I don’t think Meta knows it’s a game company
Meta changed its name because it wanted you to forever associate it with the nascent metaverse. The hardware it produces is meant to be our window into that metaverse. When you pick up a Meta Quest 2 headset and slip it over your head, you’re meant to gasp and softly wonder at this new virtual world. But I put on my Meta Quest 2 to play Beat Saber or Tetris or maybe Pistol Whip. It’s not a terminal into the metaverse — it’s a game console. And I don’t think Meta realizes that.
Earlier this week, my extremely well-named colleague Alex Heath reported on Meta’s VR and AR headset road map. There are smart glasses that sound virtually identical to those made by North back in 2019, only Meta’s will be controlled via neural interface when they launch in two years. There’s a tremendously 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. Only late last year, we got Meta’s first big metaverse swing, the then-$1,499 Meta Quest Pro. The product was an absolute boondoggle of a device. Its accompanying software, Horizon World, is so bad that even the people who make it don’t want to use it. That software is supposed to be the gateway to the metaverse. If it sucks, Meta’s take on the metaverse is pretty stuck in the water.
But as bad as Meta is at the metaverse thus far, the company is really, really good at VR. VR is, of course, supposed to be a component of the metaverse, but judging by its 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 Verge’s own reporting, Mark Rabkin, Meta’s vice president for VR, told staff that Meta has sold over 20 million Quest headsets thus far. That includes both the Quest and Quest 2. IDC has previously estimated Meta has sold around 15 million Quest 2 headsets, which likely means the Quest 2 makes up the bulk of headsets sold. That seems like a small number, but the Nintendo GameCube only sold 21 million consoles in its entire lifespan, and the Xbox Series X and S are estimated to have sold approximately 20 million consoles thus far.
So if you look at the Quest 2, which most people use for playing games, as a game console, it’s done reasonably well. And I think we do need to look at it as a gaming console. Meta might have big ambitions for VR headsets and their place in the metaverse, but the reality is that 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 sold around 5 million headsets by 2020) were adopted by consumers to play video games, not dick around in a barely built metaverse.
And the push for the Quest 2 to be a metaverse device hasn’t especially resonated with consumers. Rabkin told staff that “sadly, the newer cohorts that are coming in, the people who bought it this last Christmas, they’re just not as into it” as the early adopters. Those early adopters were eager to play games, and that’s what they saw when they slipped the headset on. New users are seeing ads for stuff like Horizon Worlds, which, again, is such a mess even the people who make it don’t want to play it.
And while Meta is thrusting metaverse experiences onto users, it’s kind of ignoring that core gamer audience and not doing a whole lot to build it. Beat Saber, arguably VR’s killer app, is four years old, and no other VR game has really captured the zeitgeist in a similar fashion. People don’t see their friends play admittedly 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 doesn’t have a Super Mario Bros. or The Last of Us driving adoption.
Steam and Sony are both very aware that killer AAA game experiences are necessary for a VR platform. That’s why we’ve got excellent titles like Half-Life: Alyx and Horizon Call of the Mountain. They’re invested in the software as much as the hardware. Meta isn’t. It’s bought up a lot of studios (including Beat Saber’s) and then done things like announcing the launch of two-year-old games at Meta Connect or shuttering the servers for one of the earliest multiplayer hits on the platform. That last one was a move so upsetting that former Meta VR evangelist John Carmack publicly chastised the company in a blog:
Even if there are only ten thousand active users, destroying that user value should be avoided if possible. Your company suffers more harm when you take away something dear to a user than you gain in benefit by providing something equally valuable to them or others.
Carmack’s words aren’t just notable because he’s the former consulting CTO at Meta. He also helped build the video game industry and created massive, enduring hits like Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein 3D. Unlike Meta, Carmack seems to get that telling people you’re going to take away their games to free up bandwidth to work on a metaverse no one especially wants yet is a bad idea.
And boy, I wish Meta got that because right now, it’s working on its third Quest headset, and if it were a gaming company, it might realize it’s about to make the same mistake other tech companies who moved into game consoles have made.
The price of the PS3 at launch was so high it cost Sony crucial ground in its war against the Xbox 360, and in the US, that meant the Xbox 360 won the console wars that generation. The Quest 3 is expected to do the same thing — 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 bit more” money than the Quest 2 currently costs. The Quest 2, by the way, 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’s hoping to explain that price hike by showing off all the cool features of the Quest 3 versus the Quest 2. “We have 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 reported on, the plan is to showcase that with mixed reality. “The main north star for the team was from the moment you put on this headset, the mixed reality has to make it feel better, easier, more natural.”
That plan to focus on something new and different instead of the games that made the console thrive 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 so you could use it as a cable box. Microsoft pitched 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 the audience of mixed reality than a more expensive console focused on less proven experiences, then gaming is… unlikely to do it, especially when you consider that its current big, expensive mixed reality headset is doing so poorly it’s dropping its price only five months after launch. A fourth headset is expected in 2024 that will ideally “pack the biggest punch we can at the most attractive price point in the VR consumer market,” Rabkin said. But in 2023, it sounds like we’ll be stuck with a very pricey game console that wants to take us on a journey most people just aren’t interested in yet.