Sony stormed the shores of France last week with their eyes set firmly on Paris Games Week’s centre stage. The company ignited the hearts of the Paris Expo Porte de Versailles crowd with a hearty press conference full of exciting games and an arsenal of mind-blowing tech. Amid a flurry of new announcements came the one long breath everyone was expecting: PlayStation VR.
Head of Sony Computer Entertainment’s Worldwide Studios, Shuhei Yoshida, took to the stage to sing his praises for the company’s maiden virtual reality venture. A punchy fifteen minute presentation saw Yoshida and co. unleash a bounty’s worth of new titles – old and new – coming directly to PSVR. We learnt that Robinson: The Journey, Battlezone, The London Heist, The Walk, Megaton Rainfall, Gran Turismo Sport, Heavensward: Final Fantasy XIV, The Rush of Blood and Tekken 7 will all be gracing the new platform in 2016.
Gameplay-wise, however, the focal point of this short presentation was undoubtedly Guerrilla Cambridge’s RIGS: Mechanized Combat League. First revealed at E3 this year and coming exclusively to PSVR, RIGS claims to synthesise the ultimate immersion of VR with the ruthless, high-stakes tenets of competitive multiplayer. Somewhere between Rocket League and Titanfall, mechs seem to become a must as players attempt to navigate fellow deadly mechs in the hunt for precious, game-winning points.
“Rigs explores multiplayer Esports,” Shuhei proudly proclaimed to his audience. Upon hearing them, those words echoed in my mind into a resounding click, of course. VR and Esports might well be the two most important industry newcomers around right now. Planting the two together in these early days could yield some serious conciliatory profits. What better way to sell a sceptic (and otherwise nonplussed) public on a hefty capital investment like VR than via the slowly stirring leviathan that is Esports? As of May, the industry was purported to be worth $612 million – with major brands like Coca Cola, Red Bull and Monster all after sponsorship deals. This is a move that I don’t doubt Microsoft and HTC have both been cooking up for some months now, Sony were just first to the podium. On the surface, merging them seems like a no-brainer. But, the more I thought about it, the less I was convinced.
Sony’s ardent conviction to be forward-facing might well prove more trouble than it’s worth. Just a few days ago, the company heralded the arrival of its “Playstation Plus League” platform, in what will be its first assured step directly into the Esports battlefield. Sony is intent to clamber aboard this moving train before it steams into the billion dollar horizon. The company clearly hopes to stir a ravenous competitive following around RIGS – one that will secure the title some tasty (and very marketable) league-based coverage. Personally, I’m not so sure. In fact, I’m not so sure that the entire VR format is at all suited to Esports: immersion is one thing, competition is an entirely different one.
Across all of its various incarnations, VR guarantees us few of the givens that we find in traditional gaming. For one, there’s nothing to say that PlayStation VR, Oculus Rift, or the HTC Vive can replicate the precision found in traditional controllers. Competitive communities swarm around games with tight controls and immaculate mechanics – what would Esports be without this? We know little about just how far motion will embed itself into these games. In RIGS’s case, the answer is likely little, but, even then, how far can we expect these souped-up swimming goggles to provide the same comfort and visual fidelity that pro-players are used to? There have even been some reports that RIGS can cause motion sickness. PSVR needs to be second to none for RIGS to have any chance of garnering a competitive following.
Retailing at a speculated $300 – $400, these VR headsets hold an incredibly high barrier to entry for what are essentially peripherals. It is incredibly unlikely that any great force of consumers will rally together to storm the shops and snatch up these headsets come launch day, or, possibly, ever. To make matters worse, there will be at least three different VR headsets launching next year, most of them complete with their own exclusive games. These competitors will certainly carve up an already thin audience into tiny slivers. At best, what we will likely see for RIGS and competitive VR games like it in these emergent months is a matrix of minute online communities.
Of course, prominent Esports players will have the means to buy these pricy peripherals – though a pro presence in no sense guarantees any league an audience. Fans tune into Esports to watch players master and excel at the games they love. In the overwhelming majority of cases, there is simply no way to appreciate the finesse involved in playing a certain game without having already played that game at least a little themselves.
Take me, for example. As your average, run of the mill, console scumbag, I have never played League of Legends before. When I attempt to watch “amazing plays”, I am left a little lost; they just look like every other play to me. My complete ignorance is, unsurprisingly, rooted in the fact that I have never played the game before. I have never taken the time to understand the rigours of control, the precision of play, or even what constitutes a rollicking victory. League of Legends is just pretty colours to me. So, go figure, I don’t find myself tuning into the latest League streams at all. By that same logic, how can Sony expect any meaningful following to apparate around RIGS when an overbearing majority of Esports fans won’t be able to appreciate, or even access, their game at all?
Guerrilla Cambridge is a competent studio with a respectable back catalogue, one that I’ve really had some fun with in the past. But, for the precariously balanced stack of drying dishes that is VR, nothing is certain. Even if RIGS proves to be a must-play, there isn’t any telling if consumers will actually buy the game; Sunset Overdrive proved as much at the beginning of last year. Audience is everything in Esports: without an audience, there are no sponsors; without any sponsors, there is no prize money; without any prize money, there are no pro players. And – no matter how exceptional the game itself may be – I’m struggling to see RIGS garnering any passionate audience for at least the next few years.
If you hadn’t already guessed by now, Sony’s attempt to smelt together these two seemingly incongruent formats has left me with a lot of questions. RIGS – and every unannounced game like it – really has its work cut out if Sony expects it to be the next Esports phenomenon. Maybe VR and Esports just aren’t cut out to be soulmates.
Cambridge’s only hope for remedy may well be to implement a DualShock 4-only control scheme – but where does that leave PlayStation VR?
Do you think RIGS has what it takes to be the next big Esports craze? Think I’m spitting some profound truisms? Think I’m a cheat, a liar, and a filthy traditional-controller-conservative-whore? Well then you should let me know in the comments box below, silly! We can have a heartfelt debate slumped over our crumb-strewn keyboards.