics experience. VR gaming offers an immersive 3-D environment (enabled by a headset), in which players appear to actually enter into the gaming world. And publishers have been developing some fascinating content.
Joy Lu, assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business, says, “A few years ago, Telltale games [episodic graphic adventure games] were quite popular. They were basically point-and-click adventures that came in chapter installments. Many of the games they made were based on comic books and/or TV shows, including Batman, Game of Thrones, Guardians of the Galaxy, the Walking Dead, and the Wolf Among Us (based on Fables comic book series). Before they ran into some internal financial issues, there was some buzz about how they could translate their games to VR.”
John Luxford, chief technology officer at Flipside XR, a VR animation studio, cites other, better-received examples of comics brought into VR, including Tales of Wedding Rings VR, from the Japanese video game company Square Enix; Madefire’s Motion Books, which are semi-animated comics; and The Walking Dead: Saints & Sinners by Skydance Interactive, which is a more traditional game adaptation. “Our company produced a VR version of Randall Munroe’s popular web comic Xkcd, where users can jump into the characters from the comic and create their own comic strips,” he says. “There’s also a Spider-Man adaptation that lets you cast webs and swing from building to building, which is every Spider-Man fan’s dream to be able to do.”
Daniel Martin Peixe, a Disney animator, had long wondered whether VR can allow one to “step inside” a comic book, so he created the VR comic book The Remedy. “I really wanted to create something where the audience was immersed in the artwork, and also give them the ability to read the story at their own pace,” he says. “I researched the interactive 2-D comics out there. I applied some of the tried and true techniques from those interactive comics, and also added some movie-style sequences, bridging the gap between comics, movies, animation, and virtual reality immersion. ”
Peixe says he ran into some problems during the six months in 2019 that he spent creating the game on Quill, a VR illustration platform (and still working full-time at Disney)—like, “how to keep the audience looking at the right place at the right moment”—but he worked through them, and it wasn’t long before the VR developer Oculus took notice of his work. “They collaborated with me, giving me technical support, and provided me with an amazing team of sound designers and a score composer. I created the story, storyboarding, art direction, and animation,” he adds. “The experience is available as part of Oculus’s Quill Theater, an app that comes free when you buy an Oculus headset.”
Peixe says the reception for The Remedy has been favorable, and he’s found that VR is an exciting medium for comic book narratives—but it’s not easy, from a creative standpoint. It’s also not easy from a business standpoint, partly because VR gaming is still niche, though the pandemic and its accompanying lockdowns could help change that.
“VR headsets and gaming systems have been consistently sold out since the beginning of the pandemic,” says Kelli Townley, product manager for Medium at Adobe, which produces a 3-D authoring tool. She cites as key motivators for consumers more time stuck at home along with all-but-vanished opportunities to spend money on traditional entertainment such as movies and sporting events.
David Sapienza, associate v-p of content and production at HTC Vive studios, says the pandemic has pushed people to explore and try out new VR technology. “Since stay-at-home orders were enacted in the U.S. in early March, we’ve definitely seen a corresponding uptick of usage on our content streaming service Viveport. The longer households practice social distancing, the more they engage with VR content.”
It makes sense that when the real world shut down, consumers flocked to a virtual one by way of their gaming systems. But the pandemic may not be as significant a driver for the growth of VR as is a recent technological development: the Oculus Quest VR headset device created by Oculus VR, a division of Facebook. Launched in summer 2019, the Oculus Quest is a cordless headset that doesn’t require a PC hookup, an impressive feature that sets it apart from the Oculus Rift, as well as from VR devices from such competitors as HTC Vive, PlayStation, Sony, and Valve.
“It’s all built in the headset,” says Chris Pruett, director of content ecosystem at Oculus. “It has critical technology called Insight, which allows us to track the position of your head to your hand. We can tell how you’re moving if you’re walking, if your hands are up, and we can translate those movements into space.”
For the VR gaming sector, a cordless headset is a groundbreaker, delivering freedom not only from the physical ties to a PC but from the financial ones. “The average cost of a VR headset is approximately $500 to $600, and next-generation consoles are expected to also sit around that price range,” says John Holdridge, general manager of Fullscreen Media, a firm that works with companies to create digital content for social media. “For users without existing equipment, this means the cost to access VR gaming is approximately $1,000. This can differ greatly depending on how you’re accessing VR, but for a quality VR gaming experience, $1,000 is about the average cost.”
The Oculus Quest retails for $399 (still pricey, but more in line with traditional gaming consoles). “We are struggling to keep them in stock,” Pruett says. “We’re able to sell them as quickly as we can build them.”
This past May (almost exactly one year after Oculus Quest hit the market), Oculus announced that people spent more than $100 million on Quest content. Additionally, more than 10 titles generated more than $2 million in revenue on Quest in that time, including Moss and Pistol Whip, while Superhot VR achieved double-platinum status, surpassing two million copies sold worldwide across all VR platforms.
In the comics-adjacent arena, Oculus has a few titles out, including Marvel: Powers United VR, which was released by Oculus in 2018 in partnership with Marvel and features 18 playable superheroes from the Marvel universe. Oculus has also launched a couple of VR titles that play off comic book tropes, including Wilson’s Heart, a first-person psychological thriller set in the 1940s, and Lies Beneath, a single-player horror title, which leans into comic book iconography.
The fact that Oculus is showing interest in the comics space (both directly and by inspiration) in its VR offerings is enormously promising for VR storytelling, but the key word once again is niche. Most major VR studios are not looking at this angle deeply yet, perhaps because it’s not what core VR users are asking for. What they’re asking for, especially during the pandemic, are fitness-related titles.
“People stuck at home are looking for new ways to keep in shape,” says Pruett. “The core interaction of [Oculus Quest] VR software is large body movements. We didn’t know that would become a thing, but it turned out to be something people want to do.”
Pruett cites Beat Saber, a popular music game that involves slicing “beat blocks” as they fly at the player. “As the game gets harder, the amount of body motion required really increases,” he says. “When you watch people who get really good at it, they’re moving bodies like they’re dancing. That has led to the emergence of fitness applications on our platform. So, in addition to what we consider more traditional video games, we’re seeing a surge of things that [enable] workouts you can do in your house.”
For game developers like Resolution Games, the goal of VR is building upon legacy intellectual property, as it’s done with Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs, which has taken off on Oculus Quest. (Angry Bird comics, which are based on the series of games, are licensed and published by IDW Publishing.) “The Oculus Quest has been instrumental for the market, and we’ve seen tremendous growth in the last year—like 8,000% consumer revenue growth from the year before,” says Tommy Palm, CEO of Resolution Games. “We’ve also grown about 30% with staff and have about 70 people now.”
The Oculus Quest has helped forge a wider consumer path to VR, but the problems run deeper than lower prices and a cord-free option can address. For starters, the most popular VR game in 2020, Half Life: Alyx, a sci-fi–driven combat, shooting, and puzzle game, is not available on Quest—an indication that the most intensive and thrilling VR experiences are still moored by cable to a sophisticated PC setup. Though Half Life: Alyx can technically be run on Quest with a PC, the PC must meet hefty technical requirements. Users face at least a $1,000 investment if starting from scratch. So VR’s old problem resurfaces: the price is too damn high, and gaming novices have to do a lot of homework to figure out how to get started.
The biggest hurdle for comics and other publishers looking at the VR space is still the biggest problem for VR gaming in general: it’s very fringe and expensive to dive into. Thomas Gronnevik, CEO and cofounder of Wasder, a multisocial platform dedicated to the gaming community, says that of his network’s roughly 100,000 active users, “only a couple thousand people” are using the platform to discuss VR gaming, and most of those are talking about Half-Life: Alyx. “Our users are saying that Half-Life: Alyx is the first quality triple-A VR game that really stuck,” he notes. “It was created really well and is only available in VR. But I think that VR has a way to go before it catches up to the rest of the [video game] industry.”
Over on Kickstarter, where indie developers and mega-publishers alike head to crowdfund projects in development (and, just as importantly, to gauge and generate excitement around them), VR campaigns are a minuscule sliver of the gaming fund-raising pie. “The community of people backing VR projects on Kickstarter is significantly smaller than people backing tabletop games or other traditional games,” says Anya Combs, director of games outreach at Kickstarter. “Unless we can see the community saying, ‘we want this,’ it’s hard for us to parse out how the project will do. VR is a relatively new technology, and the development is ongoing. And so much of it comes down to the devices.”
Kickstarter has seen standout crowdfunding successes for VR. In 2019, Cyan Worlds, the team behind the early video game Myst, launched a campaign for Firmament and raised more than $1.4 million from 18,420 backers. And in 2012, Oculus raised more than $2.4 million from 9,522 backers for the Oculus Rift. But these mega-campaigns are rare.
“Truthfully, I can’t name a single VR project on Kickstarter this year,” Combs says. “That doesn’t mean there are not any, but it is not something we see too much of.”
The lack of momentum around VR on platforms like Wasder and Kickstarter doesn’t necessarily indicate lack of enthusiasm; it’s really more a lack of clear choices. Publishers eyeing a foray into VR can become easily discouraged because the gaming industry has yet to agree on the technologies that will support the games, let alone worked to perfect them.
“Developers don’t know which platform to develop on for gamers, and gamers don’t know which platform to buy,” says Andy Wu, an assistant professor of business administration in the strategy unit at Harvard Business School. “We call it the penguin problem, because it’s like penguins on the edge of ice. They want to jump in the water to go find fish to eat, but none of the penguins wants to be the first to jump in because they don’t want to get eaten by a shark. They want some other penguin to jump in first and prove there’s no shark.”
A similar penguin problem played out on a more commercial level in the 1980s, when neither consumers nor media companies knew whether to pick the VHS or Betamax video cassette format. VR gaming needs a “killer app” to push the gaming trend in one direction or another. This could happen in a variety of ways, including through a game that has a strong social component, similar to the hit Nintendo Switch title Animal Crossing.
“During the quarantine, a massive amount of people really wanted to play Animal Crossing, and people bought Switch devices specifically to play it,” Wu says. “Nintendo even sold out of Switch devices. That created an opportunity for other developers, because now the installed base of Switch devices is larger, so worth it for developers to write more games for Switch.”
The pressure is on the developers with the deepest pockets to create an Animal Crossing–type game for VR. “It’s got to be a true triple-A title,” Wu says.
It’s not clear which platform will win out in the end, but Facebook’s Oculus seems like a strong contender. It has the capital, the social incentive, and, so far, the most affordable hardware. But will that killer app continue to require a complex setup in order to enjoy a VR gaming experience such as Half-Life: Alyx?
The evolution of 5G cellular telecommunications technology, which is still rolling out in the U.S., may help. “The advent of 5G is expected to lower the barrier to entry for VR,” says Fullscreen Media’s Holdridge. “5G will bring lower latency times, enabling cloud computing to reduce the workload handled by VR devices and the consoles/computers powering them. This will allow VR devices to be smaller, cheaper, and more accessible. It will mean people do not need as much computing power to use their VR device.” But 5G technology has a long way to go before it’s fully and flawlessly implemented.
Graham Smith, editor-in-chief of the PC gaming website Rock Paper Shotgun, says projections of a VR gaming market of $45 billion by 2027 are overly optimistic. “VR technology will continue to improve and reduce in cost, but it’s going to be small, marginal improvements,” he predicts. “I could see the market doubling in five years, but not nine times in seven.”
Like Wu, HTC Vive’s Sapienza suggests that VR gaming’s fate hinges on its capacity to be social. “The technology is rapidly changing, and we are still finding new ways for players to not just view a world but be a part of that world,” he says. “One big misperception is that VR gaming is primarily a solo experience. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Social apps like VRChat, RecRoom, and other multiplayer games show that VR is best when shared with others. With devices getting smaller and more affordable, the trend of VR adoption will definitely continue.”
Gaming developers have more reason to be hopeful than cynical about the future of VR gaming. Nobody yet knows which company will launch the product that changes everything and on which device that will be, or whether that device is even on the market yet. But, as Sapienza says, “fully immersive VR gaming is here to stay.”
Nicole Audrey Spector is freelance writer and book editor whose work has appeared in the Atlantic, the New Yorker, and Vice.