Apple's Vision Pro
Source: ZDNet

The game industry is aflutter with speculation over the viability of Apple’s Vision Pro as a potentially disruptive new gaming platform.

While most industry observers are skeptical that Vision Pro will reinvent gaming in the same way Apple’s iPhone and App Store did, it’s worth taking a closer look at how this new device changes the dynamics of the AR/VR market — or what Apple is now referring to as “spatial computing.”

Vision Pro is clearly not marketed to the average customer, let alone gamers of any sort. It clocks in at $3,499 for the base 256 GB model and closer to $4,000 if you want things like a travel case, AppleCare+, and optical inserts for prescription glasses.

Instead, the messaging around the device has focused on productivity, immersive viewing experiences, and a spatial reimagining of the app ecosystem, allowing users to slip in and out of total immersion with pass-through video, spatial audio, and resizable windows.

More than 600 dedicated apps were available for use in Apple’s visionOS at launch, though there were several notable absences. Vision Pro doesn’t appear to have many notable launch games, though, nor do any of them seem to be particularly innovative.

Apple touted 12 “unique spatial games” as part of its launch slate, including: 

  • Super Fruit Ninja, a reimagining of Fruit Ninja, first launched in 2010.
  • Synth Riders, a game previously released on Meta Quest, PlayStation VR, Steam, and Viveport.
  • Game Room, a collection of tabletop classics like chess, hearts, and solitaire.

There were also over 250 playable Apple Arcade titles, though they were not redesigned for spatial gaming.

Vision Pro is compatible with both PlayStation and Xbox game controllers, allowing console gameplay via game streaming (see this video, for example). The Meta Quest also allows for Bluetooth controller pairing, but it’s worth mentioning Apple’s implementation specifically as it relates to the company’s recent moves to introduce high-priced premium console games to the iPhone. Buying Resident Evil 4 on the iPhone at $60 is a tough sell, but if Apple’s Universal Purchase feature brings it to your Macbook and Vision Pro, too, it’s suddenly a lot more palatable.

The controller functionality is also important because Vision Pro doesn’t actually have any controllers of its own, opting instead to use eye tracking and hand gestures as native inputs. While this approach is certainly innovative and an impressive technological achievement, it is not conducive to gaming (at least, not yet). The lack of haptic feedback, in particular, stands out as a significant obstacle.

Nevertheless, many reviews have been rapturous and its most frequently discussed shortcomings — short battery life, exorbitant pricing, the weight of the headset, the limited selection of apps — should all see improvements with subsequent updates. Based on Apple’s approach to prior product launches, like the Apple Watch, it’s safe to assume it will work its way down from the "Pro" line toward more accessible price points over time.

If we assume the product and app ecosystem will continue to improve, how then should game developers evaluate the potential platform opportunities? Is Apple ushering in a new era of spatial gaming, or is the industry climbing another peak of inflated VR expectations?

It’s important to acknowledge that hardware limitations will inevitably limit adoption. Setting aside factors like price, screen resolution, and content availability, there will always be a meaningful portion of the gaming audience that is either averse to the idea of strapping a computer to their face, or physically unable to use a head-mounted device because it causes headaches or motion sickness. This applies equally to both Apple and its current crop of competitors, such as Meta’s Quest 3, Sony’s PlayStation VR2, Valve’s Index VR Kit, or ByteDance’s Pico 4.

There’s also Apple’s distinct stance relative to other developer ecosystems. While it may be tempting to paint Vision Pro and Meta Quest as the new iOS and Android duopoly, the comparison is not quite … apples to apples. (Sorry.)

For example, in mobile game development, swipes and taps are universally applicable to both Apple and Android devices, whereas Vision Pro’s spatial computing environment requires developers to account for hand gestures and eye-tracking, compared to the controllers used by the Meta Quest and most other VR headsets. This makes the prospect of developing cross-platform more complicated and costly.

Additionally, Apple has severely restricted movement-based applications, including “apps that track body movements,” which seemingly rules out Beat Saber-like experiences. As a result, there is a noticeable lack of fitness-related apps — a surprising development, considering the emphasis on fitness in other Apple products.

Other downsides include a ban on Progressive Web Apps, and a dearth of everyday consumer apps — Netflix, Spotify, and YouTube all neglected to make Vision Pro apps. There are also no experiences made with Epic’s Unreal Engine, which is not entirely surprising given the legal battles between the two tech giants. The Verge has gone so far as to call Vision Pro “a computer for the age of walled gardens.”

Even beyond these platform concerns, however, there is a larger question of whether developing spatial gaming applications is a sound business decision. Here, the outlook is mixed, at best.

On the positive side, we can be confident that hardware manufacturers like Apple and Meta are invested in improving the technology (see charts below). One has to imagine that Meta and the others will quickly follow suit in adopting popular features and design choices, resulting in a wave of hardware improvements across the sector.

Big Apple

Despite all that investment, the user base is still quite small relative to other platforms. Research firm Omdia reported that the global active install base for VR headsets in 2023 was just 23.6M, after VR hardware sales plummeted 24% in the same year. Compare that number to the more than 50M PS5s sold — to say nothing of other consoles — and we can see that VR still has a long way to go. Consider also that user retention is much lower than we’d expect to see from traditional gaming platforms. (A16z game investor Andrew Chen provides additional information on Quest games, specifically.)

The content side is also severely lacking. Though there have been success stories, such as Asgard’s Wrath 2 or the aforementioned Beat Saber, they don’t seem to be inspiring other developers to embrace VR. According to SteamDB, fewer than 600 VR games have been released each year since 2021. Recognizing that Steam is not the exclusive platform for VR experiences, we could easily double or triple those numbers to account for releases on the Meta Quest Store, PlayStation Store, and others, and still be an order of magnitude below the annual tallies for PC, console, or mobile releases. For XR to be a viable development platform, on Vision Pro or otherwise, that number will need to meaningfully increase.

Steam VR
Source: SteamDB (as of 2/21/2024)

Clearly, the VR sector is not as large as aspiring developers might want it to be before feeling comfortable taking the leap into game development for a new platform like Vision Pro. Nevertheless, it is early, and there are reasons to be optimistic about the long-term future.

For one, Apple has partnered with Unity to encourage developers to build on visionOS. Being one of the most widely used game engines at the amateur and university levels, it’s possible we could see a bump in the number of hobbyist and indie games coming to VR and Vision Pro in the coming years.

We might also expand our view of spatial gaming beyond strictly VR applications to AR as well. As the inimitable Ben Thompson elaborated in his excellent Vision Pro review::

“VR is a destination device, like a TV or video game console or PC, while AR is an accompaniment device, like a phone. The latter is a larger market, simply because the number of opportunities to augment a user’s life are greater than the amount of time available in a zero sum battle for total attention. And it makes sense that to the extent Apple can build experiences beyond entertainment, they are focused on building AR, even if for now it is simulated.”

Indeed, you may have already seen mockups of gamified AR applications like the one below. Given the strength of Vision Pro’s pass-through technology — and its increasing adoption in other headsets, such as the Meta Quest — I suspect we will begin to see more use cases in this vein soon. This sort of implementation seems perfect for AR tabletop gaming, for example.

Chores 2.0
Source: X

Ultimately, a bet on spatial gaming — whether on Vision Pro or another head-mounted device, is a bet on future technological improvements, continued consumer adoption, and increasing content investment. This may be why the most vocal proponents of the Vision Pro (beyond Apple fanboys) are venture capitalists. 

For developers looking at the short term, it’s difficult to make a case that building for Vision Pro is worthwhile given its current scale. Early reports put Vision Pro sales at around 200K units. This likely rules out most AAA publishers, many of which have already moved on from VR and will be content to let smaller companies take the first swing.

However, for experienced VR and AR developers, the switching costs and learning curve for a new device are likely palatable enough to at least run some experiments. Perhaps that involves porting an existing title, like the aforementioned Synth Riders. Popular VR game Job Simulator is also expected to receive similar treatment. This could allow developers to establish familiarity with building games for visionOS and potentially help to de-risk larger projects to follow.

Early-stage startups may find this an exciting area to build in too. If it’s going to take, say, two to five years to launch a new title anyway, Vision Pro believers will expect market conditions to have shifted in their favor by the time that game is ready to go to market. This obviously requires a certain level of conviction and optimism in spatial gaming’s future, but perhaps these are exactly the type of developers needed to make it happen.

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