During the wave of VR hype in the mid 2010s, I was as excited as anyone else who loves video games. It wasn’t hard to envision total immersion in games alongside continued progression in motion-based controls from the Wii era. Yes, I wanted to fight Darth Vader with a lightsaber, have a ghost scare the crap out of me in a haunted house, and hit a fastball in a packed Yankee Stadium. And despite the rough edges, high prices, and mess of wires, there were great moments pretty early out of the gate; here at Sandbox we were lucky to work on one of the first truly fun VR games in Crytek’s The Climb.
And then… despite consistent hardware advancements, VR seemed to stagnate. The media largely moved on, other than to chime in with pieces wondering if VR was dead. Nothing emerged as a “killer app,” a lot of VR games were nauseating, and gamers stuck with classic controls. I followed the herd and stopped trying new VR games and experiences. “Maybe this was just 3D all over again,” I thought.
There was a voice trying to help me see the light. The man’s name is Job Stauffer, an old friend of Sandbox from his days doing PR at Rockstar Games and Telltale Games. Always intrigued by VR and trying apps and games I’d never even heard of, he got into Soundboxing in 2017 before going nuclear in 2018 with Beat Saber for PSVR, beginning a path towards a much healthier lifestyle. He became a VR fitness evangelist and stuck with it, constantly churning out shameless videos of his workouts, even donning a cape for flair. I’d text him about it, and he’d just say, “if you hate the gym, get over yourself, try fitness VR.”
Still, even with the pandemic widespread and cold weather setting in, laziness prevailed, and it wasn’t until my 10-year-old daughter begged for an Oculus Quest 2 for Christmas that I went for it (she wanted to hang out with her friends in VRChat). Motivated by Job and recent hype pieces about fitness VR, I subscribed to Supernatural, a popular VR fitness app, and…
Now I not only “get it,” I am addicted to it. I’ve never looked forward to a workout until now, and the crystal-clear environments (from the pyramids in Egypt to Norwegian fjords) are genuinely stunning. But the more important takeaway for me is that the future of VR won’t be dependent on “video games” in any traditional sense; “gamified experiences” are where VR is finally on solid footing, in my opinion.
This finally dawned on me as I tried both Supernatural and Beat Saber (both experiences where you swat things) and found myself going back to Supernatural because it never punishes you. Supernatural is about the experience; Beat Saber is about completing levels. I came to the same conclusion with Vader Immortal. Here you have a damn impressive Star Wars world where the basic puzzles and lightsaber fighting barely matter; it’s more of an amusement park ride than a video game, and it’s better for it. Even Walking Dead: Saints and Sinners, which positioned itself as a “real game” for VR with in-game progression driven by points, leans much more on casual fun than the necessity of getting really good at it. It’s fantastic.
If someone predicted last year that I would put more time into Oculus Quest 2 than the new Xbox Series X in 2021, I would have accused that person of blasphemy. But here I am, a full-fledged VR convert who is legitimately excited about what is next for the platform – finally comfortable with the knowledge that core video games may not be driving its evolution.