Meta has shipped six VR headsets in seven years. Only one has been an obvious success.
The company sold 20 million Quest headsets, mostly the Quest 2, as shelter-in-place adults tried to escape their homes (and babysit preteens!) during the early pandemic. Since then, Meta’s struggled to justify why it rebranded its entire company around the metaverse — a concept it’s only now just barely beginning to deliver in any intriguingly tangible way.
Tomorrow, as Meta tries to sell you a $500 Meta Quest 3, it’ll need to do better.
And it could really use them soon — because this may be the last time Meta has the table all to itself.
- Apple hasn’t shipped its Vision Pro yet, and while my boss Nilay Patel called it “the best headset demo ever,” the first version will be an incredibly pricey $3,500 headset that’s a TV more than anything else. (That’s all I will say about Apple, as I’m ethically bound.)
- Sony’s PlayStation VR2 had an incredibly slow start. I haven’t picked up my review unit in ages. Gran Turismo goodness notwithstanding, there’s been absolutely nothing to tempt me away from one of the greatest runs of flat-screen video games we’ve seen in years.
- Valve’s SteamVR platform had been stagnant ever since Half-Life: Alyx’s March 2020 debut — and over half of Steam users are using Meta headsets to play those games anyway — but Valve looks like it’s about to come roaring back.
- HTC pivoted from consumer VR years ago.
- Microsoft’s Windows Mixed Reality site still promotes an HP headset first released in 2020.
- Samsung and Google exited VR when phone-based headsets turned out to be a dead end.
Right now, Meta still has a chance to convince every prospective VR headset buyer they should choose a Quest 3 instead of whatever those companies might do next. Valve, in particular, appears to be gearing up to follow Meta’s lead with a (relatively) affordable headset that might not need a PC.
On the hardware front, I expect the Quest 3 will impress: on paper and in images, the Quest 3 looks like an improvement in almost every possible way: smaller, lighter, twice as powerful, with depth sensing, upgraded haptics, and no more flimsy plastic rings on the controllers for you to break flinging them around.
But at $499, it costs as much as a PS5 or Xbox Series X now that both consoles are reaching their stride with games — and Meta will also have to overcome the apathy of gamers it’s burned along the way. Let’s review:
You got mildly burned if you bought into Meta’s vision of a gaming PC plugged into a high-end corded headset, as it ditched those in favor of the largely wireless Quest. But if you bought into the Quest, you got to watch Meta inexplicably take one of its biggest games away. Either way, you got burned again when Meta shut down flagship launch title Echo VR, an incredible game that just needed fewer swearing teens — and then burned again when Meta shut down three more titles, including both Dead and Buried Wild West shootout games without so much as an explanation this past week.
So many gamers have been wary of Facebook for reasons that have nothing to do with a Cambridge Analytica data heist. It has everything to do with whether its heart is in gaming, or simply that nebulous “metaverse” it would someday like to sell eye-tracked ads against, or the future of Zoom-ified remote work even though it’s now forcing its own employees back to the office, or fitness apps like the (admittedly good) Supernatural it began purchasing two years ago.
Meta could counter that by putting its money toward a killer app, something on the scale of Halo — which famously sold the original Xbox — or GoldenEye for the N64, or Zelda: Breath of the Wild for the Switch. Right now, the closest things we’ve got are Pistol Whip and Beat Saber, a pair of excellent exercise games that aren’t exclusive to Meta and aren’t quite the kinds of masterpieces that leave you living on the console.
Perhaps Meta has already achieved such a game or is building it right now. The company certainly has quite a few game studios under its belt — it bought so many developers in 2021 that the FTC not only took a look but also sued to block Meta’s purchase of Supernatural. Meta eventually won. But if Meta started the clock in 2021, it might not be enough: Halo spent four years in development. Breath of the Wild took five.
Maybe Meta will simply convince big game companies that it’s finally worth their time. Last Friday, Ubisoft revealed that Assassin’s Creed Nexus VR would be “a full-length Assassin’s Creed game” that’s “only available in VR.” I’m pretty sure Samsung could convince Ubisoft to put the game on a smart fridge if it came to that, but even the willingness to utter “full-length VR exclusive” will perk up some ears.
And yesterday, Mark Zuckerberg appeared to tease an official Lego mixed reality experience. Lego just so happens to be partnered with Epic on a new metaverse, one where the family behind Lego has kicked in a huge chunk of funding, not that we’ve confirmed a link between Meta and Epic just yet. Speaking of bricks, an open beta of Roblox for Quest has already been downloaded over 1 million times.
I don’t know what Meta could possibly reveal in the way of games that can truly compete for our attention, but I do know a more capable piece of hardware won’t be enough on its own. I’ve been a believer since the first time I tried a duct-taped Oculus Rift prototype. I’m truly hoping the Quest 3 finally delivers the kind of only-in-VR masterpiece that grabs me and doesn’t let go.