Half-Life: Alyx: Using the Crowbar Against VR BoredomView All Reviews
Half-Life: Alyx is a VR game developed by Valve. It was announced on November 18, 2019, unveiled on November 21, 2019, at 10 AM Pacific Time. It was released on March 23rd, 2020.
The VR game industry has been lulling itself to sleep for a long time. Now Valve takes care of stuff (as always) with Half-Life: Alyx — a brave solo effort.
The most popular VR game in the world is a comparatively simple music game. In Beat Saber, players use some kind of lightsabers to beat rhythmically at incoming blocks — it’s a simple, laser-focused game idea. Behind Beat Saber is a mini developer studio from Prague, which previously developed mainly mobile games. Beat Games has just been bought by Facebook, and although the tech giant is silent on the takeover amount, employees of the video game studio are likely to give out really expensive Christmas presents this year. It’s a rare VR success story. So far, the hopes game companies have placed in virtual reality have been largely disappointing.
The omens for Half-Life: Alyx could hardly differ more from Beat Saber. It was quite a surprise that Valve was actually working on a new part of the iconic Half-Life series. Even more surprising: Alyx is a VR exclusive game, if you don’t have needed equipment, you’re out of luck. In contrast to Beat Games, Valve is not a small office in the Czech Republic, but one of the most famous developers in the world with hundreds of employees. And this installation of Half-Life will not be about endlessly repeatable game mechanics, but rather an action game with a story, riddles, and physics gadgets. It is a real triple-a game in the legendary Half-Life universe.
A VR Blockbuster
Half-Life: Alyx became one of the first blockbuster games exclusive for virtual reality because hardly anyone has dared to do it. Even Sony, manufacturer of the most successful VR headset in the world and equipped with a whole bunch of developer studios, hasn’t delivered. So far, PlayStation VR users have been accused of eating smaller titles. The PSVR games include great ones, like Astro Bot Rescue Mission or Blood & Truth. But these are not names that will satisfy the enthusiastic “core gamers” in the long run. The numbers show why virtual reality is still unattractive: the Playstation 4 has been sold over 100 million times, the PSVR headset only 4 million.
The situation on the PC is even more difficult. Most game developers think it is problematic to develop a game exclusively for the PC because the computer is lagging behind, especially when it comes to the blockbusters. The game statistics site VGChartz.com estimates that only 2% of the Assassin’s Creed Odyssey retail sales figures fall on the PC, with the shooter Battlefield V at least 3%.
Valve’s new Half-Life story is expected to be played by only a fraction of a fraction — only one percent of active Steam users own a VR headset. With 90 million active accounts, that’s less than a million users.
For most studios, it would be completely unthinkable to develop a complex game for such a narrow target group. Michal Andrzej Nowakowski, manager at CD Projekt Red, was asked at an investor meeting whether the launch of Half-Life: Alyx could possibly torpedo the release of Cyberpunk 2077, which was scheduled for a little later. What he said is: “VR remains an extreme niche market, it is very, very small.” As if that was not clear enough, he added: “This niche is really, really, really — and I could add a few ‘very’ here — small.”
Obstacles to Getting Into VR
Many Half-Life fans may indeed be tempted to buy VR glasses just because of Alyx. However, one should not underestimate the financial side of this. First, VR glasses are still an expensive purchase. Valve’s own Index eyewear costs around $800 with controllers, and $1080 with base stations. The self-sufficient Oculus Quest VR headset, which has recently also been used on a PC, is available for $450, while the Rift S currently costs $400. The cheapest way to play Half-Life: Alyx is with the HP VR1000, but the included controllers are no longer up to date.
But that is not the end of the story. In order to use VR, you also need a computer with powerful hardware. The 12GB RAM, which is necessary for Alyx, is available to only a minority of PC Steam users. Additionally, at least one video card at the level of the GTX1060 is required for VR gaming. If you want to play Half-Life: Alyx, you should also pump up the computer. It takes a company, like Valve, to hit fans of a game series as revered as Half-Life in the face after 12 long years.
At the same time, this zeal is also admirable. Valve is dead serious, despite the discouraging numbers. “VR has given us new energy,” studio boss Gabe Newell commented on Alyx’s announcement in a press release. “We invested a lot in the technology.” In fact, Valve has been working on the VR version of the Half-Life series since 2016, and the Studio Campo Santo, which was taken over in 2018, is involved in the development. For Valve, Alyx is not just one project among many — it is the largest in the company’s history.
Valve is in a privileged position, because thanks to its gaming platform Steam, the games it makes do not have to be mega-successes to keep the company on track. Valve earns up to 30 percent of game sales on Steam without having to spend a lot of resources. Additionally, the company is using synergies — if Alyx actually gets Steam users to buy a headset, then they will probably purchase other VR games afterward.
Valve is also hoping for profits from the sale of the Index glasses that, in a bundle with Half-Life: Alyx, are currently leading Steam’s top-selling list. For Valve, the VR shooter Alyx could also pay off even if it doesn’t immediately become a bestseller.
Still, it’s daring to put so many resources into a game that so few people are able to play. Valve is also quite isolated from the big game companies in its quest for virtual reality. Xbox boss Phil Spencer recently gave a clear rejection of possible VR support for the upcoming Xbox Scarlett console: “We’re looking at what consumers want, and none of them want VR.” Rumor has it that Sony is working on a new headset for the PS5, but nothing has been announced yet. Google has discontinued its virtual reality headsets.
Can VR Make a Breakthrough?
So it’s up to Valve and Valve alone to help VR get its first mega-hit. The early signs are promising: Half-Life: Alyx looks great in the trailer, the tone of the popular Half-Life games seems to be sustained. From the very beginning, the developers obviously thought only in terms of virtual reality design — interface elements, like health points, are, for example, integrated directly into the gloves of the eponymous character, so that the numbers don’t fly in players’ faces. Starting from the first trailer, Alyx could be a real hit.
The Half-Life series once shaped the shooter genre for years, now virtual reality could follow as well. As a VR experiment, Half-Life: Alyx has other qualities that are not related to the actual game. Valve has developed a variant of the Source engine for the game that integrates VR functions. Other developer studios could take advantage of this framework to help them get started with this kind of game development. Alyx’s engine alone could develop into a VR incentive.
It almost seems as if Valve is using the crowbar to force the industry to take virtual reality seriously. In addition to Alyx, the company is also working on two other large VR productions. The studio still has high ambitions. In addition to Half-Life, Valve also considers the game series Portal, Counter-Strike, Team Fortress, and Left 4 Dead.
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