Facebook's plan to win VR: Slow + steady + games + Reddit
The Facebook-owned VR label thinks slow and steady will win the race -- with a little help from Reddit.
Sean HollisterSenior Editor / Reviews
When his parents denied him a Super NES, he got mad. When they traded a prize Sega Genesis for a 2400 baud modem, he got even. Years of Internet shareware, eBay'd possessions and video game testing jobs after that, he joined Engadget. He helped found The Verge, and later served as Gizmodo's reviews editor. When he's not madly testing laptops, apps, virtual reality experiences, and whatever new gadget will supposedly change the world, he likes to kick back with some games, a good Nerf blaster, and a bottle of Tejava.
This week, two Facebook executives tried to convince me otherwise.
In an interview -- leaning on a huge, ornate wooden table that would fit right into Game of Thrones -- they explained that technological advancements such as eye tracking and cord-cutting wireless may not come as soon as we think, or as soon as a Bloomberg report might suggest.
They say the first-generation Oculus Rift headset is here to stay.
"Someone who buys a Rift today has years of enjoyment in front of them," says Jason Rubin, head of content and marketing, who says he's already lining up games for 2019.
If true, it doesn't solve the chicken-and-egg problem yet. Game developers need to know that people are buying headsets, and prospective headset buyers need to see killer games to play. And while it's throwing hundreds of millions of dollars at content, Facebook's Oculus may be in one of the weakest positions in terms of sales: estimates suggest the Rift headset could be in last place.
Has Oculus reached 1 million headsets yet? Half a million, at least? Rubin can't say.
But over the course of 20 minutes, Rubin and Oculus co-founder Nate Mitchell say they believe the path to success is a slow and steady one that's all about games -- and that the social network Reddit, specifically, could be a critical component.
Here's a lightly edited transcript of our interview.
You've said you can't give me any numbers... but generally we've got a sense that the Rift didn't sell so well, and now we're seeing this huge price cut to the point that maybe it's only now they're flying off shelves.
Where are you in terms of getting VR out to the masses, in proving that it's not just a fad or something for a bunch of high-end computer gamers like you and me?
Jason Rubin: You and I have been talking about this for somewhere around two years. We have always said it was going to take a while for VR to enter the mainstream.
Nate Mitchell: Even before two years. Before we started the company!
Rubin: We've also always said that massive investment in ecosystem and titles is vital to moving VR forward. And we said that not only because it's obvious -- more titles are better, good titles are better -- but also because we strongly believe that you have to have enough content in the store that when they take it home there's plenty of content.
That's our playbook from the beginning: Get people into the headset, get feedback from them, find out what they like, find out what they don't like, experiment with new content, spend more money on content, make bigger content as we go forward.
Now, it's possible that other hardware manufacturers have a different playbook. Maybe their playbook was get as many into market as quickly as possible. That wasn't our playbook. Our playbook is build a strong ecosystem and a lasting ecosystem over time. We're now getting into our stride for the long-term game we want to play.
The idea of rolling up to larger and larger, more and more, is that the way it needs to be?
Or is there a moment where there's THE game, where people say gosh, I've got to buy VR for that. A killer app, like Halo for the Xbox.
Rubin: That will totally happen. But the important thing to understand is that every person has a different killer app. Killer apps exist, killer apps are important but there's never a single killer app -- it's always a series of killer apps and different consumers want different killer apps.
I'll give you an example: I created Crash Bandicoot, it was a killer app. But if you were in Japan and you were over 16, the killer app was Gran Turismo. Under 16? Crash. Over 16? Gran Turismo. In the west, the killer app was Crash if you are up to about 30. Past 30, it went to Tomb Raider. Not that people didn't buy Crash, but the older players on average wanted Tomb Raider.
Mitchell: I didn't get my PlayStation till Final Fantasy VII.
Rubin: Fair enough, there were probably a dozen killer apps on Playstation. And while Halo was a killer app [for Xbox], I guarantee you there were people who never bought Halo. The vast majority of Xbox owners never bought Halo. Instead they bought FIFA or Madden or any one of the other titles out there. So different people have different killer apps.
What's important to us is creating a large slate of potential killer apps, and then letting the community decide what makes sense and start to talk about it, that's the part of the killer app [concept] that people don't understand.
You have to have a great game, there's no question. But we also need a community that talks about it. People were talking about Crash. People will start talking about Echo Arena. The more they talk about it, the more they tell their friends about it -- whether it's on [Reddit group] r/oculus, or whether it rises to the top of r/all, eventually -- that's how you make a killer app.
The way Halo becomes a killer app is not just by being great, it's that people are talking about it at the top of r/all. It becomes a cultural event. So we need to get to the point where we're a cultural event. We need to build the base, build the quality of content, and over time, we will be on r/all more and more.
Where does the install base [number of units sold] need to be to jumpstart that powerful VR community?At this point, with multiplayer games on Oculus, I don't know if I'm going to get a game when I log in. I don't.
It's gotten a little bit better these past couple weekends with the Echo Arena beta and the June update for The Unspoken, but...
Rubin: That's a really good question. It's going to depend on the title, because two players is a lot easier than ten [the number Echo Arena requires for a match], but over time we'll get there.
It really, really kind of depends, but having said that there are titles on Xbox and PlayStation 4 and PC where a small group of dedicated players plays over and over and over again, the players match with one other and that's OK. It doesn't have to be 70,000 people online having a good time. Of course that helps.
For the game, sure, but you're representing the platform, not just the game. Where do you think the install base needs to be for VR killer apps to take off -- and do you see yourself getting there with first-gen VR headsets, or will we have to wait for gen two?
Rubin: It's hard to say because there's no fixed point that you can say is going to be the point in which we move from not enough to enough.
I think gen one is going to get there without defining "there" too specifically.
Mitchell: I agree.
Rubin: I believe it's gen one. It may be gen two to the point where you get to mass, mass, mass audience titles simultaneously, but I think something like Echo Arena is just fine for gen one.
Mitchell: I mean, I play with a bunch of friends so it's very easy to match up, cause there's always a couple people hanging around. Most of the time when I jump on Rift I do find a match, no matter which game I'm looking for, although I think it's true that for newer titles you're going to have an easier time finding a match.
So as gen one goes on, when Echo Arena comes out, that's going to be a blockbuster that lasts for a long time. The Unspoken continues to be extremely hot, and that's really easy to find a match in. And with other multiplayer games like From Other Suns and Brass Tactics, the ecosystem will continue growing.
Rubin: It doesn't just have to be Rift users, either. If you go into Star Trek, you're playing against PSVR users and Vives. In fact, if you go into the Echo Arena beta, the girls with their thumbs up, they're Vive users. They can't put their thumbs down.
So they're going through life like this. [sticks both thumbs out] They love the game!
But that helps us with playerbase, and they're great players right? They're really excited to be in Echo Arena and they're enjoying it.
I know Wands, for Gear VR and Daydream, set up its own Discord channel. When folks put negative reviews of the game online, say they can't find a match, a rep jumps in to say "Here's our forums. Here's our Discord. These are how you find matches." Are you creating any resources for the community like that?
Mitchell: Maybe in the future. I think it's something we've talked about a lot, especially for the desktop application. We can do more. That's something we're excited to do.
On Gear VR, we actually already have developer events so developers can create and schedule Wands sessions, for example, or Casino Nights or whatever else. If developer take advantage of that, that's been a great way to bring people together. The other mechanism that we've put in place that was sort of an easy win was free weekends. With the BlazeRush free weekends, The Unspoken free weekends, we're getting a lot of fresh people into games that they had totally missed.
As far as having more Discord-like features, that's something we are exploring as we move forward.
I was thinking about BlazeRush actually as one of the games that uses the original Xbox controller and you said support for that will stick around [even though the new $499 bundle won't include it].
Mitchell: Yep. Or any other controller that has XInput.
Do you have any compatibility layers so people can use the Touch controllers instead?It has most of the same buttons...
Mitchell: It's not a sure-fire way to put all the games of the platform, but some folks have gone back and integrated Touch and made it awesome even if they're not really bringing hands into the experience. Dragon Front is an example of that. Then we have emulation which will actually support many titles, but developers have to turn it on.
Rubin: Lucky's Tale is an example of that.
Mitchell: And then we have titles that are gamepad specific, where we recommend people go out and grab a gamepad.
I still feel like Touch is still chasing Vive, in terms of setup and easily walking around a room in VR. Right now I need to have four good USB ports in my PC, I need a space in front of me that's roughly ten feet apart for two sensors, and I need a way to run a cable for a third sensor to the back of the room to make it work. Do you see that getting better?
Rubin: Well, we don't require screws in the wall.
Mitchell: Yeah, or massive tall tripods.
Neither does Vive.
Mitchell: I mean, every setup is different. My Vive does require large tripods in my room. So I move the tripods out when guests come over or something like that, and when I put them back up it's a different sort of setup experience.
Rubin: Yeah, over time VR is gonna get easier and easier for consumers to use. In the first generation I would say all of us have a little bit of a hurdle to getting people into VR. I think over time we'll all get better. We're all working. Generally speaking people aren't having problems with *any* of the systems. If they want to set them up, they're getting them set up.
Mitchell: I'm really proud of where we landed on the three-sensor sort of wizard inside the desktop application. Very easy to use, very easy to calibrate and get an ideal setup. If you disagree, I'd love to hear about it. And then when you get Touch running, I think hands-down it's the best experience out there.
I love the controllers. Not their tracking as much, but the controllers themselves are awesome.
In terms of new technologies for VR which make this experience better: when do you see wireless coming into play? When do you see eye-tracking coming into play and these being table stakes for VR?
Rubin: Yeah, so I don't see either of those things as table stakes. I think they're different. In the case of wireless, it's a nice feature that some people will want to have. And it probably will be an optional feature, just because of the price point. People will decide, how important is it to get rid of the cable? Some will decide it's worth the money, and some won't.
Mitchell: And the weight.
Rubin: And the weight and everything else.
Mitchell: And the other sort of compromises that you get when you move to wireless.
Rubin: Rolling all of those together into the core system probably will take longer just because it does have so many tradeoffs and not everybody wants to play those tradeoffs. In the case of eye tracking, it can be a peripheral, but if it's a peripheral where developers actually take advantage of it? That one almost does want to be part of the hardware. And then the question is when do you have a hardware that's relaunching or whatever?
Both of these things are going to happen over time. Neither one of them is imminent.
How about room sensing, where cameras see your furniture and generally know where you are in your space?
Mitchell: I mean, I think that's something we're super excited about, a lot of people are exploring that space. I think that's going to be another nice-to-have feature. Like at the onset of it, it will be more of a convenience feature, just like wireless, but I think over time it's going to enable mixed reality experiences which are going to be awesome, but I think will be -- for most of the VR headsets -- still a ways off.
Compared to eye-tracking and wireless, would you say it's further away? Or closer?I mean, you've shown us a prototype of such a system.
Rubin: You tend to hear about indie developers, little startups that say we've got a such and such a thing, and then it just never actually comes out or never makes an impact in the industry -- that will continually happen, because what you have there is a bunch of really smart people who raise a bunch of money and create something nobody ever expects will compete with Facebook and Sony and Google and Microsoft in the real world. But their technology is good, so someone acquires the technology and rolls it into their device.
It will take a while for for any of the cool things you just mentioned to become a core feature of a system, and we're saying today that Rift is going to last people a while.
Mitchell: A long time.
Rubin: Rift does not have eye-tracking. Rift might add some sort of wireless that can be a peripheral. Eye-tracking is more fundamental, as would be inside-out tracking, because Rift doesn't have a camera system inside. So if Rift is going to be around for a while, that tells you something about how long we feel it's going to take for those things to become integrated and part of a full release.
I want to be clear: we are dropping the price to get more people in Rifts because we expect the next years to be very Rift-focused and Rift-centric.
To answer your question about all these other technologies: People should not hold their breath and wait, it's not coming in a minute.
Disclosure: Sean's wife works for Facebook, owner of Oculus, as a business-to-business video project manager.