Though relatively young, Oculus is no stranger to controversy. While the virtual reality company enjoyed a successful Kickstarter launch, raising over $2.4 million through the crowdfunding site, it began to garner the ire of fans when it decided to become a part of Facebook back in 2014 in a deal that was estimated at $2 billion.
Adding fuel to the flame, Oculus founder Palmer Luckey had to walk back several initial assertions. Contrary to Luckey's claims that console controllers weren't a good input for VR, going as far as to call them "pretty s***y," the Rift ended up shipping with an untracked Xbox controller. Contrary to claims that the Rift would be targeting the "ballpark" price of $350, the Rift launched for $599, which coincidentally treads on the founder's initial quote that "if something's even $600, it doesn't matter how good it is, how great of an experience it is, if [people] just can't afford it, then it really might as well not exist." Contrary to stating, "If customers buy a game from us, I don't care if they mod it to run on whatever they want," the company ended up limiting those liberties when a modder made it relatively painless to play Oculus Rift games on the HTC Vive.
When you add in the fact that the company encountered an unexpected component shortage for the head-mounted display, which resulted in massive multi-month delays for pre-order purchasers, coupled with the fact that the company was pushing exclusive titles, this led to many outraged critics.
At E3 last week, we got a chance to catch up with Oculus' Anna Sweet to discuss many of these hot-button issues. In our interview with the company's head of developer strategy, Sweet gives her take on the Rift's launch, the company's counter-modding measures, potential Oculus Touch fragmentation issues, exclusivity concerns and much more.
How has E3 been going for you? How do you think the launch of the Oculus Rift has been?
Anna Sweet: Yeah, the show is going great. I think this is one of the most exciting E3s. I'm just excited to see all the developers showing awesome VR content across a variety of platforms. It seems like everyone is really excited in the space.
Launch was great. We've got a bunch of great titles already out on Rift. Now we're focused on [Oculus] Touch, what we're showing here in the booth, and it's just really exciting to see developers diving in and just innovating in VR, in genres, in gameplay, and all of those things, and getting great content to customers.
I just tried two awesome Touch demos.
Which ones did you play?
They were RipCoil [a Tron/Rocket League-inspired game] and Wilson's Heart [a black and white horror/psychological thriller], which the devs told me wouldn't be scary, but ended up being scary, and I hate them for lying to me!
They tricked you!
Going back to the launch, how backed up are the Rift pre-orders right now?
We're going to be caught up on our pre-orders in July. We're working really hard to get hardware out to customers.
Do you guys have a release time frame for Oculus Touch yet?
We haven't announced a timeline yet, but it will be later this year.
So probably around Q4?
We haven't announced specifics, so it will be later half of the year.
I hope you don't mind me asking, but it's sort of the elephant in the room right now. Recently, Oculus has been tangled in controversial DRM issues, in that the company formally said that if you wanted to mod Oculus Rift games so that they could work on different headsets, like the HTC Vive, for instance, that you could. But then it looks like you guys kind of backed away from that. Can you comment on that situation?
Yeah, I think Palmer's original statements were more focused on individual customers, who buy a piece of content and they choose to mod it, I think that's separate from a systemic, platform-wide pack that rips out protections for developers on their content. I think we're really focused on shipping a really good platform and making sure developers ship really great content to customers, and that's where we're focusing our efforts.
If gamers are still able to buy games on your platform, isn't that a good thing for Oculus and its game developers? So what is the problem here? I realize it's not tailor-made for other headsets and gamers might not get the best experience out of those games as a result, but if people are willing to pay for them, isn't that a good thing?
I think we're just working really hard to get developers an ecosystem where they can build the content that they want to build and to ship that to customers. So we focus a lot on our platform and the features that both developers and customers want when they're playing games and when they are building games. That's really what we're focused on. We think the Rift is a great platform and we want developers to be able to build for it and have their content be secure.
When the Rift got its start on Kickstarter, I got the impression that it was promoting itself as an open platform with its crowdfunding roots. Do you think that's shifted with the Facebook acquisition?
I'm primarily focused on developers and the content ecosystem, so that's probably a better question for someone like Nate [Mitchell] or Palmer [Luckey]. [Note: I reached out to Oculus PR weeks prior to E3 asking to interview Luckey and was told that he wasn't available to do an interview.] My focus is really on enabling developers to have the tools that they need, the funding that they need, the support that they need to jump in and innovate in VR and the thing that I care the most about is, how do we get good developers building great content for gamers?
On that note, Oculus has been surrounded in a lot of controversy regarding the amount of exclusive games that you're producing and I understand that you're providing funding to some developers for some games, but some people also seem to be upset about titles like SuperHot, which is a game that's already released and out on the market, but will be coming to VR as an Oculus exclusive. Is there any chance you can comment on that?
Yeah, I mean, I think the SuperHot devs themselves talked about it a little earlier this week but what we're really looking to do is jump start the business, so we want developers to be able to jump in now and invest in their games and in their content in a way that brings it to life for gamers in a deep, rich, immersive experience and often times, like with the SuperHot guys, they really wanted to build a bigger game and a bigger experience, and so we worked with them to give them funding to help them to be able to do that and that game will be bigger and better and it will be on our platform, exclusively for a little while, but they're also in the other platforms, just like a lot of our third-party developers.
I think that it will depend on the developer and what is right for their game. We've got a lot of really awesome games already on the platform with the gamepad. We're all addicted to BlazeRush back in the office or VR Tennis Online. Those are great games with the gamepad and you've got games like The Climb, where you can play with both the gamepad and the Touch controllers and then there are just other games that are designed for Touch, because you want to be able to pick stuff up and move it around and really interact in that way. So I think there will be a spectrum, and I think developers are really smart and they're going to just jump in and pick the input that's right for their game and the experience that they want to build.
I think one concern that some developers had was because the Rift didn't ship with the Touch controllers right out of the gate, that the market was going to be fragmented and that the platform was going to be a little divided, as a result. Was that a concern? Is it still a concern?
I think Touch is really exciting. When it comes out later this year, I think a lot of gamers are going to pick it up. It's a really exciting way to play your game but the gamepad is great, too. Microsoft makes an amazing controller. It's a really great input, so we were happy to work with them and ship that as part of our input with the Rift. So I think it will be a spectrum. I think there's great gameplay experiences on both. We have to let developers figure out the right thing for their game.
Speaking of Microsoft, are you guys working with them on the Xbox side of things? Obviously, they supplied the Xbox controller for you with the Rift's launch. Is the relationship going to be reciprocal?
Yeah, Microsoft's a great partner. We worked with them on shipping the controller. We've worked with them on shipping Minecraft. We love those guys. We don't have anything else we're announcing at this time.
I've covered VR and VR games a lot over the years. Sometime I'll encounter readers that are really excited about the tech, but then sometimes you'll get comments shrugging VR off as a fad or gimmick. Have you guys encountered a lot of resistance?
I would say not at all.
Really? Even on my side, I have.
I mean, I think it's really magical to give someone their first demo in VR, right? I brought my parents in, and they're like, "What is this thing you've been working on?" I gave them the demo and they were just blown away. I think we just see that all the time. The minute they get the headset, they're like, "Wow, that's exciting and I want more experiences like that," and I see the same thing on the developer's side. They can't wait to start trying things out, trying new game mechanics, trying new genres, trying new ways of telling stories. So, I think across the board, I think it's just a really exciting time for the industry right now, because people are just jumping in and making it happen.
Once the Touch controllers come out, will you guys be bundling it together with the Rift?
We haven't announced any SKU plans. We're right now just focused on getting it shipped and getting it to the customer.
Going back to the potential Touch fragmentation issue, let's say I'm a developer, and I want to work with Oculus and I want to make a VR game. Should I be concerned about making a game for Touch? Because, obviously, right now with the Rift shortage, not that many people have Rifts out there, and so you already have a small market to begin with. And then from there, you might run into the same kind of shipment issues with Touch, and might not know what the adoption rate might be. So, if I'm interested in making a game for Touch, but am concerned because of all those factors, what would you say to someone like me?
I would say come talk to my team. We are very much invested in helping developers jump in and start building, just building for VR in general. So we do a lot of funding and we help developers build the game they want. [We help them] build the team they need to build that game. We really want to help them make it happen and take away a lot of those concerns about being early in a market. So, I would say come talk to us because we want to very much help developers build great games.
So with a game like SuperHot being a timed exclusive and with other titles be indefinite exclusives, can you elaborate on what makes one fall into either category?
Yeah, so we have Oculus Studios, which funds a bunch of titles and produces them and is very hands on in helping those development teams bring those experiences to life. On the publishing side, which is my team, we do lots of development grants to help developers. Maybe they want to expand their team so they can have multiplayer or maybe they want to have a little more runway to make that game deeper and richer and a better game, the bigger game that they wanted to create. So we have a wide range of how we work with developers. Some games are exclusives, some games are not. A lot of our content that we're funding will go to other platforms in the future, so we just want to make VR happen and we want to move the industry forward.
A lot of people have compared you guys to Apple in terms of your market strategy, would you say that's an accurate comparison? To put it more bluntly, would it be unfair to say that Oculus uses a walled-garden approach?
I haven't heard those comparisons directly, so I don't know exactly what they're referring to. I think we care very much about making an ecosystem that developers can drop into and just build for and just go and just start innovating, being creative and collaborative.
Speaking of creativity, the horror game Wilson's Heart was really awesome. There were a couple times where I kind of wanted to walk around a little bit like with the HTC Vive, but I noticed that unlike the Vive, both sensors were in front of you. Do you guys have any plans to have one sensor in the back and one in the front to allow for a little bit of a room-scale experience?
So everything we're showing here is seated and standing. The hardware works in other configurations. As we get closer to launch, we'll talk more about our officially supported configurations.
Now that the headset is out and you can gauge reception a bit better, have you guys learned anything?
We are constantly learning from both our developers and our community. We care a lot about our community and the features that they want, the features developers need to build great experiences, so we're constantly listening to feedback on both sides and just iterating and trying to build the right things for both developers and professionals.
Last question, do you have anything to say to our readers or people who are interested in Oculus and VR?
I'm just super excited to see the amazing breadth of experiences that are here at the show and that are coming to VR in general. I think this is a really amazing time for the industry. I think over the next year, we're going to see, do, and play things that we never would have expected.