Virtual reality was big at this year's E3, with a number of game developers showing off their upcoming VR-ready releases. Games like Resident Evil 7 even underwent changes from their traditional gameplay to provide a better experience for those playing in VR. Everyone seemed to be onboard the VR hype train... except for Nintendo. Instead, Nintendo explained that it was taking the "wait and see" approach because the company wasn't sure just how much mainstream appeal VR actually had.
This isn't surprising, given how cautious the company has been with technology shifts in the past; instead of following the latest fad in gaming, Nintendo prefers to focus on providing unique experiences to its players. Sometimes this works well, and other times it bites the company in the butt. In this case, it doesn't hurt that the company had a new game that uses similar (but different) technology waiting in the wings while everyone was going ga-ga over VR: Pokémon GO. And Pokémon GO may have just taken the wind out of virtual reality's sails.
What Is Pokémon GO?
In case you've been living under a rock and haven't ventured onto Facebook, Pokémon GO is an augmented reality (AR) game that uses your smartphone to insert Pokémon into the world around you so that you can try to catch them. The game encourages players to get out and explore, which has resulted in a few stories of players finding more than they bargained for. The gameplay, combined with the popularity of the Pokémon franchise, has rocketed the game to being the becoming the biggest mobile game in US history.
This has been great for Nintendo, as you might have guessed. The company's stock saw a 25% bump, even though it isn't solely a Nintendo app (as Nintendo created Pokémon GO in collaboration with Niantic, a company that it invested in late last year, and only has a 32% share in The Pokémon Company). It has surpassed major apps such as Tinder in usage, and as of last update was running neck-and-neck with the Twitter app as well. That's not bad for a game that hasn't even seen a worldwide release yet.
AR vs VR
Though the concepts may seem similar in some ways, there are quite a few differences between AR and VR. With AR, you're taking what already exists around you and digitally changing the environment. In the case of Pokémon GO, this means using a smartphone's mapping features and camera to find your location, visualize the world and add Pokémon to it. It's not necessarily a new concept; Nintendo has even used it before in a game called Face Raiders that came with the Nintendo 3DS. AR will likely become increasingly common in the future if upcoming hardware such as the Microsoft HoloLens becomes popular.
VR, on the other hand, creates not only the digital items that you interact with but also the surrounding world as well. This is what you'll get from the Occulus Rift, the HTC Vive and PlayStation VR; a headset that creates a digital world for you and tracks your head movements to update that world accordingly (moving the "camera" within the world so that it appears like you're moving your head around). This is the big difference between the two technologies: With AR you still experience the world around you, whereas with VR you experience a separate digital world.
Will Pokémon GO Raise the Bar?
Even though AR and VR are different technologies, the success of Pokémon GO could still affect the public's perception of the upcoming wave of VR games. It's a large-scale game that allows players to interact with the world around them, much like they'll eventually interact with the virtual worlds that game developers create for VR devices. The Pokémon game has a much lower barrier of entry, however; though there will be a $35 Bluetooth accessory known as the Pokémon GO Plus released at the end of the month, players can download and start playing the game for free. VR games, on the other hand, will require the investment of hundreds of dollars just to get the equipment to play them and then another purchase of the game itself.
This could cause problems for VR, especially since it's still unclear how much consumer demand the technology will have; if consumers who want an interactive game experience can get a solid AR experience for free on their smartphones, there will have to be some compelling reasons for them to pay big money for systems that may end up with a limited number of quality games. While some games like Fallout 4 and Resident Evil 7 should give players an enjoyable experience in VR, few are going to buy the systems if there's only a couple of games that are really worth playing. If that happens, future VR projects could stall out and the VR systems could wind up going the way of Nintendo's Virtual Boy.
Can Pokémon GO's Success Last?
One big question regarding how Pokémon GO will affect VR is if the game's popularity will even last until the big VR push begins. After all, Nintendo's first app, Miitomo, started out with a surprising rush of popularity and then rapidly dropped off. If Pokémon GO is experiencing a similar flash-in-the-pan success then it could be largely forgotten when companies really start pushing VR. That doesn't really look like it will be the case, however; while there will certainly be some drop in popularity, Pokémon GO has a few things going for it that Miitomo didn't.
Perhaps the biggest advantage of Pokémon GO is that it bears the Pokémon name. The franchise is 20 years old this year, and it still seems to be going as strong as ever. New games are still coming out, rereleases of old games are selling millions of copies and there's even talk of a live-action movie being fought over by the studios. In addition to this Poké-boost, the game provides a fairly unique experience that appeals to a wide range of players. It may also be getting support in the future to put it on Google Cardboard and even the HoloLens, potentially injecting new life into the game as users with access to those devices seek to try out the new experiences.
It would be silly to claim that Pokémon GO will single-handedly bring about the demise of virtual reality. That doesn't mean that it won't have an effect on the VR craze, however. If Pokémon GO remains successful, VR developers and hardware manufacturers will have their work cut out for them to convince consumers that VR really provides a better experience than AR. This may be even harder if other AR games start trying to replicate Pokémon GO's success, since it may bring attention to the technology as a whole. A major VR revolution in gaming was a bit of a long shot anyway, and with free-to-play alternatives paving the way we'll have to wait and see if the revolution can get started at all.
Pokémon GO is currently available in the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the UK.