Meta doesn’t seem to know that its VR headsets are gaming consoles

Meta changed its name because it wanted you to forever associate it with the nascent metaverse. The hardware that produces it is meant to be our window into this metaverse. When you pick up a Meta Quest 2 headset and slip it over your head, you’re meant to gasp and quietly wonder at this new virtual world. But I gear up my Meta Quest 2 to play Beat Saber or Tetris or maybe Pistol Whip. It’s not a terminal to the metaverse – it’s a game console. And I don’t think Meta realizes that.

Earlier this week, my well-known colleague Alex Heath shared Meta’s VR and AR headset roadmap. There are smart glasses that sound virtually identical to North’s 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 appears to “project high-quality holograms of avatars onto the real world” and will be released 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 godsend of a device. The accompanying software, Horizon World, is so bad that even the people who make it don’t want to use it. This software is meant to be the gateway to the Metaverse. If it sucks, Meta’s take on the metaverse is pretty much in the water.

But as bad as Meta is in the Metaverse so far, the company is really, really good at VR. VR is obviously supposed to be a part of the Metaverse, but judging by the existing product lineup, that’s not the part where Meta is good. It’s good at making a console that people want to play games on. According to The Verge’s own reporting, Mark Rabkin, Meta’s vice president of VR, told staff that Meta has sold over 20 million Quest headsets to date. That includes both the Quest and the Quest 2. IDC previously estimated that Meta sold around 15 million Quest 2 headsets, which likely means the Quest 2 accounts for the majority of 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 have sold an estimated 20 million consoles so far.

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Behold a candy. Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

So if you look at the Quest 2, which most people use to play games, as a game console, it’s pretty well done. And I think we have to look at it as a game console. Meta may have big ambitions for VR headsets and their place in the Metaverse, but the reality is that the top software on the Quest 2 is all games. VR early adopters in the consumer space are buying headsets to play games. Devices like the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and the PSVR (which sold around 5 million headsets as of 2020) have been adopted by consumers to play video games instead of lounging 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 staff that “unfortunately, the newer cohorts that are coming in, the people who bought it last Christmas, just aren’t as excited about it” as the early adopters. These early adopters were eager to play games and they saw that as soon as they put on the headset. New users see ads for things like Horizon Worlds, which 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 ignores that core player demographic and doesn’t do much to build it. Arguably the VR killer app, Beat Saber is four years old, and no other VR game has captured the zeitgeist quite like it. People don’t see their friends playing admittedly great games like Pistol Whip and running and buying a Quest 2. If they did, I wouldn’t be writing this blog. The platform doesn’t have Super Mario Bros. or The Last of Us driving adoption.

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The Last of Us II is a great game exclusive to PS4 and PS5… which is a big reason some people buy those consoles. Image: Sony

Steam and Sony are both very aware that killer AAA gaming experiences are needed for a VR platform. That’s why we have excellent titles like Half-Life: Alyx and Horizon Call of the Mountain. You invest as much in the software as you do in the hardware. Meta isn’t. It bought up many studios (including Beat Sabers) and then did things like announce the launch of two-year-old games on Meta Connect, or shut down the servers for one of the earliest multiplayer hits on the platform. The latter was a move so galling that former Meta VR evangelist John Carmack publicly rebuked the company in a blog:

Even if there are only ten thousand active users, the destruction of this user value should be avoided if possible. Your business suffers more damage by taking something dear from a user than you gain by providing something equally valuable to them or others.

Carmack’s words aren’t just remarkable because he’s the former consulting CTO at Meta. He also helped build the video game industry, creating massive, enduring hits like Doom, Quake, and Wolfenstein 3D. Unlike Meta, Carmack seems to understand that telling people you’re going to take away their games to free up bandwidth to work on a metaverse that nobody particularly wants is a bad idea.

And boy, I wish Meta got that because it’s working on its third Quest headset right now, and if it were a gaming company, it could realize it’s about to make the same mistake that other tech companies are making have gotten into game consoles.

The price of the PS3 at launch was so high that it cost Sony crucial ground against the Xbox 360, and in the US it meant the Xbox 360 won this generation’s console wars. The Quest 3 is expected to do the same – and cost more than its predecessor at launch. While Meta hasn’t announced a price for the Quest 3, Rabkin told staff it’s expected to cost consumers “a little more” money than the Quest 2 currently costs. By the way, Quest 2 actually costs more now than it did at launch. While a base Quest 2 model originally started at $299, the Quest 3 will cost over $399 at launch.

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The Meta Quest 2 might not be a Nintendo Switch hit, but it’s very well done for a VR headset. Photo by Owen Grove/The Verge

Meta hopes to explain this price increase by showing off all the cool features the Quest 3 has over the Quest 2. “We have to prove to people that all this performance, all these new features, are worth it,” Rabkin told employees. And according to his presentation, shared by my colleague Alex Heath, the plan is to demonstrate that using mixed reality. “The key North Star for the team was that from the moment you put this headset on, mixed reality needs to feel better, easier and more natural.”

This plan to focus on something new and different instead of the games that made the console a success is very similar to what Microsoft did when it launched the Xbox One. This device came with an IR blaster! It had a coax line so you could use it as a cable box. Microsoft introduced the Xbox One as a home theater computer that can also play games. And gamers just went and bought the Playstation 4 instead.

If the goal is to build audiences for mixed reality rather than a more expensive console that focuses on less-proven experiences, then gaming is unlikely to do so, especially considering the current big, expensive mixed Reality headset performs so poorly it drops its price just five months after launch. A fourth headset is expected in 2024, which ideally will “bring the best performance we can get at the most compelling price point in the VR consumer market,” Rabkin said. But in 2023, it sounds like we’re stuck with a very expensive gaming console that wants to take us on a journey that most people aren’t interested in yet.