Meta changed its name because it wanted you to forever associate it with the burgeoning metaverse. The hardware it produces is meant to be our window into that metaverse. When you pick up a Meta Quest 2 headset and slide it over your head, you’re supposed to gasp and gently marvel at this new virtual world. But I set up my Meta Quest 2 to play Defeat Saber or Tetris or maybe Pistol Whip. It’s not a terminal in the metaverse – it’s a game console. And I don’t think Meta realizes that.
Earlier this week, my extremely well-known colleague Alex Heath reported on Meta’s roadmap for VR and AR headsets. There are smart glasses that sound virtually identical to North’s in 2019, only Metas will be controlled via a neural interface when they launch in two years. There’s a hugely ambitious AR headset codenamed Orion that will apparently “project high-quality holograms of avatars onto the real world” and launch in 2027. These projects are expensive big swings for Meta and its pivot to the metaverse, and that should be exciting. It wasn’t until late last year that we got Meta’s first major metaverse swing, the then $1,499 Meta Quest Pro. The product was an absolute boondoggle of a device. The associated software, horizon world, is so bad that even the people who make it don’t want to use it. That software should be the gateway to the metaverse. If it sucks, Meta’s take on the metaverse is pretty much stuck in the water.
But as bad as Meta is so far, the company is really, really good at VR. VR is, of course, supposed to be part of the metaverse, but judging by the existing lineup of products, that’s not the part Meta is good at. It’s good at making a console people want to play games on. According to The edgeMark Rabkin, Meta’s vice president of VR, told the staff that Meta has sold more than 20 million Quest headsets to date. That includes both the Quest and Quest 2. IDC has previously estimated Meta has sold about 15 million Quest 2 headsets, which probably means the Quest 2 makes up the bulk of the headsets sold. That seems like a small number, but the Nintendo GameCube has only sold 21 million consoles in its lifetime, and the Xbox Series X and S are estimated to have sold about 20 million consoles to date.
So when you look at the Quest 2, which most people use to play games, as a gaming console, it’s done pretty well. And I think we should think of it as a game console. Meta may have big ambitions for VR headsets and their place in the metaverse, but the reality is the top software on the Quest 2 are all games. VR early adopters in the consumer space buy headsets to play games. Devices like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and the PSVR (which has sold about 5 million headsets in 2020) were adopted by consumers to play video games, not mess around in a barely built metaverse.
And the push for the Quest 2 to be a metaverse device hasn’t really resonated with consumers. Rabkin told the staff that “unfortunately the newer cohorts coming in, the people who bought it last Christmas, just aren’t as interested in it” as the early adopters. Those early adopters were eager to play games, and that’s what they saw when they put on the headset. New users see ads for things like Horizon worldswhich again is such a mess that even the people who make it don’t want to play it.
And while Meta pushes metaverse experiences on users, it sort of ignores that core gamer audience and doesn’t do much to build it. Defeat Saber, arguably VR’s great app, is four years old and no other VR game has captured the zeitgeist in quite a similar way. People don’t really see their friends playing great games like Pistol Whip and run out and buy a Quest 2. If they did, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. The platform has none Super Mario Bros. or The last of us promote adoption.
Steam and Sony are both very aware that great AAA gaming experiences are necessary for a VR platform. That’s why we have excellent titles like Half-life: Alyx And Horizon Call of the Mountain. They invest as much in the software as they do in the hardware. Meta is not. It has bought up many studios (including Defeat Saber‘s) and then done things like announcing the launching two-year-old games at Meta Connect or shut down the servers for one of the platform’s first multiplayer hits. The latter was so troubling that former Meta VR evangelist John Carmack publicly chastised the company in a blogging:
Even if there are only ten thousand active users, destroying that user value should be avoided if possible. Your business suffers more harm when you take something precious from a user than you benefit from providing something equally valuable to them or others.
Carmack’s words are noteworthy not only because he is the former consulting CTO at Meta. He also helped build the video game industry, creating huge lasting hits like Demise, EarthquakeAnd Wolfenstein 3D. Unlike Meta, Carmack seems to understand that telling people you’re going to take down their games to free up bandwidth to work on a metaverse that no one in particular wants yet is a bad idea.
And boy do I wish Meta got that because right now it’s working on its third Quest headset, and if it was a gaming company it might realize it’s about to make the same mistake that other tech companies that are going to game consoles have moved, made.
The price of the PS3 at launch was so high that it cost Sony crucial ground in its war against the Xbox 360, and in the US that meant the Xbox 360 won that generation’s console wars. The Quest 3 is expected to do the same – costing more than its predecessor at launch. While Meta hasn’t announced a price for the Quest 3, Rabkin told staff it was expected to cost consumers “a little bit more” money than the Quest 2 currently costs. By the way, the Quest 2 actually costs more now than it did at launch. So while a base model of the Quest 2 initially started at $299, the Quest 3 will cost more than $399 at launch.
Meta hopes to explain that price hike by showing off all the cool features of the Quest 3 versus the Quest 2. “We need to prove to people that all this power, all these new features are worth it,” Rabkin told staff. And according to the presentation he gave, which my colleague Alex Heath covered, the plan is to show that with mixed reality. “The main north star for the team has been from the moment you put this headset on, the mixed reality should make it feel better, easier and more natural.”
That plan to focus on something new and different rather than the games that made the console flourish is very similar to what Microsoft did when it launched the Xbox One. That device came with an IR blaster! It had a coax line in it so you could use it as a cable box. Microsoft presented the Xbox One as a home theater computer that also played games. And the gamers just went and bought the Playstation 4 instead.
If the goal is to build a mixed reality audience rather than a more expensive console aimed at less proven experiences then gaming is… unlikely to succeed, especially when you consider that today’s big, expensive mixed reality headset doing so badly it drops its price just five months after launch. A fourth headset is expected in 2024 that ideally “packs the biggest punch we can at the most compelling price point in the VR consumer market,” Rabkin said. But in 2023, it looks like we’ll be stuck with a very expensive games console that wants to take us on a journey that most people aren’t interested in yet.