On December 10, 2017, id Software’s seminal hellscape Doom celebrated the twenty-fourth anniversary of its release. Of course, using the word “celebrated” is a bit of a stretch, as, aside from the release of the underwhelming Doom VFR, little was done to mark the occasion. Though the franchise’s 2016 installment was lauded as a masterpiece by critics and gamers alike, Doom’s future may be in jeopardy as Bethesda, the game’s publisher, continues to tarnish their reputation thanks to numerous buggy, unwarranted Skyrim releases and an insistence on monetizing mods.
It would be a shame to see the likes of Doom abused like that, as many of Bethesda’s games, as well as just about every first-person shooter released since 1993, owe their existences to id Software’s gore-soaked creation. There is an interesting juxtaposition, however, between the recent VR release and the game’s original market debut nearly two and a half decades ago. In the early nineties, Doom was a killer app, and it nearly single-handedly legitimized PC gaming. Doom VFR had a chance to do the very same thing for virtual reality in 2017, and it failed.
While it certainly wasn’t the first popular PC game, Doom, as most know, was so extremely ubiquitous that it was installed on more PCs than Windows 95. At the time of its release, it was a must-be-seen-to-be-believed experience, and many gamers scrambled to upgrade or purchase PCs capable of running it. It was the ultimate game changer, and, not only did it help to raise interest in PC gaming at the time, but it helped to end the idea that video games were really only intended for children. What’s more, the game was so profoundly well-constructed that it caused Tim Sweeny, the founder of Epic Games, to call it “unimaginable witchcraft” and retire from game development for a year.
For years to come, Doom would be the video game industry’s high-water mark—the game against which all others would be compared. Though games have increased in graphical fidelity and expanded in both size and scope since ‘93, it is hard to point to any other game and argues that it was as influential as Doom; something so compelling that it alone moved the entire industry forward.
Doom VFR could have been that for virtual reality. The same series could have come back nearly a quarter of a century later and, for the second time, changed the way games are played. But, love it or hate it, it shouldn’t be hard for VR buffs to accept that fact that Bethesda’s most recent outing simply wasn’t a killer app. Perhaps it was never meant to be, and, with the anemic run-time and oddly incompatible control scheme, it’s easy to see Doom VFR as more of a proof-of-concept than a full-blown virtual reality experience.
But the roots of VFR’s issues lay in VR itself, not simply the IP around which the game has been based. To begin, virtual reality is still too costly and complicated for the average consumer. While the glorious PC-gaming master race may be able to explore Aperture Labs or Fallout 4’s Commonwealth in stunning 5k resolution at 120 FPS, few own rigs that really allow for the optimal VR experience. Plus, the awkward motion-control scheme will likely put off potential buyers, and it is difficult to imagine even the most responsive motion-based controllers to be as receptive as the classic keyboard and mouse pair. Fans of VR tech might claim to be more immersive, but the same was said about Microsoft’s ill-fated Kinect.
Beyond that, as we are all painfully aware, publishers almost always go where the money is, and, with an expensive peripheral and taxing hardware requirements limiting the market, support for VR is on the wane. With a very small amount of virtual reality games on steam breaking the 100,000 sales mark, it isn’t difficult to understand why most developers aren’t clamoring to enter the market. The industry already went through something similar with Microsoft’s infamous Kinect. The Kinect was something allegedly so transformative that, similar to VR, it would have a range of uses outside the world of gaming. It never lived up to that hype, however, and, with a market fractured between Kinect owners and non-owners, support for the once-revolutionary tech died a few years after its introduction.
Perhaps most crucially, there is no killer app for VR. As previously mentioned, Doom VFR didn’t adopt this role, and it isn’t easy to come up with a list of virtual reality games that every gamer really needs to experience. Sure, VR proponents will probably argue that games like Elite: Dangerous or Star Citizen would make the cut, but Star Citizen isn’t out yet, and Elite: Dangerous is probably too niche for the mainstream. The dearth of quality VR experiences has become so significant that John Carmack himself accused the medium of “coasting on novelty.”
Virtual reality has been in the public consciousness since the dawn of science fiction. Yet, VR, in the minds of many, just hasn’t lived up to its lofty aspirations. Though price drops and continued support from major publishers may save these peripherals, VR just isn’t quite there yet.