Half-Life: Alyx could become the next ‘evergreen game that VR newcomers purchase for years’

James Brightman, Friday, February 14th, 2020 11:05 pm

Half-Life 3 may still be vaporware, but for the first time in more than a dozen years, fans of Valve’s sci-fi shooter franchise can look forward to a new chapter — so long as they’re willing to put on a VR headset to do so. Valve confirmed this week on Twitter that Half-Life: Alyx would be released on March 23. The VR-only game is set between the events of the first two Half-Life titles and puts players in the role of Alyx Vance, who must resist the alien invasion by the Combine. 

Alyx will support HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, Windows Mixed Reality and, of course, the Valve Index. Owners of the Index will be able to download the game for free and will gain access to bonus content, including explorable environments in the SteamVR Home space, alternate gun skins, and Half-Life: Alyx-themed content for Counter-Strike: Global Offensive.

In a behind-the-scenes interview with Geoff Keighley last November, Valve explained that Alyx truly is being built from the ground-up to take advantage of VR-specific mechanics. And while the company is undoubtedly limiting sales of the game by not porting it to traditional PC/console platforms, Valve seems committed to elevating the medium of VR to the next level.

“We’d love to be delivering a version of this that you could be playing with a mouse and a keyboard, but it began as an exploration of VR,” commented Valve level designer Dario Casali. “There’s so much opportunity that we really can’t translate back to the keyboard. When you can track your hands separately from your head, you just can’t get that with a mouse and keyboard. And when you put that into game mechanics, the kinds of interactions that we can do now we couldn’t possibly do with a mouse and keyboard.”

Despite operating the SteamVR platform, and having been intricately involved in the VR space from the beginning, Valve understands that there are still plenty of VR skeptics and naysayers out there. In fact, some of its own staff wasn’t entirely convinced that Half-Life in VR would be for the best… until they were able to test it out.

On Twitter this week, Jane Ng, one of Valve’s artists, confessed, “I was honestly meh on VR before joining Valve and seeing HL:A but now I’m fully excited that Alyx is VR, there is nothing else quite like it. I feel like it’s more comparable to having a Disneyland ride in your house.”

Aside from the naysayers, there are also certain people who are interested in VR but predisposed to the motion sickness that some experiences can cause. Veteran developer David Goldfarb, founder of The Outsiders, remarked to Ng that he’d love to play Alyx but is worried about feeling sick. Ng quickly reassured him, “We’ve had external folks very sensitive to motion sickness playtest Alyx (using the Index) and I haven’t seen anyone need to stop. Someone got tired after 2 hrs (longest they have ever been in VR), which is very decent I think!”

The first two Half-Life games sold more than 16 million units. There are only a fraction of that many units on the market today when it comes to VR headsets, and keep in mind that Valve is not releasing the game for Sony’s PSVR, which has sold over 5 million. Even so, there’s a possibility that pent up demand for a new Half-Life could help the VR industry inch a bit closer to wider adoption. 

“We expect Half-Life: Alyx will become one of the two top-selling VR games of all time shortly after launch (when copies of the game bundled with the Index headset and controllers are counted),” Carter Rogers, Principal Analyst at Nielsen’s SuperData told GameDaily. Valve’s Index, it should be noted, has been sold out across 31 countries since last month.

Rogers doesn’t believe that the new Half-Life will have anywhere close to the impact that top-selling Beat Saber has had, which led Facebook to buy developer Beat Games.

“It may not be able to surpass Beat Saber (the current number one VR game) because it is not available on console or standalone devices. Also, Beat Saber is accessible to non-gamers since the game is essentially the ‘Wii Sports of VR.’ In contrast, Half-Life: Alyx will mainly appeal to hardcore gamers given its franchise and gameplay,” he said.

The simple fact is that VR remains a limiting factor for a big AAA game like Half-Life. If this were a traditional release, analysts would be speculating about how many millions of copies it would sell through at launch. 

For the sake of comparison, Rogers added, “Doom Eternal, the other big single-player shooter launching in March, will outsell it handily in the short-term. However, Half-Life: Alyx could become an evergreen game that VR newcomers purchase for years.”

This may not be the tidal wave that Half-Life fans would like it to be, but SuperData is at least noticing a “tangible impact” already on the consumer VR market, according to Rogers: “Valve Index headset sales more than doubled from Q3 to Q4 2019 (46K to 103K) due to the game’s announcement in November. Also, the official Oculus Link cable (which lets Quest owners use the headset with a PC) is currently sold out. We also anticipate annual consumer PC VR shipments to grow in 2020 after they fell in both 2018 and 2019.”

Say what you will about Valve mostly focusing on game distribution (Steam) over actual development for more than a decade, but the company shows true passion for the projects it commits to. Half-Life: Alyx could have been massively profitable from the get go, but this is a long-term play — and it’s one that should further open the doors on user-generated content since the developer intends to release a level editor at launch, and possibly one day the full Source 2 code. March 23 may not mark a true tipping point for VR, but it sure will be a fun day for Half-Life fans.

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