A few months ago, Sony launched the PlayStation VR after several years of work. Early reviews were generally positive, though they carried the caveats common to all VR today — the various experiences have some great moments, but a true killer app has yet to emerge. Since then, Sony has gone quiet about the platform, despite being happy to talk about total PS4 shipments through the holiday season or various other aspects of its gaming sales.
First up, there’s the recent closure of Guerilla Cambridge, a game development studio that created what’s been hailed as one of the PSVR’s best initial titles — the mech battlegame Rigs. The main studio, Guerilla Games in Amsterdam, won’t be affected, but Guerilla Cambridge had been in operation for 19 years — hardly a fly-by-night. Sony has stated that Rigs will be left online, but there won’t be any new DLC or support for the title going forward.
Next, there’s early evidence that the PSVR’s sales figures may not have been to the company’s liking. There was little mention of VR or upcoming VR titles at the PlayStation Experience last month, and Sony’s Kaz Hirai has refused to give concrete figures, saying: “We’ve always said it’s going to be a slow start, unfortunately, we did produce a lot of units but we ran out of stock in some retailers, but I think based on reports coming out of the holiday season, we’re actually happy with the numbers. One of the reasons we’re not talking about the numbers so much is because we don’t want the numbers to take a life of their own.”
Independent tracking firm SuperData Research has revised their estimate of PSVR sales to 750,000, down from 2.6 million, though that initial figure was extremely optimistic, for reasons we’ll explain below.
Evaluating the PSVR
Kaz Hirai’s decision not to give out concrete sales figures isn’t a cut-and-dried admission that the PSVR didn’t sell well. As Oculus and HTC moved towards launch day, the speculation and sky-high analyst predictions reached a fever pitch, with some highly unlikely figures tossed around for near-term VR shipments from all three companies. Moving 750,000 units for a high-end specialty product that launched late in the year and debuted just weeks before the PlayStation 4 Pro isn’t bad.
But others have also noted that there’s a real dearth of content scheduled for the PS4, apart from Star Trek Bridge Crew and Resident Evil 7, both of which support VR. Other titles are still listed as TBA, and there aren’t many of those, either. There are multiple ways to read this situation, but here’s my take: Sony decided to make two bets on the future of gaming, and it made them more-or-less at the same time. On the one hand, you’ve got PlayStation 4 Pro, which requires a 4K TV and HDR compatibility to really take advantage of. The exact improvements and capabilities of the PS4 Pro vary depending on what kind of screen you are playing on, and this has complicated the situation enough that the PS4 Pro isn’t always a worthwhile upgrade or purchase depending on your budget, existing A/V setup, and use-case.
On the other hand, you’ve got the PSVR. It works with both the PS4 and the PS4 Pro, but still costs $ 400 (more, if you lack certain peripherals). Neither the PS4 Pro nor the PSVR are inexpensive. Neither are slam-dunk, must-have additions at this point in time. The fact that VR works at all on the relatively limited hardware of the PS4 is impressive, but it’s not even the device to buy if you want to experience the full range of what modern hardware can achieve. Sony undoubtedly knows that it’s competing against companies like Oculus and HTC, and no matter how much it wants to win market space for its own solution, it’s not going to hurl vast amounts of money after a potentially poor bet. After all, neither Kinect nor the PlayStation Move / PSWii did much to change the future of gaming, and even the Wii’s motion controls fueled an army of shovelware games much more than they redefined the genre.
One of the problems with creating a new market around a technology is that analysts and pundits can make wild predictions that later are circulated as fact. SuperData Research predicted, for example, that Sony would sell 2.6 million PSVR’s in Q4 alone. We don’t have full data for the PS4’s 2016 performance yet, but check the 2015 sales data (displayed against 2016 for reference) from VGChartz. We’re principally concerned with Q4, since the PSVR launched in October.
Sony sold 9,172,748 PS4’s from October to December, 2015. Predicting that it would ship 2.6 million PSVR’s in the same period would mean that 28% of existing PlayStation 4 owners would drop another $ 400-$ 560 on a peripheral that had only just launched and whose success wasn’t guaranteed. It might have worked, in a vacuum, but with Sony launching the PS4 Pro at the same time? I guarantee you that plenty of people looked at the value proposition on the PS4 Pro versus the PSVR and decided the higher-end console was the safer bet, especially since it might be more likely to deliver better VR in the future. Furthermore, there will have been buyers who decided to take the plunge on 4K + HDR and spent $ 800 – $ 900 on a new TV + PS4 Pro rather than the PSVR.
None of this means the PSVR is a poor product. It means analysts that should’ve known to account for these factors were overly enthusiastic and created a false expectation around VR that they later had to walk back. Nonetheless, if Sony starts releasing numbers, it can get dinged for failing to meet expectations that were never realistic or calibrated to the actual market PSVR deployed in.
We’re still in the early days of VR
Right now, I genuinely don’t know if VR will take off or not. I’ve loved my experiences with the technology, but it’s expensive, the game libraries really aren’t developed enough to justify the cost, and both the HTC Vive and Oculus Rift need a few more rounds of cost-cutting and feature improvement to justify the up-front investment. Sony took a bet on virtual reality by building the PSVR, but it’s clearly hedging that bet rather than committing to the idea that the future of console gaming is virtual reality. Kinect and Kinect 2 are all the evidence the Japanese console maker needs for how betting on a tech that consumers don’t want can derail your platform. VR, like 3D, could turn out to be a flash in the pan, or it could be a lucrative and enjoyable way that people game in the future.
What VR needs now, more than anything, is games. It’s disheartening to see Sony closing the studio behind one of the PSVR’s best titles for that reason alone. But Resident Evil 7 and Star Trek Bridge Crew could both be potent shots in the arm for PSVR, and if those games sell well for VR-attached players, you can bet Sony will pay attention to it.
The current release schedule for PSVR in 2017 is pretty anemic, but we should know more about Sony’s long-term plans for virtual reality in the next few months. If it’s going to back the platform, we’ll get more game announcements. If it isn’t, the silence will make it clear. Either way, huge sales of the PSVR wouldn’t indicate the technology would stick around for the long haul (Kinect, after all, sold like crazy), and modest sales to-date say more about the early state of VR gaming than anything else. It wasn’t clear, three months after the first iPhone, that Apple had just reinvented the entire smartphone market. We can afford to wait and see a bit.