Sony boss: virtual reality throws out the game design rule book

Smaller studios can have a ‘significant presence’ in the VR space, says chief executive of computer entertainment giant – and immersive games are only the tip of the iceberg

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 02 April, 2016, 12:01am
UPDATED : Saturday, 02 April, 2016, 12:01am

Virtual reality could be a great leveller for the games industry, allowing small studios to make a sizeable impact by creating new experiences that would be impossible on a traditional console.

That’s the view of Andrew House, chief executive of Sony Computer Entertainment, which has recently announced a US$399 price for its PlayStation VR headset, due out in October. (Prices for the Asian market are still to be announced.)

While VR’s future is far from assured, and while the rules of designing successful experiences are still being established (many conventional video game genres simply don’t translate to the VR world) there are, House believes, exciting new opportunities.

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“The most fascinating thing is how VR has rewritten the rulebook of what game design should be,” he says. “It’s levelled the playing field in terms of production values.

“What has encouraged me is that there’s an opportunity for smaller developers with simpler game mechanics that are very well crafted for the VR experience to have more of a significant presence than they would have on a blockbuster console. It’s intriguing.”

While many of the 100 or so games currently in development for the platform are from larger publishers like Electronic Arts and Ubisoft, there are also more experimental titles, like the football heading sim Headmaster from Frame Interactive and the puzzler Tumble VR from Supermassive Games.

The format is likely to support shorter, more experiential titles that don’t require users to wear a headset for many hours – and independent studios have as much experience in this area as larger teams.

House stresses that, although they are rivals, Facebook, HTC and Sony must collaborate in order to turn this new technology into a mainstream success.

“Our aim, I hope, is to build a market together, rather than steal market share from one another,” he says, shortly after announcing that Sony’s virtual reality headset, the PSVR, will launch globally in October for the comparatively low price of US$399. It’s unusual for a peripheral that costs more than its host game console to be considered a bargain, but virtual reality is proving to be a pricey frontier for early adopters.

HTC’s Vive will retail for ­US$799, while Facebook’s Oculus Rift, launching this week, costs US$599, a significant amount when you also consider the cost of the formidable PCs required to run the hardware competently.

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House explains that Sony has worked hard during the past two years to find affordable materials for its headset, which is perhaps the most attractive of the range, with its white and black colour scheme and blue glowing lights.

It is also less isolating than the other sets: it uses a single screen (the Vive and Rift employ a screen for each eye), which sits in front of the eyes rather than totally encapsulating the viewing field.

And while Sony has had to compromise on screen resolution to keep the costs down, the PSVR boasts a higher potential refresh rate of 120Hz, rather than the 90Hz offered by the Oculus or HTC headsets. This could make for a smoother, more comfortable motion experience.

“We want to deliver good value, especially to people who have already invested in the system, without devaluing the experience,” he explains. Sony has managed to triangulate these requirements with profitability too; the company will, House reveals, make money on every unit sold – many predicted the company would need to sell the device at a loss, a common practice in the console industry to boost interest and gain market share.

That price of US$399 is, however, only for the entry-level unit. House says there will be multiple bundles, including various configurations of the PS Eye camera, and the wand-like Move controllers, which can be used to further the player’s sense of presence in some games.

He doesn’t believe this risks fragmenting the audience with different set-ups, thereby complicating the development process. “Games that require a controller will work with both the Move and the PlayStation’s DualShock,” he says. “That will be the default, while some games [will be] optimised for the Move controller as well.”

It’s a sensible decision. Sony’s great advantage over the Vive and Oculus Rift is the PlayStation 4’s status asa closed platform.

The more than 30 million PlayStation 4s that have been sold enjoy exactly the same specifications as one another, unlike PCs, which come in a vast array of configurations.

While the PS4 may be underpowered compared to the current highest-end PCs, this drawback is offset by the console’s uniformity.

“Developers can be assured the exact experience they’re working to create will be the same for all players,” says House.

When asked how many units Sony will need to sell in order to consider the invention a success, House remains philosophical.

“Clearly there is immense interest from developers and creators,” he says. “That’s translated to enthusiasm from the press. But whether that transfers into massive day-one consumer buy-in is another question.

“I count success as building a great experience for, initially, an enthusiast market that believes VR is the next step in gaming. Hopefully, we build from there around word of mouth.”

House says PSVR’s buyers will initially be a subset of the PS4 audience, “a fairly enthusiast gamer who is looking for the next great thing”. They will be, House says, “someone who joins us almost in a spirit of co-creation, who wants to go on the journey with us”.

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Many working within the broader field of VR believe that mainstream adoption won’t be led by video games but, rather, will come from applications that allow users to remotely experience a sports match or concert, tuning in live at a fraction of the cost of a physical seat in the stadium or auditorium.

One of Sony’s PSVR demos in San Francisco recently showed its interest in this kind of broader application: a recorded classical music performance by the American violinist Joshua Bell, which the viewer watches as if standing next to the musician.

When asked whether this work is a part of Sony’s long-term plan, House is unambiguous: “Undoubtedly,” he says. “There is no question that we are an entertainment company.

“We are currently having a lot of conversations both internally and externally about what the broader implication of VR could be.

“Our view is that this is early days for this medium. Our goal is to build this initially around great gaming experiences, and then, further down the line, explore these kinds of new opportunities that are capturing the imagination of a wide variety of people.”

The Guardian