In 2009, “Avatar” blew past previous box office records with its special effects and widespread 3D release. After years as a novelty, James Cameron had everyone believing realistic 3D was the next form of immersive storytelling.
But Cameron’s world of 3D never became a reality; 3D movies and television are rapidly declining in popularity.
Meanwhile, a similar craze has taken over in the video game industry: virtual reality. Oculus VR, Sony’s Project Morpheus, Samsung’s Gear VR and Google Cardboard are already vying for dominance in the new medium.
But it’s still unclear if virtual reality will have any real staying power. Will it learn from its predecessor’s mistakes, or is it just another 3D fad?
The 3D problem
While some were hailing 3D as the next big thing in cinema, moviegoers think otherwise. According to Deadline, movies released in 3D are earning less and less each year from 3D showings, with 2014 expected to have the lowest percentage yet.
And 2014 also has the lowest number of 3D releases in recent years: 28, down from 34 in 2013 and a peak of 29 in 2011. Hollywood seems to recognize 3D films are failing and it’s adjusting accordingly.
But it’s not just movies – the 3D television is also suffering. Vizio announced earlier this year that it wouldn’t release any new 3D televisions. Instead, the company is moving to 4K technology, which boasts four times as many pixels as a 1080p television.
Finally, a recent survey showed that 8 out of 10 owners of 3D televisions regretted their purchase. More than half of those surveyed felt there wasn’t enough 3D programming, while others complained of nausea and headaches caused by the tech.
Learning from mistakes
So what does all this have to do with video games? It’s important because virtual reality could fall into the same traps as 3D movies and television – but it could also learn from their mistakes.
Bad 3D movies are usually ones that use the tech as an afterthought. Why do animated movies like “Brave” and “Kung Fu Panda 2” need to be 3D? Answer: they don’t. A movie like “Gravity,” however, plays to the strengths of 3D and is much more engaging.
Games being developed specifically for virtual reality devices seem to understand this concept and plan around VR capabilities. But it’s not realistic to expect gamers to strap an Oculus to their head for a two-hour session of past-gen games like Skyrim – those games weren’t developed with VR in mind. And Facebook’s plans for the Oculus, although unclear, could end up being just as gimmicky as most 3D films.
So, VR titles should look to utilize the capabilities of the tech. But devs should also look to avoid a common problem with headgear: tunnel vision. It seems obvious, but devs shouldn’t neglect storytelling and traditional gameplay elements in favor of virtual reality aspects. Just like 3D can’t save a film’s bad script, VR won’t save a poorly designed game.
Tristan Moore, lead developer of Grave, thinks VR offers more than past 3D technology and has a promising future.
“It produces an entirely new experience,” he said. “When you put on a VR headset, you enter a completely immersive 3D environment where you can turn your head and look around… it’s hard to describe, but it’s not a gimmick.”
These are just a few things developers could to do help virtual reality avoid becoming a fad. There are plenty of past mistakes by the movie and TV industries, but it’s up to devs to learn from them. Like 3D films, virtual reality games won’t overtake traditional titles – but there’s a place for them in between “Avatar” and “Piranha 3DD.”