PlayStation rescues VR dream at GDC

It’s become almost predictable. PlayStation turns up to major industry event, steals all the headlines, and leaves its rivals wondering what exactly they can do to stop them.

Not that the team always has to work that hard. Much like the PS4 vs Xbox One battle of E3 2013, Sony attended GDC in San Francisco last week on the back of some spectacular own goals from its competition.

GDC was all about VR – almost embarrassingly so – but excitement has abandoned this new technology in recent weeks. First came the eye-watering 500 price tag that Oculus had slapped on its Rift headset, and then that was made to appear almost reasonable by HTC’s 689 asking price for its Vive product.

VR had suddenly become the playground of the uber-rich and uber-high-end PC gaming crowd.

That was until Sony announced that its PlayStation VR headset will retail for 350 – a price tag that will still hurt the wallet of even the more affluent gamer, but is nevertheless affordable to those that have a few games to trade-in.

I am extremely comfortable with the RRP,” PlayStation’s European chief Jim Ryan tells us. These are obviously decisions that we think about hugely, we always do. We always try to represent good value in our pricing, and we think we have done that with PlayStation VR.”

350 is not the whole price. If you’re one of the many PS4 owners that currently lacks access to a PlayStation Camera, you’ll need one of those and it’s not included in the box. Players may want to use the Move controllers, too, which can be used for certain titles. Those are also not included.

Both Move and Camera have been available for some years, and according to Ryan, they are owned by ‘many millions’ of PS4 owners. So it’s understandable that Sony would not force people to buy them, however, the US has a special bundle that includes these products. What’s stopping that coming to Europe?

Europe, as you know, is a delight to live in, a delight to work in, but it is complicated, fragmented and challenging from a logistical perspective,” explains Ryan.

It is slightly messy, but we just need to get into the detail of what our SKU configurations are, and what retailers might do – because UK retailers love nothing better than to create a bundle. I have to work it through country-by-country, retailer-by-retailer… it is messy, but it is eminently solvable.”

The other piece of news to emerge from GDC is the release date: PlayStation VR will be released globally in October. A slight delay from its previously planned ‘first-half of 2016′ release window.

[October] is when we have an alignment between the appropriate amount of hardware to put into the market and the proper number, and quality, of games to launch with,” insists Ryan.

But will there be enough stock? Following the announcement, some stores had immediately sold out of their initial batch of headsets.

It’s hard to tell,” Ryan admits. The news overnight on pre-orders is extremely encouraging, but I’d be very wary about extrapolating how we’ll do through to launch based on less than 24 hours.

I would say that the early pre-orders has surpassed our initial expectations. So that suggests demand, and therefore day one, might be quite significant.”

There are a lot of unknowns about virtual reality. There is excitement in the market and those that have played it will tell you that it is genuinely an impressive experience.

But will it warrant the price? And has the excitement from the media extended to the consumers? It’s difficult to predict. It will come down to the marketing in many ways. Ryan says the industry shouldn’t expect ‘the OXO tower’ – which is a reference to one of the many expensive stunts Sony adopted when launching the PS4 – but that PlayStation is taking this very seriously.”

The marketing mix is going to be very different to anything we have done before,” he says. One thing that we observe very clearly and very consistently, is that people only really get this once they try it. Experiential activity is going to play a part that is far greater than anything we have done before. The marketing will definitely be there, and it will definitely be meaningful, it will just take a rather different form to what we’ve done previously.”

"People are becoming prepared to get into this.
Nobody wants to be late to the party."

Jim Ryan, PlayStation

One of the concerns surrounding VR last year was the lack of major third-party support.

There may be over 200 developers working on VR games, but outside of Ubisoft, the triple-A publishing giants were adopting a ‘wait and see’ strategy. There was no game from EA or Activision or Take-Two.

So it was reassuring to see at GDC that EA is working on a Star Wars: Battlefront experience for PlayStation VR, while the likes of 2K and Warner Bros are also working on projects.

Not to mention pretty much every major Japanese publisher.

I think as things move from being rather abstract R&D projects, into something that has crystallised as real, with a release date and price, then confidence to make an investment in it increases,” explains Ryan.

People are becoming prepared to get into this. Nobody wants to be late to the party.”

He concludes: And I am pretty sure that there will be a number of other publishers that will be looking at those names and thinking: ‘I don’t want to be last.’”

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