The games industry has always been a technology innovator. At it’s finest, when harnessing proven technology platforms and moulding them to a games environment. Think back to the television, PC or more recently the smartphone or tablet. None of these were created for games, yet each owes its success, in part, to the games industry’s chameleonic nature.
This union of games and technology has always been at its most transformative where clear use cases already exist. For example, the first arcade games Pong and Computer Space were able to learn from the way people played pinball machines. Since then, consumer insights have played a central role in helping developers create new yet intuitive player experiences.
But what happens when these use cases aren’t available? Step forward VR. Last year the VR hype machine went into overdrive and uncharacteristically, the games industry went in early and went in hard, investing heavily in both hardware and game development. However, when you look at other sectors like medicine, education, and architecture, where VR also has massive potential to be transformative, the use of VR is still only slowly seeping through.
Traditionally, the games sector takes its time to understand how people interact with a technology before it condenses and extracts the essence of what works into a game situation. Right now, games just don’t have those references in VR, forcing the industry to wait whilst everyone else catches-up and overtakes. But without these user blueprints, you have to ask whether the industry jumped the gun where VR is concerned?
There certainly seems to be a disconnect between hype and reality, something which has spooked analysts into downgrading the sales forecasts for VR by 22%. Perhaps with so many transformative technologies coming onto the market in recent times like the 3D TV, 4K TV, smart watches, driverless cars, AR and AI – games studios have been split over which technology to back.
Lessons from the smartphone
It was the emergence of the smartphone and specifically the arrival of the touchscreen that really set mobile on its way as the first major game changer since the console went mainstream.
When you look at the huge revenues being generated by mobile games, you’d be forgiven for assuming that developers have already mastered how to balance a great player experience with strong monetization. But this isn’t the case for most developers.
When casual games exploded on to our mobiles over a decade ago, effective monetization was just a basic numbers game. The more users you acquired, the more spending players you got in your game and the more money you made, but then something changed. Acquisition costs began to skyrocket and those developers without bottomless pockets, ergo the 99%, were forced to shift their focus on player retention to make ends meet.
Meanwhile, in other sectors like retail and finance, big data was starting to be used to understand consumer behaviour and use those insights to make customer engagement more personalized.
Understanding that all players are not the same, developers began to use analytics to monitor individual player behaviours, to make in-game design changes in a bid to improve individual player enjoyment.
Today, if you were to ask executives around the industry today what their biggest concern is, almost unanimously, they will not say AR, VR, or any other technology, but understanding the player experience.
Beyond the false dawn
The games industry is always looking for the next big horizon, but in its eagerness to invent a whole new market around VR, its tried to be an inventor rather than an innovator, making its move into VR too early.
That’s not to say VR won’t be the next big thing. Broad consumer adoption of any technology relies on awareness, and for VR, awareness is still a major concern, with SuperData Research reporting that nearly 80 percent of consumers only occasionally or never hear about VR.
But all of that could be about to change. Last month, Google announced a move designed to make the use of VR more ubiquitous, with it’s Chrome browser now supporting WebVR – an API which allows companies to create VR experiences that can activated via the web, without the need of a dedicated app. Primarily, this will support things like 360 degree tours and immersive experiences, but WebVR also supports full VR experiences via the Daydream headset and controller.
As the smartphone and free-to-play model opened gaming up to the mainstream, initiatives like WebVR could prove to be the catalyst which makes VR a daily operation for the masses. But rest assured, consumer use cases have always and will always play an incredibly important role in helping the games industry to do what it does best and innovate.
While the VR revolution of 2016 may have been a false dawn, the technology does have huge potential to change the games industry forever, before that becomes a reality, it will have to first prove a success in other sectors.
If you liked this article, you may also like to read: Is VR technology a leap back in time?