Photographer: Patrick T. Fallon

Why Big Game Publishers Aren't Into Virtual Reality (Yet)

The big players in game publishing are in a holding pattern

The breathless enthusiasm over virtual reality hasn’t extended to one key corner of the video game industry: the companies that make the most popular games. At this week’s E3 conference, representatives from Electronic Arts, Activision Blizzard, and Take-Two all said they were taking a wait-and-see approach to virtual reality. None are planning on having games ready for next year, when Oculus and Morpheus headsets will go on sale for the first time.  

"We haven't seen the commercial release of the hardware. We haven't seen commercial release of any software,” says Strauss Zelnick, chief executive officer of Take-Two, makers of Grand Theft Auto. "We're intrigued. We're doing a lot of homework. We haven't made any announcements yet. I think it remains to be seen what that format is."

Laura Miele, senior vice president for publishing at Electronic Arts, says that the company’s past experiences chasing every trend in gaming has left it circumspect about losing focus.  “We talk as much about what we’re not doing as what we are going to do. That’s a significant shift for the company,” she says. 

While EA does have some early prototypes of virtual reality content, Miele thinks it will be years before the company sells games for headsets. “We’ll not miss an opportunity, but we’re not porting all of our games or having a huge rush to be in VR right now,” she says. 

In large part, the reluctance stems from uncertainty as to whether there’s real money to be made in virtual reality yet, says Joseph Evans, an analyst who covers gaming for Enders Analysis. Compared to console games, there won’t be much in sales at first. “I’d do the same in their position,” says Evans. "For all the buzz, we just don’t know the level of consumer demand, and I see no reason they couldn’t get up to speed very quickly once the market is there.” 

Because no one yet knows what makes a good virtual reality game, publishers who excel at making expansive experiences for consoles won’t necessarily have an advantage over smaller shops experimenting with new types of games. The most successful smartphone games have generally come from companies that emerged specifically to focus on mobile, rather than from well-known publishers making games for other devices. 

Some publishers that concentrate primarily on consoles are showing more interest in virtual reality. Ubisoft, for instance, showed at this year’s conference a number of prototypes it has been working on. But most of the action in virtual reality seems set to come from the hardware companies themselves, as well as from smaller developers willing to take risks. Oculus recently announced that it would invest $10 million to help independent developers create software for its headsets. Shuhei Yoshida, president of Sony’s World Studios, says that virtual reality games will be cheaper to make at first than console games, because the early games won't be nearly as big as titles like Call of Duty or Halo. 

This could make it harder to sell headsets at first. Despite all the advances in technology, the thing that really sparks sales of gaming hardware is excitement over new versions of the most popular games. It seems that Oculus and Morpheus will launch with few such titles available. Yoshida says he expects to eventually see versions of popular console games for virtual reality. He also argues that they’re not needed to draw people to the technology: New game formats and such things as travel experiences will prove just as tempting to potential users.

“These things will appeal to many different kinds of audiences,” he says. “The potential is much broader than the current console games.” 

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