Poor Phil Spencer; no one wants him to like VR. Every time Microsoft’s Xbox guru opens his mouth to explain his stance on the technology, only the negative points seem to make the headlines, even when he’s trying to clarify any misunderstanding around previous pessimism.
Even this week’s comments, in which Spencer tried to plainly explain Xbox’s thinking around VR and its understandable-yet-frustrating patience with the technology, resulted in some ugly takes. Call me a turncoat, but I do sympathize with him. Not because he’s often taken out of context on the subject, but because I agree with him.
Microsoft could release an amazing VR headset for its Xbox Series X console, of that I have no doubt. The company has previous iterations to build off of and the library of quality of VR content is slowly but surely growing into a worthwhile proposition (no doubt set to be greatly bolstered by next month’s release of Half-Life: Alyx). But it is also true that Xbox’s vision for the future of gaming — and to put the brand back on top of the industry wars — has filled its plate with enough short and long-term goals, with little room left for VR on the side. That’s a meal unto itself.
The future of Xbox is the incredible value in its Games Pass line-up, the accessibility of its Project Xcloud streaming platform, and a careful balancing act of multiple tiers of console that, presumably, will range from an affordable 4K console for the masses and a more demanding machine for enthusiasts wanting to inspect every blade of grass and water droplet falling from the sky. Though there’s a lot of risk involved with taking these chances, collectively they paint an optimistic picture of greater accessibility in an industry that struggled to expand its demographics in the past few decades.
VR threatens to throw an awkward wrench into that multitude of focuses. The question of when traditional game streaming, for example, will be good enough for prime time remains unanswered even after the release of Google’s Stadia platform. Adding VR on top of that requires performance even beyond the base standards we’d expect now.
What, too, would become of VR on two tiers of Xbox consoles? The gap between the base PS4 and PS4 Pro is often a pain point for developers, with the latter far more capable of maintaining the quality of the original PC titles. Would we see another generation of held-back games suffering from release parity clauses across consoles?
No doubt, there is uncertainty ahead for Microsoft’s gaming business. Especially as it finds itself on the back foot at the tail end of a console generation. Its mission to reverse fortunes is one of brute force ambition, but the uncertain waters of VR might prove a little too stormy for this experimental phase.
Microsoft can operate comfortably in the knowledge that Sony, Facebook and Valve will keep VR in its increasingly healthy incubation stage until it is ready to go a step further. Until then, what is there to really be gained from jumping into the game this early? Certainly not much money, and the lessons VR is learning are very public. Quest’s standalone nature shows that wires and external trackers need to go; two things that Microsoft itself already knows.
Not to mention that Xbox, as a brand, has a history of biding its time. Microsoft didn’t jump into the console business until Nintendo and Sony were on their second 3D gaming machines. True, there was some catch up to play in the first generation of Xbox but the follow-up 360 console saw it comfortably lead in front of Sony for a good portion of that generation.
I wouldn’t be surprised to see a similar situation here. Let PSVR and Quest continue to work out VR’s kinks and then, when a path to explosive profit is clear, come out swinging with, say, a full Halo VR game. make it a headset that supports both Xbox One Series X and PCs. Microsoft owns studios with VR expertise already; it wouldn’t take too long to establish an enviable stable of games to compete with Sony and Facebook. It may not have left the gates yet, but Microsoft’s horse is still very much in this race.
All that is too say that I’m confident Xbox VR will still happen and that Microsoft is shrewd not to be gunning for it too early. In early 2020, it seems quite sure that VR isn’t going anywhere, at least for the next few years. If the industry manages to make it beyond that goal? That’s when Phil Spencer needs to change tack.