Valve’s new Half-Life release is about selling SteamVR

Yesterday, Valve released a trailer for its upcoming game Half-Life: Alyx — the first we’ve seen of the shooter series since 2007. Valve says Alyx is “the next part of the Half-Life story, in a game around the same length as Half-Life 2.” (For the record, that’s about 10 to 15 hours.) It might even help clear up some of Half-Life 2: Episode 2’s myriad questions. And it’s coming exclusively to virtual reality headsets in March.

Valve is making a not-so-subtle attempt to sell people on VR headsets, which remain a niche platform at best. It’s using the game to promote its own high-end Valve Index headset, offering Alyx for free — and with some special cosmetic features — to Index users. Oculus and Sony have long used their clout and money to lock up big VR titles for the Oculus Rift, Oculus Quest, and PlayStation VR. Now, Valve has its own flagship product.

But Valve is playing a different game than Oculus and Sony. Both of those companies have invested heavily in hardware exclusivity. As far as we know, Valve doesn’t seem to care about having the world’s most popular headset; it just wants to own the software pipeline for everybody’s headsets, the same way it nearly does for traditional PCs.

Half-Life: Alyx is exclusive to Valve’s SteamVR platform, the way that games like Stormlands are exclusive to the Oculus Store. But unlike the Oculus Store, SteamVR supports basically any PC-based headset — including the standalone Oculus Quest, thanks to a recent update. You can play Alyx as long as your PC meets the beefy minimum specs, a fact Valve touts on the game’s landing page.

I’m sure Valve would like lots of people to specifically buy the Index. But I doubt it expects them to. The system costs $999, which is more than twice the price of a Rift S or Quest, and it requires a more cumbersome setup than nearly any other consumer headset. Index controllers are unusually full-featured, and Valve might include some special interactions involving them, but it hasn’t suggested that you’ll get substantially more gameplay options.

Many VR headset sellers downplay competition in the industry. Companies like Oculus and HTC have argued that any headset sale is a win for everyone because it’s growing a very small platform and creating more opportunities for developers who can release their games across lots of headsets.

Even if there’s a diverse array of headsets, though, Valve could theoretically become the default storefront for all of them. And it could help build that dominance with a hugely anticipated game like Half-Life 3 Half-Life: Alyx. After all, Valve launched the non-VR version of Steam on the strength of Half-Life 2, back when the idea of a ubiquitous digital storefront seemed strange. A few years later, the platform was synonymous with PC gaming.

Steam was convenient and user-friendly, but its dominance has given it tremendous power over small developers — many of whom have welcomed the rise of platforms like Itch and the Epic Games Store. It’s bad for all industries, including gaming, when there’s only one place to sell your stuff.

Fortunately, this could be less likely to happen on VR than PC. Steam was fairly singular when it launched, but almost every big PC VR brand already runs its own reasonably well-established store. Windows Mixed Reality has Microsoft’s app store, Oculus headsets have the Oculus Store, and HTC has Viveport, which also supports multiple brands of headsets.

These stores generally come with their own VR “desktops,” too. On one hand, this could eventually create more lock-in for Valve since you can use other headsets purely through SteamVR without touching the Oculus or Viveport interface. On the other, non-Valve headset owners have to actively seek out SteamVR, and they’re shunted by default toward a competing store. (It’s still not clear how independent stores like Itch or GOG might fit into this ecosystem.)

Back in 2015, before any of these headsets were released to consumers, I speculated about the possibility of virtual reality platform wars. VR headsets offered hugely different experiences at that point: the Oculus Rift still used an Xbox gamepad and phone-based VR was seen as a viable category in its own right, rather than an evolutionary dead end. So it made more sense to wonder whether developers would get locked into building games for specific platforms.

As Valve’s cross-headset support for Alyx shows, though, most PC-based systems have settled on a similar experience: a wired headset that lets you walk around a room, plus two motion controllers with a semi-standard button layout. So instead of console wars, VR’s conflict seems more like the fight over PC platforms between Steam and the Epic Games Store — except this time, Valve doesn’t have the same head start.

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