The Reality of PlayStation’s Virtual Future
[UPDATE] This article was first published on 6/22/16. With the launch of PlayStation VR (PSVR) imminent, I thought it would be interesting to revisit this piece. Early reviews of PSVR from the warm market media are mixed, with many citing issues with motion control and software that is much more tech demo than fully fleshed-out experience (as is the case with the vast majority of VR content available for Oculus Rift and htc Vive.) I will be putting the hardware and launch software through their paces over the next week or so and will share my opinions/experience with you in due course. For those of you that are interested in PSVR, I also encourage you to take a look at a feature I posted back in October of 2015 ( it can be found here.) As with any new technology at launch, “caution” is the keyword. Exciting as the potential may be, the reality is that consumers are looking at spending $400-$500 for the privilege of being one of the early few and a number of factors must be considered before making the leap – not the least of which are market potential, publisher/manufacturer track record and commitment, third-party support and the value of the current experience.
Did you know that “Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End” has sold to less than 7% of PlayStation 4’s installed base? The game is, arguably, the single biggest first-party title that SIE will release during the platform’s life-cycle and, to date, it has sold under three million units. While this is, in this day and age, a very solid performance for a $60 game, it does highlight the biggest challenge for PlayStation VR. If the biggest, most critically-acclaimed game release for your hardware is selling to less than 7% of your potential customers, what can you expect from a $500 peripheral – an investment larger than your consumer has made in committing to your platform?
I pose these questions because SIE is asking a lot of their most loyal and well-heeled customers with PlayStation VR, and the company’s track record for floating adjunct technology for their current platforms, then abandoning it when the consumer base doesn’t materialize is almost 100%. PlayStation Move, PlayStation Vita, Stereoscopic 3D, the PS2 HDD, Wonderbook (remember that?) – the list goes on and on. But, with PlayStation VR, the risks to the consumer are so much greater given the level of investment required. And, it isn’t just the $500 investment in the headset, camera and Move controllers. I have spoken with many people with knowledge on the subject and the general consensus is that the PlayStation 4 does not have the processing muscle to provide for a quality virtual reality experience akin to that on offer from Oculus and htc Vive. So, the implication is that PS4 gamers that want to get the true VR experience are going to have to purchase the upgraded PS4 currently known as “Neo.” With a retail price likely to come close to $500, that makes the total investment required to get the best VR experience on PlayStation close to $1,000.
If SIE has sold less than three million units of their biggest AAA, $60 game. to less than 7% of their current audience, how large of a user base for PSVR can they realistically expect with this required level of financial commitment?
The Crystal Ball tells me that 3% of the PS4 installed base is an aggressive target. If the company is able to achieve that, based on their current installed base of roughly 40 million, they will have an installed base for PSVR of roughly 1.2 million. To put this into context; if SIE was trying to sell Uncharted 4 VR to this base and had the same level of success that they are currently enjoying on PS4 (7% of installed), then they would sell 84,000 units.
This won’t get it done for Sony’s Worldwide Studios, let alone third-party publishers and developers. This is why you are seeing a very conservative and limited response from the development community, and from the major publishers. You hear a lot about VR “experiences” because these developers and publishers are trying to mitigate their risks at platform launch. They know that short, cheaper, tech demo-ish games are the best way forward in these early days and their “experiences” on offer will be made to all VR platforms to give them every opportunity to recoup their investments. So, as is always the case with new platforms, it will be up to SIE and their Worldwide Studios to carry the development load that helps distinguish their platform from their competition. But, are they really committed this time around? Are they willing to keep at it, in spite of the numbers (and failures) I have cited above?
For PlayStation 4 owners that are interested in VR, this is a very risky proposition. This isn’t $90 for a pair of Move controllers and a camera. PSVR is a MAJOR investment/commitment – larger than these same consumers have made in the platform itself. And, it is also a major risk for SIE – one that is centered on their most passionate, dedicated consumer. If they fail the hardest of the hardcore, what credibility will they have left? If the games/experiences pipeline dries up one year after launch, or if the bigger/epic games that the vast majority of these consumers are expecting never materialize, what will that mean for the future of the PlayStation brand?
In closing, I am not posing the possibility of a negative outcome simply for an academic discussion. I am one of the hardcore, early-adopters that pre-ordered PSVR a few months back when it was first made available. I have skin in the game – as I have had with all previous PlayStation platforms and associated peripherals. I am invested… I want PSVR to be successful. But, I also know the history and have been burned before. And, this time is different and the stakes are so much higher. I can only hope that the powers-that-be at SIE understand these realities and that they are prepared to stay the course – not just to protect my/your investment and gaming future, but to protect their own.
A Lot is Riding on PlayStation VR – Not the Least of Which is Consumer Confidence in the PlayStation Brand