When I accepted an invitation to meet a public relations crew in a hotel room this week to try out David Braben’s new massively multiplayer online roleplaying game (MMORPG) Elite: Dangerous on the Oculus Rift Development Kit 2—the most advanced virtual reality headset yet to emerge from the Oculus labs—I’ll admit I was more interested in playing with the hardware than the video game.
Anyone who’s tried on a consumer virtual reality headset in the last two decades knows how far short that technology has fallen from its promise. A good VR piece should track head motion and alter the images relayed to each eye in real time. Anything less than that breaks the illusion of virtual presence; your brain knows how the world is supposed to look when you move your head, and when the effect fails its disturbing—even nauseating for some users.
So far, that broken reality has been the norm for VR, and the technology has stalled.
Oculus is supposed to be the system that changes all that. It comes equipped with 3D-stereoscopy, lag-free visuals, and precision head tracking (not to mention a kid-in-a-garage to $2-billion-acquisition story). Of course, techies have followed every detail of the product’s development, and every video of a beta-tester freaking out on the internet, with mounting glee.
Elite: Dangerous, on the other hand, looked at first glance like just the latest in a long line of wannabe MMORPGs. Conventional videogames can deliver on their promised experience even without huge numbers of gamers; the 2005 title Star Wars: Battlefront II still kicks some serious butt on long weekends, and with only a small number of players necessary for multiplayer mode, has a vibrant online playership.[^1] A typical game can succeed without accumulating tons of fans.
Not so for an MMORPG. Like a social network, an MMORPG lives and dies by the whims of its users. You might love the idea of Ello, but if all your friends are on Twitter and Facebook you’re unlikely to make the switch. Similarly, how likely are you to buy a subscription to a new fantasy world if all your friends are busy slaying dragons in World of Warcraft? (This effect is best illustrated by the bizarre persistence of the original Runescape, a world offering such bountiful pleasures as “hours and hours of hitting rocks with pickaxes”, “mind numbing, redundant swordfights”, and “more hitting rocks with pickaxes”.)
And Elite: Dangerous is entering a space MMORPG market already saturated with an existing product—EVE Online. That multiple award winning, 11-year-old, juggernaut boasts a universe of more than 500,000 active subscribers and arguably the most complex virtual economy in existence. On January 27, 2014, 7,548 players geeked out annihilating each other’s starships and soldiers in what WIRED called “the largest and bloodiest in the history of warfare“.