If you wanted to grab every gaming headline in the universe for a solid week, there’s worse ways to do it than announcing a new Half-Life game. The first entry to the classic series after 12 years has prompted a surge of nostalgia, while also reminding us that dear god it’s been 12 years we’re aging rapidly and we’re all going to die.
It’s all the more interesting that it’s a VR-exclusive title, coming to Steam VR in March next year. Speaking to Geoff Keighley, Valve’s Dario Casali explained the move by saying that VR controllers offered a level of control that “we couldn’t possibly do with a mouse and keyboard.”
Of course, the more cynical viewpoint is that Valve has a new expensive VR headset it wants to sell – They’re offering Half-Life: Alyx free with every past and future Valve Index purchase. While Valve’s unique business structure likely means there’s genuine passion behind this project, it’s unlikely a coincidence that it also happens to be a VR-based passion.
It’s certainly been successful in attracting a lot of attention to Valve’s VR platform – And the Half-Life branding is pulling a lot of weight here. Alyx started life as a VR game before it was ever subject to the Half-Life branding, having been brought in to address the question of “Where’s the big VR title?”
It’s no secret that VR right now is hardly self-sustaining. It’s a niche audience inside a niche audience: and it has only a handful of true success stories so far. Just this year alone has seen both Google and Samsung drop their VR ambitions. The desire for a killer-app when launching a VR platform is obvious, but is that killer app really Half-Life?
Make no mistake, the franchise is legendary in the industry. But with the last entry, Half-Life: Episode 2 releasing in 2007, it’s hardly likely to have young fans. I was 14 when I first played Half-Life 2, and 17 once Episode 2 came around – I’m likely among the youngest of the Half-Life fans, and I don’t like going to gigs anymore because there’s nowhere to sit down. My friends are married with children. The grave calls for me.
Those who would be most excited by a Half-Life VR title are likely members of two camps: those who have remained engaged with the industry into their adult lives (and therefore are likely to be at least interested in VR anyway), or have aged themselves out of the hobby due to new commitments and the merciless passage of time.
But do they care enough that it’s back in VR? Enough to spend £400 on an Oculus Rift S? Presuming of course they own a PC powerful enough to run it. PlayStation VR or Oculus Quest versions of the game would be a compelling kickstart to the ongoing quandary of VR takeup, but they would be unlikely to fulfil Valve’s grand intentions.
On top of that, the initial excitement over VR has very much settled down. The expectations a few years ago that VR would be the future of gaming have cooled into a more practical realisation that the future isn’t quite here yet.
Those remaining invested in VR do so in the hopes that it will become feasible in the future, as much more than a gaming platform, and not out of any expectation of financial success today. Many developers are supported by Facebook, for whom bankrolling a few games to keep the dream alive is pocket change compared to the $2bn it speculated on buying Oculus in the first place.
With all that said, there’s little doubt that Half-Life: Alyx will likely do well enough for Valve – it’s a high-profile title tied to their new VR headset, after all. But it’s hardly something to point to for a near-term reversal of VR’s fortunes. If anything, the use of the Half-Life license feels like a tacit acknowledgement on Valve’s part that VR is quite a ways away from mainstream success. Valve is throwing a bone to their long standing loyal fans, but they won’t bring any new blood into VR with Alyx.