VR is Anti-Social
Virtual Reality (VR) has been the next big thing for the last 5-10 years and will likely continue to be one of the most talked about platforms for the foreseeable future. While we are bullish on the prospects of VR, there are serious concerns that we think are holding it back. One of the main concerns is that VR is an independent (and therefore isolating) experience in its current form and will need compelling virtual social experiences to push adoption forward.
This does not mean there are no social layers in VR, there are many including both Rec Room and Somnium Space. However, VR is not designed for shared in-person experiences and VR will not survive the mass market by continuing to predominantly create single-player gameplay experiences.
In-person multiplayer is one of the main reasons why Nintendo has become what it is today. They perfected couch cooperative (co-op) gameplay. Most games are truly more fun to play with other people in the same room (Mario Party, Super Smash Bros, Cuphead, Overcooked). VR hardware is designed to only transport the headset wearer, and not bystanders, meaning the bystander has a much more limited perspective of content when viewing on a flat screen. Couch co-op play does not exist with VR content. When the headset goes on, your “in real life” (IRL) setting fades, and there is not a good solution built for people you are with to participate. VR has created a paradigm shift in what “immersive” experiences can be, but it also has limited the opportunity set to individualistic experiences due to both the limitation of hardware requirements and the lack of a critical mass of players to create high-quality multiplayer gameplay.
Since hardware requirements remove the potential to create social stickiness from IRL gameplay (outside of screencasting), VR’s niche will be building shared immersive experiences. Mobile, Console, and PC have all leveraged a social graph in different ways and VR will need to approach this intentionally through creating synchronous, immersive experiences that cannot be achieved IRL.
Most people believe - and are building around the premise - that VR’s prime use case is social. However, current VR social experiences are not able to compete with IRL social. Due to the individualistic nature of VR (inability to play together in person), real social interaction will have to be built to attract users the same way online multiplayer games have done: through fun and engaging content that is enhanced by experiencing it with others. With VR’s immersive nature, its core social offering competes far more closely with IRL than traditional games.
There is definitely an argument that VR can overcome this through compelling social layers within VR (like Rec Room or VRChat have started to build out), but those can only be successful with the continued adoption of hardware and consumers trending towards replacing IRL social with virtual social experiences.
Takeaway: VR is building for a new type of experience that is going to be hard to overcome as engagement requires all participants to own hardware, demanding that everyone be directly part of the ecosystem. Gaming’s popularity is based on being social but VR may be heading towards an anti-social problem (individual experiences) that will have to be solved by intentional social experiences within the ecosystem. This is possible, but just creating areas to hang out and talk will have a hard time replacing IRL social functions. What VR does have over IRL is the ability to create and engage in experiences that are not possible IRL. By leaning into that, VR could create a new social paradigm.