What Games Are: Something’s Adrift With Oculus Rift

Editor’s note: Tadhg Kelly is a veteran game designer, creator of leading game design blog What Games Are and creative director of Jawfish Games. You can follow him on Twitter here.

It is, of course, a bit of a coup. I’m referring to the news last week that the legendary John Carmack, hero of coders everywhere, has jumped into Oculus Rift. Feet first no less, as CTO. This after a long period of tacit involvement and support for the Kickstarted device designed to finally make VR gaming happen. Rejoice ye!

While talent endorsements as big as this are always welcome, Carmack’s news is not a great surprise, per se. He’s widely considered the founding father of the first person shooter and is actively involved in new developments in the genre. To that end he’s shown some interest in working with the Rift already, as have many others.

For indie game makers everywhere the Rift has been a sensation for some time. Ask any game development student what game they want to make and you’ll get many answers that involve the Oculus Rift. Usually they conceive of awesome shooting or absorbing adventure games, starting with “Imagine a world where you can walk around…” and going from there.

It’s not hard to see why. Virtual reality has been a dream of every geek since, well, the very beginning. From Tron to Snow Crash and a million other sources, it’s been around. It featured on BBC science shows in the 80s, showing people wearing massive headsets that rendered a wireframe world for their eyes. “Imagine a world where you can walk around…” excited reporters would say.

Especially when we’re approaching the age of wearable technology and augmented reality, Oculus Rift seems timely. We have Star-Trek style touch screens that we can swoosh and swipe, and the ones we have are in many ways better than those envisioned by Roddenberry, et al. We have overlays, exotic new interfaces and so on that seem to bridge a gap. Now all those demos from the early 90s showing people flying around in landscapes could finally be real. We could finally get to “Lawnmower Man” our way through some sort of cyber-universe for fun.

In fact last year I received a demo of an early version of the Rift while at Evolve in London (a games industry event). It made me pretty nauseous within about 10 minutes of playing but was also very cool. Just as people got used to 3D movies, there’s no reason they couldn’t get used to this. I definitely want one.

Yet there’s something about Oculus Rift that’s just not right. It’s an incredible idea in many ways, is funded and has boat loads of talented developers working on or with it.

Take a step back from what Rift does and consider where it does it. What do you see? A hulking PC at a desk powering it and its games. It is essentially just a display (not to be unkind) that needs to be connected to a PC, and I don’t know if you know this but PCs are on the slide. The problem is the paradigm.

Oculus Rift’s problem is essentially that it’s a peripheral for a device category which is ever-so-slowly passing into the West. The business case doesn’t make sense.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the third-party peripheral industry tends to be a niche business. Such devices tend to fragment and serve only specific markets, leading to limited support from game developers. So they tend to be devices whose purpose is entirely about servicing a very specific kind of game. Even joypads, which have been available for the PC forever, have difficulty in getting full support from game makers for this reason.

So add the decline in platform to the limited support for peripherals, and I have very serious questions about the Rift’s viability. (Also, for much the same reason, with the Leap Motion). I understand that the device had sufficiently strong appeal to draw in a couple of million dollars via Kickstarter, and that it’s the sort of project that excites some games and technology journalists. Yet it seems more quixotic than transformative.

Rift stands in stark contrast to two other big tech successes from Kickstarter, the OUYA and the Pebble. The other two are busy fomenting category-sized revolutions (microconsoles and smartwatches) around self-contained systems. Live or die, their fortunes are not tied to the health of another market, and that means they have the potential for explosive growth. That’s how crazes start.

But the Rift? Outside of the core core core set of people who dream in VR, who honestly cares about buying a new device that hooks up to their PC? The last big innovation in PCs was netbooks, then ultra-thin laptops, and that sort of thing. And then along came tablets.

The narrative timeline for the PC does not look good. The overall downward trend in new sales is inescapable. Dell’s income is dropping like a stone. HP and other big PC makers are all looking for a way out. Even Apple is selling less Macs.

Yet PC does still have considerable support in gaming circles. Indie game makers tend to prefer it as the art house venue for their efforts. Steam is where the most passionate audience lives. Massive multiplayer gaming is also largely still a PC-only affair, as is Facebook gaming. Certain competitive eSports games like Starcraft do likewise, and there’s plenty of casual gaming still happening on laptops in front of TVs.

But nobody’s going to buy a Rift to play Starcraft or FarmVille 2, and many of those who play Steam games do so for weird indie hits. Rift’s target market is the shooter crowd but there are far more of those people on console than PC these days. Many players don’t really like the first person experience in general. Many play games on weaker systems than would be able to pump out great content for Rift. All those pesky netbooks.

Perhaps people love the idea of VR, but to sell them on the idea that they should buy one needs something more self contained. It strikes me that to work, Oculus Rift needs to sever the umbilical chord. It needs to be self-sufficient, a device that just works and delivers games on its own terms rather than attached to a dying paradigm.

Gaming PCs may still sell, but they do so to an increasingly inward-looking culture. At a time when tablets and other smaller, neater devices exist, there’s little room for something that promises the future by hooking up to the past.