Contrary to conventional wisdom, the best-selling consumer electronics products aren’t necessarily a company’s latest or highest-end products; mass-market customers often gravitate instead towards affordable models with good enough performance. That’s the reason game console makers keep last-generation models around after launching superior sequels: as long as there’s a promise of at least token continued support, “old” hardware is still viable.
Yesterday, Sony officially embraced that strategy for its 2.5-year-old virtual reality headset PlayStation VR, and in so doing may have saved a great device from an unnecessarily early death. PSVR has spent almost half of its relatively short life clouded by premature discussions of a sequel, and it’s clear that many potential PSVR customers considered the investment a leap of faith — particularly at the tail end of the PlayStation 4’s life cycle.
Even so, PSVR managed to become the world’s most popular tethered VR headset: over 4.2 million units had been sold as of last month, with continued sales attributable to price drops and an increasingly spectacular software catalog. Yet with an installed base of over 90 million PlayStation 4s, the VR headset clearly could be selling even better. With a mass-market-friendly $199 price tag, the only thing it was missing was a guaranteed future.
By confirming yesterday that the PlayStation 5 won’t arrive this year, and that it will continue to be PSVR-compatible, Sony’s senior PlayStation system architect Mark Cerny effectively threw the PSVR the lifeline it has needed for at least a year. While the announcement doesn’t preclude Sony from launching a more powerful PSVR 2 in the future, it makes clear that the 80-plus-million PlayStation 4 owners without PSVRs can buy in now without fear of wasting their money.
As an impulse buy for PS4 owners with extra cash sitting around, PSVR is almost perfectly priced; you can get the mandatory PlayStation camera with any $250 hardware-software bundle, and choose to skip the highly optional Move controllers without missing much. Even at that price level, it’s competitive with other options bored PS4 users might consider — a $300 Switch (with or without the so-so $40 cardboard Labo VR goggles), a $400 Oculus Quest, or a $250 Xbox One, none of which have the VR software chops to match the PSVR.
Importantly, Cerny went even further, promising that the next PlayStation will be able to play PS4 games — an explicit promise that PSVR software purchased today will work on next year’s machine. Since PS3 owners didn’t get that sort of guarantee with the PS4, it’s a big deal for PS4 users to get that assurance with the PS5, and gives everyone reasons to continue spending money on Sony software.
Imagine what might have happened in the absence of preemptive announcements like these. Sony wouldn’t have shown up for E3, leaving customers to speculate further over the timing of the PS4’s and PSVR’s discontinuation, and inevitably, both hardware and software sales would have slowed. Developers working on PSVR 1 software would have had to consider cancelling or cutting short their projects, and despite still being priced below most Oculus and HTC VR gear, Sony’s headset might have struggled to pass the 5 million sold mark.
Instead, Cerny’s words alone were enough to keep PSVR going strong through the 2019 holiday season, and perhaps beyond. Just as the PlayStation 5 will offer users a newer and more powerful alternative, the higher specs and commensurate price will likely leave room for the older model to stick around.
Having tested everything from Nintendo Labo VR to Oculus Quest and PSVR, I think Sony has the year’s best overall VR value proposition, and I’m glad that my investments in the platform will continue to yield dividends next generation. We’ll have to see whether Nintendo and Oculus can deliver the same continuity with their latest products, but it’s great to see Sony setting a high bar like this for its VR platform, and hopefully it will be rewarded for the effort.